Exploring the potential of dynamic protected areas on land and sea to protect biodiversity now and in the future

The global community has missed targets for preserving biodiversity and ecosystems in the face of mounting human pressures (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2020 Global Biodiversity Outlook 5). Turning this tide requires widespread societal changes and ambitious marine and terrestrial protected area (PA) strategies (Leclere et al 2020 Nature). PAs are a mainstay of global conservation and can reduce local threats to biodiversity (e.g. Geldmann et al 2013 Biological Conservation). However, PAs have not necessarily been designed with population persistence, climate change, or land-sea interactions in mind. In particular, coral reefs—which have extraordinary biodiversity and directly support the livelihoods of ~1 billion people (Carilli 2013 Nature Education)—are highly sensitive to climate change and have been profoundly altered by recent, unprecedented, heat stress (Hughes et al. 2017 Nature). With further climate change, reefs will need to be protected from additional stresses, and ecologically connected to lower-risk regions. Similarly, terrestrial species are migrating in response to climatic changes, but may not be able to reach suitable habitats and climates due to lack of habitat connectivity (e.g. Hodgson et al 2011 Cons. Letters). On both land and sea, these vital migration corridors, and regions that are suitable for species in the future, may be unprotected or threatened by pressures such as agricultural development, high levels of fishing, or pollution. In addition, PAs rarely account for marine-terrestrial interactions, missing both opportunities and linked threats, e.g. increased runoff from land-use change on to reefs (Makino et al 2013 Biol. Cons.).
Making sound decisions over where and how to protect biodiversity in the face of climate and wider ecological change requires a novel approach to delineating and appraising PAs. In particular, whether current strategies can provide long-term protection and protect the land-sea interactions are vital unanswered questions. This PhD will address this challenge, providing solution-orientated research to help build a ‘climate-proofed’ global PA network.


By working with an interdisciplinary team of conservation scientists at Leeds, and with potential partners at the University of Oxford, and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), you will develop novel analyses that:
(1) Use habitat and climate suitability models to estimate the likely viability of protected populations of thousands of species of terrestrial vertebrates and coral reef species;
(2) Use projections of future climate change to identify priority habitat corridors on land, sea, and spanning both, that require dynamic or permanent protection;
(3) Investigate policy approaches to protect these areas. e.g. can dynamic PAs offer a feasible solution under different socio-economic conditions? Are linked land-sea PAs more likely to succeed.


The project offers a unique opportunity to develop interdisciplinary skills encompassing conservation, biogeography, quantitative ecology, and cross-disciplinary approaches, with specialist training in:

  • Scientific programming for:
    • Processing and visualising large datasets
    • Species distribution modelling
    • Spatial planning and analysis, decision science
  • Creating policy-relevant research and research outputs
  • Planning and carrying out a cutting edge research programme

You will have access to training workshops for technical and professional development skills, will present your research at international scientific conferences, and will benefit from expertise within the Schools of Earth and Environment and Biology, and from being a member of the Sustainability Research Institute and the Priestley International Centre for Climate—globally leading centres for sustainability and climate research.

As well as your main supervisors, you will receive additional support from Dr Michael Clark (University of Oxford) and WCMC—world-leaders with excellent track records in training students and publishing high impact research.

Candidate description

Candidates should have a demonstrated interest in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services (essential), and a strong quantitative background (essential), with experience in spatial analytics and programming in R or Python (desirable). To be competitive for funding, candidates should have an excellent first degree and an MSc in a relevant subject, or similar experience.
We particularly seek candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. If you would like more information on the University of Leeds’ commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, please contact David Williams.


This project will produce the first estimates of the capacity of global PAs to support terrestrial and marine biodiversity under future climate change and can take advantage of WCMC’s expertise in delivering policy-facing, solution-orientated research to contribute to international conservation policy.

Fit with NERC Panorama DTP

This studentship is directly focused on the NERC Panorama focus areas of biodiversity and human modified environments, the sustainable use of natural resources, and climate and environmental change.