University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Biodiversity, biogeography, conservation and restoration of isolated inselberg vegetation in the dry biomes of Latin America. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3688

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof Toby Pennington, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Lucy Rowland, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Prof Alexandre Antonelli, Department of Science, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

Dr Nicholas Hind, Department of Science, Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Travel and accommodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
  • No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter


Students who are resident in EU countries are eligible for the full award on the same basis as UK residents.  Applicants resident outside of the EU (classed as International for tuition fee purposes) are not eligible for DTP funding. Residency rules are complex and if you have not been resident in the UK or EU for the 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, please apply and we will check eligibility upon shortlisting.

Project Background 

The dry biomes of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay are regarded as a hotspot for biodiversity conservation because of their species-rich, unique biota. For example, the two million km2 of savannas in the Brazilian “cerrado” contain >11,000 flowering plant species, more than the Brazilian Amazon rain forest. 30% of these species are found nowhere else, but massive industrial agriculture expansion has destroyed 50% of the cerrado in the past five decades. High diversity in neotropical savannas and dry forests is a function of landscape heterogeneity, with small areas of vegetation on different substrates contributing to total biodiversity. Within the dry forests of the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazil’s cerrado savannas, “inselbergs” – raised metamorphosed sandstone and granitic rock – house large numbers of endemic species. This project will document inselberg floras and their biogeographic history, knowledge that is lacking but essential to prioritise conservation and restoration. It will therefore contribute to determining the conservation value and scope for restoration in some of the most species-rich, yet poorly known, neotropical habitats.

Project Aims and Methods

Aim: To understand the conservation value and scope for restoration of vegetation formations on inselbergs in the Chiquitania dry forest and cerrado through evaluating the distribution, diversity and evolutionary history of plants across inselbergs in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.


  • To map the occurrence and distribution of inselbergs in the Bolivian Chiquitania and Brazilian cerrado
  • Determine the variation in climatic and soil conditions which exist across inselbergs
  • Evaluate plant species diversity and distribution across inselbergs
  • Use DNA-based phylogeography to investigate the genetic diversity and evolutionary history of inselberg species  
  • Apply different approaches and biodiversity metrics for ranking the conservation value of inselbergs
  • Determine scope for active versus passive restoration on inselbergs

Research approach: On largely intact inselberg vegetation this project will: a) map and document the floristic composition and endemism on inselbergs, alongside the association of these variables with soil and environmental conditions and; b) use molecular phylogeographic approaches to infer the genetic diversity and evolutionary/biogeographic processes that underlie their historical assembly. This will allow us to understand what patterns of floristic and phylogenetic diversity on inselbergs in the seasonal Neotropics. Combining this information with an evaluation of the degree of degradation on inselbergs, the proximity of suitable habitat to allow restoration to occur, and the ecological nature of this habitat, we will determine what vegetation types may be most adequate for restoration and whether active or passive restoration techniques are most likely to be viable. 


El Cerrito a granitic inselberg in Ñuflo de Chavéz, Bolivia



Metamorphosed sandstone inselberg in Chiquitos, Bolivia

Candidate Requirements

The candidate is required to:

  • Have BSC and/or MSc degree in the fields of geography, biology or physical sciences, preferably relating to plant biology and conservation
  • Demonstrate they have a keen interest in plant diversity and conservation
  • Be enthusiastic to organise and undertake prolonged research trips to Latin America

CASE or Collaborative Partner

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as the world’s leading Botanic Garden, enhances this project by:

  • Giving access to unparalleled plant collections, library and taxonomic expertise to identify collections made on inselbergs
  • Contributing logistical field support, including legal support for obtaining all necessary research permissions.
  • Contributing £9000 to research expenses
  • The co-supervision of Dr Nicolas Hind, an expert in the flora of neotropical dry biomes, and Professor Alexandre Antonelli, who leads a world-class programme in neotropical plant biogeography


  • Floristic inventory in poorly known tropical habitats, including specimen collection and preparation
  • Identification skills of a complex tropical flora using herbarium collections and library resources
  • DNA-based techniques in phylogeography
  • Application of different methods for identifying conservation priorities
  • Habitat restoration in the tropics

References / Background reading list 

DRYFLOR (2016) Plant diversity patterns in neotropical dry forests and their conservation implications. Science. 353: 6306.

Silva de Miranda, P.L., Oliveira-Filho, A., Pennington, R.T., Neves, D.M., Baker, T.R., Dexter, K.G. (2018) Using tree species inventories to map biomes and assess their climatic overlaps in lowland tropical South America. Global Ecology and Biogeography. 27: 899–912.

Antonelli, A., et al. (2018). Amazonia is the primary source of Neotropical biodiversity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115: 6034–6039.

Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Monday 6 January 2020.  Interviews will be held between 10 and 21 February 2020.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:6th January 2020
Value:£15,009 per annum for 2019-20
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries