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Practical work on aquatic project in forest area

Characterising the aquatic–terrestrial biodiversity of dynamic freshwater ecosystems

  • School: School of Science and Technology
  • Study mode(s): Full-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / Fully-funded


Temporary rivers experience natural transitions between wet and dry conditions, and this instream habitat diversity supports high biodiversity. Understanding of how the aquatic–terrestrial biodiversity in temporary rivers is responding to environmental change remains limited, and the dynamic nature of these ecosystems represents a unique and pressing challenge for the design of restoration, monitoring and management actions that enhance river health. Co-supervised by Prof. Rachel Stubbington, Dr Erika Whiteford (Nottingham Trent University) and Tim Sykes (Environment Agency), this PhD is an exciting opportunity to collaborate with leading researchers to advance the rapidly expanding discipline of temporary river ecology. Central involvement of Environment Agency managers will ensure project results are translated into real-world actions that improve protection of biodiversity in temporary rivers, and in particular, in the iconic ‘winterbourne’ chalk streams of south England.

The high biodiversity of temporary rivers is threatened by human impacts, with water abstraction, physical habitat modification and pollution all reducing ecosystem health. In particular, over-abstraction affects England’s winterbourne streams, with habitat modification worsening the impacts of abstraction. Like many winterbourne streams, the physical channel of the Candover Brook (Hampshire, England; a tributary of the River Itchen, a designated Special Area of Conservation) has been altered by historic engineering, resulting in significant habitat loss. As a result, both biodiversity and natural ecosystem functions have declined.

Reversing the effects of human impacts on winterbourne streams motivates the PhD research. We want to understand how ecological communities respond to restoration actions. Using the Candover Brook as a case study, a core PhD aim is to evaluate how restoration actions alter the biodiversity, physical form and function, and thus ecological health of winterbourne streams. A second aim is to assess the biological and physical diversity of groundwater-fed winterbourne springs. Our preliminary research indicates that these springs represent an overlooked biodiversity resource that require better characterisation to inform their effective protection. Collectively, the PhD outcomes will inform the design of future restoration and management actions that support biodiversity within winterbourne streams and springs.

Working in collaboration with industry partners including the Environment Agency, the PhD researcher will co-design and conduct an extensive fieldwork programme to characterise the Candover Brook before, during and after restoration. This fieldwork will include surveying the physical form of the river and sampling biotic communities such as aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates and plants. Supported by appropriate training, the PhD researcher will identify sampled organisms, including identification of river invertebrates to species level using microscopes in the laboratory. Genetic approaches can be used to identify species of particular conversation interest, including winterbourne specialist insects. The researcher will develop the analytical skill set needed to use advanced modelling approaches to assess community responses to natural and anthropogenic environmental variability.

Project findings will contribute to the ongoing, international increase in temporary river research. Our focus on aquatic–terrestrial biodiversity is globally innovative and will demonstrate the contribution of terrestrial communities to temporary river biodiversity. Project outcomes will contribute to national and global research informing the design and implementation of restoration projects and wider management actions that enhance biodiversity with temporary rivers, thus enabling these dynamic ecosystems to adapt to global change. As such, we expect the PhD research to have considerable academic and real-world impact.

As our PhD researcher, your skills profile will be enhanced by an extensive 3-year doctoral training programme encompassing discipline-specific and generic scientific skills. Specifically, you will be supported in developing a professional skills profile that encompasses proficiency in field and laboratory environments, advanced approaches to analyse complex ecological data, and scientific writing and publication. Funding is available to support your attendance of national meetings and international conferences, providing opportunities to share project results and build a network of colleagues to support your post-doctoral career development. Based in the School of Science and Technology, you will belong to an active and diverse community that also includes researchers in our School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences. Your Environment Agency co-supervisor will ensure your developing professional network encompasses both industry and academic scientists.

Entry qualifications

The successful candidate will hold a UK first-class or 2:1 BSc Hons (or NARIC equivalent) in ecology, environmental biology, physical geography, or a related discipline, plus research experience and/or a UK MSc or MRes with a minimum of a merit/commendation (or NARIC equivalent) in a relevant subject. The candidate must also hold a driver's license.

How to apply

The deadline for this project is Friday 7 October 2022. For a step-by-step guide and to make an application, please visit our how to apply page.

Interviews will take place on Teams in the week commencing 17 October 2022

Fees and funding

This PhD is match-funded by the Environment Agency and Nottingham Trent University.

Guidance and support

Further guidance and support on how to apply can be found on our apply page.

Still need help?

Dr Rachel Stubbington