Landscape scale effects on biodiversity in temperate and polar seas

Marine biodiversity and ecosystem functions are known to relate to a large number of environmental factors such as depth, latitude or primary productivity. These can be measured and expressed as continuous explanatory variables. In contrast, “habitat” is normally expressed in categorical terms, as one of a selection of pre-determined types. The identification and protection of specific habitats has become a central driver of conservation policy.

More recently, research has begun to identify the effects of the mixture of different habitats within an underwater landscape, showing that the history, size and shape of patches, and the nature of the boundaries between, them have important effects on biodiversity and animal behaviour.

The proposed work will focus on two types of underwater landscape. The temperate waters around Scotland have been affected by human use, resulting in habitat damage and fragmentation. Ecosystem services from Scotland’s seas include the provision of fish and shellfish, and the role of seafloor habitats in carbon sequestration and coastal protection. Understanding how habitat mosaics function as a landscape is important to efforts to manage fisheries and restore degraded biodiversity.

In contrast, the coastal waters of Antarctica are affected by a natural disruptor, ice scour. Ice has powerful structuring effects on polar marine communities, creating a mosaic of areas with different disturbance (scour) histories. Ice scour is changing as a result of climate change, so understanding its role is important to predicting the future state of Antarctic biodiversity.

The project will use field data from these contrasting underwater environments to identify how patch characteristics, and their arrangement in the underwater landscape, affect biodiversity and animal behaviour. This work will allow us to predict the effects of future seabed change, whether through climate change or human activity.

The project will take advantage of new data analysis techniques and underwater photography to create seabed maps, and relate landscape characteristics to biodiversity metrics.


The project will use a mixture of new and existing underwater photography, combined with species and habitat distribution models.

There are extensive photographic datasets for several areas, in particular stereo-baited remote underwater video (BRUV) data for the South Arran Marine Protected Area, Loch Eriboll, and the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area. New BRUV surveys are planned for these and other sites. Other georeferenced seabed and fish data will be obtained from Marine Scotland Science, Nature Scot and NGO partners. Combined with data on fishing and other disturbances/protections such as MPAs, this will allow natural and disturbed habitats to be investigated.

The waters around Rothera station have been extensively surveyed by divers and through the use of remotely operated vehicles and other underwater cameras. In particular the IBIS (Iceberg impact study) project has focused on iceberg scour effects on the benthos, and a previous PhD using baited cameras investigated the effects of scour on scavenging fish and invertebrates. ROV surveys have explored the area around Rothera station to a depth of 100 m, providing a large amount of available data.

To provide context the Rothera Time Series (RaTS) includes 25 years of measurement of oceanographic parameters (temperature, salinity, fluorescence, PAR etc.)
A small number of new camera drops maybe possible, but this will be subject to the workload of the scientific team at Rothera and is not essential to the project.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review
Statistics training
Analysis existing data
Field surveys, Scotland

Year 2

Paper writing
Field surveys, Scotland

Year 3


Year 3.5

Finalising thesis

& Skills

Practical skills in field work, cameras, navigation and small boats
Spatial analysis

References & further reading

S.A.M. Elliott, A.D. Sabatino, M.R. Heath, W.R. Turrell, D.M. Bailey (2017). Landscape effects on demersal fish revealed by field observations and predictive seabed modelling. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189011
S.A.M. Elliott, W.R. Turrell, M.R. Heath, D.M. Bailey (2017). Juvenile gadoid habitat and ontogenetic shift observations using stereo-video baited cameras. Marine Ecology Progress Series 568, 123-135
K.M. Dunlop, D.K.A. Barnes and D.M. Bailey (2014). Variation of scavenger richness and abundance between sites of high and low iceberg scour frequency in Ryder Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula. Polar Biology. (37) 1741-1754
Robinson, B.J.O., Barnes, D.K.A., Grange, L.J.; Morley, S.A. (2021). Intermediate ice scour disturbance is key to maintaining a peak in biodiversity within the shallows of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Sci Rep 11, 16712. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-96269-9
Barnes, D.K.A., Souster, T. (2011) Reduced survival of Antarctic benthos linked to climate-induced iceberg scouring. Nature Climate Change 1, 365-368

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