Current Research

My current work is focused on understanding and predicting human impacts on the biosphere. This work is centred around two major projects: one building statistical models relating human activities to changes in biodiversity (the PREDICTS project) and one attempting to build a process-based model of the world’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems at a global scale (the Madingley Model). I have also undertaken a smaller project, using ecological traits of bird species to help understand their response to land-use change, and what this means for changes in community structure and overall biodiversity. These research interests have led to my involvement in the forthcoming Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 and in the EU COST Action on “Harmonizing Global Biodiversity Modelling”.

The PREDICTS Project

The PREDICTS project is assembling a database of species abundances in different habitats, and then using this data to construct statistical models of local responses of species, communities and biodiversity to human activities – such as land-use, land-use intensity and climate change, at a global scale. Our newsletters have documented the progress of the project and have presented a few early results. We are currently working on the first research papers. This project is led by Andy Purvis and Rob Ewers at Imperial College London, Jorn Scharlemann at Sussex University, Drew Purves at Microsoft Research and Georgina Mace at University College London.

The Madingley Model

The Madingley Model attempts to simulate the fate of, and interactions between, all photosynthetic and heterotrophic organisms on Earth, in order to simulate the dynamics of whole ecosystems and to simulate the effects of human impacts on these ecosystems. We recently published a paper in Nature describing our approach, which was featured in the Financial Times. Papers describing the mathematical formulation of the model and applications of the model to simulate human impacts are currently in preparation. The Madingley Model is a collaborative effort with Derek Tittensor and Mike Harfoot at UNEP-WCMC, and Drew Purves, Stephen Emmott, Lucas Joppa and Matthew Smith at Microsoft Research Cambridge.

Ecological Traits and Responses to Land-Use Change

This project has focused on quantifying communities in terms of the functional traits of the organisms they contain [see recent paper], understanding how functional traits affect the way that species respond to environmental change [see recent paper and blog post by a colleague, summarizing the results of this paper], and finally projecting what trait-mediated responses of species mean for the functional composition of whole ecological communities [paper forthcoming]. This work has been a collaboration with Jorn Scharlemann, now at Sussex University, Rob Alkemade at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Stu Butchart at Birdlife International, Cagan Sekercioglu at Utah State University, and Lucas Joppa at Microsoft Research.

PhD Project

My PhD project focused on the application of species distribution models to issues in ecology and conservation.

In order to conserve biodiversity, we must have some idea where it’s found. However, many parts of the world, especially in the tropics, have been very poorly surveyed for species. This has led conservation biologists to attempt to predict the distributions of species, using known occurrences of species and maps of climate variables, such as climate, vegetation, habitat and topography.

Between 2005 and 2007, Francis Gilbert and Samy Zalat coordinated BioMAP Egypt, a project that collected sightings of Egyptian species from museum records and from the literature, compiling them into an electronic database. At the time of writing this database held over half a million records of species from diverse taxonomic groups.

In Nottingham, Francis Gilbert, Tom Reader and I used these data to produce predictions of the distributions of Egyptian species. We tested which variables produced the most accurate predictions and whether certain species were better modelled than others. We also made predictions of spatial patterns of species richness, assessing whether Egypt’s protected areas provide good coverage of biodiversity.

We also collaborated with Stuart Ball of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and with the British Trust for Ornithology, attempting to predict the impact that climate change will have on the distribution of British hoverfly and bird species.