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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Research project: Implications of intraspecific trait variability across different environmental conditions for projections of marine ecosystem futures

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Scientific research has considered the ecological consequences of biodiversity loss associated with climate change, but have based assumptions on knowledge gained under present-day conditions. This project will test how key species respond to and affect ecosystem properties under future conditions to improve projections of ecosystem condition and associated societal benefits.

The coasts and shelf seas that surround us have been the focal point of human prosperity and well-being throughout history. Their societal importance extends beyond food production, and includes biodiversity, nutrient cycling, recreation and renewable energy. As coastal population densities are rising, these ecological benefits become progressively compromised by human activities; overfishing, pollution, habitat disturbance, climate change. Importantly, sediment communities that harbour high levels of biodiversity are particularly affected, because most species are unable to move to avoid disturbance. This is worrying because seabed condition, biodiversity and human society are inextricably linked. It is important, therefore, to be able to assess and understand how the ecological condition of the seabed relates to the provision of ecosystem benefits so that human pressures can be managed more effectively to ensure the long-term sustainability of our seas.

Scientific research has considered species roles in the environment and the ecological consequences of biodiversity loss. From this body of work it has been possible to construct projections of future environmental condition and associated societal benefits. These models largely assume that the roles of species and how they respond to perturbation are well-defined and characterized. But these assumptions are based on present-day conditions and have seldom been objectively validated or experimentally tested under anticipated future conditions. This is worrying because Government agencies and other bodies tasked with managing the marine environment use these model projections to plan for the future. Hence, there is an urgent need to understand how species respond to and effect ecosystem properties prior to, during and post-disturbance events. The capacity of different species to mediate ecosystem properties will depend on the contributory role of each species, as some species will be insensitive to disturbance, while others will be more vulnerable to change. The balance of these responses will determine the seabed's capacity to provide goods and services, which makes it very difficult to assess species sensitivities or make general statements about what benefits we can expect from our seas in the future.

We will address these shortcomings by bringing together scientists with expertise in ecology, physiology, genetics and numerical modelling to test how key species respond to and affect ecosystem properties under present and future conditions. We will see how different types of disturbance alter species behaviour and, subsequently, affect ecosystem properties (e.g. nutrient cycling). Nutrients are important as they support the growth of phytoplankton and algae, which underpin the ocean's food web. In our experiments, we will record the levels of nutrients released into the water as a result of sediment mixing by worms, clams, urchins and brittlestars. By doing this for a range of environmental conditions (abrupt vs. long-term forcing) we will establish how exposure to different disturbance regimes, and their combinations, affect these important processes. We will determine the physiological performance of each species by measuring the molecular mechanisms that underpin adaptation. This will tell us whether species are able to adapt to new environmental conditions and whether such adaptive adjustments impinge on other important species roles. By matching the nutrient and sediment mixing data with physiological conditions across multiple generations, we will considerably improve understanding of how species may respond to future environments and, in turn, affect major ecosystem properties. We will use this information to co-design and implement, with Cefas, a new model that adequately characterises species contributions under changing conditions, placing the UK in a unique and unparalleled position to deliver accurate forecasts of ecosystem integrity in support of policy.


Type of project: NERC Standard research grant

Principal Investigators:

Jasmin Godbold
Martin Solan

Funding provider: NERC

Funding dates: January 2020 – December 2023



Dr. Godbold and Dr. Reed measuring mustar body size
Dr. Godbold and Dr. Reed measuring mustar body size
A brittle star Amphiura filiformis in its burrow
A brittle star Amphiura filiformis in its burrow

Related research groups

Marine Biology and Ecology
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