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Aquatic biodiversity and functional processes in restored peatland pools

Dr Lee Brown (SoG), Dr Clare Woulds (SoG)

Project partner(s): Natural England (CASE)

Contact email:

Background and Rationale

Peatlands cover ~4 M km2 of northern temperate and boreal regions but large areas of peat have historically been drained for agriculture, or milled for use in horticulture or as fuel. Recently, recognition of the global environmental implications of peatland degradation has led to attempts to rewet drained peatlands, with the aim of enhancing terrestrial biodiversity and carbon sinks, and reducing carbon losses to rivers used for drinking water provision. This restoration has created thousands of open water pools, ponds and lakes, but to date these have received relatively little attention with respect to their aquatic biology, ecology, and carbon cycling (Beadle et al., 2015; Brown et al., 2016).

Despite the harsh habitat conditions (e.g. low pH, low nutrient status, low production) offered by these dystrophic pools, they are increasingly being found to house a wide variety of aquatic plants and animals. This has led to questions about the functional dynamics of these pools is. Possible basal sources of fixed carbon include vascular plants, sphagnum, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), algal production within the pools, and, intriguingly, methane fixed by methanotrophic bacteria (van Duinen et al., 2013). Stable isotope and biomarker analysis represents a powerful means of assessing the relative contributions of these basal C sources, but so far very few such studies of peatland pools have been conducted. Stable isotopic studies which have been conducted indicate that peat pool C sources and cycling vary considerably between pools in different settings, and that methane C may indeed be incorporated into the food web (Van Duinen et al., 2013).

The project will be undertaken by working at sites where large scale restoration work on peatlands has been occurring for many years, offering potential to undertake space-for-time comparisons of community development. Restorations has concentrated on providing physical conditions equivalent to undisturbed peatlands, and this has allowed plants and animals to move into the areas by natural recolonisation. This provides opportunities to look at the colonisation of the restoration areas by various groups over time.  Of particular interest is the colonisation of areas by invertebrates and plant species typical of raised mire. There is a significant amount of existing data that could be used to provide base line information to inform these projects.  Detailed invertebrate studies have also been carried out in some areas as part of previous projects  allowing for efficient use of time/sampling effort. 

Project Goals and Outline

This project aims to:

  1. Quantify the aquatic biodiversity of lowland restored peatlands, for comparison to recent work in the UK that has focused predominantly on upland restored peatland aquatic ecosystem. A specific focus here could be the collection of data to further test ecological community assembly theory as a means of determining restoration success (Brown et al., 2016)
  2. Use novel stable isotopic and biomarker approaches to understand carbon sources, functional processes and cycling and food webs in peat pools of the UK uplands, and at different times since restoration. This will aid in our understanding of the full range of impacts of peatland restoration on peatland ecology and carbon balance. In particular, it will add to our understanding on the cycling and fate of the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
  3.  Develop the successful candidate as a leading UK freshwater scientist. Specifically, they will be in a position to demonstrate the benefits of peatland restoration for aquatic biodiversity and ecosystem functional processes to landowners, regulators and businesses, and provide new evidence to inform future peatland restoration efforts worldwide.

Figure 1: Example of pools created following peatland restoration (left) and a naturally formed pool (right)

Benefits to the candidate

The successful candidate will benefit from an interdisciplinary outlook gained from working within the River Basins Processes and Management research cluster within the School of Geography. They will also have access to the networks and event provided by water@leeds, and the Leeds NERC DTP.

The successful candidate will undertake a combination of field work, laboratory work, and stable isotope mixing modelling to further our understanding of C sources and cycling in peat pools of the UK uplands.

The successful candidate will become skilled at working at the interface of ecology and geochemistry. They will gain experience in conducting peatland sampling and invertebrate identification. They will also be trained in a wide range of laboratory analytical techniques, including preparation of varied sample types for isotopic analysis, and extraction and quantification of lipid biomarkers.

An additional part of the training will be through attendance and presenting at national and international conferences. The student will also be encouraged to submit high quality papers for publication throughout the project, and this is supported at the institutional level by the availability of the option to submit the PhD thesis in an alternative ‘thesis by publication’ format.

Full details about postgraduate degrees at the University of Leeds, and instructions for how to apply, can be found here:

Informal enquiries should be directed to Lee Brown ( or Clare Woulds (


Beadle, J.M., Brown, L.E. & Holden, J. (2015). Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in natural peat pools and those created by rewetting schemes. WIRES Water 2: 65-84

Brown, L.E., Ramchunder, S.J., Beadle, J.M. & Holden, J. 2016. Macroinvertebrate community assembly in pools created during peatland restoration. Science of the Total Environment 569-570: 361-372

Carter, C.F., Beadle, J.M., John, D.M. & Brown, L.E. 2015. New observations on Saturnella saturnus (Steinecke) Fott: the first British record of a little-known enigmatic ‘green’ alga. Algological Studies 149: 61-78

Swindles, G.T., Green, S.M., Brown, L.E, Holden, J., Raby, C.L., Turner, T.E., Smart, R. and Baird, A.J. 2016. Evaluating the use of dominant microbial consumers (testate amoebae) as indicators of blanket peatland restoration. Ecological Indicators 69, 318-330.

van Duinen, G. A., Vermonden, K., Bodelier, P. L. E., Hendriks, A. J., Leuven, R., Middelburg, J. J., van der Velde, G., and Verberk, W.: Methane as a carbon source for the food web in raised bog pools, Freshwater Science 32, 1260-1272, 2013.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biology
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental science
  • Geochemistry
  • Geography
  • Physical geography
  • Spatial ecology
  • Water management