Elizabeth Downey

Elizabeth Downey

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Elizabeth Downey

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Start Year

2021 (Cohort 8)

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PhD Project
PhD Title

Ecological baselines, biodiversity conservation and human-wildlife co-existence – opportunities and insights from natural history collections

Research Theme

Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation

Primary Supervisor
Primary Institution


Secondary Supervisor
Secondary Institution



Anthropogenic pressures are causing a global biodiversity crisis, with 75% of the planet’s terrestrial and 66% of its marine environments “severely altered” by human activity (IPBES, 2019), and with humanity’s extraction of environmental resources outweighing nature’s capacity to provide them (Dasgupta, 2021). Biodiversity is critical for humanity’s survival, but we are squeezing it out – at our peril (Whitmee et al., 2015; Pievani, 2014). We need to urgently transform our relationships and interactions with the natural world that supports us (Díaz et al., 2019), moving towards a sustainable co-existence that enables us all to thrive.

We also face the challenge of ‘shifting baseline’- syndrome – shifting perceptions of what constitutes ‘pristine’ environmental conditions linked to short human life expectancies and historic knowledge gaps (Pauly, 1995; Papworth et al., 2009). We need long-term information on species, ecological settings and human-wildlife interactions as context and reference to assess change, and to understand and support effective conservation and co-existence. Natural history collections offer an unparalleled yet under-utilised archive of biological data, with opportunities to provide insights into biodiversity, ecology, conservation and human-wildlife coexistence, potentially before the acceleration of human impacts (Johnson et al., 2011; Brummitt et al., 2015; Bartomeus et al., 2019; Lughadha et al., 2019; Meineke et al., 2019; Ewers-Saucedo et al., 2021). This project will investigate the opportunities and challenges of natural history collections to provide insights into historical information and timelines on biodiversity and human-wildlife interactions and coexistence, focusing on marine vertebrates. Collection data will then be combined with additional, modern and historical sources (e.g. local ecological knowledge) for a holistic approach in generating knowledge. Finally, the project will explore links between these results and human and environmental factors to inform biodiversity conservation and restoration aims and approaches. The context and reliability of this approach will also be considered.

Policy Impact
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