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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities
Brief summary: 
Using historic samples, we will track changes in biomineralization over the last century and relate these to environmental changes
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Environmental change is widely considered a major threat to the biosphere. Calcifying organisms are thought to be at a significant threat in our changing oceans. In particular, ocean acidification has two potentially deleterious effects; an increased difficulty and cost of shell formation and an accelerated loss and corrosion of shell. Laboratory or field studies of the impact of environmental change are limited by the timescale over which they can be run. However, use of samples from historic collections provide a very valuable source of data to address changes over decades or even centuries. There is only a handful of such studies to date, but these have made significant contributions to understanding This project will use well documented and localised historic collections, with good contemporary environmental data from sites primarily across the UK but also across Europe, to provide comparative data on shell growth and maintenance of two common and important marine bivalve species. These will be compared to data collected from new collections of extant populations from the same collection sites made in this project.
Project summary : 
We will tap into an extensive sampling 50 years ago of two species of cockles, which are commercially and ecologically important species, from a suite of over 70 localities (UK, Denmark, France, Ireland,) together with habitat data from many. This unique collection provides an excellent opportunity to resample sites and so to research changes in shell structure, longevity, growth rate, growth season duration, trace element composition, shell thickness and dissolution rates over this critical window of climate change. Different sites have experienced different environmental changes, and the number of sites in the study offers unusual power to evaluate the impacts of different factors.
What will the student do?: 
The student will employ a number of techniques to characterise shells from each sample including a range of morphometric shape analyses, characterization of the microstructure via scanning electron microscopy, organic content by thermogravimetric analyse and various techniques of sclerochronology including detailed growth line analyses and use of oxygen isotopes to help identify annual bands, as well as investigating the occurrence of particular pollutants (e.g. Pb, Sn, etc) via spectroscopy. They will also undertake field work to collect modern samples from the previously collected sites and also environmental data (e.g. water temperatures, salinity etc). Collections will also be made of Plio-Pleistocene fossils from exposures in Suffolk and Essex. The resulting data analyses will enable the student to write a series of first author scientific papers and a thesis. There is also the expectation that the results will be presented to the science community in conferences and to the public in a range of media. They may also be of use in informing policy makers of impacts of environmental change in a range of aquatic environments.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Telesca L, Michalek K, Sanders T, Peck LS, Thyrring J, Harper EM (2018). Blue mussel shell shape plasticity and natural environments: a quantitative approach. Scientific Reports 8, 2865.
Cross, E. L., Harper, E. M. & Peck, L. S. (2018) A 120-year record of resilience to environmental change in brachiopods. Global Change Biology, 24: 2262-2271.
Telesca, L, Peck, L.S., Sanders, T, Thyrring, J., Sehr, M.K. & Harper, E.M. (2019). Plasticity and environmental heterogeneity predict geographic resilience patterns of foundation species to future change. Global Change Biology, 25 (12): 4179-4193
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Earth Sciences page.
Prof Elizabeth Harper
Professor Lloyd Peck
Department of Earth Sciences Graduate Administrator