Master thesis proposal FUNDER: Plant community shifts in response to a plant functional group removal experiment, in a changing climate

Alpine grasslands are vulnerable to climate change, and are currently changing rapidly in both plant functional group dominance (1) and species distributions (2). These biotic shifts contribute to indirect effect of climate change through influencing biotic interactions (3,4). Indeed, research is still needed on the effect of climate on long-term vegetation dynamics (5). Our research group uses a macro-ecological experimental approach to quantify the impacts of climate and biotic interactions on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of alpine grasslands across factorial broad-scale temperature and precipitation gradients in Norway (the Vestland climate Grid). For example, Althuizen et al. (2018) studied the impact of long-term climate regime on decomposition in alpine grassland soils (6).

The FUNDER project: Climate change alters not only plants, but also soil communities, and thus interactions across the plant-soil food web. These interlinked changes pose threats to biodiversity and key ecosystem processes and functions, such as carbon and nutrient cycling, and ecosystem productivity. The FunCab project, using a long-term plant functional group removal experiment (fully factorial removals of grasses, forbs and bryophytes, maintained since 2015) in semi-natural grassland replicated across the 12 sites of the Vestland Climate grid, studied the direct and indirect impact of climate on plant communities. The new project, FUNDER, pursues the work done on FunCab integrating data of the belowground part in order to better understand the impact of climate on the plant-soil food web. The FUNDER project thus continues and expands this research to assess and disentangle the direct effects of climate from the indirect effects, mediated through biotic interactions, on the diversity and functioning of the plant−soil food web. The objectives are to disentangle direct and indirect climate impacts of three major plant functional types in grasslands – grasses, forbs and bryophytes – on plants, soil nematodes and microarthropods, and microbes, and ecosystem processes. We aim to better understand landscape variation and whole-ecosystem consequences of indirect climate impacts as well as climate feedbacks of the plant-soil food web.

Thesis proposal: This MSc thesis will be conducted as part of the FUNDER project, where the MSc student will have responsibility for assessing plant community responses to the direct and indirect effects of climate. The successful candidate will continue a time-series of plant species composition once a year from 2015 to 2019 in the removal experiments described above. This will complete a unique dataset on the plant community composition in response to climate and plant functional group manipulation over 8 years. The MSc student will identify plant species during the last fieldwork campaign on this experiment before the destructive harvesting for soil sampling planned for the FUNDER project in 2022, which in collaboration with the work carried out by the rest of the FUNDER team will allow comparisons and linkages between plant, animal, and microbial responses.

The MSc thesis will explore how the biomass, biodiversity and functional composition three plant functional groups in grasslands respond to changes in climate and biotic interactions.
Research questions:
1. How does the biodiversity and functioning of grasses, forbs, and bryophytes in alpine grasslands vary along broad-scale climate gradients?
2. Are the responses of these major plant functional groups to climate influenced or modified by biotic interactions among them?
3. Is there a temporal shift in plant species composition and biotic interactions?

You will be part of a dynamic research team, gather experience in scientific approach and have amazing fieldwork experience in fjords and mountains in Western Norway.

• 3-5 weeks of fieldwork, identifying species and analyzing plant community composition
• Data management, reproducibility and Open Science practice
• Statistical analyses using R
• Share your results: write a theisis which can be published as a scientific paper, and present your work in national/international conferences

Candidate requirement:
• Global change ecology background
• Plant species identification skills, knowledge of Norwegian flora is an advantage
• Statistical and data management skills
• Scientific writing skill
• Team spirit
• Enjoy hiking in mountains and being outside under both sunny and rainy weather

Practical information:
• The project is funded through research grants
• Start: July 2022
• Place of work: University of Bergen
• Supervisor: Vigdis Vandvik and Morgane Demeaux
• Application: CV and motivation letter at [email protected] before 15th of May 2022

(1) Engemann, K., B. Sandel, B. J. Enquist, P. M. Jørgensen, N. Kraft, A. Marcuse-Kubitza, B. McGill, et al. 2016. ‘Patterns and Drivers of Plant Functional Group Dominance across the Western Hemisphere: A Macroecological Re-Assessment Based on a Massive Botanical Dataset’. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 180 (2): 141–60.
(2) Kelly, A. E., and M. L. Goulden. 2008. ‘Rapid Shifts in Plant Distribution with Recent Climate Change’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (33): 11823–26.
(3) Jaroszynska, F. 2019. ‘Climate and Biotic Interactions – Drivers of Plant Community Structure and Ecosystem Functioning in Alpine Grasslands’. University of Bergen.
(4) Vandvik V, Klanderud K, Skarpaas O, Telford RJ, Halbritter AH & Goldberg DE. 2020. Biotic rescaling reveals importance of species interactions for variation in biodiversity responses to climate change. PNAS 17 (37): 22858-22865. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2003377117
(5) Afuye, G. A., A. M. Kalumba, and I. R. Orimoloye. 2021. ‘Characterisation of Vegetation Response to Climate Change: A Review’. Sustainability 13 (13): 7265.
(6) Althuizen IHJ, Lee H, Sarneel J & Vandvik V. 2018. Long-term climate regime modulates the impact of short-term climate variability on decomposition in alpine grassland soils. Ecosystems 21: 1580-1592. doi: 10.1007/s10021-018-0241-5

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