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Understanding the diversity of life: trait correlations from micro- to macroevolutionary scales


Project Description

Understanding the mechanisms that lead to biological diversity over long periods of time is one of the most important underpinnings of evolutionary biology. However, when we look at the immense diversity of life, we can see several clear patterns that are surprising. Diversity is not evenly distributed across the tree of life. This suggests that the processes generating diversity are constrained: some lineages experience different rates of trait evolution and diversification than others and there are constraints on the numbers of species and their variety of form and function. This clearly suggests genetic, ecological, developmental, or physiological limits on evolution. These constraints may be taxon-specific or cut across taxa, suggesting general limits at higher taxonomic levels. Resolving the mechanisms driving these patterns will dramatically improve our understanding of the processes that determine the diversity of life.

The overall objective of the PhD is to test how correlations among traits evolve at multiple scales (intraspecific, intraclade and interclade) to shape the diversity of traits and species across the tree of life. Specifically, the first objective is to test the stability of trait correlations through time. The stability of phenotypic trait correlations may have important macroevolutionary consequences, for example by constraining the potential total phenotypic diversity within and among clades (i.e. their disparity). The second objective is to test how variation in correlations constrains (i) disparity and (ii) diversity of species among lineages.

The project will have the opportunity to use recent, novel ecomorphological databases of birds and mammals that capitalise on international initiatives to digitise museum collections. The student will extend the data using collections at the Natural History Museum and to learn and apply cutting-edge statistical techniques and bridge the micro-macroevolution gap.

The project would suit a motivated, statistically and computationally strong student with a keen interest in understanding the diversity of life and the relationship between micro and macroevolution.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (at least £14,777 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment View Website. ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 11th February 2019.

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