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QUADRAT DTP CASE: Quantifying the resilience and functioning of lotic ecosystems across spatial and temporal gradients of environmental stress

School of Biological Sciences

About the Project

How natural and semi-natural systems will adapt to extreme events as our climate changes remains a pressing question in ecology. Ecosystems are highly sensitive to multiple, and often interacting, environmental pressures, such as agricultural intensification and climate change, which vary in distribution and intensity across spatiotemporal scales, and with regional variations (e.g. geo-climate). This can result in impacts, which alters both the structural and functional properties of the ecosystems. Consequently, this places ecosystems under significant stress, reducing ecosystem services. An ecosystem´s capacity to deal with stress is finite, and consequently, they are predicted to undergo regime shifts when the adaptive capacity of the system is exceeded, although recent studies demonstrate a lack of empirical evidence for such shifts (Hillebrand et al. 2020). This project will focus on the capacity of lotic systems to absorb, adapt and recover from episodic disturbances across a gradient of environmental stress and community resilience.

The project is a CASE studentship in collaboration with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Northern Ireland and will experimentally quantify and assess the relative merits of different measures of ecological resilience (Holling 1973) and multiple measures of ecological stability (Donohue et al. 2013).

This project, therefore, offers the opportunity to evaluate the mechanisms that underpin variation in ecological stability and will attempt to quantify empirically species-specific contributions to multiple measures of stability including variability, resistance and recovery (engineering resilience). Emphasis will be placed on freshwater invertebrate and benthic biofilm community structure, with a focus on quantifying species interactions, and both functional (e.g. body mass, trophic level and trophic role) and structural properties (e.g. abundances and richness) to support a fundamental exploration of different stability concepts and their relevance in applied management.

The overall aim is to assess the relative value and efficiency of the implementation of these different approaches in the context of river ecosystem conservation and wider catchment management. The project will involve a mixture of experiments and survey work with access to multiple river catchment research platforms across NI maintained by AFBI.

The successful candidate will be based at Queen’s University Belfast and will spend between 3 and 18 months embedded with the CASE partner AFBI at their Newforge site in Belfast. The successful candidate will receive training in freshwater invertebrate and diatom sampling and identification, experimental design and statistical analysis as well as food web modelling with potential for exploring the application of new efficient techniques, such as environmental DNA, for large-scale monitoring of ecosystem resilience and ecological function. It is expected that the outcomes of this study will directly support the development of more evidence-based ecological prediction and management of river ecosystems and the wider catchment.

More project details are available here:

How to apply:

Note that applications should NOT be submitted directly to Queen’s.

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and international candidates (EU and non-EU). Funding will cover UK tuition fees/stipend/research & training support grant only.

Before applying please check full funding and eligibility information: View Website


Donohue et al. (2013) On the dimensionality of ecological stability. Ecology Letters. 16: 421-429.

Hillebrand et al. (2020) Thresholds for ecological responses to global change do not emerge from empirical data. Nature Ecology & Evolution. Online early. Full text available at

Holling (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

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