Identifying and protecting coral reef adaptive potential

Identifying and protecting coral reef adaptive potential 

(CASE project with CORAL and TNC)


The recent unprecedented levels of heat stress have profoundly altered many coral reef communities globally, affecting ~1 billion people whose livelihoods depend directly on them. As climatic conditions become increasingly extreme and thus marginal for coral species, coral reef ecosystems are predicted to barely persist due to increased frequencies of acute thermal stress events. This project is working with NGOs whose long-term goal it is to identify and protect coral reef networks globally that have strong chances of adapting to climate change. This work aims broadly to base these decisions on innovative scientific research that examines the role that evolution plays in rescuing reefs from the effects of climate change.

A key challenge here is that high genetic variability in corals is key to their long-term survival, but methods to identify genetic variability at scales large enough to inform conservation efforts do not exist. The emergence of the Allen Coral Atlas, a one-of-a-kind reef mapping technology, provides us with a tool to develop metrics of habitat quality, micro-refuges, and adaptive capacity, as well as newly-launched coral bleaching monitoring and alerts. TNC-Caribbean and partners have also developed the first-ever Caribbean-wide, 4m-resolution benthic habitat maps with 13 standardised habitat classes across the region (

Here, we want to develop research to synthesise new information and identify reef networks most likely to adapt to climate change. This PhD project will feed into this process, with focus on exploring metrics for habitat suitability and variables key to “adaptive potential” to help identify networks of reefs (probably in the Caribbean or Indonesia) most likely to facilitate evolutionary rescue of corals. These metrics can then inform spatial planning with Marxan, the most widely used conservation planning tool supporting the design of marine reserves worldwide.

Illustration of healthy reef
Structural complex reefs support rich biodiversity and many microhabitats


In this project, you will work with leading coral reef ecologists, conservation planners and NGO implementers to explore these topics:

  1. Investigating multi-scale morphological categories of reef types that may indicate adaptive potential in coral reef communities;
  2. Assessing reef community responses to past thermal stress and projecting their future responses based on mapped morphological categories (and other widely-available datasets); and
  3. Spatial planning to identify priority areas for managing coral reefs for climate change for objectives that target adaptive potential.


Rubble reef with low complexity
Coral reefs that have been subject to destructive fishing have low structural complexity even years later.


The project will use the newly published Allen Coral Atlas data sets (, new 1km sea surface temperature projections, and coral reef monitoring data to determine ways of detecting adaptive or climate resistant coral communities. You will test the idea that reef complexity at different spatial scales can indicate higher resistance, resilience, and/or adaptive potential of coral communities. This question will be approached analytically with spatial analysis (GIS), and by developing models of coral reef responses to thermal exposure. There may be scope to test adaptive potential with molecular tools if interest and funding availability allow. Thus, a strong background and/or interest in quantitative methods, and at good knowledge of GIS and R is required. The student’s work will build on large-scale spatial datasets and coral reef monitoring data that involves many collaborators, thus we are looking for an individual who both thrives in creative thinking and collaborative teamwork.


training opportunities.

You will be supervised by Associate Professor Maria Beger and Dr Steve Sait (University of Leeds, School of Biology), Dr Helen Fox (Coral Reef Alliance), and Dr Steve Schill (The Nature Conservancy Caribbean). 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 quantitative ecology, spatial analysis, and conservation science, and offers specialist training in:

  • scientific programming skills for processing and visualising large datasets;
  • skills in spatial analysis and spatial planning approaches;
  • coral reef and climate change ecology.

You will also have access to training workshops that cover technical and broader professional development skills and you will present your research at international scientific conferences. Visits and exchange stay with the CASE partners offices to engage with local collaborating NGO scientists and managers are part of the project. 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.


entry requirements.

An excellent first degree (1st or high 2.1), MSc relevant to spatial analysis and marine ecology; and skills and interest in quantitative approaches and conservation science are key. Coral reef field experience would be viewed as a plus.