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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisors: David Coomes (Plant Sciences) and Murphy Westwood (Director of Global Tree Conservation at The Morton Arboretum, Illinois, USA), Samuel Brockington (Plant Sciences) and Andrew Hipp (The Morton Arboretum, Illinois, USA)

Importance of the area of research:

Oaks (Quercus) dominate the temperate forests of North America and Asia, both in species number and biomass, but the greatest diversity of oaks is found in the tropics.  Thus, understanding the origins of oak species and the diversification of their functional traits is key to understanding the biodiversity and functioning of northern temperate forests.  This project combines phylogenetics, species distribution mapping and ecophysiology to understanding the constraints on plant evolution,  using this important clade as a model system.

Project summary:

Recently phylogenetic work has shed light on the biogeography, niche evolution and diversification of oaks. The phylogeny of 146 species revealed that the two major American oak clades arose in what is now the boreal zone and radiated, in parallel, from eastern North America into Central America (Hipp et al. 2017). Thus, sympatric parallel diversification has shaped their diversity in North American forests. Mexico is a hotspot of oak diversity, but the work showed it is not the centre of origin.  Instead, high rates of lineage diversification associated with high rates of evolution, along moisture gradients and between the evergreen and deciduous leaf habits,  generated the observed diversity.   The PhD student will build on these recent discoveries, exploring how plant traits map onto this phylogeny in New and Old-World oaks,  to uncover the constraints on trait evolution.

What the student will do:

In the first phase of the PhD, the student will work with a team of US and Mexican researchers study oak trait evolution in the Americas.  The traits will include leaf and stem hydraulic properties, photosynthetic traits and root properties.  Collaborators would include staff at The Morton Arboretum and other institutions specialised in oak ecology, evolution and conservation.   The second phase would involve working on projects established by case-partner Fauna and Flora International in Myanmar.  These forests are known to be a diversity hotspot, but the ecology, evolution and conservation status of oaks in this region are under-researched.  The student will have the opportunity to conduct pioneering research in Myanmar, using skills developed in the Americas, with a particular focus on oak conservation.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Hipp A.K. et al. 2017. Sympatric parallel diversification of major oak clades in the Americas and the origins of Mexican species diversity.  New Phytologist (early release)  doi: 10.1111/nph.14773

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Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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