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


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


Project Description


Dr James Buckley (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth) – Contact me

Dr Mick Hanley (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth)

Dr Anne Plessis (School of Biological and Marine Sciences, University of Plymouth)


Project 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.


  • 1) Niskanen, A. K. J., Niittynen, P., Aalto, J., Väre, H., & Luoto, M. (2019). Lost at high latitudes: Arctic and endemic plants under threat as climate warms. Diversity and Distributions, 25, 809–821.
  • 2) Moreira, X., Petry, W. K., Mooney, K. A., Rasmann, S., & Abdala-Roberts, L. (2018). Elevational gradients in plant defences and insect herbivory: Recent advances in the field and prospects for future research. Ecography, 41, 1485–1496.
  • 3) Descombes P., Kergunteuil, A., Glauser, G., Rasmann, S. & Pellissier, L. (2019). Plant physical and chemical traits associated with herbivory in situ and under a warming treatment. Journal of Ecology, 108, 733–749.
  • 4) Parmesan, C. & Hanley, M.E. (2015). Plants and climate change: complexities and surprises. Annals of Botany, 116, 849–864
  • 5) Buckley, J., Widmer, A., Mescher, M. C., & De Moraes, C. M. (2019). Variation in growth and defence traits among plant populations at different elevations: Implications for adaptation to climate change. Journal of Ecology, 107, 2478–2492.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2022. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 12th January 2022.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers 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. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship click on the “Apply now” link below.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

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