Uncovering the long-term sensitivity of Southern Ocean phytoplankton to Antarctic climate change, using novel geochemical and ancient DNA proxies

A ship collecting a core sample with Antartic coastline in the distance

Sediment core collection from the RRS James Clark Ross ship, Antarctica, December 2018, image by Sev Kender

The Antarctic is changing. Delicate ecosystems, from marine mammals and birds, to the phytoplankton at the base of the food web, are under threat from both global warming and human activities such as fishing and whaling.


The goal of this project is to better understand how Antarctic phytoplankton will react and adapt to future changes, by examining changes in the past.

The early Holocene is characterised by warming comparable to future 21st century projections, and the Holocene/Anthropocene transition experienced severe environmental disturbance from climate change and fishing during the acceleration of industrialisation. However, there are no fossil records from many of the main phytoplankton groups with which to examine their past sensitivity.

In this project the student will reconstruct past phytoplankton changes in the Southern Ocean, and the offshore Antarctic Peninsula, with diatom micropalaeontology and sedimentary ancient DNA – a new technique recently developed for non-fossilising groups.

The student will also use geochemistry to date the core material, and reconstruct environmental change.

Research focus

The aims of this project are to provide the first records of past changes to Antarctic phytoplankton from species that do not produce a fossil record. Sediment core palaeo-proxies for stable isotopes and micropalaeontology will aid in constraining our reconstructions of past marine environments, with which to build a new understanding of the main causes of phytoplankton change both in the past and into the future.

The student will have opportunities to be involved in the design of the project, particularly with respect to the existing skills and interest in marine, earth and biological sciences. A range of palaeo-proxies are available including but not limited to ancient DNA, isotope geochemistry, and micropalaeontology.


The student will have access to a wide range of training made available for at least thee months of the studentship via the GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership.

The student will receive additional specialist training in sedimentary ancient DNA extraction, analysis, and interpretation.

The student will have the chance to gain experience in geochemical and micropalaeontological techniques, and will be supported to apply for Antarctic ship-based fieldwork experience if interested. Experience presenting at national and international conferences will be provided.

How to apply

Read more information about this project and how to apply on the Exeter Univeristy website

The application deadline is Friday 8 January 2021 at 23:59 GMT. Interviews will take place from 8 to 19 February 2021.

A tunnel in an iceberg in Antartica

Iceberg offshore Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, December 2018, image by Sev Kender

Apply for this project

You can apply for this course through the Exeter University website

Application deadline: 8 January 2021

Any questions?

University of Exeter, Camborne School of Mines

Lead supervisor: Sev Kender


The Natural History Museum, London

Prof Ian Barnes

British Geological Survey, Keyworth

Prof Melanie Leng

British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge

Dr Claire Allen

University of Exeter, Centre for Geography and Environmental Science

Prof James Scourse


Coolen, M.J.L. et al. 2013. Evolution of the plankton paleome in the Black Sea from the Deglacial to Anthropocene. P. Nat. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 8609–8614.

Deppeler, S.L. & Davidson, A.T. 2017. Southern Ocean phytoplankton in a changing climate. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, 40.

Pike, J. et al. 2013. Glacial discharge along the west Antarctic Peninsula during the Holocene. Nat. Geosci. 6, 199–202.

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.