PhD: Biodiversity and ecosystem multifunctioning in rivers with modified flow regimes via FindAPhD

University of Leeds

Leeds, UK 🇬🇧

About the Project

The regulation of river flows is one of the biggest stressors affecting river ecosystems across the world. In many westernised countries, legislation is leading to the development of new approaches to mitigate the impacts of river flow regulation. These approaches are based on optimising river flows to maintain water supply and hydropower whilst protecting and/or rejuvenating the aquatic environment with water of adequate quantity and quality (i.e. environmental flows; Acreman, 2016). As a result, a field of applied aquatic science has developed to generate the evidence base of the best ways to manage environmental flows to sustain river ecosystems. The importance of the field is best exemplified by environmental flows being the number 1 option put forward recently as a way to halt and reverse global freshwater biodiversity declines (Tickner et al., 2020).

Despite numerous recent research advances, there are still significant knowledge gaps that prevent a full understanding of how river flow dynamics drive ecological processes. For example, many studies have focused on individual groups of organisms (e.g. fish, invertebrates; Gillespie et al., 2015; Chen & Olden, 2017) but relatively few have factored in the important role of species interactions within and between these groups (Sabo et al., 2010, 2018; Mor et al., 2018) or the spatial processes underpinning them. Other biotic groups such as microbes and primary producers have received comparatively less attention. Similarly, less research has been undertaken on ecosystem processes (Abril et al., 2015; Robinson et al., 2018) such as organic matter and nutrient cycling. These research gaps offer the potential for multiple lines of enquiry, with the specific focus of the study being tailored to suit the skills and interests of the successful candidate.

Project aims

The main aim of the PhD is to increase understanding of how river flow management influences the structure (e.g. algae/invertebrate biodiversity) and/or functioning (e.g. production, decomposition, carbon cycling; Manning, 2021) of river ecosystems. The current lack of knowledge is creating problems for river managers who need to identify and implement management measures (including environmental flows) as a way of improving river quality and biodiversity. Therefore, findings will have the potential to inform conservation targets for rivers through collaboration with businesses such as water companies and hydropower, and regulators such as environmental protection agencies.

Specifically, the project will examine the extent to which environmental flows can be used to enhance river ecosystems. The approach will be to compare ‘control’ sites (with either no regulation or sites with reservoirs but no variable environmental flows) against rivers in which reservoir operators are undertaking flow experiments. These include reinstating seasonal flood flows, and/or introducing seasonally variable compensation releases.


The successful candidate will benefit from training in aquatic ecosystem science as part of the River Basin Processes and Management research group. Training at Leeds deals fully with the elements described in the Joint Research Centre statement on skills training for research students. PhD students take modules provided by the staff development unit (e.g. starting your PhD, small group teaching). Faculty and DTP training courses will cover project planning, critical reading and writing, oral presentations, and writing research papers.

Students present results and receive constructive feedback from peers in a Research Support Group, from colleagues in the River Basins research group, and at a university postgraduate research day. You will benefit from being part of [email protected], the largest interdisciplinary water centre in any UK university, which runs a postgraduate forum. You will furthermore be integrated into the European network Euro-FLOW ( led by Leeds, with >20 project partners across Europe. This network offers the potential to develop case studies as part of the PhD both in the UK and overseas.

The nature of the project means that the student will be trained in project specific research methods including literature reviews, field work techniques (ecology, hydrology), laboratory water quality analysis, and modelling/statistics for analysing data. Course are available both internally and at external workshops. An additional important part of the training will be to attend national and international conferences to present results and gain feedback. An outcome of your training will be the submission of research papers for publication in international journals during the project.


The prospective student should have, or expect to receive, a minimum 2.1 BSc and/or MSc degree in an appropriate discipline. You will have interests and experience in topics such as ecology, hydrology and/or environmental sciences. Informal enquiries should be directed to Lee Brown at [email protected]. Further details about postgraduate research degrees at the School of Geography, University of Leeds can be found here.

Funding Notes

This project is in competition for up to 26 fully-funded PhDs for UK, EU, and overseas candidates. Each scholarship will provide full tuition fees, tax-free stipend (£15,609 for 2021/22), and a substantial Research Training and Support Grant, for 3.5 years.


Abril et al. 2015.
Acreman. 2016.
Chen & Olden. 2017.
Gillespie et al. 2015.
Manning. 2021.
Mor et al. 2018.
Sabo et al. 2010.
Sabo et al. 2018.
Tickner et al. 2020.