From watershed to reef: reconstructing the history of land use change and coral reef health in Fiji

Coral reef

The project aims to quantify how abrupt terrestrial discharges ie chemicals and sediment, in near-shore environments are linked to coral reef degradation.

The studentship is part of the Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by NERC and starts September 2018.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply through the University of Cardiff.

Application deadline: 7 January 2018

Research focus

The aim of the project is to quantify how abrupt terrestrial discharges (eg source, chemical content, and sediment load) in near-shore environments are linked to coral reef degradation through the novel coupling of geochemical and palaeoecological methods.


The student will receive hands-on training in bioinformatics and statistics from all three supervisors. They will also attend two international bioinformatics courses (Computational Molecular Evolution at the Sanger, and an EMBO phylogenetics workshop) taught annually by Dr Williams, ensuring the highest level of scientific training.

The student will be a member of the Bristol Doctoral College (BDC), a university-wide framework for student training in generic and transferable skills. They will attend professional development courses run by BDC and Biological Sciences throughout their PhD to develop a broader skills base in line with their training needs and aspirations, which will be reviewed quarterly. 

The project includes three months of tropical marine based field research with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Suva Fiji.


Annually banded massive corals provide ideal material for environmental reconstructions due to their long life span and wide distribution in the tropical ocean. 

The student will develop high resolution geochemical records (eg Ba, Mn, P, Y) in coral skeletons from Fijian reefs to reconstruct historic nearshore water quality changes proximal to two catchments with contrasting agricultural land use.

To examine coral reef health and ecosystem responses the student will use microcomputed tomography to identify bioeroders and reconstruct skeletal growth characteristics.

Complimentary reef assessments and water quality surveys will be conducted to provide a baseline of coral reef health in light of ongoing land use changes at the two study sites.

By synthesizing these interdisciplinary data for the past and present we will be able to make informed comments on the most effective approach to manage the coral reef systems and target priority sites. 

Beyond this, the PhD studentship will uniquely elucidate major trends in coral reef decline from integration of coral growth, endolithic community structure, terrestrial change, geochemical proxies, and climate records.


Coral reef systems are essential in Fiji for income generation through food and tourism, subsistence living, and coastal protection.  Since the late 19th century, Fiji, has experienced major changes in land use with large tracts of land cleared for grazing, timber, and agriculture. The large shifts in watershed dynamics and erosion have increased sediment and nutrient load reaching coastal waters, all of which can impact the health of inshore reef ecosystems. Efforts to manage land use practices, and quantify their impact, are limited by the lack of long-term records of coastal water quality in Fiji.  



This project would ideally suit a candidate with a background and interest in geochemistry, paleoecology, and quantitative marine science. This is an interdisciplinary project requiring strong networking and communication skills. Some experience of SCUBA (or willingness to learn) is desirable. 

Studentships are open to UK and other EU students. Other nationalities (eg EEA countries) may be eligible - students should enquire with the project's respective postgraduate administration to see if they qualify for home fee rates. Up to nine studentships are available to EU students who do not ordinarily reside in the UK. Please note that this may be subject to change pending post-EU referendum discussions. All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the University of Bristol.

The deadline for applications is 7 January 2018.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Sindia Sosdian


University of Cardiff

Main supervisor: Dr Sindia Sosdian

University of Bristol

Co-supervisor: Dr Erica Hendy

The Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr Ken Johnson

Wildlife Conservation Society 

Co-Supervisor:  Dr Stacy Jupiter


Atherton J, Olson D, Farley L, Qauqau I (2005) Fiji Watersheds at Risk: Watershed Assessment for Healthy Reefs and Fisheries.(Final Report to the United States Department of State OESI Grant # SFJ600 04 GR 004).

Saha N, Webb GE, Zhao JX ( 2016) Coral skeletal geochemistry as a monitor of inshore water quality. Science of the Total Environment  566: 652-684.

Brown, CJ et al Tracing the influence of land-use change on water quality and coral reefs using a Bayesian Model. Scientific Reports 7:4740 (2017).

Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Great Western Four, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities.

Funded by 

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