Advancing understanding of deep water habitats to support long-term management and conservation.

Professor Murray Roberts is a marine biologist studying the biology and ecology of deep-sea (cold-water) corals. These can vary from single, solitary corals to large, reef-framework-forming species. These are amazing creatures: the long-lived stony corals (Scleractinia), octocorals (Octocorallia) and black corals (Antipatharia), form structurally complex habitats on the continental shelf, slope, offshore banks and underwater mountains known as seamounts. “Studies over the last ten years have shown that they form local centres of species diversity and important archives of palaeoceanographic information,” says Murray.

Since oceans lie under the jurisdiction of many nations and none, international cooperation is vital. Murray leads multiple large collaborative projects including the EU Horizon-funded iAtlantic programme, and is part of the UKRI Global Challenge Research Fund’s One Ocean Hub.

Global collaborations

iAtlantic brings together marine scientists from all around the north and south Atlantic to build understanding of the factors that control the distribution, stability and vulnerability of deep-sea ecosystems, and the resilience of deep-sea creatures to threats such as temperature rise, pollution and human activities.

Using innovative approaches – and a multinational fleet of research vessels equipped with the latest marine technology and instrumentation – the project is gathering new data at local and regional levels, scaling these up to address questions across the whole ocean basin. The project focuses on 12 locations of international conservation and economic significance, from the sub-polar Mid-Atlantic Ridge off Iceland to through tropical and subtropical seas to deep-sea coral banks in the Malvinas upwelling off Argentina.

Project foci include measuring and monitoring ocean circulation systems; surveying deep ocean biodiversity – using submarine equipment including robots where needed!; – using biological and chemical markers to detect ecosystem changes; exploring the impact of stressors, from temperature and pH changes to deep-sea mining and fishing; providing open-access information and tools to support sustainable management of the oceans; and building capacity around the Atlantic to continue developing strategies for sustainable management and use of marine resources.

Importantly, a Diverse Knowledge Systems Working Group ensures that project results are shared far beyond the scientific community to industry, NGOs, citizen scientists, Indigenous populations and other local communities. Dialogue with all these stakeholders will help fill knowledge gaps and cross-validate the data generated, enhancing understanding and expanding the reach and legacy of the project.

Sitting at the interfaces of science, conservation, culture, law, politics and more, the One Ocean Hub works in sites around the world, from the Southeast Atlantic to the South Pacific, building towards an integrated and inclusive governance of marine systems. The Hub supplied a range of evidence and facilitated discussions to the 26th and 27th Conferences to the Parties (COPs) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

From sea to IPCC

Murray studied Biology at the University of York before completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow examining nitrogen cycling in the symbiotic snakelocks anemone (Anemonia viridis). He worked the Scottish Association for Marine Science from 1997, spending a period as Marie Curie Fellow at the Center for Marine Science at the University North Carolina Wilmington, before joining the Centre for Marine Biodiversity and Biotechnology at Heriot-Watt University in 2009, first as Reader, then Professor of Marine Biology and Director. During this time he was instrumental in the creation of the Lyell Centre for Earth and marine Science and Technology, a collaboration between Heriot-Watt and the British Geological Survey. He has been at the University of Edinburgh since 2016.

Head-and-shoulders photo of a white man in a blue top, smiling, in front of a coastal environment
Professor Murray Roberts

Murray’s work has taken him to sites off the UK, Norway, Ireland, the United States and Cape Verde, including 23 offshore research cruises. He is the senior author of Cold-Water Corals, the first book covering the biology and geology of these important deep-sea habitats, a contributing author to the 2014 and 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports as well as the UN World Ocean Assessment, member of numerous international expert panels on ocean biodiversity, conservation and sustainable use. Coming full circle back to his own research interests, he is co-lead editor of the 2014 UN Convention on Biological Diversity report on ocean acidification – a key threat to deep-sea corals and the communities they support.

In 2019, Murray was awarded the inaugural Conservation Science Award at the Nature of Scotland Awards, in recognition of his work to understand, conserve and manage Scottish cold-water coral reefs and deep-sea habitats.

In sum, Murray’s research, leadership and collaboration is helping grow understanding of some of the most enigmatic and threatened ecosystems and organisms on the planet, providing an impetus for international policy and practice to protect and manage these shared environments for the future.

Murray Roberts is Professor of Applied Marine Biology and Ecology at the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and recently appointed a Sargasso Sea Commissioner. He leads the Changing Oceans research group, chairs the Joint Working Group between St Abbs Marine Station and the University, and coordinates the European Horizon 2020 iAtlantic project. His work is supported by [funders]. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading

Roberts, J.M. & Cairns, S.D. 2014. Cold-water corals in a changing ocean. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 7: 118—126.

Kazanidis, G., et al. 2020. Assessing the environmental status of selected North Atlantic deep-sea ecosystems. Ecological Indicators 119: 106624.

Orejas, C., et al. 2020. Towards a common approach to the assessment of the environmental status of deep-sea ecosystems in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Marine Policy 121: 104182.

Hennige, S.J., et al. 2021. Using the Goldilocks Principle to model coral ecosystem engineering. Proc. R. Soc. B. 288(1956).

Kazanidis, G., Henry, L.-A. & Roberts, J.M. 2021. Hidden structural heterogeneity enhances marine hotspots’ biodiversity. Coral Reefs 40: 1615—1630.

Wolfram, U., et al. 2022. Multiscale mechanical consequences of ocean acidification for cold-water corals. Scientific Reports 12: 8052.

Roberts, J.M., et al. (in revision Nov 2022). A blueprint for integrating scientific approaches and international communities to assess basin-wide ocean ecosystem status. Nature Communications Earth & Environment.