What’s up with alpine tussock grasslands? Do a PhD and find out!

The Kyeburn in Dansey’s Pass. Alpine tussock grassland. Image from Adrian Paterson.

A great deal of our ecological understanding of community patterns and processes is based on ‘snap-shot’ and short-term datasets. Research using long-term and time series data shows that community datasets collected over longer periods of time can be critical for predicting change. We are looking to recruit one or more PhD students to work on community dynamics, with a focus on using spatial patterns in com munities to predict future shifts in community structure. This work will benefit from an exceptional dataset on New Zealand tussock grasslands. Research in this habitat is common in the Department of Ecology (An invasion of no consequence? Hieracium in tussock grasslands; The long invasion; Habitat invasion in the Southern Alps: why no forest-orcs in Middle-earth?; Change under our toes; Treelines: living on the edge).

Tussock grasslands are an iconic feature of New Zealand’s South Island landscapes and of great importance to both conservation and ecosystem services by supporting biodiversity, pastoral grazing and water production. These dynamic ecosystems are exposed to a wide range of driving processes such as grazing pressure (from both domesticated and pest mammal species), weed invasion, altered disturbance regimes, climatic shifts, woody encroachment, and land use change. To predict future change in these ecosystems, long-term studies are required. We have a regional dataset comprising three permanent plot re-measurements of over 100 high country tussock grassland sites in the 1980s, 1990s and mid-2000s. We are looking to recruit one or more PhD students to our group to resample these plots for a fourth time and conduct research on the community dynamics over the last 35 years in this important ecosystem.

Our group is a team of ecologists with interests in plant ecology, community ecology and wildlife biology. It includes Associate Professor Hannah Buckley, Lincoln University, an ecologist who conducts research on spatiotemporal patterns in biological communities, Dr Tim Curran, Lincoln University, a plant functional ecologist who uses functional traits to understand plant responses to disturbance, Dr James Ross, a wildlife biologist who researches the bioeconomic impacts and sustained control of pest mammals, Associate Professor Adrian Paterson, Lincoln University, an evolutionary biologist who has interests in trait evolution and behavioural ecology, and Professor Jason Tylianakis, University of Canterbury, a community ecologist researching global environmental change, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. The research interests of a candidate will determine the composition of the supervisory team.

Danseys pass Tussock1
Alpine tussock grassland at the top of Dansey’s Pass. Image from Adrian Paterson.

This research will address how tussock grassland community structure has changed at quadrat, transect and regional scales over the last 35 years. This will involve assessing fluctuations in species richness and composition, weed invasion trajectories, and turnover in species’ trait combinations. Within this framework, candidates could address one or more of these specific research areas:

  • Climatic and abiotic drivers of community dynamics
  • Causes and consequences of plant invasions
  • Responses of grasslands to grazing and altered management regimes
  • Changes in trait combinations and implications for community response to, and effect on, disturbances
  • Community assembly processes

We will work with prospective students to help them apply for suitable scholarships, such as the Struthers Scholarship (due date 31st October, 2016), the New Zealand Aid Programme (due dates vary), the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan (due dates vary), the Lincoln University Doctoral Scholarship (due date 1st October, 2016). Candidates should have a first class honours or Masters degree in botany or ecology. Interested applicants should email Hannah Buckley (Hannah.Buckley@lincoln.ac.nz) and provide their CV, contact details for two referees, a paragraph describing possible research directions for their doctoral studies, two paragraphs describing their research interests and experience, and an indication of which of the above scholarships that they are eligible for. People interested in applying for these scholarships should make contact as soon as possible.

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