Investigating cryptic speciation in the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina


Investigating cryptic speciation in the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina


Project Description


Dr Sarah Lane, University of Plymouth – Contact me

Dr Chiara Boschetti, University of Plymouth, School of Biological and Marine Sciences

Dr Nicola Foster, University of Plymouth, School of Biological and Marine Sciences


Organisms inhabiting the intertidal zone experience stressors from both the aquatic and aerial environments they straddle, providing an “early warning system” for the impacts of climate change. However, our ability to monitor changes in these communities is hampered by our lack of knowledge surrounding the genetic diversity of their inhabitants, in particular due to the presence of cryptic species which are morphologically identical.

The beadlet anemone Actinia equina is one of the most common animals found along the UK’s rocky shores, but despite becoming a model system for research across a range of fields, knowledge about its basic biology is severely lacking. Once assumed to be a single species, A. equina is now thought to represent a cryptic species complex, but to date only one “cryptic” species has been identified in UK populations. Furthermore, there is debate as to whether “cryptic” species within this complex can actually be identified by body colour due to the diverse phenotype of A. equina.

This project aims to increase our understanding of intertidal biodiversity by systematically examining the genetic structure of A. equina populations along the South West coast and exploring their responses to environmental stresses relevant to climate change.


The project will involve; (1) systematic surveys of A. equina populations; (2) the use of survey software to compile spatial distribution maps; (3) verification of the existence of cryptic species using molecular and bioinformatics analyses; (4) lab experiments to characterise differences between morphs in behavioural and physiological responses to environmental stressors.


The student will gain training in a range of different laboratory techniques (including molecular, physiological and behavioural analyses), alongside species distribution mapping using GIS. They will develop communication and networking skills, with the opportunity to attend research group meetings across the wider school, present data at international conferences, and engage in outreach activities.

Person Specification

We are looking for an enthusiastic candidate with a degree in a relevant biological subject, an interest in the field and relevant experience in molecular ecology. A positive attitude towards problem solving, independence and initiative are essential, experience with GIS, R and bioinformatics is desirable.


  • 1 Bickford D, Lohman DJ, Sodhi NS, Ng PKL, Meier R, Winker K, Ingram KK, Das I. 2006 Cryptic species as a window on diversity and conservation. TREE 22, 148-155
  • 2 Lane SM, Briffa M, Wilson AJ, Truebano M, Foster NL. 2020 Evidence of fostering in an internally brooding sea anemone. Ethology 126, 1141-1147Lane SM, Briffa M, Wilson AJ, Truebano M, Foster NL. 2020 Evidence of fostering in an internally brooding sea anemone. Ethology 126, 1141-1147
  • 3 Lane SM, Wilson AJ, Briffa M. 2020 Analysis of direct and indirect genetic effects in fighting sea anemones. Behavioural Ecology 31, 540-547
  • 4 Rebecchi L, Boschetti C, Nelson DR. 2020 Extreme-tolerance mechanisms in meiofaunal organisms: a case study with tardigrades, rotifers and nematodes. Hydrobiologia 847, 2779-2799
  • 5 Wilding CS, Weedall GD. 2019 Morphotypes of the common beadlet anemone Actinia equina (L.) are genetically distinct. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 510, 81-85

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2024. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 10th January 2024.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, the UK. We expect to award between 4 and 6 studentships to international candidates in 2024.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.
  • ARIES funding is subject to UKRI terms and conditions. Postgraduate Researchers are expected to live within reasonable distance of their host organisation for the duration of their studentship. See for more information

Applications open

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