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Global variation in the thermal tolerances of plants

   School of Biological Sciences

  , Dr Aelys Humphreys  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Land plants have diversified into every major habitat globally, including on Antarctica and in the world’s harshest deserts. In the process of doing so, they have evolved a wide range of thermal tolerances— Some plants are able to survive heatwaves at over 70ºC, while other species experience negative impacts of heat even at room temperature. Recent studies show that plant extinctions are accelerating in contemporary times, and in some cases, failure to withstand climate change may be in part to blame for this. However, the global patterns of plant risk due to climate are barely known. To address this knowledge gap, we recently published the first global database of plant thermal tolerances, comprising 1,732 observations over 1,028 species, with observations from every continent. Using this dataset, we evaluated global patterns in tolerance and risk—we find that global patterns of thermal tolerance in plants have been shaped by patterns of evolutionary history and spatial processes (such as range shifts), in addition to exhibiting adaptation to local environments. Our analyses further suggest that unhardened plants from mid-latitudes may suffer the greatest risk from climate change, due to insufficient tolerance to withstand further warming, and in particular are likely to be at risk from unseasonable weather events. This possibility is alarming, as such unseasonable events are increasing in frequency worldwide.

We are now looking to recruit a PhD student to further develop and analyse this pioneering dataset, and to strengthen the predictive inferences that can be drawn from it, by incorporating additional data on thermal tolerance and other climatically responsive traits, such as drought tolerance. We anticipate that a successful student will be highly motivated to carry out database research and will enjoy creatively modelling and presenting global data. Leadership and original thinking is also a plus: there is ample opportunity to build the dataset in novel ways, for instance by: initiating new research networks with plant scientists and herbaria globally, devising and deploying citizen science data collection projects, adding interdisciplinary components to the study, or incorporating traditional knowledge sources. The project offers the opportunity to contribute in novel and substantial ways to global change ecology and global ecology resources.

The project is highly flexible to part- or full-time study, and is amenable to being successfully completed either in person in Aberdeen or remotely from anywhere in the world. The School of Biological Sciences has a strong focus on inclusivity and access, and will fully support applicants who need additional allowances for personal circumstances.


To submit an application please visit the Postgraduate Application Portal

-Apply for 'PhD in Biological Sciences' or 'Biological Sciences - Distance Learning'

-State the name of the lead supervisor on your application

-State the name of the project

Students must have or expect to achieve a 2:1 at honours level in a relevant subject. Students who have a 2:2 will be considered with a Merit or Distinction at Masters level

Funding Notes

This PhD project has no funding attached and is therefore only available to students (UK/International) who are able to seek their own funding or sponsorship. Supervisors will not be able to respond to requests to source funding.
Please note that we will not proceed with applications that have not stated their intended funding source. Distance learning applicants will be expected to have suitable computing materials to enable them to work from home at a distance to undertake this project


Lancaster, LT; Humphreys, AM (2020) Global variation in the thermal tolerances of plants, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 117: 13580-13587.

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