Quantifying forest structure and function over successional time

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

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Daniel Maynard

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Jane Catford

Department of Geography, KCL

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Project Description:

The structure and function of forests change through time as they age. As different trees colonize an area, the local biotic and abiotic characteristics change, favouring new species and allowing them to join the community. This process of succession, whereby different species colonize and die off, is largely mediated by species’ functional traits, which determine the specific conditions under which each species arrives and thrives.

When we look across ecosystems, there are clear similarities in the types of trees that colonize early vs. late in successional time. For example, a common feature of many late-successional tree species is their ability to tolerate shade, allowing their seedlings to grow in closed canopies. Our understanding of successional dynamics in different locations is largely a by-product of local expert knowledge and a legacy of forest management and silviculture. As such, we remain limited in our ability to make projections about successional dynamics under climate change, human-caused disturbances, or with the introduction of novel or invasive species.

The goal of this project is to understand how the functional traits of species and communities vary across succession time. The PhD will combine country-level and regional forest inventory data (e.g., US FIA data or UK NFI data) with recent tree trait databases to identify common patterns in trait variation that hold across ecosystems and disturbance regimes. By quantifying how these successional trait patterns vary across environmental gradients and how they might be shaped by disturbance and land-use change, these results can be used to make projections of how forest functional dynamics will respond to anthropogenic activity. In doing so, this work will help identify regions that are likely to experience fundamental shifts in forest structure and function.

Policy Impact of Research:

Successful forest management hinges on understanding how forest composition changes through time. By moving beyond species-centric approaches and instead focusing now how succession relates to changes in community functional traits, this work will identify successional patterns that hold across ecosystems. In turn, this will assist managers and conservationists in implementing future-looking forest management to help ecosystems thrive under environmental change.

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