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Does riparian woodland increase the resilience of stream ecosystems to floods and droughts?

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  • Full or part time
    Dr I Vaughan
    Prof S Ormerod
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Rivers support high biological diversity, much of which is sensitive to climate change via rising temperatures and greater discharge variation (more frequent and/or larger floods and droughts). Land management within the riparian zone and wider catchment may provide a way of reducing this sensitivity, and increasing the resilience of rivers to global change. This project will test whether the changes in river communities associated with riparian broadleaved trees make them more resilient to floods and droughts.

Climate change is predicted to affect rivers both via a shift in average conditions (e.g. increasing temperatures) and more frequent and/or extreme floods and droughts. Whilst evidence for the effects of warming on river organisms is increasing e.g. [1], the effects of climatic fluctuations are less well studied in a climate change context, but could also have major impacts upon riverine communities [2].

In response to climate warming, recent research has demonstrated that riparian broadleaved trees and woodland have the potential to moderate temperature extremes via shading of the channel e.g. [3]. In theory, differences between wooded and open streams, such as coarse wood in the channel, basal resource quality, quantity and variability, and consequent food web structure could affect their resilience to extreme events too [4]: an increase would reveal a secondary benefit of riparian trees, whilst a reduction in resilience may moderate the extent to which trees are encouraged in riparian zones.

Project aims and methods

Drawing on long-term data sets and newly-developed molecular methods for resolving food webs [5], the student would:
•Assess the temporal variability of the invertebrate community and food web in wooded streams compared to those in open habitats.
•test whether the presence of trees increases resilience to climatic fluctuations, and;
•model the link between basal resources, food web structure and temporal stability.

By combining fieldwork, molecular analysis and modelling, the student will both document pattern and look at the underlying mechanisms. The results have the potential to directly inform conservation and policy. The project is a collaboration between Cardiff and Bristol Universities, Forest Research and the Woodland Trust.

The programme of work draws on several contemporary approaches in ecology (e.g. network analysis; molecular dietary analysis), and works closely with two key stakeholders in the area, providing a rich training environment for the student and opportunities both to build professional networks and maximise research impact.

This will be enhanced by training modules within the Fresh CDT and the extensive range of skills training courses provided by Cardiff and Bristol.


The student would be based primarily in Cardiff, but with regular visits to Bristol (<1h travel) and the project partners, and with extensive fieldwork in SW England/Wales.


Through the 3.5 years, the student will develop skills across three levels of specialisation:
•Transferable scientific skills, including written and oral communication; data analysis with R software; standard molecular laboratory skills; fieldwork; health & safety assessment; and working with landowners and other stakeholders. Training on these will be provided by the supervisors and the extensive skills courses that are an integral part of the Fresh CDT, along with more general graduate courses e.g. those offered by Cardiff’s Graduate College.
•General freshwater expertise, supported by the CDT-specific courses that form part of Fresh. This will include policy, research techniques, contemporary issues in freshwaters and interactions with stakeholders/development of professional networks.
•Project-specific skills and expertise, including: advanced data analysis and modelling of community data; freshwater taxonomy; molecular dietary analysis; riparian management policy and practice. These will be provided by the supervisory team and members of their research groups, along with dedicated courses, where appropriate.

The mix of these three elements will depend upon the individual’s prior expertise and needs, guided by a skills gap analysis.

References and background reading
1.Durance I. & Ormerod S.J. (2007) Glob. Change Biol., 13, 942–957.
2.Woodward, G. et al. (2016) Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371, 20150274.
3.Broadmeadow, S.B. et al. (2011) River Res. Appl., 27, 226–237.
4.Thomas, S.M. et al. (2016) Glob. Change Biol. 22, 310-324
5.Pearson, C.E. et al. (2018) Mol. Ecol., in press.

Funding Notes

A studentship will provide UK/EU tuition fees, a stipend in line with the RCUK rate (£14,553 per annum for 2017/18) and a generous budget for research expenses and training.

UK Research Council eligibility conditions apply, please get in contact for more details.

How good is research at Cardiff University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 54.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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