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Factors limiting marine connectivity at a species’ range edge – the case of the pink sea fan, Eunicella verrucose. CDT NERC PhD Studentship Ref: 4466

About the award


Dr Jamie Stevens - College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Biosciences

About the Project:

In the seas of southwest Britain and Ireland the pink sea fan (Eunicella verrucosa), an IUCN red list octocoral species, is at the northern edge of its natural range; sea fans add complexity to reef systems and provide sites of attachment for the eggs of a variety of species, including sharks, rays, cuttlefish and nudibranchs. Recruitment of new individuals into range-edge populations is often infrequent and sporadic; some peripheral populations also exhibit distinctive patterns of genetic variation. Whether patterns of genetic structure are driven by connectivity through ocean currents or by oceanographic barriers to connectivity, or by selection acting at the range edge, e.g. temperature, is key to our understanding of population dynamics of pink sea fan. The PhD will investigate this exciting topic with practical application to marine conservation through the placement and spacing of marine protected areas (MPAs) designed to support and restore this species.


This project will use SNP genotyping and oceanographic modelling to explore connectivity in the pink sea fan, around southwest Britain and Ireland. The project will focus on assessing diversity and connectivity between sea fan populations along a geographical cline stretching from Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire (a range edge population) with sea fan populations further south: Lundy Island in Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Critical to this proposal, we have permission from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to sample recently settled sea fan recruits within the Skomer Marine Reserve. This site is of particular interest: it is the only major area for sea fans in Wales and is characterised by the presence of a relatively small number of old, large fans, with few new recruits. In addition, at Exeter we hold an extensive collection of sea fan samples collected from across the species’ range including samples from across Devon, Cornwall and Ireland, all potential donor regions for the Skomer population. The oceanography of the region will be mapped using new state-of-the-art models that include features key to larval connectivity, e.g. the Ushant and Celtic Sea fronts, as well as wind-driven surface currents – from which larval dispersal models that include biological traits will characterise population connectivity networks.


The project requires a multidisciplinary approach and the student will receive training in the use molecular genetic methods (genotyping using SNP profiling), oceanographic modelling and aquarium experiments to explore the factors (genetic and oceanographic and biological) limiting connectivity of sea fans; the research will feed into marine policy, in collaboration with the Marine Evidence team at Natural England and NRW.


The student will be registered at Exeter and will be based in the Department of Biosciences, Streatham. All genetic research and associated spatial genetic analysis will be based at Exeter, supervised by Dr Jamie Stevens. The student will also benefit from regular placements at Bangor University and training in oceanographic modelling under the supervision of Dr Peter Robins in the School of Ocean Sciences. A collaboration with researchers at the Horniman Aquarium will facilitate exploration of key biological factors linked to connectivity, e.g. timing of spawning and larval settlement cues. There will also be opportunities for fieldwork at Skomer and a placement with the Marine Evidence Unit (Exeter) of Natural England to explore how data feed into policy and legislation.

In summary, the project offers a unique, trans-disciplinary research training in a highly sought-after field, with opportunities to undertake practical research that will feed directly into UK marine policy.

How to apply

Exeter University is a host institution for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR). To view the full range of opportunities available through the CDT visit the Study with CDT SuMMeR page.

If you wish to informally discuss any of our projects further, please contact the lead supervisor.

Details on how to apply and eligibility are listed on the Study with CDT SuMMeR page. If you require more information on the admissions process please contact

Applications are invited for the following three-year, eight-month PhD studentships. The studentships will start on 1 October 2022.


Application deadline:23rd May 2022
Value:Exeter University is a host institution for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources (CDT SuMMeR).
Duration of award:per year
Contact: CDT Admissions Team