Success and Vulnerability in the Amazon

What makes plants succeed – or fail – in the Amazon rainforest? Addressing this question will provide new insights into the future of the Earth’s richest and most diverse forest, at a time of unprecedented change. How species and ecosystems here respond to climate change and other threats will help define the future of life and people everywhere. This project presents an opportunity to work with some of the top researchers in the field, and a large pan-Amazonian network of colleagues, to help understand the present and future of the Amazon.



Few tasks in science are more important than revealing the rules that govern why some living things are more dominant than others – and which will be most vulnerable in our rapidly changing world. Most life on Earth is in the tropics. But understanding and predicting responses here is challenging because of the scale and complexity of tropical ecosystems. The Amazon, for example, still includes 5 million square kilometres of forest. This is nearly twenty times the size of the United Kingdom.

The forests of South America are among the most important ecosystems on Earth. Not only do they support exceptional diversity but they also lock up huge amounts of carbon, slow climate change, and support human livelihoods (e.g., Pan et al. 2011, 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 Project

The aim of the project is to combine new geographical, ecological and evolutionary tools to reveal why some species are more successful than others – and whether the rules of success are now changing.

This project takes advantage of three major developments in large-scale biodiversity science. These make it possible to measure the success and the vulnerability of species in the most vital part of the planet.

First, in biogeography, records on where each species has been collected are available with the precision to map their range, together with the analytical tools to model these data. So it is now possible to reveal species ranges and know the environmental conditions in which they currently exist. Second, in ecology, long-term fieldwork to measure tropical species distributions and dynamics is being brought together by ecologists. This enables assessment of abundance, biomass, and population change over time. So it is possible to trace how successful different species are, and under what conditions.  Finally, in evolutionary science, researchers are piecing together the tree of life – the relatedness of all things to each other – with ever greater precision.

Thus it is possible for the first time to explore the relationship between evolutionary history and ecological success.



We will focus on the Amazon and adjacent forest ecosystems. Significant questions to develop include:

* Does geographic success (i.e., range size and environmental breadth) predict ecological success?  For example, do the most widespread species also dominate the Amazon forests in terms of trees and biomass?

* Is ecological success predictable from evolutionary history, or does it occur randomly across the tree of life?  For example, do the most dominant species in Amazon forests tend to be closely related to one another?

* Are species’ sensitivities to climate warming and droughts written into their distributions?  For example, are species from the dry margins of the Amazon now benefiting from recent climate changes?

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

  • Field work remeasuring long-term plots with our partners across the RAINFOR network in the Amazon. This will focus on areas of most rapid warming or drying in central Brazil.
  • Analyse long-term records of size, growth and death of trees across South America.
  • Model species ranges for tropical trees, including millions of records of species occurrences.
  • Advanced geographic and evolutionary analysis of tropical plants. This will include visiting the lab of external partners Brian Enquist, founder of the BIEN plant data network, and Tiina Sarkinen, evolutionary scientist at Edinburgh, for further training.

The supervisors lead successful global projects that support this exciting investigation. This includes RAINFOR, the group of global ecologists, and the BIEN initiative on botanical information. By working with leaders in these fields you will have opportunities to develop a wide range of techniques. As the project advances you will be interacting collaboratively with 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 questions at the intersection of ecology, evolution and climate change. It therefore contributes to globally-important understanding on what makes plants especially successful or vulnerable. This means potential also for identifying those at highest risk, and developing conservation responses. The supervisors, collaborators and teams they lead all have strong records of high-impact outcomes from their research.



The student will work closely with Oliver Phillips and Tim Baker at University of Leeds. You will interact and collaborate with scientists from across the RAINFOR network.

There will be opportunities for: (1) tropical fieldwork with the supervisors and Beatriz Marimon in Brazil; to visit (2) Tiina Sarkinen at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and (3) Brian Enquist at the University of Arizona. These will support geographical and evolutionary analyses. Training at Leeds will include analysis of large datasets, field techniques and phylogenetic analyses. And, you will also be guided on developing equitable, balanced and professional relationships with collaborators.

The student will join the Ecology and Global Change cluster at Leeds. We are a dynamic, world-leading group in tropical ecology and biodiversity and global change.


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