Several rare plant species inhabit only the muddy margins of ponds, such as where livestock have traditionally come to drink.  One example is star-fruit (Damasonium alisma; Fig. 1,) which is a red-book species classed as vulnerable to extinction globally.  Others include the globally threatened brown galingale (Cyperus fuscus) and the pillwort (Pilularia globulifera).  Such species were formerly widespread in lowland England, being favoured by the frequent watering holes provided for herds of cattle being moved between towns on foot.  A change in agricultural practice (cattle are now moved in vehicles and no loger require watering holes) has led to rapid declines in the populations of these species.  They occur as metapopulations, where local extinctions are frequent, but the combination of effective dispersal via animal vectors and the frequency of ponds in the landscape once allowed these species to establish at new sites sufficiently frequently to maintain their overall populations.

The project will aim to apply recent developments in Landscape Ecology and trait-analysis to determine which factors are critical to the maintenance of sustainable populations.  Data will be gathered at sites in Western France, where these species still survive as self-sustaining metapopulations, and in Southern England, where the species are now generally represented by remnant populations at isolated sites.

Much effort has been expended on the conservation of these species, but often with limited success.  A firm scientific understanding of their ecology and habitat requirements is required to underpin and re-direct the conservation work. This studentship gives someone the opportunity to make a real difference to the conservation of vulnerable species, whilst working closely with major conservation organisations, such as Natural England and the National Trust, giving a solid platform for a career in nature conservation.

The inflorescence and developing fruit of D. alisma (September 2014; photo Steve Gale.)


The research could take four parallel approaches:

  1. Data collection in the field; surveying natural populations, characterising the habitat and the vegetation communities, identifying seed vectors and pollinators.
  2. Experimental manipulation of a field site to promote the local population (e.g. soil disturbance; plug planting etc.)
  3. An investigation of seedbank longevity
  4. A growth experiment to investigate water-regime tolerances and interactions with potentially competitive species.

Landscape-ecology approaches will be used to assess statistically which of the factors in the life cycle (e.g. seed-set, dispersal , establishment, persistence) are the most critical for promoting sustainable populations through enhanced site management .
The field work will be in S. England and W. France. The experimental manipulation will be at a National Trust property containing a cluster of ponds and the controlled growth and laboratory work will be in Milton Keynes.

Training and Skills

As part of the studentship, the student will be trained in vegetation survey, soil analysis, statistical techniques and experimental methods for seed-bank and plant-competition studies.

There will also be an opportunity for a placement within the National Trust’s wetland team (Surrey) to observe practical management of important sites and public engagement with nature conservation.

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to CENTA research themes. 


Year 1: Literature review of relevant techniques and familiarisation with metapopulation analysis.  Field visits to survey populations, and to set up experimental systems both in situ and ex situ.  Seedbank germination study.  Liaising with Millenium Seedbank for access to experimental material.

Year 2:   Monitor experimental systems to assess hydrological tolerances and competitive abilities.  Repeat population surveys.  Draft a journal article on seedbank dynamics.  Present experimental findings at BES conference.

Year 3: Complete seedbank study in spring. Undertake regression analysis to rank importance of factors determining population stability.   Write up thesis.  Submit paper on landscape ecology.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The project will receive financial support from the National Trust (NT), which has a specific interest in these species because some surviving populations occur on their properties.  They will act as CASE partners and provide an advisory input.  The student will be able to work at National Trust properties alongside their Nature Conservation Staff.

Further Details

Students should have a strong background in plant ecology or a related scientific discipline, and display a demonstrable enthusiasm for fieldwork and nature conservation.   A full clean driving licence would be an asset. The student will join a well-established team at the Open University researching vegetation science especially with respect to wetlands (e.g. see www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk )

Please contact Prof David Gowing (d.j.gowing@open.ac.uk) for further information.

Applications should include:

Apologies that some bits of information are requested multiple times on different forms. Please fill in everything requested.

Applications should be sent to


by 5 pm on 25th January 2017