I am looking for two enthusiastic, dynamic and independent students to work on environmental/free DNA in South African marine systems. This technique is gaining global momentum for monitoring biodiversity, understanding community structuring, tracking rare or invasive species and supporting conservation science. The primary focus of this NRF-funded research project is to use an environmental DNA metabarcoding approach to characterise known and hidden genetic diversity in a variety of marine ecosystems in South Africa, to not only allow comparison between sites, but to assess this methodology as a tool for monitoring change in ecosystems.


PhD 1: FishTraceE – eDNA for supporting ground-truthing and spatial planning across coastal marine habitats in South Africa


Fishes are probably the most well characterised marine taxonomic group (not including marine mammals that contain many fewer species), yet many remain

underreported and undescribed. Indeed, in South Africa, it was estimated that at least 25% of endemic species are probably unknown (von der Heyden 2011). In addition, there are reports of tropical species moving into more sub-tropical and temperate systems on the East Coast (James et al. 2013) in response to increasing temperatures and there are anecdotal reports of warm-temperate fishes occurring for longer in the cool-temperate regions around False Bay. Notwithstanding the taxonomic and biodiversity components, these shifts in species have the potential to reshape and possibly disrupt established ecological communities. Therefore, eDNA provides not only an opportunity for inventorying fish biodiversity, but can also provide a tool that can be consistently applied to different habitats for the purposes of providing a baseline for monitoring changes into the future.


PhD 2: eDNA diversity of seagrass meadows – from single plants to communities

This part of the proposed project focuses on assessing the biological communities associated with Z. capensis. Given the structural habitat encompassing individual blades, entire plants and root systems, this provides an ideal habitat to look at different levels of community organisisation. For this part, we will focus on three seagrass meadows (Langebaan Lagoon, Mngazana and Richard’s Bay) in South Africa and for each we will characterise the macrobial diversity at different spatial scales – from individual blades to the benthic communities. Given that communities probably change over time, we aim to provide at least two snapshots of diversity in different seasons for each system. This will allow us to examine the range and diversity of species associated with seagrass communities, as well as provide insight into the importance of seagrasses as nursery areas for fishes.


About the lab

The candidate will be part of the the von der Heyden lab, a leading molecular marine ecology laboratory in Africa, utilising genetic and genomic approaches for studying various aspects of marine systems in Africa and beyond. We have a strong emphasis on using molecular techniques for conservation and biodiversity planning. Our work is wide and varied as we are not confined to particular taxonomic groups, but have worked on everything from sea grasses, sponges and urchins to great white sharks and fur seals. We are a diverse mix of postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows with strong links both nationally and internationally. You can find out more about ongoing and past projects at www.vonderheydenlab.com or visit our Facebook page,www.facebook.com/vonderhe ydenlab.


The vdH lab is housed in the Department of Botany and Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch. This university is one of the top-ranked in the southern Hemisphere, with strong undergraduate and postgraduate training and research. Stellenbosch is a historical, safe and vibrant community surrounded by magnificent mountains, close to the sea. Find out more at www.sun.ac.za.

Both projects are in collaboration with Prof. Simon Creer and Prof. Gary Carvalho at Bangor University in Wales, UK. Students will have opportunities for exchange visits for research, analysis and writing purposes depending on funding.


How to apply

We are looking for motivated, enthusiastic students that are committed to academic excellence, with a strong academic background to join us from early 2017. You will need to have an MSc in a related discipline and be a good communicator, both written and orally. Ideally you would have experience with molecular analyses and bioinformatics and a good understanding of marine and estuarine systems, although the latter is not essential. You must be willing to carry out fieldwork, be able to work in a group and to enjoy problem solving. We welcome applicants of all backgrounds, but applications from South African students receive preference; however strong applications from non-South African students will certainly be considered. To apply or to find out more about the projects, please contact Prof. Sophie von der Heyden at svdh@sun.ac.za. After initial contact, you will be asked to provide a CV, a short statement on why you wish to pursue a PhD, as well as contact details for two referees.



Prof. Sophie von der Heyden

Associate Professor | Marine Genomics and Conservation

Department of Botany and Zoology

University of Stellenbosch 

South Africa


Web: www.vonderHeydenlab.com

Twitter: @vonderHeydenlab

Facebook: www.facebook.com/von derheydenlab

Associate Editor: Frontiers for Young Minds


ORCiD: orcid.org/0000-0001-916 6-976X

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