Project highlights

  • To work on the first ever paleo-ecological study of this important yet poorly understood part of the Amazon basin
  • Opportunity to participate or organise optional field work in the Amazon basin
  • Opportunity to expand the work into a multidisciplinary project with access to additional cutting edge technologies, expertise and benefitting from a strong network of local and international collaborators.


Savannahs are important ecosystems accounting for 20% of the global land-surface and account for an equal percentage in global net carbon uptake. However, emphasis on the role of grasslands in terms of carbon storage is often overshadowed by that of forests, which have received much more attention. The Northern Amazon basin is rich in Amazonian savannahs and while these ecosystems are highly biodiverse and offer important ecosystem services to locals, they are also poorly understood and understudied. Interestingly, in contrast to savannah ecosystems elsewhere, Amazonian savannahs are almost entirely devoid of grasses, their place being taken by endemic ancient Guyana-shield (grass-like) monocotyledon taxa which make up the bulk of the vegetation. These savannahs form characteristic mosaics with rainforest occupying large areas of the Rio Negro in the Amazon basin, and typically are found predominantly on nutrient-poor white sand substrates. It is believed that these savannahs depend on fire as a disturbance agent to prevent forest encroachment promoting their diversity. These ecotones appear extremely sensitive to Anthropogenic disturbance. In the absence of palaeoecological records, nothing is known about Anthropogenic effects on vegetation dynamics, equally not much is known about the natural drivers either. The aim of this study is to determine how climate and humans have shaped this landscape.

We present an exciting opportunity, as we have obtained a substantial amount of peat records from the Colombian Amazon. These peatlands are close to the savannah-forest ecotones and are thousands of years old, and provide us with a unique archive that will allow us to study the palaeoecological history of these ecosystems. Because of the complete lack of comparable data, there is no evidence of how fire, humans and climate have affected these ancient Amazonian forest-savannah ecotones. This study will produce the first Holocene environmental reconstruction of the entire region. We anticipate that our peat records will provide important evidence about the evolution of the forest-ecotone dynamics over the Holocene and Anthropocene. We aim to answer the fundamental question: what are the factors that encourage for Savannahs in the Northern Amazon?

Image of a flower

Figure 1. Guacamaya superba or Inirida flower. Endemic monocotyledons such as these replace the role of grasses in this white sand Amazonian Savannah.


University of Leicester


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Dr. Juan Carlos Berrio, University of Leicester ([email protected])


How to apply


Peat records are already available through collaboration with project partners. As an option, additional material can be collected in the field and the PhD student can rely on an extensive network of local contacts and international collaborators to facilitate this. The method of focus for this project will be palynology, the analysis of fossil pollen will allow vegetation dynamics of rainforest and savannah to be reconstructed. Radiocarbon analysis and age-depth modelling will be used to construct robust chronologies. Additionally organic geochemical and stable isotope analyses can also be employed to add a multidisciplinary dimension to the project. These methods will add further complimentary information and will provide answers to questions related to carbon accumulation and climate. Findings could be further evaluated by Ecological modelling and remote sensing.

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.

The student has the opportunity to become proficient in experimental design and protocols, in use of sophisticated analytical equipment including microscopic techniques, 14C accelerator mass spectroscopy and organic geochemical mass spectrometric analyses. This combination of innovative methods and state-of-the-art analytical equipment will provide you with a truly unique set of skills that will be attractive to both industrial and academic employers.

Further details

For further information please contact: Dr. Juan Carlos Berrio [email protected] or Dr. Arnoud Boom [email protected]

If you wish to apply to the project, applications should include:

  • A CV with the names of at least two referees (preferably three and who can comment on your academic abilities)

Applications to be received by Wednesday 31st May 2023. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Get acquainted with the research methods on peatlands as climate archives through intensive literature study. Learn sample preparation techniques and familiarization with Neotropical flora through the study of reference collections. Select cores for study from the archive that we have available.

Year 2

Consider optional field work in the Amazon basin. Analyse peat records. Get acquainted with data analysis toolkits (e.g. R, Matlab). Aim for first presentation of initial data at national or international conference mid-end year 2.

Year 3

Consider adding geochemical proxies or expanding the geographical region by adding more records. Interpretation of data. Synthesis of data for key time slices. Peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations will be part of the schedule from year 2 onwards, including the opportunity to present at international meetings.


The peat core samples for the project have already been collected. The project does not rely on more fieldwork, but it is possible and relatively easy given our existing network and experience to organise more field work. All analyses planned for this project can be done at our laboratories at the University of Leicester (UoL). UoL has protocols established to ensure a safe working environment should Covid-19 restrictions change. The project can go ahead even with further restrictions on travel due to Covid-19.