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Biodiversity, biogeography, conservation and restoration of isolated inselberg vegetation in the dry biomes of Latin America. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Prof Toby Pennington, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Dr Lucy Rowland, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
Prof Alexandre Antonelli, Department of Science, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
Dr Nicholas Hind, Department of Science, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

The dry biomes of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are regarded as a hotspot for biodiversity conservation because of their species-rich, unique biota. For example, the two million km2 of savannas in the Brazilian “cerrado” contain >11,000 flowering plant species, more than the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. 30% of these species are found nowhere else, but massive industrial agriculture expansion has destroyed 50% of the cerrado in the past five decades. High diversity in neotropical savannas and dry forests is a function of landscape heterogeneity, with small areas of vegetation on different substrates contributing to total biodiversity. Within the dry forests of the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazil’s cerrado savannas, “inselbergs” – raised metamorphosed sandstone and granitic rock – house large numbers of endemic species. This project will document inselberg floras and their biogeographic history, knowledge that is lacking but essential to prioritise conservation and restoration. It will therefore contribute to determining the conservation value and scope for restoration in some of the most species-rich, yet poorly known, neotropical habitats.

Project Aims and Methods

Aim: To understand the conservation value and scope for restoration of vegetation formations on inselbergs in the Chiquitania dry forest and cerrado through evaluating the distribution, diversity and evolutionary history of plants across inselbergs in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.


- To map the occurrence and distribution of inselbergs in the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazilian cerrado
- Determine the variation in climatic and soil conditions which exist across inselbergs
- Evaluate plant species diversity and distribution across inselbergs
- Use DNA-based phylogeography to investigate the genetic diversity and evolutionary history of inselberg species
- Apply different approaches and biodiversity metrics for ranking the conservation value of inselbergs
- Determine scope for active versus passive restoration on inselbergs

Research approach: On largely intact inselberg vegetation this project will: a) map and document the floristic composition and endemism on inselbergs, alongside the association of these variables with soil and environmental conditions and; b) use molecular phylogeographic approaches to infer the genetic diversity and evolutionary/biogeographic processes that underlie their historical assembly. This will allow us to understand what patterns of floristic and phylogenetic diversity on inselbergs in the seasonal Neotropics. Combining this information with an evaluation of the degree of degradation on inselbergs, the proximity of suitable habitat to allow restoration to occur, and the ecological nature of this habitat, we will determine what vegetation types may be most adequate for restoration and whether active or passive restoration techniques are most likely to be viable.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

DRYFLOR (2016) Plant diversity patterns in neotropical dry forests and their conservation implications. Science. 353: 6306.

Silva de Miranda, P.L., Oliveira-Filho, A., Pennington, R.T., Neves, D.M., Baker, T.R., Dexter, K.G. (2018) Using tree species inventories to map biomes and assess their climatic overlaps in lowland tropical South America. Global Ecology and Biogeography. 27: 899–912.

Antonelli, A., et al. (2018). Amazonia is the primary source of Neotropical biodiversity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115: 6034–6039.

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