UK: NERC DTP PhD Studentship: Up-scaling Biodiversity: The Mathematics and Statistics of Spatial Ecology

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SUPERVISORS – Prof. William Kunin Dr. Sandro Azaele

Project summary

Species richness is intrinsically non-additive, which makes it difficult to estimate the number of species in a large area from the numbers found in small subsamples within it.  While in principle it should be possible to estimate the species-area relationship (SAR) of a region from the spatial turnover in local samples, practical methods have proved elusive. We have recently developed a novel approach based on pair-correlation functions, which can predict the SAR across scales and the distribution of species’ abundances. However, the method currently requires count data, which limits its applicability. This project would extend the methods to include other data types (e.g. presence/absence, non-count abundance) and statistical properties (e.g. the derivation of confidence intervals, optimized sampling designs). This is crucial for conservation strategies and poorly understood taxa. Depending on the candidate’s interests, the project might also include a field or database component, applying the methods to datasets of management or conservation interest.

Key research questions

Some of the points to be explored include:

(a)  Extending the approach to cover different data formats, such as presence/absence data or non-count abundance data

(b)  Developing alternative up-scaling methods if desired

(c)  Developing new spatial patterns that can be linked to the SAR

(d)  Developing methods of assessing confidence intervals for upscaled species-richness estimates

(e)  Incorporating environmental information alongside spatial information in analyzing richness patterns

(f)   Optimizing sampling designs for assessing species richness within a region

(g)  Testing methods on well-studied systems (e.g. UK plant and butterfly datasets)


The method is based on estimation of the pair-correlation function (PCF) and the mean density of individuals per species (δ) when abundances of species are available. The PCF allows us to calculate the variance in species abundances. This latter index provides us with a link with another important ecological measure: the spatial species abundance distribution (sSAD), which gives the number of species with n individuals present within an area. The sSAD can then be used to calculate the SAR, allowing the mean number of species expected in a sampled area.

FURTHER INFORMATION – Visit the project webpage


We will offer around 25 studentships for UK and EU students starting in October 2014. The full PhD studentship consists of a personal stipend at RCUK rates for 3.5 years (at least) and generous support for research costs, fieldwork and conference travel. Eligibility for these may be viewed at:

We also welcome applications from self-funding students (UK/EU/International) or students in receipt of other scholarship funding.


We aim to recruit the overall best applicants based on their academic merit and interview performance.

Application deadline is 24th January 2014 and projects will commence in October 2014. Information on how to apply may be viewed via

The Leeds York NERC DTP

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the Leeds York NERC Doctorial Training Partnership. Our vision is to equip the next generation of earth and environmental scientists with the skills necessary to understand the complex interactions within the Earth system.

Information on all the proposed projects can be found on the projects summary webpage.

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