HONOURS/MSC PROJECTS: The evolution of plasticity in thermal tolerance

Understanding the effects of climate change on natural populations is a driving force for environmental and ecological science today. The ability of plants or animals to respond to changes in the environment they experience can determine whether populations will survive or go extinct in a changing world. The study of ‘phenotypic plasticity’, changes in response to environmental change, due to warming temperatures is a very active field of research, but our understanding of many fundamental issues is still unclear and will only be resolved by high-quality empirical experiments. 

We have a number of projects available in this area - with both field and controlled environment/glasshouse options with opportunities for field trips to the Australian high country and arid/semi-arid zone. We’re looking for enthusiastic, hard-working students who are interested in ecology, evolution and the environment.

We have honours/MSc project options that will make use of a large-scale experiment already running as part of an ongoing project investigating the response to temperature of an Australian Alpine herb (Wahlenbergia ceracea) More info? See here. Some questions that are ideal for an honours/MSc project would include.

  • How do parental and offspring growth temperatures affect thermal tolerance and plasticity therein?
  • How do metrics of thermal tolerance differ in and what are the mechanisms underlying those differences?
  • What is the best way to measure ‘fitness’ in plants?
  • How does fitness change across a temperature gradient, from too cold through intermediate to too hot?
  • Does variation in fitness have a genetic basis?
  • How does temperature affect ageing (or ‘senescence’) in plants?
  • How does parental thermal environment affect the germination strategy and dormancy status of seedlings?
  • Does variation in dormancy and plasticity thereof have a genetic component?

A new project examining the thermal tolerance of alpine and arid/semi-arid Australian plants provides opportunity for field-based research examining how tolerance of extreme temperatures (heat and cold) varies among species, within species, and as a function of season, ontogeny or growth environment. Some questions ideal for honours/MSc work include:

  • How does breadth of thermal tolerance vary among populations within-species and as a function of range size?
  • Does access to ample water increase or decrease thermal tolerance breadth?
  • Does thermal tolerance breadth increase or decrease as an individual develops from seed to seedling to established plant?