Project highlights

  • Help unpick the fundamental relationships between diversity and dynamics in the world’s forests.
  • Work with a world-leading team in forest dynamics and biogeography.
  • Opportunity to gain fieldwork experience in the tropics and state-of-the-art data analysis skills

Overview

Species diversity varies greatly across the world’s ecosystems. One hectare of forest can have as few as one, or, in some tropical forests, as many as 300 tree species (Fig 1 b). Explaining the global diversity patterns is one of the greatest challenges of ecology – this is particularly pressing as global change and increasing disturbance events (Fig 1 c) are causing rapid losses in diversity. Forest diversity is hypothesised to determine how resilient these forests will be to changing environmental conditions, but the links between diversity and forest resilience are yet to be tested.

There is strong evidence that the velocity of life and death in forests are accelerating across the world, with increases in tree mortality and tree growth (forest dynamics). At the same time, the species composition of tree communities has been changing, favouring faster growing trees. This project will leverage big data on tree communities and ecological theory to develop a new understanding of how the dynamics of life and death, alongside species’ life history strategies, affect species diversity and forest resilience, at a global scale.  This PhD project aims to investigate (1) the role of forest dynamics (i.e. growth, recruitment and mortality rates of trees) in determining species diversity; (2) how the life-history strategies of the species within a forest influence its diversity; (3) how diversity, forest dynamics and species composition influence forest resilience – i.e. the ability for a community to ‘bounce back’ after disturbance. By helping to answer such a fundamental question in Ecology, this project contributes to our understanding of the future trajectories of biodiversity.

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding

Host

University of Birmingham

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

Co-investigators

How to apply

Methodology

You will use state-of-the-art statistical techniques and ecological theory to analyse a large dataset on forest dynamics to test at a global scale: (1) the effects of forest dynamics (i.e. rates of stem loss, biomass loss and biomass productivity) on diversity; (2) whether the range of species’ life-history strategies within the forests influences its diversity; (3) the effect of diversity and dynamics on forest resilience. This will include exploring different diversity metrics and incorporating large-scale environmental and landscape datasets to test for the influence of the environment mediating these relationships. You will be managing and analysing large data sources using the R programming language.

Training and skills

You will be trained in state-of-the-art statistical techniques to analyse one of the largest ecological datasets to date. This will provide you with strong analytical and programming skills, as well as a solid basis in ecological theory. This project will also include the possibility of participating in a field expedition in the tropics, allowing you to learn fieldwork techniques and to have a greater understanding of the system studied (Fig 1 a). You will be part of the fast growing Birmingham Biogeography and Ecology team, the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) and the ForestPlots network.

Partners and collaboration

The supervisory team in Birmingham includes experts in forest ecology (Dr Esquivel-Muebert), landscape ecology (Dr Graham), biodiversity (Dr Matthews) and the carbon cycle (Dr Pugh). You will work with a great team of external collaborators specialised in forest resilience (Dr Tovar, Kew Gardens), tropical forest ecology and functional ecology (Dr Banin, UKCEH), and tropical forest ecology and carbon dynamics (Prof Oliver Phillips, University of Leeds). You will also collaborate with a large number of researchers across the world, including partners from Europe, Japan and North and South America, providing a great opportunity for you to create a global network.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Literature review, design of hypotheses and analytical framework. Training in statistical techniques, programming and ecology. Analyses of the relationship between forest dynamics and species diversity. Attending a scientific meeting.

Year 2

Field work in the tropics (Brazilian Amazon, optional). Analyses of the role of species life-history strategies in the forest dynamics–species diversity relationship. Writing of first thesis chapter. Attending a scientific meeting.

Year 3

Analyses exploring the influence of forest diversity on resilience. Research stay at Kew Gardens (optional). Presentation of results at an international conference. Thesis writing-up.

Further reading

Baker, T. R., Pennington, R. T., Magallon, S., et al.  2014. Fast demographic traits promote high diversification rates of Amazonian trees. Ecology Letters, 17, 527-536.

Coelho De Souza, F., Dexter, K. G., Phillips, O. L., et al. 2019. Evolutionary diversity is associated with wood productivity in Amazonian forests. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3, 1754-1761.

Condit, R., Ashton, P., Bunyavejchewin, S., et al.  2006. The importance of demographic niches to tree diversity. Science, 313, 98.

Esquivel-Muelbert, A., Baker, T. R., Dexter, K. G., et al. 2019. Compositional response of Amazon forests to climate change. Global Change Biology, 25, 39-56.

Keil, P. & Chase, J. M. 2019. Global patterns and drivers of tree diversity integrated across a continuum of spatial grains. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3, 390-399.

Sullivan, M. J. P., Talbot, J., Lewis, S. L., Et al. 2017. Diversity and carbon storage across the tropical forest biome. Scientific Reports, 7, 39102.

Willis, K. J., Jeffers, E. S. & Tovar, C. 2018. What makes a terrestrial ecosystem resilient? Science, 359, 988-989.

COVID-19

Although this project has a fieldwork component, it can be completed exclusively by remote work, and its outcomes will not be affected by any restrictions that may be imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.