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Why do some lineages survive mass extinctions? A global research program in the era of an emerging human-induced mass extinction

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Daniel Pincheira-Donoso  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Mass extinction events wipe out >75% of the planet’s biodiversity – the other quarter (or less), survives. Human-induced environmental change is dragging modern biodiversity into an emerging mass extinction that threatens the ecosystems we depend on. Why some lineages collapse during mass extinctions while others survive remains an open question with critical implications in the era of climate change. This PhD project tackles this question.

The rapid extinctions of biodiversity worldwide represent one of the most alarming syndromes of the impacts of human industrialisation on the planet’s stability. As species become extinct, ecosystems enter irreversible degradations that trigger cascade effects which, in turn, lead to waves of other species declines and to the alteration of the environmental services that sustain human welfare, health, and food production. Remarkably, despite >99% of the species that ever lived on Earth having gone extinct, the remaining 1% has managed to keep life persisting for ~3.7 billion years and through multiple ‘mass extinctions’ [1]. Why some lineages and species collapse during mass extinctions while others get through large-scale catastrophes remains a mystery [2] with critical implications for the design of strategies to manage current and future biodiversity declines under climate change.

This PhD project tackles this question by addressing the hypothesis that lineages that combine evolutionary versatility (e.g. rapid diversification rates across a wide range of environments) with ecological resilience (e.g. traits that facilitate demographic recovery following environmental changes that increase population declines) are more likely to get through large-scale extinction events, and to persist over time. Using the world’s diversity of amphibians – nature’s most endangered organisms– as model systems, this project will: (i) employ macroevolutionary phylogenetic modelling analyses to establish the ‘evolutionary versatility profile’ of amphibian genera (i.e. the relationship between clades’ age, species-richness, and rates of diversification) to elucidate whether evolutionary versatility is a property of clades’ age or a property of certain features that make clades more prone to diversify prolifically; (ii) establish the proportion of endangered species within each clade to quantify the relationship between a clade’s diversity and their propensity to accumulate species prone to extinction; (iii) employ a large-scale database of amphibian traits (morphology, behaviour, life history, ecology, genome size, distribution) to identify whether variation in these combinations of traits across lineages is related with both their evolutionary versatility and proportion of endangered species [3,4]. This PhD project is part of the Global Amphibian Biodiversity Project (GABiP:

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Duration: 3 years

How to apply: Applications must be submitted via:

Skills/experience required: (1) Previous research experience in ecology, evolution, bioinformatics, or zoology; (2) confident with collection, management, and quantitative analysis of large-scale databases; (3) demonstrated experience with the software R and familiar with phylogenetic modelling in particular; (4) demonstrated competence with the software ArcGIS; (5) a range of personal features including independence, problem-solving skills, and drive.

Note: This project is in competition for DfE funding with a number of other projects. A selection process will determine the strongest candidates across the range of projects, who may then be offered funding for their chosen project.

Funding Notes

Candidates must hold a UK 2.1 Bachelor's degree or qualifications considered to be equivalent by the University.
Candidates must also be normally resident in the UK for the three year period prior to 1 October 2022. For non-EU nationals, the main purpose of residence must not have been to receive full-time education. Non-UK or Irish nationals must also have pre-settled or settled status (EU nationals) or settled status (non-EU nationals).
Full eligibility criteria:


[1] Barnosky, A.D. et al. (2011). Nature, 471:51-57.
[2] Hannah, M. (2021). Extinctions. Cambridge University Press.
[3] Pincheira-Donoso, D. & Hodgson, D.J. (2018).
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 115:E5845–E5846.
[4] Pincheira-Donoso, D. et al. (2021). Global Ecology and Biogeography, 30:1299-1310.
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