The role of intraspecific trait variation in shaping the resilience of natural populations and communities

Project Details

This CASE project is supported by the St Andrews Botanical Garden

Key Questions

How and when does intraspecific trait variation influence the resilience of natural populations and communities?


As the full scope of the climate change emergency and biodiversity crisis unfolds, we are increasingly aware that the world is changing and that biological systems are changing in turn. Future sustainability requires that we understand those changes so that policies can be implement to support ecosystem resilience. In particular, biosecurity risk, climate change, and urbanisation present existential threats that increasingly interact, disrupting the usual dynamics of species turnover and thereby pushing communities closer to tipping points for systemic breakdown. Improving our understanding of how trait-level physiological trade-offs scale to whole plant functioning, population resilience, and community assembly will enable evidence-based management strategies for some of our most vulnerable and important habitats.

In the UK, policy and research are primarily focused on charismatic or economically important plants, such as tree species (e.g., Fraxinus excelsior or Picea sitchensis). This focus means that less charismatic but nonetheless important species are under-researched, and that the functional and genetic diversity contained within species is often overlooked. These impacts are compounded by the fact that most research is limited to questions that can be addressed within a short-term funding cycle.

Resolving challenges arising from such impacts will require scaling from laboratory to experimental work in controlled environments and managed habitats over longer time frames. In this project, the PhD student will focus on stress tolerant plant species that struggle to adapt to rapid environmental change, and develop methods to identify within-species diversity and test forecasts of vulnerability.

Aims of the Project

Intra-specific trait variation is an area of active research interest, with a wide range of recent studies being published. However, it is not known to what extent this variation scales up to confer advantageous adaptations at the level of whole plant functioning consistently within populations and communities. The aim of this project is to develop approaches that will allow conservationists to identify when or to what extent intraspecific trait variation in individuals is meaningful in terms of population and community resilience to human-led disturbances.

Project Description

Botanic gardens promote understanding of global plant species diversity. Increasingly their scientific remit, which historically has focussed systematics and classification, has been shifting towards work that supports biodiversity conservation. The Tangled Bank at the St Andrews Botanic Garden (the CASE project partner) embraces a new approach to the integration of ecology and evolution into botanic gardens, setting up species assemblages that reflect local habitats whereby these species interactions and dynamics can unfold. Our aim is to use the Tangled Bank as mesocosm for studying such systems, ultimately extrapolating what we learn both locally and to other regions where plant species are subject to similar climatic and ecological constraints, informing conservation practitioners and land managers nationally and internationally.

In this project, the DPhil student will work with constructed habitats in St Andrews Botanic Garden and partner sites nationally and internationally to design, establish, and monitor a long-term experiment that will be inherited by future students, enabling the research to run for decades. While significant progress has been made in identifying important dimensions of variation in plant form and function, there remain significant open questions that can only be addressed through longitudinal studies that integrate morpho-physiological traits, population establishment and growth or decline. The integration of functional traits into population models and community assembly predictions under different environmental conditions in realistic settings will yield high resolution biological data and unparalleled insights into the long-term consequences of short term disturbance. In this project, the student will have a unique opportunity to develop a novel database of plant development and functioning that will have long term impact for research and practical conservation.

Methods to be used

The DPhil student will use state-of-the-art field data collection methods to quantify the functional trait syndromes of three species (Linum catharticum L., Parnassia palustris L. and Saxifraga tridactylites L.) in Fife and internationally across Europe in novel and established communities, raised under mono- and poly-cultures. Data on demographic rates will be collected to then infer which and how functional trait sub-syndromes best predict population dynamics using stage-structured models. These models will be build allowing for intra- and inter-specific competition, and be made environmentally-explicit. This hierarchical approach will allow the student to explore viability of individual species populations, based on their demographic resilience characteristics (e.g. resistance, recovery time) but also predict community assembly outcomes. The student will be primarily based at the University of Oxford for much of the year, but the data collection will take place over each summer and be based at St Andrews Botanic Garden, with the CASE project partner organisation, with further fieldwork required at partner sites internationally.

Specialised skills required

This CASE project is at the forefront of plant biology research and education in botanic gardens. The researcher should be familiar with handling large data sets and have adequate coding skills in R.  Experience in fitting demographic models will be positively evaluated. Alongside technical skills, the researcher will be required to develop new partnerships and networks with conservationists, and as such, collaborative working experience and an ability to think strategically will be a benefit.

Please contact Rob Salguero-Gomez on and Harry Watkins on  if you are interested in this project