Deep Links is a collaborative project between Plymouth University’s Deep Sea CRU and the University of Oxford, in partnership with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the British Geological Survey (BGS), funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). During this project, we will investigate how patterns of population connectivity vary with depth in the deep sea, and how this influences species diversity.
Species populations are connected to each other through both movement of adults (migration) and the movement of eggs, larvae, and juveniles (dispersal). If populations become isolated from one another (i.e. are no longer connected), then through genetic mutation, drift and natural selection, they may become so different that they evolve into new biological species (speciation). Understanding how populations become isolated is critical to understanding the process of speciation. In the marine environment, many species do not move as adults (e.g. corals) or move very slowly (sea urchins). This means that for different adult populations to remain connected they rely on dispersal of early life history stages. Most marine species have a larval stage that lives in the water column for a period of time, moving with the currents, before settling in a new area. It is larval dispersal that keeps distant populations connected. So understanding patterns of larval dispersal is important for understanding connectivity.
In the deep sea (below 200 m), the bathyal region of the continental slope has been identified as supporting high numbers of species and being an area where the rate of origination of new species may also be high. The reasons for this are not clear, but given the importance of connectivity to population isolation and speciation, it follows that the key to understanding patterns of species diversity in this region lies in understanding connectivity. New research has suggested that because the speed of the currents that carry larvae decreases as you go deeper, larvae might not be able to travel as far, leading to a greater tendency for populations at bathyal depths to become isolated over a given distance, and thus increasing the chances of speciation.
This study aims to test this theory by investigating how patterns of connectivity vary with depth. More details on our research plan can be found here.
Our research has important implications for the sustainable management of the marine environment. Humans are increasingly relying on the marine environment to supply food, building materials, fuel, and to soak up carbon, slowing the progress of human-induced climate change. However, our increasing use of this environment is starting to affect its ‘normal’ functioning, affecting the processes that allow it to provide us with food, fuel, etc. To try to help protect and sustain these ‘ecosystem functions’, Governments all over the world are setting up networks of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect against serious ecosystem disturbance and cascade effects resulting from overexploitation, which ultimately impair ecosystem function. There are many questions to be answered when trying to set up an MPA network, but one important question is where to put them to make sure that the populations that live within them are not isolated from each other but are connected. This research will help answer this question in the deep sea, and thus, help managers, governments and society ensure the long-term health of the ocean.