Project highlights

  • Provide the first global evaluation of the impacts of forest degradation on biodiversity through the analysis of multiple taxonomic groups (e.g. birds, mammals, plants)
  • Collaboration with an internationally-leading research group working on ecology and global environmental change
  • An optional field trip to an international forest monitoring research site (e.g. Honduras, Indonesia)


We are currently in the midst of a global biodiversity extinction crisis, with extinction rates potentially hundreds of times higher than historic background rates. As such, developing a comprehensive understanding of the drivers of biodiversity loss is of paramount importance. While the role that habitat loss and deforestation play in driving extinctions is well known, the impacts of forest degradation on biodiversity is a considerable research gap. This is despite forest degradation – which can be defined as the loss of forest biomass within a relatively intact canopy – affecting a larger area than deforestation (i.e. the conversion of forest into different land-uses) in certain regions (e.g. Amazonia; Figure 1).

This project will combine state-of-the-art remote sensing products with a large global dataset of different taxonomic groups (e.g. plants, birds, mammals, reptiles) sampled through time in hundreds of different forest plots. Using these data, the project will show how different dimensions of biodiversity (including functional diversity – the range of life histories and traits encompassed by a set of species, and phylogenetic diversity – the amount of evolutionary history) have changed through time as a result of forest degradation.

The current COVID-19 situation also provides us with the unique opportunity to assess the impacts of fine-scale degradation drivers, such as illegal hunting and selective logging, on biodiversity by comparing survey data from before and after lockdowns in different countries. National lockdowns may have reduced certain degradation drivers through reducing the number of people undertaking illegal activities, or they may have increased them through reduced enforcement. This project will provide the first test of these different hypotheses.

Overall, the project will generate new knowledge improving our understanding of forest degradation and its impacts. The results will have implications for the fields of biodiversity management, conservation, climate science and environmental policy; ultimately contributing towards increasing forest resilience against a backdrop of future global environmental change.


CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Tom Matthews (University of Birmingham)



  • Adriane Esquivel Muelbert (University of Birmingham)
  • Laura Graham (University of Birmingham)
  • Jon Sadler (University of Birmingham)
  • Tom Martin (Operation Wallacea)

How to apply


The project will draw on recently developed remote sensing products in order to adapt them to better measure forest degradation. The resultant degradation metrics will then be used in combination with state-of-the-art statistical models to provide a spatial and temporal analysis of how degradation has impacted different components of biodiversity (e.g. species diversity, functional diversity). Machine learning methods will be used to determine the relative contribution of different degradation drivers to biodiversity loss, and to predict how these impacts will change under future land-use and development scenarios. In addition, biodiversity survey data provided by Operation Wallacea from before and after Covid-19 lockdowns and from a range of countries– including Indonesia, South Africa, Honduras, Mexico and Croatia –will be used to test the effect of lockdowns on different forest degradation and disturbance drivers.

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 remote sensing 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 Honduras) to gain understanding of the realities of gathering experimental field data. 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 inventory dataset consisting of surveys of multiple different taxonomic groups (e.g. birds, reptiles, plants) from hundreds of forest plots across the world. The student will also be part of an exciting and growing team in the University of Birmingham researching ecology, forest dynamics and global environmental change issues.


Further details

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

These have been selected because the project meets specific characteristics such as CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS) or student co-designed project. These characteristics are a CENTA priority. Studentships associated with Flagship projects will be provided exactly the same level of support as all other studentships.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Familiarisation with concepts, the relevant ecological theory and the Operation Wallacea datasets. Training in the different modelling and remote sensing techniques.

Optional field trip to an Operation Wallacea forest plot site (e.g. Indonesia, Honduras, South America).

Year 2

Using a range of remote sensing products and theory on forest degradation to calculate degradation metrics for the study regions. Analysis of the impacts of Covid-19 lockdowns on various drivers of degradation in Operation Wallacea datasets.

Year 3

A global level analysis of the impact of degradation through time on multiple dimensions of biodiversity calculated using the plot data. Analysis of the relative contributions of different degradation drivers to biodiversity loss. Presentation of results at international conference. Final writing up of thesis.

Further reading

Barlow, J. et al. (2016) Anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests can double biodiversity loss from deforestation. Nature, 535, 144-147.

Bullock, E.L., Woodcock, C.E., Souza Jr, C. & Olofsson, P. (2020) Satellite‐based estimates reveal widespread forest degradation in the Amazon. Global Change Biology, 26, 2956-2969.

Cazalis, V., Princé, K., Mihoub, J.-B., Kelly, J., Butchart, S.H.M. & Rodrigues, A.S.L. (2020) Effectiveness of protected areas in conserving tropical forest birds. Nature Communications, 11, 4461.

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R., Barnosky, A.D., García, A., Pringle, R.M. & Palmer, T.M. (2015) Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1, e1400253.

Ghazoul, J., Burivalova, Z., Garcia-Ulloa, J. & King, L.A. (2015) Conceptualizing forest degradation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 30, 622-632.

Matricardi, E.A.T., Skole, D.L., Costa, O.B., Pedlowski, M.A., Samek, J.H. & Miguel, E.P. (2020) Long-term forest degradation surpasses deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Science, 369, 1378-1382.

Pimm, S.L., Jenkins, C.N., Abell, R., Brooks, T.M., Gittleman, J.L., Joppa, L.N., Raven, P.H., Roberts, C.M. & Sexton, J.O. (2014) The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science, 344, 1246752.


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.