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Conservation genomics of manta and devil rays at the University of Edinburgh


Date & time Nov 22
Ends on Nov 29
The University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Creator LouiseLHarris
Category call


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Conservation genomics of manta and devil rays at the University of Edinburgh

This project will use cutting-edge genomic data to address fundamental knowledge gaps and underpin the development of conservation management strategies for globally threatened manta and devil rays.

Apply by Thursday January 06 2022 at 12.00

Registration website

Project background

Manta and devil rays (collectively mobulids) are charismatic and ecologically important marine megafauna with high ecotourism value (O’Malley et al., 2013; Stewart et al., 2018). They are circumglobally distributed and exhibit a broad range of morphological and behavioural traits (Couturier et al., 2012). However, their populations are in steep decline across the globe due to targeted and bycatch fisheries, driven largely by an increasing demand for their gill plates (O’Malley et al., 2017). In response to this level of exploitation, manta and devil rays are listed as Endangered and Vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species, and have recently gained international protection under the CITES and CMS conventions. However, population based management is lacking, and our ability to monitor fisheries and trade dynamics is hindered, in part, due to fundamental knowledge gaps regarding population-level processes across the entire Mobulidae family. We recently carried out an assessment of mobulid ray taxonomy to elucidate species boundaries and support the implementation of international legislation (Hosegood et al., 2020). In doing so, we found genomic support for a putative new manta ray species and preliminary evidence for contrasting patterns of population structure across the family. This project will build upon this work, and take advantage of an exceptional collection of over 1000 globally-sourced samples to characterise population structure, develop traceability tools, and investigate the composition of mobulid products in trade. The work will deliver critical information to underpin the development of effective conservation, management and monitoring strategies for the globally threatened manta and devil rays.

Research questions

  1. How do population dynamics, demographic history and diversity differ across manta and devil ray species, and what are the implications for conservation management?

  1. How can patterns of population structure be extended to develop regional traceability tools?

  1. Can we uncover the provenance of mobulid parts in fisheries and markets, and what does this reveal about the global dynamics of their trade?


This project will combine the use of cutting-edge genomic approaches and an exceptional collection of over 1000 samples to monitor trade and inform conservation management of manta and devil rays. The project will build upon recent work that assessed mobulid taxonomy (Hosegood et al., 2020) by investigating genetic variation below the species level. Existing datasets will form the basis for developing applied traceability tools. This data will further provide an opportunity to explore the genomic processes leading to differentiation in closely related manta ray species.

Additional genome-wide sequencing will be carried out where necessary to gain a fuller picture of population structure and diversity across the entire family. Ongoing collection of samples from fisheries, and dedicated market surveys will be undertaken to assess the composition and provenance of products in trade. Project results will inform the development of conservation recommendations and advance our understanding of trade dynamics. The project will be undertaken in collaboration with CASE partner, the Manta Trust, benefiting from the strong collaborative links with a global network of researchers, educators and conservationists.

Year 1.

Research training. Familiarisation with existing datasets, software and population genomic analysis. Development of traceability tools for determining geographic provenance. Market and/or fisheries surveys undertaken with CASE partner.

Year 2.

Production and analysis of sequence data to address primary research questions. Work with CASE partner to establish applied management questions.

Year 3. Assessment of fisheries and market composition. Work with CASE partner to disseminate research outputs and provide recommendations for conservation management.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided, comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. This project offers a wealth of opportunities for the student to gain experience in using genomic data for informing wildlife conservation management. The student will benefit from training in genomics, bioinformatics, population genetics and science communication, and will be able to take advantage of the international collaborative links of supervisors in both research and conservation. The studentship will be based at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, world leading centres in the analysis and application of wildlife genomic datasets. 

The lead supervisor, Professor Rob Ogden, has extensive experience in transferring genome-wide technologies from evolutionary and population genetics to wildlife conservation projects. Co-supervisor Dr Emily Humble specialises in the analysis of large genomic datasets for wildlife conservation and has a particular interest in globally threatened sharks and rays. Project CASE sponsor, The Manta Trust, is a UK registered charity that co-ordinates global mobulid research and conservation efforts worldwide. Co-supervisor Dr Guy Stevens is chief executive and co-founder of the Manta Trust, and a world leading expert in manta and devil rays having spent the last 15 years studying these animals all over the world.


We seek a bright and motivated student with a background in conservation genetics, evolutionary biology, bioinformatics or population biology and a keen interest in marine conservation. Previous experience working with genomic data would be advantageous, as well as experience in programming in a language such as R, python or UNIX, however, full training will be provided.


Stewart JD, Jaine FRA, …, Stevens GMW (2018) Research priorities to support effective manta and devil ray conservation. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5, 314, https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00314

Couturier LIE, Marshall AD, …, Richardson AJ (2012) Biology, ecology and conservation of the Mobulidae. Journal of Fish Biology. 80, 1075–1119, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1095-8649.2012.03264.x

O’Malley M, Townsend KA, …, Stewart, JD (2017) Characterization of the trade in manta and devil ray gill plates in China and South-east Asia through trader surveys. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 27(2), 394–413, https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.2670

O’Malley MP, Lee-Brooks K & Medd HB (2013) The global economic impact of manta ray watching tourism. PLoS ONE, 8:e65051, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065051

Hosegood J, Humble E, …, Carvalho G (2020). Phylogenomics and species delimitation for effective conservation of manta and devil rays. Molecular Ecology, 34(19), 3408–3411, https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15683

CASE partner: The Manta Trust


Rob Ogden

RDSVS - The Roslin Institute

[email protected]


Emily Humble


[email protected]


Guy Stevens

The Manta Trust

[email protected]


E4 supervisors are happy to hear from candidates who would wish to adapt the project to their own ideas and research background.

How to Apply

Please find all relevant information, application forms and instructions for referees via -


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