Effects of multiple environmental stressors on reef corals

Bleached Acropora coral from Abu Dhabi reefs.

Bleached Acropora coral from Abu Dhabi reefs.

The aim of this project is to how the growth of coral is affected by a combination of environmental stressors and how these effects are reflected in the structure and composition of the coral skeletons.

The studentship is part of the Southampton Partnership for Innovative Training of Future Investigators Researching the Environment (SPITFIRE) funded by NERC and starts 1 October 2018.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply via the Spitfire Online Application Service.

Application deadline: 5 January 2018

Research focus

This project will determine in controlled laboratory experiments

1) how the growth of coral is affected by a combination of environmental stressors

  • low pH
  • high temperature
  • nutrient availability

2) how these effects are reflected in the structure and composition of the coral skeletons.

Analyzing these proxies in archived coral skeleton material from localities with contrasting environmental conditions from different parts of the world, the project will establish the contribution of individual stress factors affecting coral reefs from the recent past to present. 

Supervision and training

The student will perform an interdisciplinary research project. The training will involve a broad spectrum of methods ranging from the aquaculture of reef corals and physiological experiments performed under tightly controlled laboratory conditions to elemental composition, structure and imaging analysis of skeletal samples. The student will be encouraged to contribute own ideas to shape the course of the project. The skills acquired during this project represent also key-qualifications for careers in other fields of academic and industry research.  

The SPITFIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton.


Replicate colonies of established laboratory strains of different coral species will be used as models. The corals will be cultured in separate compartments of the experimental mesocosm at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. The unique capacity of the experimental systems will allow for the exposure to different nutrient regimes, pH and temperature. Carbonate chemistry will be modified by bubbling CO2 in experimental compartments. Environmental parameters will be monitored daily in the culture systems.

Coral growth and net calcification rate will be measured by buoyant weight analysis and measurements of linear extension of corals with branching and digitate morphology. The porosity of the coral skeletons will be examined using X-Ray micro-computed tomography (Micro-CT) in the Biomedical Imaging Unit at the University of Southampton.

The project will make use of the analytical facilities at the University of Southampton to determine C, Ca, nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), and N:P ratios to calibrate the effects of changes in temperature and pH under different nutrient environments on the skeletal composition.

Coral material originating from different regions and collected at distinct times, available at the Natural History Museum in London, will be analysed using the protocols optimised from the experiments performed under controlled conditions.


Predictions suggest that coral reefs will soon fall victim to the changes in environmental conditions associated with climate change such as rising seawater temperatures, ocean acidification and anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of coastal reefs ((Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007)

All of these stressors affect coral growth and calcification. However, recent research of the supervisory team has shown that a much more detailed view of the effect of these major environmental stressors is required, in particular when they act in combination. These recent findings show, for instance, that it is actually a temporary nutrient starvation resulting from skewed nutrient ratios or eutrophication that renders coral more susceptible to heat stress, and not necessarily the nutrient enrichment per se (D’Angelo & Wiedenmann, 2014, Rosset et al., 2017).


This project is open to applicants who meet the SPITFIRE eligibility and other exceptional applicants.

SPITFIRE seeks excellent prospective research students regardless of their particular scientific background. We aim to recruit the best students rather than to fill particular projects. We put a huge amount of effort into the recruitment process to meet this objective. 

Minimum Academic Eligibility Criteria: 

  • BSc/MSci 2:1
  • and/or Masters (MSc or MRes) at Merit/Distinction level (>60%).
  • and/or evidence of significant relevant professional experience equivalent to Masters level.

How to apply

Apply using the Spitfire Online Application Service, please include:

  • A short statement of your research interests and rationale for your choice of project(s) - in the Personal Statement section of the application form
  • Curriculum vitae - giving details of your academic record and stating your research interests.
  • Names of two current academic referees - with an institutional email addresses in the Reference section of the application form. On submission of your online application your referees will be automatically emailed requesting they send a reference to us directly by email.
  • Academic transcripts and IELTS/TOEFL certificate if applicable.

As far as possible please upload all documents in pdf format.

Interview dates

For successful candidates are:

  • Thursday 22 February 2018
  •  Friday 23 February 2018
  • Thursday 1 March 2018
  • Friday 2 March 2018

Please note they are all day events and will be allocated based on interview panel availability.

General enquiries should be directed to the SPITFIRE Team on spitfire@southampton.ac.uk

The deadline for applications is 5 January 2018.

Any questions ?

You are encouraged to contact potential supervisors by email to discuss project-specific aspects of the proposed research at an early stage.

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Joerg Wiedenmann


University of Southampton

Main supervisor: Prof Joerg Wiedenmann

Co-supervisor: Mr Bastian Hambach

Co-supervisor: Dr Cecilia D'Angelo

Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr. Kenneth Johnson


D’Angelo C, Wiedenmann J, 2014. Impacts of nutrient enrichment on coral reefs: new perspectives and implications for coastal management and reef survival. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 7, 82-93.

Hoegh-Guldberg O, Mumby PJ, Hooten AJ, et al., 2007. Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318, 1737-42.

Rosset S, Wiedenmann J, Reed AJ, D'Angelo C, 2017. Phosphate deficiency promotes coral bleaching and is reflected by the ultrastructure of symbiotic dinoflagellates. Marine Pollution Bulletin 118, 180-7.

Southampton Partnership for Innovative Training of Future Investigators Researching the Environment

This a joint PhD training partnership between the Natural History Museum and SPITFIRE a NERC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) creating an innovative multi-disciplinary experience for the effective training of future leaders in environmental science, engineering, technology development, business, and policy.

Funded by 

Submit your application