FSE 4: Species in the landscape: Understanding distributions of organisms through associations between their traits and geographic features

Faculty: Faculty of Science and Engineering

Supervisors: Dr Peter Brown; Dr Hannah White; Dr Joseph Bailey

Location: Cambridge

The interview for this project is expected to take place on Thursday 27 April.

A combination of environmental factors and the ecological characteristics that a species displays (its traits) determines where it can live. The interaction between these two factors, however, remains relatively unknown.

This project will address this knowledge gap by investigating the associations between species traits and landscape features (e.g., habitats, geology), determining how these associations vary between species groups.

This has important implications for nature conservation and sustainable land management. Understanding and predicting how rapid landscape changes impact species through their traits is vital if we are to be able to manage our landscapes in a sustainable way that promotes and maintains biodiversity and human wellbeing in the face of climate and land use change, as well as additional ecological pressures such as invasive species.

Aims and objectives

The project will investigate a range of taxonomic groups in the UK including plants, birds, butterflies and ladybirds. These groups have readily available species location data and published trait data exists.

Furthermore, they provide a wide taxonomic range with different ecological strategies to detect different trait-landscape associations, whilst plants and ladybirds provide the ideal opportunity to investigate native and non-native species patterns.

To investigate how landscape features (i.e., factors relating to geodiversity, habitat and land use) impact the distribution of species traits across landscapes, and how this varies with species groups, you will:

  1. Quantify the association between ecological traits and landscape features across taxonomic groups.
  2. Determine whether trait-landscape association strength differs between native, non-native and invasive non-native species.
  3. Determine how the strength of the trait-landscape association differs with trophic level.
  4. Assess the implications of the findings in the context of conservation and sustainable land management.

The project will use published trait databases in combination with additional trait data collated from the literature to map how morphological and life history traits of plants, butterflies, birds and ladybirds vary across the UK.

Landscape features, including those relating to geodiversity (geology, soil, landforms, hydrology) and the spatial arrangement of different habitats, will be derived from publicly available data sources and processed using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the R statistical programming language.

The association between species traits and landscape features will be quantified using approaches such as fourth corner analysis, species distribution modelling and phylogenetically constrained least squares.

The project will use a biogeographic approach to investigate instances of recent species invasions and the arrival of non-invasive alien species to determine the relative strength of trait-landscape associations between these groups and native species.

The trait-landscape associations will be combined with data on the trophic level of species to identify differences in how species groups rely on the landscape.

Finally, using projections of future landcover change, the future distribution of species will be predicted based on their traits, allowing us to empirically investigate implications for conservation and sustainable land management.

If you would like to discuss this research project please contact hannah.white@aru.ac.uk or peter.brown@aru.ac.uk

Apply online by 19 March 2023

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2022/3 this was £17,688 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.