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How do ecological systems respond to climate change: developing a predictive framework for understanding species, community, and ecosystem wide responses to climate change.

   Faculty of Science

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  Dr Rob Fitt, Dr Sarah Dalrymple, Dr Danni Hinchcliffe  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Accurately predicting how species, ecological communities and ecosystems will respond to climate change remains one of the biggest challenges in ecology and conservation. While some ecosystems have shown strong responses to climate change, with rapid turnover in species, others have shown relative stability1,2. The unpredictability of this variation in different levels of responses to climate change presents a significant challenge for conservation. Without adequate understanding about how species and ecosystems will respond to climate change, effective targeting of conservation efforts towards high-risk areas becomes difficult. Here, the successful candidate will develop and test a generalisable framework for predicting how species, ecological communities and ecosystems respond to climate change. This information can help predict climate change impacts on biological systems and inform conservation decision making.  

Within this framework, we predict that the strength of species responses to climate change will depend on relative positions within the species range: populations at the edge of a species range are expected to show strong responses, whereas populations central to the species range are expected to show weak responses. These drivers of climate change responses are expected to be applicable to a wide range of taxa, thus giving a generalisable framework for forecasting and mitigate biodiversity-wide effects of climate change. 

Within this PhD project, the successful candidate will:  

1.      Use individual based modelling (IBM), using the modelling platform, “Rangeshifter”, to gain a greater understanding of the behaviour of populations at differing positions of a species range under climate change. Within this component, the student will explore the role of range size, rate of climate change, local adaptation, and species interactions in influencing the rate of population changes to climate change.  

2.      Estimate rates of population change for multiple species across a wide range of taxa, including plants, invertebrates, and mammals, using survey data from partner organisations and publicly available records data. Such datasets can allow the testing of how applicable the theoretical framework is at predicting across all of biodiversity. 

3.      Using two plant community model systems, calcareous grasslands, which are known to exhibit relative stability in the face of climate change2, and oceanic montane ecosystems, know to rapidly respond to climate change1, the student will generate temperature-response curves for a suite of 15 species, from each ecosystem (30 species total). These response curves will allow the student to understand why each system has differing susceptibility to climate change and forecast how each study species is expected to respond to climate change.  

4.      Establish two mesocosm experiments, which will be transplanted across thermal gradients to test the accuracy of the predictions from objective two. By growing plants in both monoculture and mixed species mesocosms, the student will test ecological responses to climate change at different hierarchical levels of biological organisation, gaining insight into how individual responses to climate change scale to ecosystem wide responses. 

The PhD student will join our flourishing School of Biological & Environmental Sciences, at Liverpool John Moores University and work under the supervisory team of Dr Rob Fitt, Dr Sarah Dalrymple & Dr Danni Hinchcliffe.  

1. Grime, J.P., Fridley, J.D., Askew, A.P., & Bennett, C.R. (2008) Long-term resistance to simulated climate change in an infertile grassland. PNAS. 105 (29) 10028-10032. 

2. Hodd, R.L., Bourke, D., , Sheehy Skeffington, M. (2014) Projected Range Contractions of European Protected Oceanic Montane Plant Communities: Focus on Climate Change Impacts Is Essential for Their Future Conservation. PLOS ONE,

Funding Notes

This is a fully funded PhD studentship (consisting of full UK tuition fees for three years and student stipend at UK Research Council rates). The nature of the funding means only UK/Home/Settled/Pre-settled status students are eligible to apply for this studentship.


In addition to holding a masters or strong first degree in Ecology, Biology, Zoology or an equivalent biological sciences field, the ideal applicant will be able to demonstrate significant interest in and/or prior experience of climate change ecology, community ecology and plant biology. A good working knowledge of statistical analysis using R, strong organisational skills and the ability to work both independently and collaboratively with a team would be advantageous. Full training in theoretical modelling techniques, advanced statistical analysis and appropriate research methodologies will be provided by the supervisory team and through our Doctoral Academy.

For an informal discussion or to enquire about this opportunity, candidates are STRONGLY encouraged to email Dr Rob Fitt ( for more information and arrange a discussion.

We are committed to make biological/environmental research more inclusive and are therefore keen to support candidates from groups that have long been underrepresented and/or marginalised. If you belong to such groups, we would like to offer dedicated pre-application advice and mentorship, so that you can prepare the strongest possible application. Please contact Dr Nicola Koyama or Prof Stefano Mariani.

Both the Faculty of Science and the School of Biological & Environmental Sciences have dedicated Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Groups, with the School EDI Coordinator leading collective action to promote and embed a culture of equity, diversity and inclusivity. We have a proactive Student EDI group, a Cultural Diversity Student network for ethnic minority students, and a group of Inclusion Ambassadors, who are staff trained to deal with micro-aggression and harassment. As a School, we embarked upon activities to begin to decolonise programme curricula almost two years ago: and earlier this year were awarded an Athena Swan Bronze award in recognition of our equality initiatives and action plan.

To apply, email a CV and covering letter detailing your suitability for the project and contact details of two referees to Applicants need to be available for interview (by video) on January the 12th and able to start at short notice (in February 2023 intake).
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