Search for a project

Understanding and managing tropical marine ecosystem interactions to improve their climate change futures

Dr Maria Beger (SoB), Professor Piers Forster (SEE)

Contact email:


This project will combine climate change science with marine ecology and conservation to evaluate and predict climate change responses of interacting marine ecosystems.  In particular, the project aims to assess future climate variability and the joint responses of mangroves, sea grass meadows, and coral reefs in the Coral Triangle. The student will have the opportunity to work with climate and marine conservation specialists to incorporate cutting-edge research into a management framework to enhance its feasibility and success.    


The rise in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions has put considerable pressure on the oceans in their role as a climate regulator (1). Increasingly higher quantities of atmospheric CO2 and the resulting heat energy are absorbed by the oceans, causing significant impacts on marine ecosystems, such as increasing thermal stress and acidity (1). The effects of climate change on these ecosystems are difficult to predict. Firstly, high levels of uncertainty surround predictions of future climate variability. Secondly, the processes in the marine environment related to both between-ecosystem interactions and climate-ecosystem influences vary regionally (1, 2) and are difficult to assess from existing data.

It is often difficult to separate the impact of global stressors caused by climate from local or regional stressors, particularly because long-term data describing these factors are sparse (1, 3). This has presented considerable challenges in building successful marine management frameworks (3).

Managing coral reefs to improve resilience has become increasingly popular as the rapid rate of decline of many of the world’s reefs has called for new methods to protect tropical marine ecosystems (4, 5). Resilience refers to the capacity of an ecosystem to resist or recover from disturbances whilst maintaining their structure and function (4). It is difficult to assess resilience, but identifying and protecting the most resilient reefs is widely considered as a good strategy to increase the likelihood of ecosystem persistence (5). This concept has been incorporated into regional conservation initiatives to protect coral reefs against climate change, for example in the Coral Triangle (6). Resilience was also estimated in another five marine ecosystems, including mangroves and seagrass beds (7). Mangroves occupy a harsh environment subject to sizeable diurnal changes, and climate change outcomes are predicted to be both degrading and improving (8). However, the future of mangroves has not yet been promoted in management initiatives (9, 10). Similarly, some seagrass species can cope with thermal stress better than others (7, 11), particularly where they interact with coral reefs (12). Both mangroves and seagrass beds provide crucial ecosystem services to coastal populations (10, 11), and interact with coral reefs by enhancing recruitment (13). Though strategies to improve their climate change resilience exist to some degree for each ecosystem (10, 11), they have never been examined and implemented with the interactions among the ecosystems.

Figure 1 Dense seagrass meadows

Important interactions between marine ecosystems could be severely disrupted by climate disturbance (14), altering the ways in which tropical ecosystems support the functioning of one another (Figure 2, 2). Mangroves and seagrass beds provide nurseries for juvenile coral reef fishes (2, 9), capture sediment and pollutants from the land (7), and provide an essential source of nutrients for coral reef and mangrove- associated species (2). Loss of one of these habitats may cause considerable uncertainty in the future of others; however, strategic management of their interaction is likely to provide synergistic conservation benefits.

Figure 2 Conceptual diagram illustrating some of the ecosystem links between seagrass beds, coral reefs and mangroves in tropical environments (2).


This project will enable the student to use climate change modelling and data from field observations to assess and predict future responses of three marine ecosystems to climate variability and analyse the potential impact on ecosystem interactions. They will then have the opportunity to explore the extent to which the findings could be implemented as a conservation strategy in the Coral Triangle. Objectives could include:

  • How can climate change models be used to identify resilient coral reef, mangrove and seagrass habitats in the Coral Triangle?
  • What are the most important local and global stressors affecting these habitats and how will the ecosystems respond to their cumulative effects?
  • Can ecosystem links between coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds be used to mitigate climate change impacts?
  • Can a conservation framework designed to improve seagrass and mangrove resilience alongside coral reefs, be incorporated into the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF)?

Impact of research

The role of resilience in the management of marine ecosystems other than coral reefs has not been explored and is currently absent from many marine conservation initiatives (10). By improving persistence across a range of ecosystems the links between the habitats may be conserved, further enhancing their chance of survival. The CTI-CFF prioritises sites based on their conservation benefit, but there is a trade-off between achieving multiple objectives or single objectives very effectively (6). This research will evaluate trade-offs in managing any one of the three adjacent ecosystems against managing all of them together and could present a case for prioritising sites that can be managed for ecosystem interactions.

Field Site

The CTI-CFF is designed to protect economically valuable coral reef ecosystems from global and local stressors (6)(Fig 3.). This partnership involves six countries (the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) and is instrumental in conserving the marine biodiversity of the Indo-Pacific region through the designation of Marine Protected Areas (6). At the moment, coral reefs are often managed separately from their associated marine ecosystems (6). The high biodiversity of corals, mangroves and seagrasses in the region and the regional political willingness to expand the MPA network make it an ideal location for this research (6, 15).

Figure 3 Map of the Coral Triangle showing the distribution of coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass (16). 


You will be supervised by Dr Maria Beger (lead) and Professor Piers Forster, based at the School of Biology and School of Earth and Environment respectively.  These are world-leaders in their fields with an excellent track record in training PhD students and publishing high impact research.  The project offers the unique opportunity to develop an interdisciplinary knowledge base encompassing conservation science, marine ecology and climate dynamics, and offers specialist training in:

  • scientific programming skills for processing and visualising large datasets and manipulating large datasets for use in climate change models;
  • developing a new conservation strategy to be applied in an existing framework.

