Success and Vulnerability in America’s Tropical Forests


Few tasks in science are more urgent than revealing the rules that govern why some living things dominate more than others and which will be most vulnerable in our rapidly changing world. Most life on Earth is tropical, but understanding and predicting responses here is challenging because of the scale and complexity of tropical ecosystems. Amazonia, for example, still includes 5 million square kilometres of forest, nearly twenty times the size of the United Kingdom. Indeed the forests of South America are among the most important ecosystems on Earth. They support astonishing diversity (ca. 15,000 tree species in the Amazon alone), and lock up huge amounts of carbon (more than a hundred billion tonnes), slow climate change, and support livelihoods (e.g., Brienen et al. 2015, ter Steege et al. 2013, Phillips et al. 2017).  How species and ecosystems here respond to climate change and other threats will define the future of life and people everywhere.


The aim of the project is to discover why some species are so much more successful than others, and if the rules of “success” are now changing.

This project takes advantage of three major developments in biodiversity science that make it possible to measure species’ success and vulnerability in the most vital part of the planet (e.g., Enquist et al. 2016, Baker et al. 2017, Esquivel-Muelbert et al. 2017, Coelho de Sousa 2017). (1) Biogeographical advances provide precision to map species and analytical tools let us model biogeographical records and their reliability. It is now possible to reveal species ranges and the climate and soil conditions they occupy. (2) Ecological, long-term fieldwork to measure tropical species and dynamics is being integrated as never before, enabling assessment of abundance, biomass, growth and change over time (e.g., 2021). Thus it is possible to trace how successful species are, where, and in which conditions.  Finally, (3) evolutionary scientists are piecing together the tree of life, the relatedness of everything, with extraordinary precision.  Thus it is possible for the first time to explore how evolutionary history affects ecological success.


Focusing not just on the Amazon but also adjacent dry, moist and Andean forests, and treed-savannas, relevant and significant questions to develop include:

*Does biogeographic success predict ecological success? (For example, do the most widely-distributed species also capture the most carbon?).

*Is ecological success predictable from evolutionary history, or is it scattered at random across the tree-of-life? (For example, are ecologically-dominant species closely related to one-another?)

*Are species’ climate-change-sensitivities written into their biogeography? (For example, are tree species from savannas and drier forests benefitting from recent climate changes?  Are those phylogenetic clades that managed to completely switch biomes in the past from wet to dry, also those which are proving most resilient now?).

The student will have the opportunity to explore these and related questions while working with leaders in these fields and with scientists across South America. Guided by the supervisors the student may choose to learn and use a variety of approaches, including:

  • Remeasuring Amazon plots with partners in areas of most rapid change to contribute to understanding how forests are changing.
  • Analysing long-term records of tree size, growth and death across neotropical forests.
  • Modelling species ranges from millions of records of occurrences and associated data.
  • Advanced biogeographic and evolutionary analyses, including visiting the lab of external partners Brian Enquist, founder of BIEN plant network, and Tiina Sarkinen, evolutionary scientist, for further training.

In tackling these questions, the project connects important but separated knowledge domains to (1) understand better some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, (2) how they are changing, and (3) use this to identify priority targets for conserving carbon and species in our warming world. The supervisors lead global projects that support this exciting investigation including the RAINFOR network,, and BIEN. You will interact collaboratively with many colleagues worldwide.


External Partners

Prof. Brian Enquist (University of Arizona),

Prof. Beatriz Marimon (Mato Grosso University),

Dr. Tiina Sarkinen (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh).


Potential for High Impact Outcomes

This project addresses key questions at the intersection of ecology, biodiversity, evolution, and climate change. It contributes to global understanding on what makes plants successful, or vulnerable – with potential for risk-profiling and developing conservation responses to help those at risk. The supervisors and collaborators have strong records of high-impact outcomes from research on tropical biodiversity, ecology, and carbon storage and sequestration.



You will work with Oliver Phillips and Tim Baker at Leeds, and interact with scientists from the RAINFOR network, and others. There will be opportunities for (1) tropical fieldwork with supervisors and Beatriz Marimon in Brazil, and visiting (2) the Tiina Sarkinen lab at RBG Edinburgh, and (3) the Brian Enquist lab, including support with biogeographical and evolutionary analyses. Training at Leeds will include management and analysis of large datasets, field techniques, and ecological and phylogenetic analyses – and guidance for developing equitable professional collaborator relationships. The Ecology and Global Change group where you will be based is a dynamic, world-leading group that focuses on tropical ecology, biodiversity, and global change.

Student Profile: We welcome applicants who are highly motivated, highly numerate and have a strong background in ecology, evolution and/or statistics. Being willing to travel including to work in the field in tropical forest conditions is important.



Botanical Information and Ecology Network:


Baker TR…  Phillips OL et al. (2017) Maximising synergy among tropical plant systematists, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 32: 258-267.

Brienen R, Phillips OL… Baker TR et al. (2015) Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature 519: 344-348.

Coelho F et al. (2017) Evolutionary heritage influences Amazon tree ecology. Proc. R. Soc. B 283.1844: 20161587.

Enquist BJ, Condit R, Peet RK, Schildhauer M, Thiers BM (2016) Cyberinfrastructure for an integrated botanical information network to investigate the ecological impacts of global climate change on plant biodiversity. PeerJ Preprints 4:e2615v2

Esquivel-Muelbert A, Baker TR, et al. Phillips OL. (2017) Seasonal drought limits tree species across the Neotropics. Ecography 40: 618-629. and 555 authors (2021). Taking the pulse of Earth’s tropical forests using networks of highly distributed plots. Biological Conservation 260:108849. 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108849

Phillips OL, Brienen R, RAINFOR collaboration (2017) Carbon uptake by mature Amazon forests has mitigated Amazon nations’ carbon emissions. Carbon Balance and Management 12: 1.

Ter Steege…. Phillips OL, Baker TR et al. (2013) Hyperdominance in the Amazonian tree flora. Science 342 (6156), 1243092.