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Trajectories of plant community change in degraded and regenerating forests of Borneo


About the Project

Tropical forests are becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of land-use pressures. Differences in land-use histories mean that remnant forests are not created equal; some are more structurally intact than others and this can alter the capacity for a forest to naturally regenerate. Evidence is emerging that regenerating plant communities vary spatially and further research is required to elucidate the causes of different trajectories of recovery. Notably, liana infestation can be a feature of structurally degraded forests. Lianas compete with juvenile trees for key resources (light, water, nutrients) and simultaneously can alter reproduction processes within the canopy, together influencing the capacity for tree regeneration. Climber-cutting is frequently considered to improve restoration outcomes but we need to understand more about the role of lianas in regeneration and the efficacy of such interventions.

Using study landscapes in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, where large areas of forest have been both selectively logged and fragmented by expanding oil palm plantations, the successful candidate will tackle the following according to their interests: 1. Quantify variation in forest structure and liana infestation in forest remnants with different landscape attributes (e.g. degree of fragmentation; proximity to intact forest) using ground-based and remotely sensed methods 2. Record the understorey assemblage using plot-based botanical inventory and test for relationships between forest structure, liana infestation and landscape-level factors in determining tree seedling community composition 3. Test for canopy effects of lianas on leaf, flower and fruit phenology (subject to the occurrence of inter-annual mast fruiting events during the project) and relate phenological patterns to the understorey community.

Novelty and Timeliness
This will be the first study looking at the interactions between liana infestation, phenology and native tree regeneration in the fragmented forest landscape across Sabah. There is an impetus to restore degraded forests through carbon offsetting and sustainability compliance schemes, reinforced by large-scale initiatives (e.g. UN Decade of Restoration, 2021-2031). The study’s findings will contribute to the evidence base for forest recovery under different states of degradation. The project offers opportunities for travel and training in a combination of novel methods to target these exciting and critical science questions.

The ACCE DTP is committed to recruiting extraordinary future scientists regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or career pathway to date. We understand that commitment and excellence can be shown in many ways and have built our recruitment process to reflect this. We welcome applicants from all backgrounds, particularly those underrepresented in science, who have curiosity, creativity and a drive to learn new skills. We particularly encourage applicants with a strong background in ecology/environmental science, experience in handling and analysing data and conducting independent fieldwork. Applicants are expected hold at least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent.

The successful student will be based primarily at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh (supervisor Dr L Banin), with the University of York awarding the degree (supervisor Prof J Hill). The project also links with Dr Geertje van der Heijden at the University of Nottingham, Prof David Burslem at the University of Aberdeen and Dr Mark Hughes at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. To apply please send your CV and a covering letter stating your suitability for the project to the lead supervisor; you are also welcome to email with informal enquiries.

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of proposed topics that are in competition for funding from the NERC ACCE2 Doctoral Training Partnership.

ACCE studentships are available to UK applicants, and from 2020/21 we are permitted to recruit a certain number of international candidates to the programme. Residency rules apply. Please note, ACCE can only fund International students at the UK fee rate, and so International students would need to cover the remaining amount for International fees by securing additional funding from elsewhere.


Emily H. Waddell, Lindsay F. Banin, Susannah Fleiss, Jane K. Hill, Mark Hughes, Ahmad Jelling, Kok Loong Yeong, Bernadus Bala Ola, Azlin Bin Sailim, Joseph Tangah & Daniel S. Chapman (2020) Land-use change and propagule pressure promote plant invasions in tropical rainforest remnants. Landscape Ecology 35: 1891–1906.

Susannah Fleiss, Emily H. Waddell, Bernadus Bala Ola, Lindsay F. Banin, Suzan Benedick, Azlin Bin Sailim, Daniel S. Chapman, Ahmad Jelling, Henry King, Colin J. McClean, Kok Loong Yeong, Jane K. Hill (2020) Conservation set-asides improve carbon storage and support associated plant diversity in certified sustainable oil palm plantations. Biological Conservation 248: 108631

Gail Stride, Chris D. Thomas, Suzan Benedick, Jenny A. Hodgson, Ahmad Jelling, Michael J.M. Senior, Jane K. Hill (2019) Divergent tree seedling communities indicate different trajectories of change among rain forest remnants. Diversity and Distributions 25(11): 1751-1762.

Catherine Waite, Geertje M.F. van der Heijden, Richard Field, Doreen S. Boyd (2019) A view from above: Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide a new tool for assessing liana infestation in tropical forest canopies. Journal of Applied Ecology 56: 902-912.

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