What’s up with NZ sand dune habitats? Do a PhD and find out

Opportunity for PhD study: Quantifying ecosystem function in New Zealand sand dune habitats

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Pingao on Matakana Island. Image from Hannah Buckley.

Understanding causes of variation in ecosystem function is critical for conserving and restoring ecosystems in the face of global change processes, such as climate change, land use change and species invasions. Key functions of sand dune ecosystems are supporting biodiversity and providing coastal resilience. These systems differ in their area, level of human impact (e.g., proximity to urban development and roads), level of native biodiversity, degree of weed invasion, and geomorphology. Quantifying and characterising this wide variation in New Zealand’s coastal ecosystems would aid in determining consistent management approaches.

We are looking to recruit a PhD student to test the utility of drone and satellite imagery in functional trait approaches to measuring ecosystem function in coastal habitats around New Zealand. This project is underpinned by ongoing research into one of New Zealand’s most iconic, but declining, coastal threatened plant species, pīngao (Ficinia spiralis), a sand-binding sedge that is used in traditional Māori weaving.

Pīngao has high genetic variation, occurs throughout New Zealand and builds sand dune habitats that differ in geomorphology from those of other native and introduced sand binding species. We aim to explore variation in ecosystem function among systems dominated by different genetic varieties of pīngao and between pīngao and other sand-binding species throughout New Zealand. The student will be trained to fly Lincoln University’s fixed-wing drone to obtain ecologically-relevant imagery. Knowledge of geographic information systems is desirable, but not required.

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Pingao at Kaitorete Spit, Image from Hannah Buckley

Questions that could be addressed:

  • How does functional trait variation cause variation in ecosystem function in sand dune ecosystems?
  • Can we predict dune ecosystem susceptibility to climate change impacts based on current biophysical conditions?
  • How can drone and satellite imagery be used to ‘scale-up’ functional trait data to the ecosystem and landscape levels?
  • Does genetic diversity in pīngao cause variation in ecosystem function?
  • Can remote sensing and GIS data be collected and compiled to classify dune ecosystems, through a characterisation of dune biophysical conditions?
  • How can computational analysis of imagery be automated to support ecological decision making?

Our group is a team of ecologists and informaticians with interests in plant ecology, geographic information science and computer science. It includes Associate Professor Hannah Buckley, Lincoln University, an ecologist who conducts research on spatiotemporal patterns in biological communities, Dr Bradley Case, Lincoln University, a geographic-information scientist researching spatial ecology, Dr Tim Curran, Lincoln University, a plant functional ecologist who uses functional traits to understand plant responses to disturbance, and Dr Stuart Charters, a computer scientist, with interests in the computer-processing of image data.

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Pingao at New Brighton. Image from Hannah Buckley.

We will work with prospective students to help them apply for suitable scholarships, such as the Brian Molloy Scholarship (due date 12th October, 2016), the New Zealand Aid Programme (due dates vary), the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan (due dates vary), the Lincoln University Doctoral Scholarship (due date 1st October, 2016), and the Dunes Trust Postgraduate Student Study Award (due February, 2017).

Candidates should have a first class honours or Masters degree in botany, ecology, geographic information science, or computer programming. Interested applicants should email Hannah Buckley (Hannah.Buckley@lincoln.ac.nz) and provide their CV, contact details for two referees, a paragraph describing possible research directions for their doctoral studies, two paragraphs describing their research interests and experience, and an indication of which of the above scholarships that they are eligible for. People interested in applying for these scholarships should make contact as soon as possible.

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