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Achieving living landscapes: the unexplored role of lichens in tundra ecosystem functioning

School of Geosciences

About the Project

What is it that makes a living landscape? This is not a simple assemblage of plants, but a diverse cosmos composed of a multitude of organisms at multiple scales. Understanding this complexity and the multifaceted species interactions is a major scientific challenge but key if we are to conserve or restore these landscapes. Using threatened tundra environments as a study system, this project aims to reveal how lichens impact on the terrestrial community and ecosystem properties with a focus on lichen driven species- interactions and community networks. Inconspicuous communities, composed of several poikilohydric organisms (lichens, bryophytes, cyanobacteria, algae, bacteria and microfungi) have only recently been described to make a significant contribution to global CO2 uptake ((equal to annual anthropogenic carbon input (1,2). Lichens are key players in these communities, especially in tundra environments (3, 4), but their influence on community processes and ecosystem functioning is understudied (5). Understanding lichens impact on their interactions with their surrounding flora and fauna would provide the mechanistic basis needed in assessing climate change risk.
Research questions
Lichen-animal interactions: What is the role of lichens for micro- and macrofauna food and habitat provision in tundra environments?
Lichen - plant interactions: Do lichens act as filters for plant seedling establishment in tundra environments?
Lichen – lichen interactions: How does the lichen community assembly impact on ecosystem functioning?
This project will establish the role of lichens for ecosystem functioning in tundra ecosystems by using a wide variety of field studies and modelling. The core methodology is based on experimental fieldwork in the Scottish Cairngorms and northern Sweden, where the student will have access to field sites and laboratory facilities. Species identification will be supported by the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh for lichen specimens. Species identification for invertebrates will be supported by the Natural History Museum, London. The students will have significant scope to develop their own research ideas within the research questions.

Funding Notes

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. The recruited student will gain skills in species identifications, plant physiology and ecology, climate change science, experimental design, statistical analysis including modelling and network analysis, open science best practice, science communication and field logistics.


Elbert et al. (2012). Contribution of cryptogamic covers to the global cycles of carbon and nitrogen. Nature Geoscience, 5(7), 459-462.

2. Porada et al. (2014). Estimating impacts of lichens and bryophytes on global biogeochemical cycles. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 28(2), 71-85.

3. Colesie et al. (2018). Can Antarctic lichens acclimatize to changes in temperature?. Global change biology, 24(3), 1123-1135.

4. Williams et al. (2017). Biological soil crusts of Arctic Svalbard and of Livingston Island, Antarctica. Polar Biology, 40(2), 399-411.

5. Asplund et al. (2017). How lichens impact on terrestrial community and ecosystem properties. Biological Reviews, 92(3), 1720-1738.

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