School of plant biology research Project ideas for Prospective 4th

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Room 2.16 Botany Building; Ph 6488 7926; Email Website:
Do you like getting out in the bush? Getting hot and dirty (and sometimes wet)? Doing analytical work in the lab? Identifying plants and working collaboratively with DEC, CSIRO, forest and mining industries? Interested in applying science to better management of our natural environment? The Ecosystems Research Group (ERGo) has an extensive research programme focussed on key processes that determine the productivity and long-term sustainability of natural ecosystems. As process-based ecologists, we study:

    • impacts of bushfires on ecological processes and relationships between productivity and biodiversity

    • carbon and nutrient cycling in forests and semi-arid ecosystems, including the Pilbara

    • litter decomposition and ecosystem functioning, including organic matter inputs in to streams

    • constraints to water and nutrient acquisition and use by trees under a range of conditions

    • the ecological water requirements of riparian ecosystems

    • understanding vegetation response to climate change using tree rings to construct climates (dendroclimatology)

Most research that we undertake is strongly field-based, with study sites across much of WA. We complement our field studies with comprehensive analytical work in the laboratory and in the glasshouse.
Project ideas for 2009 - please feel free to discuss any other ideas that you may want to pursue with Pauline, Matthias or Greg

How low can you go?: Vulnerability to cavitation in Australian conifers & shrubs (with Dr Tim Bleby & Dr Jochen Schenk)

Vulnerability or resistance to cavitation (the development of ‘air bubbles’ in xylem) is an important trait of drought tolerance. This project would examine vulnerability to cavitation in a range of species across a rainfall gradient and within an evolutionary context and explore whether lower vulnerability helps explain the ability of different genera to survive in arid environments.

Litter decomposition and root interactions under Allocasuarina fraseriana

Allocasuarina fraseriana is a fire-sensitive species in the understorey of jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) forest. Actinorhizal roots often proliferate through the litter and probably contribute to N acquisition and litter decomposition. This project will characterise aspects of litter quality and decomposition by looking at different chemical and biological indices including root-microbe associations and how these associations may affect nitrogen cycling processes.

Hydraulic structure and function of deep roots of tall trees

Deep roots are the key to success for many large tree species that grow in seasonally dry environments, yet we know next to nothing about how deep roots are constructed or how they work. This project would examine the structural and functional characteristics of deep roots that allow tall trees to efficiently uptake and transport water from deep in the soil profile. The project would include sampling deep roots of karri trees via cave systems in the southwest of WA. Root segments would be measured in the laboratory for (1) xylem anatomy using microscopy techniques (xylem vessels are the microscopic 'pipes' plants use to transport water), (2) how efficiently they conduct water, and (3) how vulnerable they are to cavitation (the development of 'air bubbles' in xylem). The aim of the project would be to compare deep and shallow roots and assess how the number and width of xylem vessels relates to the amount of water that can be transported (hydraulic efficiency) and the likelihood that water transport may break down due to cavitation under drought conditions (hydraulic safety). This project would be co-supervised by Dr Tim Bleby, Research Associate in the School of Plant Biology (
Other possible research topics:

  • Oxygen isotopes of sediments as records of environmental change

  • Plant species effects on organic matter cycling in freshwater bodies in WA (with CSIRO Land & Water)

  • Predicting canopy leaf area in plantations and native forest

  • Nutrient cycling in termite mounds and ant nests


Room G.33 Botany Building; Ph 6488 4691; Email: Ecosystem Restoration & Intervention Ecology Research Group (ERIE)
South-western Australian ecosystems are remarkable on a global scale for their floristic diversity and the strong abiotic controls on ecosystem processes—nutrient-impoverished soils, summer drought, fire. For these reasons, they are valuable “end points” for understanding many of the key ecological theories that underpin ecological restoration. Yet our ability to restore these ecosystems is limited by the very qualities that make these ecosystems so unique. This means that south-western Australia is a very interesting and challenging place for a restoration ecologist to work!
Research in the Hobbs lab is grounded in theory but driven by an interest in developing practical outcomes for restoration in a rapidly changing world. We use an experimental approach to research that is informed by observations of what occurs in nature and we encourage students to do the same. We have listed some projects and co-supervisors below. These projects include a mix of fieldwork, lab work and/or glasshouse experiments. Also, we are happy to help students develop their own ideas as long as these fit within the broadly defined research interests we have described above.
A trait-based approach to jarrah forest restoration

There is increasing interest in using a trait approach to understand the restoration of ecosystem functions. Traits determine how species respond to their environment and also how they affect ecosystem functions. Examples of plant traits are seed size, life form, palatability and fire response. The aim of this project would be to measure the traits of common jarrah forest species to determine if the traits represented in restored jarrah forest were similar to those represented in the reference (unmined) jarrah forest. The project would involve a mix of field and laboratory-based research and would be supervised by Asst. Prof. Rachel Standish and Dr Matthew Daws (Alcoa of Australia).
Multi-trophic responses to restoration

This is part of a larger project using a trait-based approach to determine the different responses of various interacting groups to old-field restoration. The old-field restoration site is located at the UWA future farm (Ridgefield). To date, the traits of herbaceous plants and herbivorous insects have been assessed. The student would be required to record and assess changes in the traits (e.g., wing length, body weight, etc) of the next trophic level from samples already collected; the parasitoides and/or predators (e.g., wasps, spiders). The student will then relate any trait patterns to those of lower trophic levels and determine what synergies are present in recolonisation success. No background knowledge of invertebrates is required, however, an enthusiasm to learn is essential. This project would be supervised by Dr Melinda Moir and Dr Jodi Price.

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