Theme: Biodiversity & conservation

Surrounded by the sea, Scotland’s marine biodiversity is an important part of our natural heritage.  We have ongoing projects supporting Scotland’s Marine Protected Area project and studying the effectiveness of protected areas in the UK and overseas. This work includes the study of the biology and distribution of protected species to identify which areas should be protected.

Harmful algae

We are seeking to explain causes for the increased occurrence and magnitude of phytoplankton blooms and harmful algal blooms in particular, in coastal ecosystems. Research based on field phytoplankton monitoring has so far focused on bloom drivers such as nutrient loading (Spatharis et al. 2007, 2009) and climate change (Spatharis et al. 2012).

Using laboratory experiments we try to establish the competitive ability and growth of harmful phytoplankton species under conditions of different light qualities, and nutrient availability. We focus on the causality and mechanisms involved in these processes using recent significant advancements of genetic tools (transcriptomic, epigenetic, functional genomic) and modelling approaches.

Contact: Dr Sofie Spatharis

Selected publications


Processes driving the diversity of coastal ecosystems

This research is focused on understanding the ecological processes that shape marine communities and sustain their diversity and productivity at both local (patch) and regional (metacommunity) scales (Spatharis et al. 2008, 2011a, Tamvakis et al. 2012, Spyropoulou et al. 2013).

Currently we are trying to establish the relative role of niche and neutral processes in shaping the morphological and genetic diversity of plankton. We combine different approaches including laboratory experimentations, mesocosm setups, field monitoring and numerical modelling.

Contact: Dr Sofie Spatharis

Selected publications


Biodiversity estimation & prediction

As part of our research on biodiversity indices we are developing integrated indices for assessing phytoplankton diversity and water quality, which are used for the implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive (Spatharis and Tsirtsis 2010, Spatharis et al. 2011b, Carteron et al. 2012).

We are also trying to optimise diversity prediction from abiotic variables, for example using machine learning techniques, to enable the testing of environmental change scenarios on the biodiversity of ecosystems (Tamvakis et al. 2014).


Contact: Dr Sofie Spatharis

Selected publications


Stable isotope applications to marine ecology

SUERC stable isotope labStable isotopes are powerful tracers for many processes in marine systems.

In food web studies, carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios broadly record the source of primary production and trophic level respectively, thus allowing us to elucidate the structure of large food webs. For animals, the analysis of tissues with differing turnover time, and particularly those tissues such as hair or baleen that are grown incrementally, allow ecologists to track changes in diet in a species over time.

In addition, broad geographical differences in the isotope composition of the base of the marine food web also allows us to track the dispersal or migration of mobile species, which is particularly useful for cryptic species that are otherwise difficult to geolocate.

The NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, located at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre SUERC, provides access for UK scientists in the biological and environmental sciences to training and research facilities, offering a comprehensive suite of stable isotope techniques and expertise.

ContactJason Newton

Other staff involved in marine stable isotope analysis: Bob Furness, James Grecian, Dominic McCafferty, Ruedi Nager, Jason Newton and Rona McGill(both at SUERC); PhD student: Nina O'Hanlon

Selected publications

Current projects

  • Spatial variation in resource utilisation in gull populations with contrasting long-term population trajectories across south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland; PI Ruedi Nager, Glasgow
  • The breeding implications of individual variation in wintering area and early territorial proficiency of great skuas Stercorarius skua in the Faroe Islands; PI Ruedi Nager, Glasgow 
  • Predator-prey interactions between spiny lobsters and chemotrophic clams; PI Martin Attrill, Plymouth
  • Foraging ecology, niche variation and individual specialisation of brown skuas (Stercorarius lonnbergi); PI Richard Phillips, BAS
  • Shark and other fish eye lenses: a window to cryptic life history behaviours; PI Clive Trueman, Southampton
  • A hierarchical approach to the examination of the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem service flows across coastal margins (CBESS); PI Mark Emmerson, Queens University Belfast