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

To apply please use the online application form, simply search for PhD Biological Sciences and clearly state that you are applying for an ARIES PhD studentship and name the project SOBMS-1022-S1-P1 (ARIES, Buckley), at the top of your personal statement.

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Dr James Buckley

Dr Mick Hanley

Dr Anne Plessis

Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)


Project details

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 and 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 1 October 2022.

Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship for 3.5 years, 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



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.

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.

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Buckley, J., Widmer, A., Mescher, M. C., & DeMoraes, 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.