Project highlights

  • Providing a global evaluation of the impacts of human-driven extinctions on island biodiversity and ecosystem function  
  • The analysis of a unique 30-year biodiversity time-series dataset from the Azores, complete with data on extinction drivers (e.g. land-use change, the abundance of introduced species) 
  • An optional field trip to an international island biodiversity monitoring research site (e.g., Azores, Madagascar). 


Islands have long fascinated ecologists given the large amounts of diversity they support (>20% of global species in ~5% of the land), including large numbers of unique endemic species found nowhere else. However, islands are also highly threatened systems, having suffered hugely disproportionate numbers of extinctions, including the loss of many evolutionary marvels (see Figure 1). For example, for birds, over 80% of known anthropogenic extinctions are of island endemics. Much of the insular biodiversity that remains is highly threatened, and we will likely witness many more extinctions, particularly in invertebrate groups, on islands in future in the absence of concerted conservation efforts.  

As the above numbers attest, we have a rough grasp of the coarse numbers of species that have gone extinct or are threatened with extinction, at least for terrestrial vertebrates. However, we lack an understanding of three key questions: (i) how non-vertebrate taxonomic groups are faring in the current island biodiversity crisis, (ii) the temporal trajectory of overall island biodiversity, particularly in response to specific extinction drivers (e.g., land use change, climatic change and introduced species), and (iii) how biodiversity loss has affected how island ecosystems work (i.e., ecosystem functioning). To answer the latter, it is necessary to focus on functional traits, i.e., morphological and/or physiological characteristics of organisms that impact their fitness. This project will aim to provide answers to all three questions.  

Using a number of recently assembled largest-of-their-kind island biodiversity datasets, the project will assess biodiversity change on islands at different spatial scales. First, the project will involve the analysis of a unique 30-year time-series dataset of arthropods on the Azores (Figure 1) to assess how different metrics of diversity have changed over time in response to specific extinction drivers. Second, the focus will be expanded to the global scale in order to assess how functional diversity has changed on islands as a result of the large numbers of anthropogenic extinctions and extirpations. A novel feature of this second component is that it will provide the first global assessment of insular functional diversity loss incorporating multiple taxa (e.g., birds, mammals, reptiles). 

Selection of imagery related to the project: (i) Pico Island, (ii) Azorean spider, (iii) the dodo and (iv) two extinct island dwarf species.

Figure 1: A selection of imagery related to the project. Clockwise from top-left: (i) the volcanic island of Pico in the Azores, with the quiescent volcano (Mount Pico) visible, (ii) an example of a spider surveyed in the Azores as part of their on-going biodiversity sampling efforts, (iii) the dodo, once endemic to island of Mauritius and an icon of anthropogenic extinctions, and (iv) two extinct island dwarf species relative to their mainland ancestors: the Sicilian dwarf elephant and the Cypriot dwarf hippopotamus. Both photos in the top rows are used with permission of Paulo Borges. The image in the bottom left was created by George Lyras. 

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Tom Matthews (Birmingham, [email protected])


Jon Sadler (Birmingham, [email protected])

Joe Wayman (Birmingham, [email protected])

Tom Martin (Operation Wallacea, [email protected])

How to apply


In addition to the Operation Wallacea inventory data (see below), the project will draw on a number of substantial island biodiversity datasets recently compiled by the PI and collaborators: 

  • A unique 30-year time-series dataset of arthropods sampled in the Azores, including information on introduced species, land-use and climate through time 
  • Complete bird species traits for all extant and known extinct bird species 
  • Bird distribution data for hundreds of islands globally  
  • Distribution and trait data for a range of extant and extinct insular mammals 

The project will build on these datasets to compile distribution and trait data for other taxonomic groups on a range of archipelagos.  

Using the Azorean data, a range of macroecological modelling methods will be employed to assess how different facets of biodiversity have changed through time in response to land-use and climatic change, as well as the spread of introduced arthropods. Scaling up, functional trait models will be used to provide a spatial and temporal analysis of how human actions on islands have impacted functional diversity across multiple taxonomic groups.  

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

You will be trained in multiple aspects of biodiversity analysis, including standard ecological statistics, temporal and spatial modelling, and the analysis of functional trait data. You will also be provided with support in disseminating project results through various outlets, including publications and international conferences. Throughout the project, you will work closely with ecological experts from the Azores and Operation Wallacea to compile standardised datasets. Optional trips to visit international field sites are available. 

