Coral Reefs as Critical Sources of Carbonate Sand Generation: Quantifying Links Between Reef Ecology and Sand Production on Caribbean Reefs - Geography - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship Ref: 3136

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 Studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2018.  For eligible students the award will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum (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: Professor Chris Perry, Geography, University of Exeter
Co-Supervisor: Dr Sindia Sosdian, Earth & Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University 
Co-Supervisor: Dr Matteo Vacchi, Geography, University of Exeter
Co-Supervisor: Dr Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip, Instituto de Ciencias del Mar y Limnologia (ICML) Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), Puerto Morelos, Mexico

Location: Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project description:

Tropical coral reefs are iconic ecosystems that sustain not only high levels of biodiversity, but also provide numerous ecosystem goods and services that directly benefit society. Some of these goods and services are well documented and can be quantified with increasing reliability (e.g., food resource provisioning, coastal protection functions). However, far more poorly quantified are rates of carbonate sand production from reefs – a process largely dependent on reef-associated species – and which is essential to sustain reef habitat development, reef growth and, especially, the maintenance of sand-dominated beaches and islands. Recent methodological developments provide a framework for using census–based datasets to quantify the links between reef ecology and sand production, and this project will build on these by developing new quantitative methods for Caribbean species, and then apply these to sites along the Meso-American reef in Mexico, a coastline that is especially dependent on reef-derived sediment generation for beach maintenance.


Image 1: Carbonate sand dominated beaches along reef-fronted coasts depend on the continued supply of sands from nearby coral reefs. Image 2: Numerous reef species, including parrotfish, play a key role in generating carbonate sand on reefs.

Project Aims and Methods

Reef-derived sediment is largely sourced from the skeletal organisms that inhabit reefs (e.g., molluscs, foraminifera), from calcareous plants (e.g., Halimeda), and indirectly from grazing by various reef-associated taxa (e.g., parrotfish, urchins) (Perry et al. 2011). Sand production by reef organisms occurs at different rates and results in different types and sizes of sand, but is inherently linked to reef species abundance and diversity. Quantifying the links between reef ecology and sand production rates is thus paramount for coastal vulnerability assessments, although relevant methodologies to attempt this have, until recently, been essentially non-existent. This project will address this knowledge gap, with a specific focus on the Mexican Caribbean region, where reef sand production is critical for beach maintenance and shoreline protection. The project will build on recent approaches which have quantified sand generation based on ecological census data (Perry et al. 2015, 2016, 2017), by: 1) establishing a set of empirical datasets for a range of sand producing species relevant to the Caribbean; 2) build these into a user-interface that can be readily employed across multiple locations; and 3) then use the resultant methodologies to quantify sand generation rates at sites along the Meso-American reef system in Mexico.


This project would ideally suit a candidate with a background and interest in either coral reef geomorphology or geology, or coral reef ecology, , and with a keen interest in undertaking tropical marine-based field research. SCUBA experience (or a willingness to learn) are essential.


In addition to generic research development training (project development, field logistics and planning, scientific writing), the student will receive project specific training in marine-based surveying methodologies, in reef species identification, in marine sampling and collection procedures, in sediment analysis procedures, and in experimental procedures to assess carbonate sand production and breakdown rates. The student will also receive guidance on approaches to data analysis, data publication and scientific dissemination, and may have the opportunity to participate in a wider range of cross-group field research activities to extend their learning and research experience.


Perry CT, Morgan KM and Yarlett RT (2017) Reef habitat type and extent as interacting controls on platform-scale carbonate budgets. Frontiers in Marine Science 4, 185,
Perry CT, Morgan KM, Salter MA (2016) Sediment generation by Halimeda on atoll interior coral reefs of the southern Maldives: a census-based approach for estimating carbonate production by calcareous green algae. Sedimentary Geology 346: 17-24.
Perry C.T., Kench P.S, O’Leary M.J., Morgan K.M., Januchowski-Hartley F (2015) Linking reef ecology to island-building: Parrotfish identified as major producers of island-building sediment in the Maldives. Geology 43: 503-506.
Perry C.T., Kench P.S., O’Leary, M., Riegl, B.R., Smithers S.G. and Yamano H. (2011) Implications of reef ecosystem change for the stability and maintenance of coral reef islands? Global Change Biology 17: 3679-3696.

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. See:

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


Application deadline:11th May 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 11th May 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter on the week commencing 21st May 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.