Quantifying the role of deep-sea animal forests in the blue carbon budget


Quantifying the role of deep-sea animal forests in the blue carbon budget


Project Description


Professor Kerry Howell (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth) – Contact me

Dr David Barnes (British Antarctic Survey)

Professor Martin Attrill (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth)

Professor Louise Allcock (National University of Ireland Galway)


Project Background

The role of marine ecosystems in global carbon storage and burial is a topic of considerable interest given the urgent need to address the climate crisis. The ‘Blue Carbon’ concept considers all the biological carbon captured by marine living organisms, and represents over half of all biologically captured carbon. While much research has been focused on coastal angiosperm and algal dominated systems, the importance of animals in mediating biogeochemical processes and their effects on carbon storage and exchange have been noted. Recently the role of coastal marine animal forests as potential carbon sinks has been highlighted. The coastal environment represents only a fraction of the ocean. Most of the ocean (~90%) is considered deep sea. Within the deep-sea biome the presence of various animal forests is well documented. These animal forests tend to be dominated by long-lived black, bamboo, and gorgonian corals, or large structure forming sponges. The potential role of deep-sea animal forests in the carbon budget is largely unknown, but the vast size of the deep-sea ecosystem suggests that role may be significant.

This studentship will focus on providing the first estimates of the role of deep-sea animals in the carbon budget using a range of lab, deep-learning, and modelling techniques.  The student will quantify the organic carbon content of selected deep-sea species, apply deep-learning techniques to deep-sea image and video analysis to generate species density datasets, model the density of species at the Atlantic basin scale, and map the spatial distribution of carbon sinks assessing MPA importance. Depending on their background the student may receive training in lab based skills, ecology and taxonomy, computer vision, machine learning, R and / or Python programming, habitat suitability modelling and ArcGIS. A degree in either an ecological field or highly numerate field e.g. mathematics is required.

Person Specification

We are looking for someone with a strong mathematical background and a demonstrable capacity to learn new skills and adapt their knowledge to new situations. Skills in use of statistical and / or computational models (for example one or more of the following – GLMS, GAMS, machine learning, convolutional neural networks) are essential.


  • 1) Barnes DKA, Sands CJ (2017) Functional group diversity is key to Southern Ocean benthic carbon pathways. PLoS One, 12(6), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179735
  • 2) Barnes DKA, Sands CJ, Richardson A, Smith N, (2019) Extremes in Benthic Ecosystem Services; Blue Carbon Natural Capital Shallower Than 1000 m in Isolated, Small, and Young Ascension Island’s EEZ. Front. Mar. Sci. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00663
  • 3) Piechaud N, Culverhouse PF, Hunt C, Howell KL. (2019) Automated Identification of benthic epifauna from images using computer vision. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 615, 15-30.
  • 4) Howell, K.L., Piechaud, N., Downie, A.L. and Kenny, A., (2016). The distribution of deep-sea sponge aggregations in the North Atlantic and implications for their effective spatial management. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 115, pp.309-320.
  • 5) Coppari, M, Zanella, C, Rossi, S. (2019) The importance of coastal gorgonians in the blue carbon budget. Nature Scientific Reports 9, 13550

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. 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 in the subject area.
  • 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 click on the “Apply now” link below.
  • 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.

Applications are open

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