Honours Projects: Plant Ecology & Evolution

Academics in Plant Ecology & Evolution

A/Professor Stephen Bonser

Dr Will Cornwell

Dr Daniel Falster       

Professor Angela Moles

Dr Mark Ooi

Below are the current projects on offer in Plant Ecology & Evolution. Supervisors don't always advertise specific projects, but will happily discuss options with prospective students. If there is a research area or supervisor you might like to pursue, email the relevant academics and ask! They love to talk science.

Honours Projects


 Project Title: Are Australian Alpine plants on the move?

Supervisor: Angela Moles

Synopsis:
Warming climates are having substantial impacts on plant and animal communities worldwide. Ecologists commonly state that species will have to migrate uphill or polewards in order to remain in their current climate niche. However, it is not always easy to predict what the real-world impacts of climate change will be. For instance, earlier snow melt can actually lead to alpine plants being exposed to colder temperatures in a warming environment! Further, as cold air flows downhill, moving uphill is not always the best way for alpine plants to stay cool. Understanding how the unique (and threatened) Australian alpine flora is responding to climate change is a pressing challenge.

Aims:
You will compile historic distribution data from the published literature and from the Atlas of Living Australia (and probably gather new data through field work in the Snowy Mountains). You will find out how 50-100 Australian alpine species have changed their elevational range over the last ~ 70 years. Are they moving uphill? Downhill? Or standing still? If there is time, you can also ask whether we can use traits or taxonomy to predict which species are at greatest risk for the future.

Benefits to student:
The Big Ecology Lab is a friendly, productive group who love to work together. We are in biolink, so you will get your own desk and computer. We have lab discussion groups, weekly student-supervisor meetings, are active participants in university life, and have a lab policy of celebrating victories (e.g. prizes, publications, completions) with cake and/or bubbly. I realise how competitive the job market is, so I will help you to build a strong cv. All fifteen of my previous honours students received first class honours, and their current positions include PhD study (6 enrolled + 2 enrolling), team leader in plant biosecurity at AQIS, wildlife photographer, lab technician at 4 Pines Brewing Company, ecological consultant, and environment advisor at BMA. OF course, you will also gain skills in experimental design, data analysis, writing and science communication, and this project will give you valuable expertise in an important environmental issue.


Project Title: Do introduced species that show rapid morphological change spread through their new environment more quickly?

Supervisor: Angela Moles

Synopsis:
We know that some introduced species spread through the landscape at an alarming rate, while others remain localised for decades. However, ecologists have much to learn about the factors determining a species’ rate of spread. In this project, you will ask whether introduced plant species that have shown significant morphological change through time have been able to spread more quickly than introduced species that are not showing signs of morphological adaptation to their new environment.

Aims:
You will combine existing data on the rate of morphological change in herbarium specimens of ~ 70 introduced species with data on range expansions through time (based on data from the Atlas of Living Australia, and from published literature) to ask whether species that show rapid morphological change have faster spread through the landscape.

Benefits to student:
The Big Ecology Lab is a friendly, productive group who love to work together. We are in biolink, so you will get your own desk and computer. We have lab discussion groups, weekly student-supervisor meetings, are active participants in university life, and have a lab policy of celebrating victories (e.g. prizes, publications, completions) with cake and/or bubbly. I realise how competitive the job market is, so I will help you to build a strong cv. All fifteen of my previous honours students received first class honours, and their current positions include PhD study (6 enrolled + 2 enrolling), team leader in plant biosecurity at AQIS, wildlife photographer, lab technician at 4 Pines Brewing Company, ecological consultant, and environment advisor at BMA. OF course, you will also gain skills in experimental design, data analysis, writing and science communication, and this project will give you valuable expertise in an important environmental issue.


 Project Title: How does rising CO2 affect seeds and seedling performance

Supervisor: Dr Mark Ooi (co-supervisor Dr Paul Rymer, University of Western Sydney)

Synopsis: A key goal in ecology today is to understand how native plant species will respond to climate change. Increased levels of CO2 can have a strong effect on plant function, and in natural ecosystems this can affect the way species grow, compete and persist. Numerous studies of agricultural species have shown that increased CO2 can reduce protein content of seeds, however, little work has been done to assess the impact on seeds of native species. This type of study is essential for predicting how plants will persist in the future.

Aims: In this project, you will investigate whether increased maternal CO2 levels during seed development effects subsequent seed offspring protein content, and their germination and seedling performance. Does increased CO2 have a positive, negative of neutral effect on native species? To test this you will establish experiments using Hakea (Proteaceae) seeds produced under different CO2 regimes, to see how seedlings grow under manipulated CO2 and temperature conditions. The project will be carried out in collaboration with researchers at Western Sydney University, conducting some experiments here at UNSW and others in the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment’s controlled climate greenhouses.

Benefits to student:

You will join a growing lab group focused on plant ecology, fire and conservation biology, and gain a solid grounding in experimental design, lab and field skills, analysis and writing. You will also gain experience communicating your work during weekly discussions with your supervisor and regularly to the broader lab group. Many of our projects are connected to industry partners, including the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage and Botanic Gardens (Mt Annan and ANBG Canberra), so for those thinking of employment down the track, there is opportunity to see how research is connected to these institutions and conservation in general. These links have proven valuable in the past, with all previous Honours students from the lab moving on to rewarding positions, including two current PhD candidates (at UNSW and Curtin), one Senior Scientist at OEH, one Environmental Consultant, one studying to be a science teacher and one Sustainability Coordinator.


 Project Title: Ecology and conservation of Nitella partita - an endangered aquatic plant of arid temporary wetlands

Supervisor: Dr Mark Ooi ;  Dr John Porter

Synopsis: Long thought to be extinct, Nitella partita is a macroscopic green alga (charophyte) that was rediscovered in freshwater temporary wetlands of the Paroo river. Plant communities in these temporary wetlands undergo considerable changes during erratic filling and drying cycles, as aquatic plants, sedges, annual grasses, herbs and forbs become abundant during and after inundation, before declining again. During prolonged dry periods ground cover may be virtually absent and many species remain hidden below the surface as propagules in seed banks or underground storage organs.

Nitella partita is difficult to map and quantify because of the ephemeral nature of its habitat. It is listed as Endangered under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.  The NSW Office of Environment & Heritage is providing funding through the “Saving our Species” program for a research project to be undertaken

Aims: 

  • Gain an improved understanding of the distribution and abundance of the species through surveys of seed banks.
  • Using the knowledge on the distribution and abundance to identify additional areas where the species may be likely to occur.
  • Investigate the species’ ecology by conducting research into its reproductive biology, germination, habitat requirements and life history.
  • Determine the potential response to disturbance regimes such as flooding and grazing.

Benefits to student:

  • Develop skills in critical thinking and scientific writing.
  • Learn field and glasshouse techniques for sampling plant seed banks
  • Develop field sampling skills while working in a remote and challenging environment
  • Gain provide experience that is relevant to careers in conservation planning and management, ecological research and environmental consulting.
  • The project is supported by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage which will provide funds to cover costs of fieldwork.