When priority marine habitats clash; the impact of community ecology on conservation policy


Scotland’s coasts and seas are among the most biologically productive in the world. They support an estimated 8,000 species of plants and animals, and new species are still being discovered. The richness of this biodiversity is a hugely important natural resource, inextricably linked with the climate, and the basis for many jobs and industries, particularly in more remote parts of the country. In a time of rapid environmental change and ever-increasing human pressure on coastal and marine environments, effective and widespread conservation management is required to protect this rich biological diversity, to help us respond to the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, and to ensure that our marine ecosystems continue to provide economic, social and wider benefits for people, industry and society.

To facilitate this, the most important ecosystems, habitats and seascapes in Scotland’s marine environment have been identified as ‘Priority Marine Features’ (PMFs) and underpin the Scottish Government’s marine conservation actions. However, marine ecosystems are inherently dynamic and not segregated by defined habitat boundaries. Interactions between PMFs are inevitable, and may be positive (e.g. carbon donation and storage) or negative (e.g. species competition). In managing PMFs as separated entities (the currently adopted approach to nature conservation), such interactions cannot be taken into account, which may significantly impact the effectiveness of historical and future conservation actions. To be able to implement an ecosystem-based approach to nature conservation it is therefore crucial to address the current knowledge gap on the effects of interactions between marine PMF habitats and species (e.g. where PMF habitat-forming species compete with each other for space).

The aim of this project is to determine interactions between neighbouring PMFs (e.g. kelp forests, maerl reefs and mussel beds) at varying temporal and spatial scales. This will be conducted using a multidisciplinary approach that combines ecological and biogeochemical methods. Close collaboration with NatureScot throughout the project will enable direct incorporation of the project data into future management plans at the local to national scale. This project will therefore achieve measurable impact in policy and conservation management in Scotland, and provide the evidence to inform wider policy change at the UK and European scales.


The student will have the opportunity to work at PMF sites across Scotland (SCUBA diving will be possible but not mandatory), quantifying ecosystem-interaction metrics including biodiversity, species demographic profiles, functional trait analyses and biogeochemical markers that identify the flow of species and organic material (e.g. stable isotope ecology) between sites. Advanced ecological survey techniques (e.g. 3D habitat modelling), combined with historical records of ecological diversity available from NatureScot will enable biodiversity interaction patterns between PMFs to be determined via spatial modelling approaches. Should Covid-19 restrictions still be in place, physical distancing in the field will be possible, supplemented by the considerable volume of historical survey data available from NatureScot. Controlled competition experiments will be conducted in the Lyell Centre’s state-of-the-art research aquarium, complemented with field-based work, such as predator exclusion experiments. Projected changes in PMF interactions will be modelled using IPCC climate projection scenarios.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review, meta-analysis, field & analytical technique development, fieldwork (restrictions permitting)

Year 2

Sample analysis & interpretation, laboratory experiments, field experimentation, presentation at a national conference

Year 3

Sample analysis & interpretation, write-up for publication, presentation at an international conference

Year 3.5

Writing-up of results and completion of thesis, submission of papers for publication

& Skills

Project support: The facilities, equipment and expertise available within the institutions and supervisory team provide a combination of world-leading field, analytical and laboratory capability and technical support that ideally fits this PhD project, maximising the expert training that will be available.

This project will equip the student with a range of skills, including spatial modelling, research-policy translation, science communication, big-data management, statistical numeracy, fieldwork and multidisciplinarity. Specific research skills will include:
• In situ ecological surveys and experimentation
• Stable isotope ecology
• Ecological modelling
• Big-data analysis
• Experimental design
• Environmental statistics

Student support: The Lyell Centre has a large research student cohort that will provide peer-support throughout the studentship, including participation in the annual post-graduate research conference. All project supervisors are also highly research-active: the student will interact with all members of their research groups through lab-group meetings at the Lyell Centre, University of Glasgow and NatureScot, providing an opportunity to learn about other techniques and research areas which may be applicable to their research. Additionally, the supervisors are all based in research-active departments/organsation that span a broad range of ecological, environmental and geoscience research, exposing the student to a range of other research areas. Active participation in these research groups will provide the opportunity to discuss cutting-edge topics in the field, review recent papers and to present current research plans to academics/researchers with a common research interest in an informal and supportive atmosphere. The student will also have the opportunity to undertake a placement with NatureScot, providing work experience within a non-academic organisation.

Where required, and to maintain continued professional development, the scholar will be supported to attend specialist courses directly aligned to the project, which may include:
• Spatial modelling
• 3D data visualisation
• Field first aid
• If desired, the scholar may attend scientific diving courses
• Analytical training will be provided by the supervisors and / or specialist technicians for each ecological or biogeochemical metric.
• The project supervisors will also support and encourage the scholar’s attendance on transferable skills training such as data management, scientific writing and science communication. These are provided for free within Heriot-Watt University’s ‘Research Futures Academy’.

References & further reading

Descriptions of Scottish Priority Marine Features (PMFs). NatureScot Commissioned Report 406: https://www.nature.scot/doc/naturescot-commissioned-report-406-descriptions-scottish-priority-marine-features-pmfs

Marine Habitats pages on NatureScot:

An Ecosystem approach in marine planning – a summary of selected tools, examples and guidance. https://www.nature.scot/doc/ecosystem-approach-marine-planning-summary-selected-tools-examples-and-guidance

Krause-Jensen, Dorte, et al. “Sequestration of macroalgal carbon: the elephant in the Blue Carbon room.” Biology letters 14.6 (2018): 20180236.

Beauchard, O., et al. “The use of multiple biological traits in marine community ecology and its potential in ecological indicator development.” Ecological indicators 76 (2017): 81-96.

Further Information

In the first instance, enquiries should be directed to the primary supervisor, Dr Heidi Burdett (h.burdett@hw.ac.uk). Please indicate why you are interested in this project.

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