Land-use strategies for biodiversity conservation, food security, and ecosystem (dis)services

An elephant politely navigates fences in South Africa. Credit: Indri Ultimate Wildlife Tours
An elephant politely navigates fences in South Africa. Farmland poses a threat to biodiversity by fragmenting natural habitats and making it harder for species to move between remaining patches. Wildlife, in turn, can cause damage to crops, and cause conflict with local people
Credit: Indri Ultimate Wildlife Tours.

Agriculture threatens biodiversity through both habitat loss and intensification of farmland. Much debate has focused on whether biodiversity and agricultural production are best balanced through extensive, low intensity farmland (“land sharing”) or separated intensive agriculture and conservation areas (“land sparing”). Despite recent advances in our understanding, previous studies (see Luskin et al. 2017 Global Food Security) have not included many crucial ecological or socio-ecological factors. In particular, the provision of many ecosystem services (e.g. crop pollination) and disservices (e.g. crop-raiding) will depend on how animals move through farmland, but we do not know how these are affected by land-use strategies.

In this project you will develop new theoretical models to analyse how land-use strategies affect metapopulation/metacommunity dynamics, parameterising them using existing data. You will then investigate how these dynamics are likely to influence interactions (both positive and negative) between humans and wildlife. This is a vital step if agricultural and environmental policies are to promote human-wildlife coexistence.

Natural habitats fragmented by agricultural land near Marne, France
A landscape in Marne, France, showing fragmented natural habitats and a range of agricultural systems. Species will find it easier to move through, or live in, some types of farmland compared to others. Google Earth.

Aims

You will:

  1. Develop novel metapopulation/metacommunity models that account for the need for landscapes to produce food: higher yields may allow the ‘sparing’ of greater habitat patches but reduce species movement through agricultural land: there is a trade-off between size/number of habitat patches, and degree of connectivity between them.
  2. Parameterise these models using existing data on species responses to land-use change (e.g. Williams et al. 2017 Global Change Biology).
  3. In light of the long lag-times in extinction debt and colonisation credits (e.g. Halley et al. 2016 Nature Comms), explore the transient (non-equilibrium) spatial dynamics of metapopulations and communities over time in the face of landscape changes.

Use these insights, causal inference methods, and existing data on ecosystem services and disservices (e.g. USDA-NASS, McKee et al. 2021 Pest Management Sci.) to understand how land-use strategies may affect both species persistence, and the costs and benefits people derive from landscapes.

Training

The project offers a unique opportunity to develop interdisciplinary skills encompassing theoretical ecology, biodiversity conservation, and conservation economics, with specialist training in:

  • Scientific programming for:
    • Quantitative metapopulation modelling
    • Spatially explicit land-use modelling
    • Causal inference in observational studies
  • Creating policy-relevant research and research outputs
  • Planning and carrying out a cutting-edge research programme

David Williams has expertise in assessing and modelling the impacts of agricultural land-use strategies on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Bill Kunin is a world expert in population and community ecology, ecosystem services, and spatial ecology. In addition, to their expertise, 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.

Candidate description

Candidates should have a demonstrated interest in biodiversity conservation and ecology (essential), and a strong quantitative background (essential), with experience in ecological modelling 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.

Impact

This project will provide a rigorous theoretical and empirical understanding of how land-use strategies affect metapopulation dynamics and ecosystem services and disservices. This has important implications for both conservation and agricultural policies by identifying which land-use strategies and agricultural systems are most likely to maximise biodiversity persistence and human wellbeing in agroecosystems.