Dr Julia Sanchez Vilas
- Ecology and evolution of plant sexual systems
- Sexual dimorphism
- Cost of reproduction
- Plant responses to stress
- Plant ecophysiology
- Plant population dynamics
I obtained my PhD from the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 2007. Then, I gained post-doctoral research experience at the Universities of Oxford, Santiago de Compostela and Lausanne. I joined Cardiff University on 1st December 2012.
Broadly, my research interests relate to plant evolutionary ecology, with special emphasis on the ecology and evolution of plant sexual systems.
Plants have access to a limited amount of resources that must allocate to different competing functions, such as growth, defence and reproduction (including allocation to male and female functions). Ultimately, their success depends on their ability to adopt the most optimal allocation strategy, i.e., the one that maximizes their fitness, in response to a given environmental context. My research interests revolve around these basic but complex ideas.
Most flowering plants are hermaphroditic, but separate sexes have evolved repeatedly in different lineages, probably in response to selection for inbreeding avoidance and/or for sexual specialization. Once plants have evolved separate sexes, we may expect selection to favour further divergence in physiological traits and life-history traits as consequence of the different reproductive roles performed by each sex (production and dispersal of pollen vs. seeds), which may imply different resource demands for reproduction. Such divergence in traits other than reproductive organs is known as secondary sexual dimorphism.
My research on this field focuses on understanding the role of the ecological context (e.g., resource availability, competition, herbivory) on the evolution and maintenance of sexual dimorphism in plants. I explore patterns of resource allocation, morphological and growth traits, but also ecophysiological traits (e.g., chlorophyll content, photochemical efficiency). I also aim to understand to what extent differences between males and females influence their distribution and frequency across environmental gradients, and the implications for population dynamics. And if male and female plants have different demands of resources for reproduction, is this reflected in a different use of the environment? and if so, do male and female plants create/facilitate different ecological niches for other species?
For the study of sexual dimorphism I've been mainly working with two species: Honckenya peploides(Caryophyllaceae) a perennial herb growing in the sand dunes and Mercurialis annua (Euphorbiaceae) an annual herb typical of disturbed habitats.
Plant responses to stress
In contrast to animals, plants are sessile organisms and cannot escape from adverse environmental conditions. Therefore, plants heavily rely on plastic responses and/or adaptation mechanisms to environmental perturbations and stresses. I am interested on the study of plant traits variation in response to environmental stress, such as water stress, nutrient deficit, heavy metals, high solar radiation, etc...
Plant reproductive strategies and mating patterns
Other research interests include exploring how different reproductive strategies (clonal vs. sexual reproduction) and different mating systems (selfing vs. outcrossing) affect population dynamics and the genetic diversity of plant populations.
I am also interested in the study of endemic and rare species, and recently I have started collaborating with Dr. Barbara Jones and Dr. Natasha De Vere to develop a project concerning the ecology and population genetics of the Snowdon lily, a rare alpine-plant in Wales.
Currently, my research interests also include the study of invasive non-native species, such as the Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), a highly invasive species in the UK. The ability of Himalayan balsam to produce ‘allelopathic’ chemicals - that negatively affect the germination and growth of neighbouring plants - has been suggested as one of the reasons of its strong competitive ability, posing a threat to UK native plants. We are interested in understanding how environmental factors, such as herbivory, may influence the allelopathic potential of this species. In particular, herbivory may influence plant secondary chemistry, potentially inducing the production of defensive chemicals with allelopathic effects, but little is known to date. We also aim to characterize UK populations in terms of their genetic diversity and their varying degrees of allelopathic potential. Additionally, we are also interested in examining whether flower colour (from white to purple) may influence pollination efficiency and reproductive success in natural populations of this highly invasive plant.
Research mentors and collaborators
- John Pannell (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)
- Ruben Retuerto (University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain)
- Sergio Roiloa (University of Coimbra, Portugal)
- Sergio Rassman (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)
- Marianne Philipp (University of Copenhagen, Denmark)
- Roosa Leimu Brown (University of Oxford, UK)