Photo of a man wearing a hard hat and harness with forested hills in the background.

Zachary Chu

University of Birmingham


Biodiversity dynamics along environmental gradients under impending environmental change


  • Juliano Sarmento Cabral
  • Alexandre Antonelli
  • Diana Bowler 

PhD Summary

With rapid anthropogenic change driving substantial biodiversity loss across the globe, predicting not only how ecological communities are affected but why they are affected in such a manner is vital in informing conservation management to prevent further biodiversity loss. Using mechanistic modelling, which models the physiological and demographic traits of species in a community, we can simulate not only how species respond to environmental change within the landscape of the model but also the underlying demographic changes that drive population change. By changing the parameters of the model, we can simulate not only natural elevational, latitudinal, and vertical gradients, but also land-use and climate change, allowing us to model population dynamics across a range of environments under different scenarios of anthropogenic drivers of change We focus on epiphytes, which despite making up 10% of all plant species still remain understudied, in addition to playing key functional roles by providing ecosystem services such as water regulation, carbon sequestration, and soil formation. 

Previous activity

I completed an Integrated Master’s in Zoology at the University of Sheffield focussing on effects of land-use change on tropical forest biodiversity, particularly on bird communities. 

Why did you choose doctoral research?

Throughout my undergraduate studies I got to work on some fascinating and highly enjoyable research projects, such as the effects of tree diversity and liana infestation on logged tropical forest soundscapes, and conducting fieldwork for a long-term mist-netting study in logged and unlogged Bornean rainforest. Working on these projects I quickly realised I wanted to pursue a PhD, where I could investigate interesting, globally relevant questions in far-flung places. 

Why did you choose CENTA?

The scale of the project interested me- encompassing not just land-use and climate change, two highly relevant drivers of biodiversity loss, but also the inclusion of elevational gradients and therefore incorporating hyperdiverse tropical montane forests, along with the vertical gradient up to the poorly-known forest canopy made me deeply excited for such an ambitious project. The opportunity to widen my computing abilities in an entirely new field, mechanistic modelling, was another important factor. 

Future plans

Through CENTA at the University of Birmingham, I have access to training in a wide variety of useful techniques, from biodiversity modelling to graphic design for science communication. With my desire to pursue a career in academia, studying here will provide the training needed to broaden the analytical techniques used in my research, and to disseminate it more effectively.