Self-funded PhD opportunities

Filling the trophic gaps in the understanding of reef invertebrate communities

  • Application end date: All year round
  • Funding Availability: Self-funded PhD students only
  • Department: School of Biological Sciences
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Trevor Willis, Prof Fabio Badalamenti (IAMC-CNR, Italy), Prof Simon Cragg

Project code: BIOL3651017

How does a predator avoid causing local extirpation of its host by overgrazing before being ready to reproduce? How do prey species maintain adequate growth and reproductive rates in the face of continuous predation pressure? The overarching goal of this project is learn how ecologically specialised relationships develop between predators and prey, and how these relationships persist while balancing the reproductive and nutritional needs of both species. While there are many examples of narrow host preferences in terrestrial systems, and of how predator and host coexist, relatively few examples have been investigated in the marine environment. Many sessile marine invertebrates are colonial, and in temperate regions are subject to seasonally ephemeral lifecycles. Their predators are thus also only seasonally abundant, and we propose that it may be necessary to develop alternatives to classic predator-preys models to describe their population dynamics.

Opisthobranch molluscs, including nudibranchs, have undergone extensive radiation and provide some of the best examples of marine specialists. Many species feed on just one or two prey taxa, larvae exhibit high levels of specificity during settlement, and many rely on settlement cues from the preferred host species. Many nudibranchs ingest and appropriate the stinging cells of cnidarian prey for their own defense – a strategy which is generally believed to form the basis for host specificity.

 We propose to utilise the nudibranch mollusc Cratena peregrina and its host and prey, the colonial hydrozoan Eudendrium racemosum as a model system. Cratena is believed to be a significant structuring force in the population dynamics of Eudendrium, by feeding directly on the hydranths. No other prey species has been recorded for Cratena. However, recent work (Willis et al. unpubl.) has shown that the diet of Cratena is largely composed of zooplankton captured by the hydroid and ingested along with hydroid polyps. Elucidating the mechanisms by which this occurs will form part of the project.

 This study will suit a numerate and analytically minded student with a desire to work across disciplines. The project will involve a combination of field work at sea (including scuba diving), laboratory experiments, analytical chemistry and ecological and statistical modelling. Stable isotope analyses will be undertaken in collaborating laboratories, and training will be given. The student will garner a range of skills relevant to a research career, but applicable to multiple career paths. 

Funding Notes:

This PhD opportunity is available to self-funded students.

Initial travel and field costs will be covered by supervisors’ funds. Accommodation and laboratory expenses will be provided as in-kind support by the Italian National Research Council (Willis holds an honorary staff position at CNR as ‘Associate Researcher’) at Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. A bench fee may be levied to defray costs.

Support for stable isotope analyses will be applied for via the NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Steering Committee (LSMSFSC) once a student is in post (TJW has two successful applications from 2012 and 2013, SC and TJW have a successful application from 2016). Further support will be sought from the British Ecological Society Small Grants Programme in Sept 2017 (max £5000) and the Malacological Society of London (£1500).

For more information please contact the project supervisor.

How to apply:

To apply or make an enquiry, please visit postgraduate research: Biological sciences

All applications should use our standard application forms and follow the instructions given under the ‘Research Degrees’ heading on the following webpages:

When applying please note the project code - BIOL3651017