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School of Geography

The evolution of carbon cycling in tropical rain forests

Supervisors: Dr Tim Baker, Prof Oliver Phillips (School of Geography, Leeds), Dr Kyle Dexter, Prof Toby Pennington (University of Edinburgh)

Amongst the high diversity of tropical forests, there is a wide range of life-history strategies, from fast-growing pioneers that live fast and die young, to shade-tolerant species that may live to be many hundreds of years old. These different kinds of species store very different amounts of biomass and process carbon at widely different rates. How has this diversity of life-history strategies evolved, and what are the implications for patterns of carbon cycling in these forests today?

The emergence of phylogenetic data for a range of groups of tropical trees, as well as large trait and demographic databases for tropical forests provides a new and novel opportunity to dissect the evolution of the life-history strategies of trees in these ecosystems, and their relationship with current patterns of carbon cycling.

This PhD project would link with current collaborative research between the School of Geography, University of Leeds, and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and would also be in conjunction with large collaborative efforts to compile forest inventory data from across the tropics as part of the RAINFOR project and database. 

Specific questions that this project might address could include:

  • Are traits associated with the storage and processing of carbon in tropical forests related to phylogenetically conserved?
  • Are changes in the ability to store and process carbon associated with the diversification of the tropical forest flora?
  • How does phylogenetic diversity influence the rate of processing and amounts of carbon stored in these ecosystems today?
  • Can the response of taxa to current environmental stresses, such as long- and short-term droughts, or in relation to longer-term trends in forest growth and mortality, be predicted based on their evolutionary history?

Addressing these questions will allow us to probe fundamental questions about both the past and future of tropical forests. For example, this work may inform us about the role of the biome in the global carbon cycle during different periods of geological history and help us to understand whether maintaining phylogenetic diversity is important for the resilience of tropical forests to environmental change.

Student profile
The successful candidate will have some background in advanced statistical or have the ability and strong desire to pick up such skills quickly, as well as some background in ecological and evolutionary theory and techniques.  You will be strongly motivated to pursue a career either in academic tropical ecological or evolutionary research.  Candidates with an MSc or similar advanced degree in Biology, Ecology, or a strongly mathematical/ statistical degree, are particularly encouraged to apply.