You will also have access to a range of training workshops that cover technical and broader professional development skills and you will present your research at international scientific conferences. You will benefit from expertise within the School of Biology, and from being a member of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, a globally leading centre for climate research. The Centre convenes over 150 academics within the university, delivering excellent research to underpin global climate solutions. As part of the Centre you will benefit from bespoke training opportunities, visits from world leading researchers and a vibrant interdisciplinary cross-campus student environment.  These experiences will put you in a strong position to pursue a successful career in conservation and quantitative ecology.

Entry requirements

A good first degree (1st or high 2.1), Masters degree or equivalent relevant to marine ecology; and a strong interest in inter-disciplinary research.  Experience in quantitative approaches and climate science are essential, as is a passion for true conservation progress. 


1.      Hoegh-Guldberg, O., and Bruno, J.F. 2010. The Impact of Climate Change on the World’s Marine Ecosystems. Science, 328(5985), pp.1523-1528.

2.      Heck Jr., K.L., Carruthers, T.J.B., Duarte, C.M., Randall Hughes, A., Kendrick, G., Orth, R.J. and Williams, S.W. 2008. Trophic Transfers from Seagrass Meadows Subsidize Diverse Marine and Terrestrial Consumers. Ecosystems, 11(7), pp.1198-1210.

3.      Anthony, K., Marshall, P.A., Abdulla, A., Beeden, R., Bergh, C., Black, R., Eakin, C.M., Game, E.T., Gooch, M., Graham, N.A. and Green, A. 2015. Operationalizing resilience for adaptive coral reef management under global environmental change. Global change biology, 21(1), pp.48-61.

4.      McClanahan, T.R., Donner, S.D., Maynard, J.A., MacNeil, M.A., Graham, N.A., Maina, J., Baker, A.C., Beger, M., Campbell, S.J., Darling, E.S. and Eakin, C.M. 2012. Prioritizing key resilience indicators to support coral reef management in a changing climate. PloS one, 7(8), p.e42884.

5.      Mcleod, E., Anthony, K., Andersson, A., Beeden, R., Golbuu, Y., Kleypas, J., Kroeker, K., Manzello, D., Salm, R.V., Schuttenberg, H. and Smith, J.E. 2013. Preparing to manage coral reefs for ocean acidification: lessons from coral bleaching. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(1), pp.20-27.

6.      Beger, M., McGowan, J., Treml, E.A., Green, A.L., White, A.T., Wolff, N.H., Klein, C.J., Mumby, P.J. and Possingham, H.P. 2015. Integrating regional conservation priorities for multiple objectives into national policy. Nature communications, 6.

7.      O'Leary, J.K., Micheli, F., Airoldi, L., Boch, C., De Leo, G., Elahi, R., Ferretti, F., Graham, N.A., Litvin, S.Y., Low, N.H. and Lummis, S. 2017. The Resilience of Marine Ecosystems to Climatic Disturbances. BioScience, 67(3), pp.208-220.

8.      Lovelock, C.E., Cahoon, D.R., Friess, D.A., Guntenspergen, G.R., Krauss, K.W., Reef, R., Rogers, K., Saunders, M.L., Sidik, F., Swales, A., Saintilan, N., Thuyen, L.X. and Triet, T. 2015. The vulnerability of Indo-Pacific mangrove forests to sea-level rise. Nature, 526(7574), pp.559-563.

9.      Alongi, D.M. 2008. Mangrove forests: Resilience, protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 76(1), pp.1-13.

10.  McLeod, E. and Salm, R.V. 2006. Managing mangroves for resilience to climate change. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, pp.64.

11.  Bjork, M., Short, F., McLeod, E. and Beer, S. 2008. Managing Seagrasses for Resilience to Climate Change. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, pp.58.

12.  Saunders, M.L., Leon, J.X., Callaghan, D.P, Roelfsema, C.M., Hamylton, S., Brown, C.J., Baldock, T., Golshani, A., Phinn, S.R., Lovelock, C.E., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Woodroffe, C.D. and Mumby, P.J. 2014. Interdependency of tropical marine ecosystems in response to climate change. Nature Climate Change, 4(8), pp.724-729.

13.  Brown, C.J., Harbone, A.R., Paris, C.B. and Mumby, P.J. 2016. Uniting paradigms of connectivity in marine ecology. Ecology, 97(9), pp2447-2457.

14.  Waycott, M., Duarte, C.M., Carruthers, T.J.B., Orth, R.J., Dennison, W.C., Olyarnik, S., Calladine, A., Fourqurean, J.W., Heck Jr., K.L., Randall Hughes, A., Kendrick, G.A., Judson Kenworthy, W., Short, F. and Williams, S.L. 2009. Accelerated loss of seagrasses across the globe threatens coastal ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(30), pp.12377-12381.

15.  Veron, J.E.N., Devantier, L.M., Turak, E., Green, A.L., Kininmonth, S., Stafford-Smith, M. and Peterson, N. 2010. Delineating the coral triangle. Galaxea, Journal of Coral Reef Studies, 11(2), pp.91-100.

16. Coral Triangle Atlas. Coral Triangle Maps of the Month. [Online]. [Accessed 29 September 2017]. Available from:

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Applied mathematics
  • Biodiversity
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Conservation
  • Conservation biology
  • Earth science
  • Ecology
  • Environmental conservation
  • Environmental management
  • Meteorology
  • Physics
  • Spatial ecology
  • Sustainability and environmental management