PhD Project on Caspian seal conservation

Evaluating the potential consequences of climate heating for Caspian seals and ecosystem services in the Caspian Sea

Marine mammals are keystone species for marine ecosystems. Understanding how they could be impacted by climate heating is important for evaluating risks to marine biodiversity, ecosystem function and ecosystem services.  The Caspian seal (Pusa caspica), is endemic to the Caspian Sea in Central Asia, the largest landlocked waterbody on the planet. Recent global risk assessments  suggest the Caspian seal may have the greatest vulnerability to climate heating of any marine mammal species, due to loss of its sea ice breeding habitat and decline of the Caspian Sea level. However, an in depth assessment of potential threats and impacts of climate heating on Caspian seals based on detailed knowledge of species ecology and biology remains to be conducted. Such an assessment is not only critical for informing conservation strategy for Caspian seals, but will also be relevant to wider understanding of risks to biodiversity, ecosystem services and for human populations of the Caspian Sea region more generally.

In this project we will use an existing satellite telemetry dataset (Dmitrieva et al. 2016) from more than 100 tags deployed between 2009 and 2018 to describe Caspian seal activity budgets (time investment in foraging/diving and resting activity) in relation to environmental drivers, and evaluate the effects of high sea surface temperatures on seal behaviour, and how this relates to risks for thermal stress in the summer months. We will also evaluate the impact of Caspian sea level decline (predicted to be up to 18m by 2100), on the availability of Caspian seal breeding habitat. Finally we will use the Marxan package to identify spatial planning solutions for seal marine protected areas under current conditions and human activity, and future sea level decline scenarios.

Ultimately the project could act as template for climate impact risk assessments for marine mammals more generally, and will provide important policy relevant information on managing Caspian Sea biodiversity during the coming Century.

Funding & Eligibility: A variety of competitive scholarships are available which support UK home rated students (UK citizens, and those satisfying relevant UK residency criteria)

Alternatively we can consider overseas students supported by external scholarships.

How to apply: Applications will be made via the Faculty of Biological Sciences Graduate School Portal (https://biologicalsciences.leeds.ac.uk/research-degrees), but it is essential that you email me (s.j.goodman@leeds.ac.uk) before submitting an application.

Application deadlines: Various, from 4th January 2023

Relevant references

Albouy, C., Delattre, V., Donati, G. et al. Global vulnerability of marine mammals to global warming. Sci Rep 10, 548 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-57280-3

Dmitrieva, L., Jüssi, M., Jüssi, I., Kasymbekov, Y., Verevkin, M., Baimukanov, M., Wilson, S., & Goodman, S. J. (2016) Individual variation in seasonal movements and foraging strategies of a land-locked, ice-breeding pinniped. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 554:241-256. doi: 10.3354/meps11804.

Prange, M., Wilke, T. & Wesselingh, F.P. The other side of sea level change. Commun Earth Environ 1, 69 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-020-00075-6       

Wilson, S. C., Dolgova, E., Trukhanova, I., Dmitrieva, L., Crawford, I., Baimukanov, M., Goodman, S. J. (2017). Breeding behavior and pup development of the Caspian seal, Pusa caspica. Journal of Mammalogy, 98(1):143–153, doi: 10.1093/jmammal/gyw176.