Wednesday 23 October 2019

BSBI Plant Study Grant funds sedge research

Carex salina
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
Earlier this year we brought you Jenn’s account of how a BSBI Science & Research (SRC) Grant helped her fund her research into saltmarsh sedge. 

BSBI provides three different grants to support botanists
  • our Training Grants enable botanists at all skill levels to undertake short training courses, such as those listed on this page
  • SRC grants are aimed more at academics, PhD and MSc students carrying out research to further our understanding of the British and Irish flora; 
  • and in between we offer Plant Study Grants aimed at covering subsistence, consumables and a contribution towards course fees for undergraduates and post-graduates. 
Carex subspathacea (on left); C. salina (centre)
and C. nigra (on right), all found growing
at Kvalsundet, 
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
The selection processes are rigorous, standards are extremely high and competition is fierce – this year, for example, we received eleven applications for SRC grants and only two applicants were successful. 

But applying for one grant doesn’t necessarily preclude anyone from applying for another and very occasionally the same person is awarded more than one grant. Jenn is in that (admittedly very small) category.

Over to Jenn: 

“In May 2019, a SRC Grant from the BSBI funded my MRes fieldwork across the Western Scottish coast (which you can read about here!) so I could investigate the inter- and intra-specific levels of genetic variation within Carex salina (Saltmarsh Sedge), a new UK coloniser. 

C. vacillans population growing at
J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
BSBI has also helped to fund further fieldwork in Tromsø, Norway in July 2019 which C. salina is native to; this collection allowed the Scottish data to be put in a wider context against a long established population.

Surveying in Norway was carried out across a couple of days. Tromsø is located North of the Arctic circle, however due to the time of year the weather was fairly temperate and dry, allowing us to survey easily. Due to this species also being well established in Norway, locating the species was fairly easy despite the occurrence of morphologically similar species such as C. nigra and C. subspathacea.

C. salina site at Sandvika, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
Using Norway’s Species Map Service, populations were located easily and were situated geographically closer than the Scottish populations were; Tromsø is a small island so the two closest coasts of the adjacent islands were mainly surveyed. I also took this opportunity to collect some closely related species, such as its parental species C. subspathacea and the hybrid C. vacillans. The other parental species, C. paleacea was also surveyed for, however it is more prominent in Southern Norway and sadly I couldn’t locate any.

Saltmarsh site at Kvalsundet, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University 
In total, 144 individuals were collected from seven sites. In comparison to the Scottish salt marshes, which were dominated by Glaux maritima (Sea Milkwort), Plantago maritima (Sea Plantain), and Armeria maritima (Sea Thrift), the most commonly noted species of the Tromsø salt marshes were Juncus gerardii (Saltmarsh Rush), Puccinellia maritima (Saltmarsh Grass), Triglochin maritima (Sea Arrow Grass), Plantago maritima (Sea Plantain), and Empetrum nigrum (Crowberry).

The opportunity to survey in a location like the Northern Arctic Circle of Norway is one that does not come around very often. Norway is a somewhat expensive country, and the location meant catching two flights plus the expense of hiring a hire car to access sites, meaning it can be difficult to obtain the financial means to support field work like this.

Map detailing all the survey sites
involved in the project
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
Thankfully however, some organisations see the implications of this type of research and very graciously help fund this kind of fieldwork. I was very luck in that two organisations chose to help fund this research, the first being the Botanical Research Grant (BRG) and the second BSBI’s Plant Study Grant.

The BRG grant went towards funding Norwegian fieldwork. BSBI’s Plant Study Grant also contributed, in that it helped support my living expenses both in and outside of Norway. More notably though, this grant helped cover the third payment of my registration fees at a time when I’d been out of work for eight months, my savings almost depleted, and other successful grants spent up on fieldwork.

Because of the BSBI grant I didn’t have to pursue part-time employment (in which my full-time project would have suffered) and my place as a research student was financially secured, meaning that no money related barriers would hinder the completion of this research, and thankfully none did! 

Saltmarsh site at Snarbybukta, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
So, what did we find?