Throughout the project you will be a member of the Ecology and Biogeography research team here in Birmingham, as well as being part of a wider international team of world-leading global environmental change researchers, allowing you to build and develop your global network. 

Partners and collaboration

The project is offered in collaboration with Operation Wallacea who have a unique forest biodiversity time-series inventory datasets from different islands (e.g., Madagascar, Indonesia, and Dominica), consisting of surveys of multiple taxonomic groups (e.g., birds, reptiles, plants). 

The project also involves a number of collaborators, including from Universities in the Azores (lead contact: Paulo Borges), Bangor, Athens, Oxford, France, Spain, Sweden and Portugal, ensuring the student has a broad range of international expertise to draw from. The student will also be part of an exciting and growing team within the University of Birmingham researching ecology and global environmental change issues. 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Dr Tom Matthews, University of Birmingham ( 

To apply to this project: 

  • You must include a CENTA studentship application form, downloadable from: CENTA Studentship Application Form 2024. 
  • You must include a CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three) who can comment on your academic abilities. 
  • Please submit your application and complete the host institution application process via:   Please select the PhD Geography and Environmental Science (CENTA) 2024/25 Apply Now button. The CENTA application form 2024 and CV can be uploaded to the Application Information section of the online form.  Please quote CENTA 2024-B35  when completing the application form. 

Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Familiarisation with concepts, the relevant ecological theory and the project datasets. Training in the different modelling and functional diversity techniques. Identify gaps in datasets and start sourcing data. Optional field trip to an international study site.

Year 2

Analysis of the Azorean data. Continued training in data analysis, functional, spatial and island ecology. Alternative option for the optional field trip to an international study site.

Year 3

Global multi-taxa functional diversity loss analysis. Presentation of results atan  international conference. Final writing up of thesis.

Further reading


Brush, M., Matthews, T.J., Borges, P.A.V. & Harte, J. (2022) Land use change through the lens of macroecology: insights from Azorean arthropods and the maximum entropy theory of ecology. Ecography, 2022, e06141. 

Dornelas, M et al. (2014) Assemblage time series reveal biodiversity change but not systematic loss. Science, 344, 296–299. 

Fernández-Palacios, J.M., Kreft, H., Irl, S.D.H., Norder, S., Ah-Peng, C., Borges, P.A.V., Burns, K.C., de Nascimento, L., Meyer, J.-Y., Montes, E. & Drake, D.R. (2021) Scientists’ warning – the outstanding biodiversity of islands is in peril. Global Ecology and Conservation, 31, e01847. 

Florencio, M. et al. (2021) Macaronesia as a fruitful arena for ecology, evolution, and conservation biology. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 9, 718169. 

Heinen, J.H., van Loon, E.E., Hansen, D.M. & Kissling, W.D. (2017) Extinction-driven changes in frugivore communities on oceanic islands. Ecography, 41, 1245-1255. 

Matthews, T.J., Wayman, J.P., Cardoso, P., Sayol, F., Hume, J.P., Ulrich, W., Tobias, J.A., Soares, F.C., Thébaud, C., Martin, T.E. & Triantis, K.A. (2022) Threatened and extinct island endemic birds of the world: distribution, threats and functional diversity. Journal of Biogeography, 49, 1920-1940. 

Sayol, F., Cooke, R.S.C., Pigot, A.L., Blackburn, T.M., Tobias, J.A., Steinbauer, M.J., Antonelli, A. & Faurby, S. (2021) Loss of functional diversity through anthropogenic extinctions of island birds is not offset by biotic invasions Science Advances, 7, eabj5790. 

Triantis, K.A., Rigal, F., Whittaker, R.J., Hume, J.P., Sheard, C., Poursanidis, D., Rolland, J., Sfenthourakis, S., Matthews, T.J., Thébaud, C. & Tobias, J.A. (2022) Deterministic assembly and anthropogenic extinctions drive convergence of island bird communities. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 31, 1741-1755. 

Violle, C., Reich, P.B., Pacala, S.W., Enquist, B.J. & Kattge, J. (2014) The emergence and promise of functional biogeography. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 13690-13696. 

Whittaker, R.J., Fernández-Palacios, J.M., Matthews, T.J., Borregaard, M.K. & Triantis, K.A. (2017) Island biogeography: taking the long view of nature’s laboratories. Science, 357, eaam8326.