Effect of alien plant species on native vegetation on Spitsbergen

Bjørndalen, one of the study sites at Spitsbergen in June.

 

Beginning:      May/June 2020
Duration:        6 months, unpaid
Credits:           up to 45 ECTS depending upon duration

Background

Alien species can have profound impacts on ecosystems but their effect on polar ecosystems has been little studied. Arctic ecosystems warm up twice as quickly as other ecosystems across the globe, making the previous harsh climate more suitable to a wider range of plant species. At the same time, anthropogenic pressure, mainly in the form of tourism, is increasing rapidly, which increases the chance of alien plant seeds to hitchhike into the Arctic ecosystem. Climate change and human  activities together are thus expected to enhance alien plant establishment success, posing a growing threat to Arctic ecosystems.

The main aim of our work on Spitsbergen is to understand the interplay between alien and native plant species in the Arctic, especially in the light of climate change. We aim to understand under what microclimate conditions alien plant species can germinate and establish on Spitsbergen, and once an alien plant has established, how it affects native plant community composition and ecosystem functioning. As it is not allowed to bring alien plant seeds or seedlings to Spitsbergen on purpose, we use alternative study methods. We have for example set up artificial plants in the field around Longyearbyen to mimic the effect of large alien plants on native plant species growth and phenology, which may provide shelter from harsh weather. As plant growth is slow at low temperatures such as in the Arctic, we will also quantify the response of native plant species to the presence of alien plant species already present on Spitsbergen.

Project

To understand what happens to native plant communities when alien plant species are already present in the ecosystem, you can join us on a field monitoring study on the island of Spitsbergen. Barentsburg is an old-mining town where several alien plant species have been found in considerable abundances, allowing for a comparison between invaded and non-invaded plots. Here we will quantify abundance, richness and biomass of both alien and native plant species. Soil samples and direct measurements of e.g. temperature are taken to identify potential differences in the microclimate. In addition, there is the possibility to measure ecosystem functions such as respiration or compare plant functional traits (related to productivity and stress-tolerance) of alien and plant species.

Requirements

Interest in plant ecology is required, as is the ability to work abroad in August 2020. You are able and willing to work in semi-remote regions under challenging weather conditions.

Due to safety reasons related to the presence of polar bears, we will always go into the field with two persons or more. Ideally, this means that there are two MSc students that join this project.

Please note that we as a department cannot fund your travel and accommodation costs.

Contact information

For more information please contact Emily van Loon-van Egmond: e.m.van.loon-van.egmond@vu.nl