Findings from this study reveal that the intra population spread of C. salina populations in Scotland, although clonality is evident, does appear to be facilitated by sexual reproduction. Scottish populations Morvich, Strontian, Loch Sunart and Loch Long share genes amongst the populations, whereas the Bettyhill and Loch Nevis populations are genetically distinct from the others. 

Loch Nevis was also the only site surveyed which presented no clonal reproduction across the sampled individuals, indicating this is a sexually reproducing population. Climate, latitude, and clonal age have all been attributed to this observed sexual reproduction.

Saltmarsh site at Vagnes, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
In contrast, the Norwegian sites are all clonal populations. A high incidence of clonal reproduction in arctic salt marsh species such as C. salina is unsurprising however due to the harsh nature of these environments in which an increased clonality rate and features such as an extensive rhizome networks are an important adaptation.

The mixed reproductive methods and genetic variation observed in the Scottish populations indicates these sites are the product of multiple long distance dispersal events that may have occurred through either mode of reproduction. It is also possible to have a sexual-asexual mixture of LDD events from both spores, pollen and/or seed, and clonal fragmentation (i.e. the liverwort, Anastrophyllum hellerianum) so this could be a potential situation for C. salina.

Tromsø, Norway
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
It’s also important to note why Bettyhill may be genetically distinct from the other surveyed populations; the sedge population found growing at Bettyhill was considered to be C. salina on its discovery in 2011 and thus has been treated as such during this study. 

However, Paul Ashton on examination of this population in the field in 2018 concluded that this may not be C. salina. This view was confirmed by Mary Dean, and they considered that the plant was most likely to be another member of sect. Phacocystis, C. vacillans, currently unknown in the UK. Scandinavian sedge expert Prof Reidar Elven identified this population to be C. nigra, however this identification has been contested by [name withheld] the BSBI’s expert referee for sedges Carex spp., raising an interesting issue regarding the true identity of the species inhabiting this area.

C. nigra
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
The genetic results from this study do indeed indicate the Bettyhill population is an outlier when compared to other Scottish C. salina populations, and that it is genetically different from the other sites. However, there is still no current consensus on the identification of this population and it is possible that it may have been influenced by introgression or hybridisation, these being common in sect. Phacocystis. 

Further studies into closely related species and potential sources of introgression (i.e. C. vacillans, C. recta, C. nigra) are required to understand the genetic composition of the Bettyhill population, and this is something I hope to establish during my PhD in which I’ll be investigating the ecological genetics of closely related maritime species within the sect. Phacocystis.

Saltmarsh site at Gardelvneset, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
Sadly in light of a changing climate, the dispersal of new colonisers is becoming a more pertinent issues. Disturbance events are expected to increase, with coastal habitats facing severer weather events and negative consequences of rising sea levels. 

These disturbance events provide opportunities for both short and long distance dispersal, and distribution patterns for species are shifting to accommodate the changes of climate change. 

Due to these reasons, it is becoming more significant that these colonisation events and the consequential dispersal are monitored, especially during the early stages of the process.

Tromsø, Norway
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
I’d like to take another opportunity to thank BSBI for their much appreciated interest and support in this research! 

Due to the grant opportunities available, we were able to construct a much stronger project with more scientific potential, such as facilitating travel to the Loch Nevis site  which had never been surveyed by Edge Hill Biology due to the remote nature of the site. 

Further support for the Norwegian material was invaluable, as was the financial security towards the end of my studies”.

Saltmarsh site at Finnvika, Tromsø
Image: J. Clayton/ Edge Hill University
Many thanks to Jenn for this account of the work she was able to undertake thanks to her BSBI Plant Study Grant. 

A reminder that applications for the next round of BSBI grants – Training Grants, Plant Study Grants and Science & Research Grants – open on 1st January 2020. You’ll be able to download an application form here

You don’t need to be a BSBI member to apply but BSBI members are favoured if there is competition for grants. But if you aren't planning to head off to Norway in search of hybrid sedges, and if you don't even want to sign up for a training course next year, there are many other benefits of membership! Take a look at this blogpost that sets out everything you can start to enjoy as soon as you become a BSBI member.

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