Ecosystem resilience to drought and flooding

Complex Systems Fund project:

Small plant growing out of dry cracked ground getting some fresh water.

One of the three projects that has received a grant from the 2020 Complex Systems Fund is aimed at the question how the robustness of plant ecosystems to drought and flooding depends on the plasticity of individual plants and heterogeneity of the plant population. The research proposal was written by Prof. Kirsten ten Tusscher, Prof. Stefan Dekker and Dr. Hugo de Boer, who give an introduction to the aims and ambitions of their project.

Complex systems approach

The system we aim to investigate is characterised by non-linearity, for example in the response of a plant to soil water levels, complex feedbacks, e.g. between plants, soil water content and climate, as well as the potential for emergent phenomena and spatial patterning due to the interactions of many plants amongst one another taking place in space. All of these properties make it inherently difficult to predict a priori what will happen if we change a particular property, e.g. the extent to which plants facilitate the growth of nearby plants or rather compete with them. To find out, and to decipher general rules and principles governing the behaviour of realistic, and hence plastic heterogeneous plant ecosystems thus requires complex systems modelling approaches and concepts.

Biologists teaming up with eco-hydrologist

(Molecular) plant biologists typically study the molecular and cellular mechanisms that enable plants to plastically adjust their physiology and architecture to environmental conditions, and how that differs amongst species, while ignoring the effects it may have on the environment the plants are responding to in the first place. In contrast, eco-hydrologists typically take a coarse grained look at plant properties, ignoring individual plasticity and within population heterogeneity, and instead focus on the interplay with soil and climate. This project essentially brings these two fields together, enabling us to find out how important it is for ecosystem stability that plants are plastic and species are different, and how important it is for plant fitness and actual adaptation that their environment is not static but actually shaped by the plants themselves.

Project start-up and vacancy

We hope to start the project in September, and would like to recruit a PhD candidate with mathematical modelling and programming skills and a keen interest in plant biology and the interactions of plant ecosystems with soil and climate. Furthermore, the position requires good communication skills to thrive in an interdisciplinary setting and for the candidate to be open to the adventure of starting the development of a new type of model.

For more job details and to apply as a candidate, please visit the vacancy webpage.