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Dr Julia Sanchez Vilas 


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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.

Sexual dimorphism

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.

mercurialis annua
 Male (left) and female (right) plants of Mercurialis annua

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.

Lloydia serotina

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.

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)