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Assessing the vulnerability of high-elevation plant populations to abiotic and biotic stressors predicted under climate change

University of Plymouth - Biological and Marine Sciences

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Plymouth
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: £15,609 per annum for 2021-22 and £2,500 for external training, travel and conferences.
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 18th October 2021
Closes: 12th January 2022

Supervisory Team 

Dr James Buckley 

Dr Mick Hanley 

Dr Anne Plessis 

Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide) 

Scientific background:  

Climate change threatens the persistence of high-elevation, cold-adapted plants [1], both directly via changes in temperature and precipitation and indirectly through the upward expansion of low-elevation antagonists [2]. Warmer temperatures have been shown to alter plant fitness at high elevations, but the resilience of these high-elevation populations to changing frequencies and intensities of abiotic and biotic stressors are poorly understood [3,4]. Given high-elevation plants are often unable to shift to more favourable (higher elevation) environments, they must either adapt to these challenges in situ or face population decline [2,5]. The potential for these populations to adapt to rapid environmental changes, particularly in combination, is however, poorly understood.  

Research methodology:  

Plant species with broad elevational distributions allow us to examine adaptation to rapidly changing environments and test the relative vulnerability of high-elevation populations to abiotic and biotic stressors [5]. This project will use greenhouse experiments with four common grassland plants to elucidate the phenotypic responses of low and high-elevation populations to heat and drought stress, and whether these responses alter plant acceptability to generalist herbivores (snails). We will also quantify genetic variation in herbivore resistance within and between populations of a widespread alpine plant, Arabis alpina, from different elevations, measuring the morphological and chemical defence traits that underpin herbivore preference and performance. Together with available datasets on herbivore pressure in high-elevation populations, these data will help us understand the vulnerability of alpine plants to herbivores, as well as the extent of adaptive trait variation present at high elevations.  

Person specification & training:  

We are looking for a candidate with a degree in Biological Sciences (or similar) and an interest in understanding and communicating the ecological impacts of climate change. The successful candidate will develop skills in experimental design, standardised trait measurement, plant physiology and statistical data analysis, conducting experiments at the University of Plymouth with plants and invertebrates (herbivore performance and preference assays). In a three month visit to ETH Zurich (Switzerland), they will also gain first-hand experience in quantifying key primary metabolites and chemical defence compounds using gas chromatography and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.  

Funding Notes 

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022.Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship covering fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships. 
ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and £2,500 for external training, travel and conferences. 
ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience. Our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience. 
For information and full eligibility visit  https://www.aries-dtp.ac.uk/ 

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