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Taking the escalator to extinction: Understanding the role of rapid forest expansion in driving hotspots of extinction risk for endemic species in Taiwan

Project Description

Despite an abundance of data quantifying and predicting the response of forest distribution to ongoing climatic changes in temperate and boreal regions, there is a near absence of data, and hence little understanding, of how tropical mountain systems will respond to climate change(1). While we understand that forests are often expanding rapidly at high elevation as temperatures warm, little attention has been given to the implications of such changes for plants above the forest limit (2,3). Data frequently demonstrate upward migration of such alpine species also, however, with highly limited habitat availability at high altitude, such upward migration is dubbed the ‘elevator to extinction’ since once at the highest elevations, such alpine species have no-where left to go (4). Data on high elevation extinction risk are, however, vanishingly rare. This significant knowledge gap has major implications for our ability to predict future impacts of environmental change on biodiversity and ecosystem services (5).

Previous work by the supervisory team in the region has identified rapid shifts in the altitudinal distribution of alpine plant species driven directly by rising temperature and through displacement due to elevation of the mountain treeline (4). However, expansion of forest at the treeline is highly heterogeneous; expanding rapidly in some areas but remaining static in others (6). While elevational shifts of forest risk alpine plant extinction, spatial heterogeneity in advance allows a mechanism for continued coexistence (7).

This project will combine existing knowledge on the pattern and limitations of forest advance at high elevations in Taiwan with data on the distribution of endemic alpine plants. By integrating remote sensing of habitat type and distribution with modeling of the spatial and temporal patterns of forest and alpine plant migration, we’ll identify hotspots of extinction risk for high elevation endemic species to inform conservation prioritisation across the region.

The project will be guided by the following objectives
1) To characterise and quantify the spatial extent of the principal high elevation habitat types in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range using high-resolution satellite imagery.
2) To use existing survey data to assess the current distribution of alpine endemic plant species across the region and identify their topographical and habitat associations.
3) To combine survey data, climate predictions, topography and habitat availability to model future distributions of high elevation trees and alpine plants.
4) To estimate future changes in alpine habitat area and map extinction risk for a range of endemic plant species in the Central Mountain Region.

High resolution remote sensing (RS) imagery would be used to derive land use cover classifications to enable estimation of habitat extent and distribution. RS classifications would be ground-truthed via field visits with established research partners (Dr Jan-Chang Chen, National Pingtung University of Science and Technology) in the region. We would then integrate scenario-based modeled estimates of forest change built using climate predictions, topographical information and land-use cover to predict changes in alpine plant habitat extent. Existing and modeled future distributions of endemic alpine species built using distributional data held by Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute (ESRI) will then be derived and compared with habitat availability using GIS tools to assess vulnerability and forecast hotspots of extinction risk. The research would involve two periods of fieldwork surveying habitat type and distribution across the principal peaks of the Central Mountain Range and working with ESRI on distribution and risk forecasts for regional conservation planning. All local work in Taiwan is conducted through longstanding agreements with collaborators at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan.

Funding Notes

The project is competition funded through an IAPETUS2 PhD Studentship Award which includes 3.5 years student stipend (at national UKRI standard rate), fees and research training support grant. Note that eligibility rules apply. Applicants must be British Citizens, although exceptions may apply for other EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for the last three years. Please check the IAPETUS2 website if you have concerns about your eligibility. View Website
The formal start date for the successful applicant is October 1st 2020


This project is part of the IAPETUS2 Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) and PhD students will receive substantial additional interdisciplinary training through this partnership. Further information on the project, skills and training opportunities can be found here:

Candidates should ideally have a First Class Honours degree and Masters degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level. The formal deadline for applications is Friday January 10th 2020. However, prospective applicants MUST discuss their application with Prof. Alistair Jump at [email protected] as early as possible and before Tuesday January 7th 2020. Appropriate applicants will then be invited by Prof. Jump to make a full application in accordance with the instructions at the link below.

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