Marine Connectivity in Sea Fans: Implications for Conservation and the Designation of Marine Protected Areas - Biosciences - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship Ref: 2810

About the award

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Lead supervisor: Dr Jamie Stevens

Co-Supervisor: Professor Steve Widdicombe

Co-Supervisor: Dr Emma Dade

Location: Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project description:

Previous work in in my laboratory (Holland et al. 2017) on two species of soft coral (Figure 1) has shown that E. verrucosa (pink sea fan) shows marked regional genetic structure around Britain and Europe (Figure 2). In contrast, samples of A. digitatum (dead man’s fingers) inhabiting approximately the same geographic area appear panmictic and exhibit no significant genetic population structure. Both species inhabit waters around southwest Britain and Ireland; however, this zone represents the northern limit for E. verrucosa, whilst it is the southern limit for A. digitatum. Genetic investigation of the possible drivers of population structure in E. verucosa identified two loci as being under selection (Figure 2), highlighting the potential importance of local selection in driving population structure. Whether the patterns of genetic structure observed are driven by connectivity/barriers to connectivity or by selection has major importance for the placement and spacing of marine protected areas (MPAs). 


Image 1: Pink sea fan and dead man’s fingers growing together in the Isles of Scilly. Image 2: Principal coordinate analysis (PCA) and Bayesian clustering (structure) for Eunicella verrucosa based on microsatellite data. (A) using 13 loci and (B) using 11 neutral loci excluding 2 loci under selection. Colours denote region(s): Britain & NW France (blue), Ireland (green), Portugal (red), and Marseille (orange).

Project Aims and Methods:

The proposed project will investigate the extent of selection driving genetic differences between populations of the two species, E. verucosa at the northern limit of its range, A. digitatum at its southern limit. We will explore fundamental differences in their basic biology to elucidate biological factors that might be contributing to the markedly different patterns of genetic structure observed, whether due to differences in connectivity or to selection.

In the absence of published octocoral genomes, we will use RADseq to undertake a genome wide scan to identify loci specific to geographical regions and/or under selection (at Exeter). The molecular analysis will be complemented by common garden experiments and heat stress exposures using transplanted soft corals in a controllable marine mesocosm (at PML). The student will also undertake modelling of larval transport incorporating findings of the genetic work (connectivity/barriers) and mesocosm studies (larval timing and survival in the water column).

Little is known about the basic biology of these animals, with little or no knowledge of their ability to deal with thermal stress. The combined, genetic and physiological research approaches to be used will advance our understanding of marine connectivity and the effects of changing sea temperatures on temperate sessile species.


The project will suit a student interested in using modern genetic methods to drive conservation and conservation legislation. The successful candidate will have an interest in molecular genetics, population biology, evolution, marine biogeography and conservation. Ultimately, the student will be able to compete successfully for a career in marine conservation.

Case Award Description:

The CASE partner is Natural England, specifically, the Marine Evidence section based at the Exeter offices of NE. The student will have the opportunity to undertake two placements with the Marine Evidence team, learning how information (including population genetic data) is gathered and evaluated in order to nominate candidate areas for designation as a Marine Conservation Zone in English/UK waters. 


In addition to the generic core research and communication skills applicable to all PhD studies, the student will receive specific training in: i) molecular ecology and genetics; ii) mesocosm experimentation and animal husbandry; iii) statistical analyses of molecular and ecological data, including multivariate approaches; iv) at-sea sampling; v) landscape genetics modelling. 


Holland, L.P., Jenkins, T.L. and Stevens, J.R. (2017) Contrasting patterns of population structure and gene flow facilitate exploration of connectivity in two widely distributed temperate octocorals.  Heredity, 119: 35–48.  DOI 10.1038/hdy.2017.14.

Holland L.P. & Stevens J.R. (2014) Assessing the genetic connectivity of two octocoral species in the Northeast Atlantic. Natural England Commissioned Report NECR152. 52p.

Entry requirements:        

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


Application deadline:7th January 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript
        if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current
        proficiency in English.

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter between 5 - 16 February 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;

• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.