NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Will tropical forest plant communities survive environmental change?

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter.  The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

Main supervisor: Dr Lucy Rowland (Geography, University of Exeter)

Tropical forests play a central role in controlling global climate, due to their major contribution to the hydrological and carbon cycles. However, their resilience to future climate change remains uncertain. The composition of tropical forests under future climates depends on the ability of tropical forest seedlings to respond physiologically, or acclimate, to environmental change. Specifically, shifts in tropical forest composition will change the distribution of plant traits and most likely how efficiently these forests recycle carbon and water (1,2). For tropical seedlings it is essential to prioritise investment of carbon in the photosynthetic system, whist maintaining a viable water transport (hydraulic) system and nutrient uptake system, in order to win the race to become a top-canopy tree. Depending on local environmental conditions, seedlings are likely to optimise carbon investment in key plant traits associated with these three systems differently (3,4). It is currently unclear if and how seedlings optimise trade-offs of resource allocation to each of these essential plant functional systems under changing abiotic conditions. Greater understanding of seedling acclimation is, however, essential to predicting how individual species and tropical forest communities will respond to environmental change.

This project will examine trade-offs in tropical rainforest seedling traits, associated with the photosynthetic, hydraulic, and nutrient systems across continents under both natural and experimental gradients of environmental change. The project will be based at three sites:  i) a long-term tropical forest drought experiment, ii) a nutrient  fertilisation experiment in eastern and central Amazonia respectively and iii) a soil nutrient gradient in Borneo. This project will present the opportunity to address the following key questions:
Q1. Do the traits of seedlings differ in the Amazon and Asian forests according to different rainfall conditions found there?
Q2. How do plants trait relationships vary along gradients of environmental change in different tropical regions?
Q3. Do seedling traits control community-level trait development as seedlings develop into trees?
This studentship involves substantial amounts of fieldwork, collecting data on seedling and tree traits across tropical forests located in Brazil and Borneo, as well as developing a data-base combining these field data with pre-existing data to examine how tropical tree traits change with tree development from seedling to adult. This project offers a valuable opportunity for a student to undertake cutting-edge research concerning how tropical forest function is likely to be altered by climate change.

See for full details and how to apply.

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