Variability and permanence of functional traits to determine environmental tipping points

Variability and permanence of functional traits to determine environmental tipping points

1st supervisor: Katharina Wollenberg Valero

2nd supervisor: Jorg Hardege

Collaborators: Jasmin Godbold, Martin Solan

Contact email: 



Species diversity has a disproportionate influence on ecosystem functioning and stability and as such, resilience to extinction events. The extent to which variation in biological traits changes or persists following environmental forcing in scenarios linked to current climate change, has not been considered over multiple generations yet. If important ecological functions are impacted across one or more generations, eventually a tipping point is reached with severe consequences for the marine ecosystem.

This PhD project is linked to and supported by a new NERC grant starting in 2020 to the Universities of Hull and Southampton and CEFAS. It will use multi-generational studies on marine model species to quantify functional traits related to fitness in changed aquatic environments, and determine how functions performed by traits of surviving communities influence ecosystem functioning. The project will enable us to determine tipping points where changes to ‘effect traits’ (here animal behaviour /physiology) lead to a point when a species’ abilities to colonize or thrive in a habitat and to persist in the face of environmental change is altered, and will enable us to understand whether these changes are transient or permanent. Dr. Wollenberg Valero’s MolStressH2O research cluster and Dr. Hardege’s Chemical Ecology group will provide a vibrant research atmosphere for the successful candidate, and they will collaborate closely with the project partners in Southampton.


Project description 

The extent to which species acclimate or adapt across generations will determine their future success or extinction, and impact on ecosystem functioning. Evolution, in outbreeding animal populations can produce profound, adaptive changes in allele frequencies from standing variation within even just one generation, both in response to environmental forcing and biotic selection. Alternatively, epigenetic changes can emerge after exposure to stress in marine polychaetes and improve functioning and survival, but may not result in permanent adaptation – these genetic markers can be secondarily lost after just one or a few generations, and won’t improve functioning in the long run. Instead, changes at the DNA level are necessary for survival under long-term environmental change. To discern between these two options, the PhD student will track genomic vs. epigenetic divergence in a multi-generational laboratory selection experiment using H. diversicolor and P. dumerilli. The student will focus on molecular lab work and bioinformatic data analysis, with the specific aims 1) to establish two reference genomes 2) to generate population genomic data and 3) epigenomic data from successive generations. This will help determine whether observed changes are transient or permanent.


Project team

Dr. Katharina Wollenberg-Valero (KWV) is a Lecturer at UoH, School of Environmental Sciences, with a ten-year track record in molecular and Evolutionary Biology. Her research focuses on the molecular basis of the organismal response to environmental stress, and its evolution across different phyla using functional and comparative genomics approaches (Wollenberg Valero et al., PeerJ 2014, Rodriguez et al., Ecol. Evol. 2017, Wollenberg Valero et al., Nat. Commun. 2017, 2019). She is currently leading the Molecular stress in changing aquatic environments research cluster (MolStressH2O) at UoH.

Dr. Jörg D. Hardege is a marine biologist and head of the Chemical Ecology group at the University of Hull (UoH). His team studies the timing of reproduction in marine invertebrates and the role of pheromones, identifying i.e. the first crustacean sex pheromone (Hardege et al. 2011). A focus of his team is the impact of environmental stress (heavy metals, pH and CO2) on chemical signals examining i.e. Nereids (Garcia-Alonso et al. 2011) maturation and reproductive trait changes as a result of ‘olfactory disruption’ (Wyatt et al. 2014) and climate change (Hardege et al. 2011). JDH has developed new micro-fluidic tools and biomarkers for toxicology and used CO2 vents (Wäge et al. 2016) to examine adaptation potential to ocean acidification (Calosi et al. 2013). Recently his group showed that reduced pH leads to altered signaling molecules in Nereid worms, impacting the stability of behavioural traits (reproduction) that are key for benthic ecosystem functioning (Roggatz et al., 2016).

Prof. Martin Solan is Professor in Marine Ecology at UoS. His track record that focuses on understanding biodiversity-environment interactions and the ecosystem consequences of altered diversity and environmental change in benthic systems (Solan et al. 2004, Thomsen et al. 2016). He has been instrumental in characterising of how species mediate ecosystem properties (Hale et al. 2014), respond to drivers of change (Godbold & Solan, 2013, Solan et al. 2016), and has developed concepts of functional group ecology (Murray et al. 2014). He is Director for the NERC SSB – Benthic, co-director of the NERC Coastal Biodiversity and NERC Arctic Benthos research programmes, and is a Scientific Committee member of ecoSERVICES (a project of Future Earth) and the Global Environmental Research Committee at the Royal Society.

Dr. Jasmin A Godbold became a Lecture in Marine Biology at UoS in October 2014. She has a track record demonstrating successful integration of behavioural and ecosystem ecology to study the ecosystem consequences of anthropogenic disturbance and environmental forcing on changing biodiversity. JAG was recognized as a leading international early career researcher by the Royal Society and Australian Academy of Science (2010) and was Editor of a theme issue in Phil.Trans.Roy.Soc.B (2013) “Ocean acidification and climate change: advances in ecology and evolution”. Using largely empirical approaches, her work has revealed that benthic infaunal behaviour is closely coupled with biotic and abiotic habitat characteristics (Godbold et al. 2011) and climatic change (Godbold & Solan, 2013; Godbold et al. 2017) and that the expression of functional traits and associated levels of ecosystem functioning may differ between populations (Wohlgemuth et al. 2017).