Project highlights

  • Provide a global evaluation of the impacts of human-driven extinctions on island biodiversity and ecosystem function;
  • Collaboration with an internationally-leading research group working on ecology and global environmental change;
  • An optional field trip to an international island forest monitoring research site (e.g., Madagascar, Indonesia).


Islands have long fascinated and inspired ecologists and biologists given the large amounts of diversity they support (20% of global species in 3.5% of the land), including large numbers of unique endemic species found nowhere else. Islands represent ‘natural laboratories’ which have provided the ideal locations for the development and testing of myriad ecological and biological theories, such as Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection. However, unfortunately, islands are also highly threatened systems, which have suffered hugely disproportionate numbers of extinctions; extinction rates are estimated to be over ten times higher on islands relative to mainland areas. Several of these extinctions will be familiar to many of those interested in the natural world, including iconic species such as the dodo of Mauritius and the giant moa of New Zealand (the latter being amongst the largest birds to have ever existed). Humans have also introduced thousands of species to islands from elsewhere, with devastating impacts on the native island biota.

While we have a reasonable estimate of the number of species that have gone extinct on islands – 149 (out of global total of 164) island endemic bird extinctions since 1500 AD for example, see Fig. 1. for some examples – we have very little of understanding of how these extinctions have 1) affected how island ecosystems work (i.e., ecosystem functioning), and 2) impacted our understanding of the natural world, given the aforementioned importance of island studies in the development of ecology and biology more widely. To answer (1), it is necessary to focus on functional traits, i.e., morphological and/or physiological characteristics of organisms that impact their fitness (e.g., see Fig. 1b for an example).

Using a number of recently assembled largest-of-their-kind island biodiversity datasets, including functional trait for hundreds of extant and extinct island birds, the project will provide a global evaluation of bird extinctions on islands, with a particular focus on how extinctions have altered the functional composition of island bird communities. The use of functional trait data will also enable an exploration of what characteristics place certain bird species at an elevated risk of extinction, thus providing essential information for the conservation of current threatened island biodiversity.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator



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, including i) a dataset of functional traits for all the world’s 10,000 extant bird species, ii) trait data for hundreds of extinct island birds, iii) bird distribution data (including extant, extinct and introduced birds) for a large number of islands around the world. A range of statistical techniques will be used to combine and analyse these data, in order to determine how inclusion / exclusion of extinct and introduced species affects our understanding of natural biodiversity patterns on islands. The datasets will then be used in combination with state-of-the-art functional trait models to provide a spatial and temporal analysis of how human actions on islands have impacted different components of biodiversity (e.g. species diversity, functional diversity), and to predict how these impacts will change under future development scenarios. The project will also provide the first assessment of functional extinction in island birds, i.e. species that still exist but are present in such low abundance that they do not contribute to the effective functioning of ecosystems.

Training and skills

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 the results of the project through various outlets, including publications and international conferences. The project also involves an option to visit an Operation Wallacea international field site (e.g. in Madagascar) to gain understanding of the realities of gathering experimental field data on islands. 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, Fiji and Dominica), consisting of surveys of multiple different taxonomic groups (e.g., birds, reptiles, plants). These datasets will be used to test contrasting theories of island functional diversity change across different taxonomic groups, ensuring the project has broad scope, both spatially and taxonomically. The project also involves a number of collaborators, including from Universities in London, Athens, Oxford, Japan, France and the Azores, 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 in the University of Birmingham researching ecology and global environmental change issues.

Further details

For any queries, please contact Dr Tom Matthews ([email protected])

If you wish to apply to the project please visit:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Familiarisation with concepts, the relevant ecological theory and the project datasets. Training in the different modelling and functional diversity techniques. Optional field trip to an Operation Wallacea forest plot site (e.g., Indonesia).

Year 2

Using a range of commonly analysed island biology patterns, determine how the inclusion / exclusion of extinct (and introduced) species alter our understanding of natural patterns. Continued training in data analysis, functional ecology and island biology.

Year 3

A global level analysis of the impact of the impacts of island bird extinctions on multiple dimensions of biodiversity. Use of Opwall island datasets to derive a baseline of how biodiversity dimensions change through time. Presentation of results at international conference. Final writing up of thesis.

Further reading

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.

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.

Helmus, M.R., Mahler, D.L. & Losos, J.B. (2014) Island biogeography of the Anthropocene. Nature, 513, 543-546.

Russell, J.C. & Kueffer, C. (2019) Island biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 44, 31-60.

Sayol, F., Steinbauer, M. J., Blackburn, T. M., Antonelli, A., & Faurby, S. (2020) Anthropogenic extinctions conceal widespread evolution of flightlessness in birds. Science advances, 6, eabb6095.

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.


The project can be completed remotely without any fieldwork or lab-work and thus the project is resilient to any future COVID-19 restrictions. There is an optional field trip component, but this is not integral to the main project aims.