E&E PhD Exit Seminar: We all know plant traits vary – but to what extent and does it matter?

Global climate change predictions include increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and an increase in the frequency of extreme events. Our ability to understand the underlying morphological and physiological responses of plants to these changing environmental conditions is crucial as we seek to construct increasingly complex models to predict how ecosystems may respond to climate change. To date, the focus of the majority of studies has been on quantifying variation in species responses to climate.  However, it is emerging that species level characterisation maybe insufficient with more and more examples of population differences in responses as well as within individual seasonal changes in trait values. Within my thesis, I investigate this variation, otherwise known as phenotypic plasticity, in terms of at what level most of the variation in a trait lies (habitat, species, population, individual) and how plasticity may allow plants to prosper under a changing climate (adaptive capacity).

Within the Australian alpine community, I explore how alpine plants may respond to changing water availability and temperature regimes through the use of glasshouse and field transplant experiments, asking how these responses may vary across elevation gradients. I further utilize a multi-habitat, multi-species observational study to ask questions regarding; which important plant functional traits show plasticity, what variation exists between and within species in plasticity, and lastly, does that plasticity confer a fitness advantage?

Knowledge of how plasticity varies as a function of differing abiotic pressures, along with the capacity for intra-specific variation in plasticity, will aid in developing informative models of more complex, realistic climate change scenarios.