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Success and Vulnerability in the Amazon

Faculty of Environment

Prof Oliver Phillips , Tuesday, January 05, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Student Profile: We especially welcome applicants who are highly motivated, highly numerate, and have a strong background in ecology, evolution and / or statistics. Being willing to travel widely including to work in the field in tropical forest conditions is also important.

Aim: Determine why some species are more successful than others - and whether or not the rules of success are now changing in our changing world. Focusing on Amazon tree species, and combining new biogeographical, ecological and evolutionary tools.

Context: Few tasks in science are more important and urgent than revealing the rules that govern why some living things are more dominant than others and which will be most vulnerable in our rapidly changing world. Most life on Earth is in the tropics, but understanding and predicting responses here is particularly challenging because of the scale and complexity of tropical ecosystems. Amazonia, for example, still includes 5 million square kilometres of forest, nearly twenty times the size of the United Kingdom. The forests of South America are among the most important ecosystems on Earth. Not only do they support astonishing diversity (more than 10,000 tree species in the Amazon alone), but they also lock up huge amounts of carbon (more than a hundred billion tonnes), slow climate change, and support human livelihoods (e.g., Pan et al. 2011, Brienen et al. 2015, ter Steege et al. 2013, Phillips et al. 2017). How species and ecosystems here respond to climate change and other threats will in turn define the future of life and people everywhere.

Focusing on the Amazon and adjacent ecosystems, relevant and significant questions to develop include:
* How and where does biogeographic success predict ecological success? (For example, do the most widespread species also actually dominate Amazon forests in terms of abundance or biomass?).
* Is ecological success ultimately predictable from evolutionary history, or does it occur randomly across the tree of life? (For example, testing whether the most dominant species in Amazon forests tend to be closely related to one another).
* Are species’ sensitivities to climate warming and droughts written into their biogeographical distributions? (For example, investigating whether species from the dry margins of South American forests actually benefiting from climate changes).

The student will have the opportunity to explore these and related questions while working with leaders in these fields and with scientists across South America. Guided by the supervisors the student may choose to learn and use a variety of approaches, including:
• Field work remeasuring of long-term forest plots with our partners across the RAINFOR network of permanent plots in the Amazon, focusing on areas of most rapid warming or drying (e.g., with external partner Beatriz Marimon in Brazil).
• Analysing long-term records of size, growth and death of trees across South American forest plots.
• Modelling species ranges for tropical trees, including millions of records of species occurrences and associated data.
• Advanced biogeographic and evolutionary analyses of tropical plants, including visiting the lab of external partners Brian Enquist, founder of the BIEN plant data network, and Tiina Sarkinen, evolutionary scientist at Edinburgh, for further training.

The supervisors lead successful global projects that support this exciting investigation, including the RAINFOR network, the group of international ecologists, and the BIEN initiative on botanical information. Working with leaders in these fields in the UK, USA and Brazil, you will have opportunities to develop a range of techniques. As the project advances you will be interacting collaboratively with many colleagues worldwide.

Training: The student will work closely with Oliver Phillips and Tim Baker at University of Leeds, and will also collaborate with scientists from the RAINFOR network and beyond. There will be opportunities in particular for (1) tropical fieldwork led by the supervisors and external partner Beatriz Marimon in Brazil, and for visiting (2) the Tiina Sarkinen lab at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and (3) the Brian Enquist lab at the University of Arizona, including for support with biogeographical and evolutionary analyses. Training at Leeds will include management and analysis of ecological and phylogenetic analyses with large datasets, field observational techniques, ss well as guidance for developing equitable professional relationships with collaborators.

The Ecology and Global Change group in the School of Geography at Leeds, where the student will be based, is a dynamic and world-leading group that focuses on tropical ecology, biodiversity, carbon, climate, and global change.

Funding Notes

We offer 3.5 years fully funded studentships including full tuition fees for successful applicants, and stipend at the UKRI rate plus a training grant.


Brienen R, Phillips OL… Baker TR et al. (2015) Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519: 344-348.
Coelho F et al. (2017) Evolutionary heritage influences Amazon tree ecology. Proc. R. Soc. B 283.1844: 20161587.
Enquist BJ, Condit R, Peet RK, Schildhauer M, Thiers BM (2016) Cyberinfrastructure for an integrated botanical information network to investigate the ecological impacts of global climate change on plant biodiversity. PeerJ Preprints 4:e2615v2
Esquivel-Muelbert A, Baker TR, et al. Phillips OL. (2017) Seasonal drought limits tree species across the Neotropics. Ecography 40: 618-629. and 548 authors (2020). Taking the Pulse of Earth’s Tropical Forests using Networks of Highly Distributed Plots. Biological Conservation (in press)
Pan Y… Phillips OL et al. (2011) A large and persistent carbon sink in the world's forests. Science 333: 988-993, doi:10.1126/science.1201609
Phillips OL, Brienen R, RAINFOR collaboration (2017) Carbon uptake by mature Amazon forests has mitigated Amazon nations’ carbon emissions. Carbon Balance and Management 12: 1.
Ter Steege…. Phillips OL, Baker TR et al. (2013) Hyperdominance in the Amazonian tree flora. Science 342 (6156), 1243092.

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