Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now

  Living on the Edge: Thermal ecology of Australian alpine and desert plants

   Research School of Biology

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Prof Adrienne Nicotra  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project will suit students with interest and knowledge in plant evolutionary ecology, environmental physiology and/or ecological and evolutionary genetics. This scholarship is only open to citizens and permanent residents of Australia and New Zealand.

Overview: Of all the climatic factors determining species distributions, temperature is arguably the most important. It is extremes – rather than averages – that drive species evolution. So it is concerning that although extreme temperature events are increasing in frequency and intensity little is known about the breadth of thermal tolerance of plants from extreme environments. This information is crucial to understand species distribution and survival under future climate regimes.

This project will provide critical data on the physiological tolerances of nearly 50 Australian native species from a wide range of alpine and desert threatened ecological communities and will highlight within-species variation in those tolerances. By including both sensitive and community dominant species the work will not only provide predictive power for developing models but also specific insight for a broad range of species that will be directly applicable to decisions about on-ground management programs and potentially translocation projects.
We are looking for PhD and honours students to contribute a new project that explores the thermal breadth of Australian species growing in situ and under controlled environments. Our project is a collaboration between researchers at the ANU Research School of Biology, UTS Life Sciences, the Save our Species program of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the Australian National Botanic Garden and the Australian Botanical Garden at Mt Annan and the Universidad la Frontera, Chile.
Project description: This project will address one or more of the following – 1) variation in thermal tolerance breadth (tolerance of extreme cold and heat events) for both alpine and desert species at seed, seedling and mature phases and to assess how water limitation influences thermal tolerances. 2) associative patterns between genetic diversity and thermal tolerance across (and within) alpine and desert species of differing thermal tolerance breadth and predicted adaptive capacity; or 3) assessment the extent to which tolerance breadth and genetic structure data correspond with expert judgement about which species have high or low adaptive capacity under climate change and apply our data to develop informed plans for management of threatened ecological communities of extreme environments. The project will combine field work in the desert and alpine with common garden and controlled growth experiments at the botanic gardens and ANU.

Eligibility: Suitable applicants need to be highly motivated with strong academic and research backgrounds; skills in plant evolutionary ecology, environmental physiology and/or ecological and evolutionary genetics are required. Demonstrated ability to conduct fieldwork, and independent research experience are highly desirable. Interested students must apply and secure admission and scholarship. Successful applicants will receive scholarship stipend, tuition fee waiver, research funds including computer and travel grants.

Funding Notes

Candidates: These scholarships are only open to citizens and permanent residents of Australia and New Zealand. ANU scholarships are highly competitive, and cover all fees and a ~$27K stipend. In order to be put forward, you will need outstanding undergraduate marks and a first class honours or Masters by research (or be expecting to gain one by the end of 2019) or equivalent research experience.

Expressions of interest: To send in an expression of interest, please send in a detailed CV, full academic transcripts, and a brief description of your research interests and how they intersect with this project.


The Division of Ecology and Evolution at the Australian National University (ANU) ( provides an outstanding research environment with a world-class reputation. We work hard to provide excellent supervision and we take pride in providing an atmosphere that values intellectual rigour, inclusion, mentorship and fun. Graduate research students are well supported through internal funding, including for conference travel, and our research facilities are second to none. We have a thriving community of PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows from around the world. Our graduates go on to productive careers in many areas of science and beyond.

The ANU campus is situated in the heart of Australia’s capital city, Canberra, which is ranked as the third best city in the world according to Lonely Planet (2018) and is Australia’s most liveable city (Life in Australia Report 2019). The ANU has an international reputation for research excellence and is ranked among the best universities in the world (QS World University Ranking 2019).