Living on the edge: how do Australian plants cope with extreme temperature? (ARC Linkage 2019-22)

These projects will suit students with interest and knowledge in plant evolutionary ecology, environmental physiology and/or ecological and evolutionary genetics

Overview: Of all the climatic factors determining species distributions, temperature is arguably the most important. It is extremes – rather than averages – that drive species evolution. So it is concerning that although extreme temperature events are increasing in frequency and intensity little is known about the breadth of thermal tolerance of plants from extreme environments. This information is crucial to understand species distribution and survival under future climate regimes.

This project will provide critical data on the physiological tolerances of nearly 50 Australian native species from a wide range of alpine and desert threatened ecological communities and will highlight within-species variation in those tolerances. By including both sensitive and community dominant species the work will not only provide predictive power for developing models but also specific insight for a broad range of species that will be directly applicable to decisions about on-ground management programs and potentially translocation projects.

We are looking for PhD and honours students to contribute a new project that explores the thermal breadth of Australian species growing in situ and under controlled environments. Our project is a collaboration between researchers at the ANU Research School of Biology, UTS Life Sciences, the Save our Species program of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the Australian National Botanic Garden and the Australian Botanical Garden at Mt Annan and the Universidad la Frontera, Chile.

Project descriptions: A range of PhD and honours projects are available to examine – 1) variation in thermal tolerance breadth (tolerance of extreme cold and heat events) for both alpine and desert species at seed, seedling and mature phases and to assess how water limitation influences thermal tolerances. The project will combine field work in the desert and alpine with common garden and controlled growth experiments at the botanic gardens and ANU; 2) characterize associative patterns between genetic diversity and thermal tolerance across (and within) alpine and desert species of differing thermal tolerance breadth and predicted adaptive capacity; and  3) determine the extent to which tolerance breadth and genetic structure data correspond with expert judgement about which species have high or low adaptive capacity under climate change and apply our data to develop informed plans for management of threatened ecological communities of extreme environments.

Eligibility: Suitable applicants need to be highly motivated with strong academic and research backgrounds; skills in plant evolutionary ecology, environmental physiology and/or ecological and evolutionary genetics are required. Demonstrated ability to conduct fieldwork, and independent research experience are highly desirable. Interested students must apply and secure admission and scholarship online at ANU and/or at UTS. Successful applicants will receive scholarship stipend, tuition fee waiver, research funds including computer and travel grants.

Location: We’re based in the Division of Ecology & Evolution in the Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia and in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Candidates can apply to either or both of these schools. The facilities and intellectual environment are outstanding and the Nicotra and Leigh labs are lively, hard-working and inquisitive places. We strive to do excellent, fundamental research that is relevant in the context of rapid global change.

Application deadline: Applications for both international students and for Australian citizens and permanent residents or New Zealand citizens are due April 15  for a mid 2020 start. For further information, please contact or


This project is a collaboration between ANU, UTS, Saving Our Species program (NSW DPIE), the Australian National Botanic Garden and the Sydney Botanical Gardens.