Using the Past to Improve Predictions of the Future of Vertebrate Biodiversity

This project is available from the academic year 2025/26 onwards.

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Philip Mannion

Earth Sciences, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Alex Pigot

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Additional Supervisor(s):
Sam Turvey (Institute of Zoology (ZSL))
Erin Saupe (University of Oxford)

Project Description:

Predicting species’ responses to the ongoing climate crisis is one of the defining environmental challenges of the 21st century. However, forecasting climate-driven biodiversity responses is based entirely on very recent records. This is problematic, given that these recent records are strongly affected by human interactions and we do not know whether current distributions reflect the full ecological niche of a species. Furthermore, classifications as to whether a species is considered at-risk are based on patterns over recent decades and do not take account of whether a species is in longer-term decline. As such, many species currently considered as ‘Least Concern’ might be at greater risk than we realise. The fossil record preserves information on past distributions and different climates, thereby providing data on the full ecological limits of a species that are not available by only evaluating patterns in populations today. Palaeontological data from warmer intervals, that are closer analogues than the present day, should improve projections to future climate scenarios.

The PhD candidate will combine past data on distributions of vertebrate species that have good fossil records with state-of-the-art ecological and climatic modelling approaches. This will enable them to evaluate how the incorporation of the fossil record changes projections of species responses, as well as determine whether many ‘Least Concern’ extant vertebrate species are in long-term decline. This innovative project sits at the interface of palaeontology, ecology, and biodiversity science, within the growing field of conservation palaeobiology.

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will evaluate interactions between climatic changes and the biosphere, providing both a perspective on NERC research areas relating to Earth-Life co-evolution, as well as the impact of climatic changes on the short- and long-term future distribution of biodiversity, which is critical for conservation.

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