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Historical, Functional and Conservation Biogeography of Plants

Module titleHistorical, Functional and Conservation Biogeography of Plants
Module codeGEO3242
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Professor Toby Pennington (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Our planet is green. Plants clothe it and drive global cycles in energy, carbon and water. Global biomes are dominated by hundreds of thousands of species of flowering plants (angiosperms). Understanding what these species are, where they grow, and how different species will respond to environmental change is fundamental to making conservation decisions. However, in the 21st Century, our planet remains unexplored. We do not even know how many plant species there are or how and why the phenomenal diversity of plants is spread very unevenly across the planet. Some of the key questions of biogeography remain unanswered, such as why the tropics contain so many species. This module will explore the diversity, distribution and evolutionary history of the plants that dominate present-day biomes. It will then examine the functional adaptations that they require to thrive in different environments. Put together, it will explain how these historical and functional approaches to biogeography offer much to strategies to conserve some of the most threatened, species-rich biomes on our green planet.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to provide you with the historical context alongside the current theory and practice to understand the current global distribution of plants and how to conserve this in a changing world. The module will provide a mixture of relevant theory with cutting-edge research concerning plant evolutionary history, functional ecology, climate change science and conservation science. In particular there will be a strong focus on tropical Latin America because it contains more plant species than any other comparable area on the planet. We will explain how biogeographic science can be deployed to understand the complexity and conservation of important biomes including the Amazon rain forest, tropical dry forests and savannas.

This module will provide you with a set of key skills for further study or future employment in a range of careers relating to ecosystem conservation, environmental management, tropical plant ecology, plant biodiversity science and climate change science.

The module aims are to provide you with:

  • A clear understanding of the biogeographic history and ecological controls of the distribution of global biomes.
  • A grounding in inferring evolutionary history and the controls on global plant diversity.
  • An understanding of the ecological processes controlling the current distributions of plants.
  • An explanation of how plants can adapt to their environments in the context of global climate change.
  • Clear link examples of how biogeographic theory and data can underpin conservation strategies for the most species-rich biomes of the planet.

The teaching on this module will be heavily grounded in work undertaken by the module convenors, providing a unique perspective on plant biogeography and conservation through the integrating state-of-the-art research relating to plant evolution, plant function and the potential of plants to adapt to a changing world.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Critically evaluate concepts relating to plant evolution and paleoclimates in the context of current biogeography
  • 2. Articulate the key role that evolutionary history plays in explaining present day patterns of plant diversity at different geographic scales
  • 3. Demonstrate a clear understanding of how plant function interacts with biotic and abiotic environments to determine plant fitness and survival
  • 4. Critically evaluate scientific studies to evaluate the capacity of plants to adapt to global environmental change
  • 5. Apply plant functional ecology and historical biogeography to understand the complex trade-offs involved in making decisions regarding biome conservation

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Critically assess contrasting and complementary scientific theories, particularly with regard to research related to biogeographical science
  • 7. Describe, compare and evaluate key research techniques used to generate scientific theory
  • 8. Evaluate the role that different spatial and temporal scale play with regard to biogeography
  • 9. Generate knowledge and new understanding from a diverse range of resources, encountered via independent study, lectures, seminars and field trips
  • 10. Apply knowledge gained from understanding of existing scientific theories to build scientific predictions and hypotheses with relation to future scenarios

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 12. Integrate information from multiple disciplines to develop and debate a strong and balanced argument from multiple scientific perspectives
  • 13. Identify, acquire, evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 14. Undertake independent/self-directed study/learning to achieve consistent, proficient and sustained attainment
  • 15. Manipulate and interpret scientific data

Syllabus plan

The module is concerned with exploring the historical and contemporary explanations for the distribution of plants and how we conserve plant diversity in a changing world. The module lecture series is split into two interacting parts. Part 1 will address how evolutionary history and palaeoclimates have contributed to the current distribution and diversity of plants. Part 2 will start to take a future perspective using an understanding of how plants interact with their environment to inform on their likely capacity to adapt to future environmental change.

These lectures will be supported by debates, discussions and practicals which will take place in the form of four seminars and a day trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. These sessions will develop practical experience of techniques introduced in the lectures, allowing you to take an active role in debates and discussions concerning cutting-edge scientific and conservation issues. The lectures, seminars and fieldtrip will collectively provide all the necessary understanding, techniques and skills to be able to make informed and critical decisions regarding the conservation of important but threatened global biomes.

Anticipated module content:


Part 1: Plant history and evolution (7x1 hour)

  • What is biogeography? Biogeographic realms and biomes.
  • Reconstructing evolutionary histories.
  • Plate tectonics and paleoclimates and their effects on plant biogeography.
  • The diversity of plants.
  • Plant speciation.
  • Island biogeography.
  • Biogeographic history and the conservation of tropical biomes.

Part 2: Plant function and global change  (5 x 1 hour)

  • Does plant form and function control biogeography?
  • Competition and the ecological niche.
  • Plant survival in a changing world.
  • Climate change and plant biogeography: Case study – Tropical Latin American Biomes.
  • Looking to the future: How do we conserve globally important biomes?


  • The biogeographic importance of botanical gardens (Case Study: Kew). – Group debate on the current and historic value of botanical gardens in preparation for a fieldtrip to Kew. (1 hour – discussion and debate exercise)
  • Discovering the phylogenetic diversity on your shopping list. (2 hour practical exercise)
  • Preparation for formative assessment: Applying research techniques to prepare a case for conserving the world’s most important tropical biomes (2 hour research seminar)
  • Formative assessment and summative assessment preparation: Group conservation pitches for the world’s most important tropical biomes (3-hour pitch and debate exercise)

Field trip:

This trip will focus on Kew’s living collections, the richest of any botanic garden in the world, and its preserved herbarium collections of seven million specimens, and what they can teach us about plant diversity, biogeography, adaptation and conservation. You will gain a deeper appreciation of the scientific value of Kew’s beautiful gardens, the vital work of Kew’s scientists and of career options in biodiversity science and conservation beyond the university sector.

The morning will be hosted by RBG Kew’s Latin American research team in the Herbarium. They will explain the journey of a plant from collection in field expeditions to the herbarium, and how these museum collections are a key resource to understand patterns of global plant diversity and how they contribute to the battle to conserve it. The afternoon will be spent in the living collections and will include a practical exercise underpinning learning about plant adaptations and evolutionary diversity.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching12Lectures (12 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching8Seminars
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Practical field trip to Kew Gardens (day trip)
Guided Independent Study120Reading for lectures, writing summative report, conducting formative assessments and revision for exams

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group conservation pitch (filmed)2 individual sessions1-15Peer and tutor feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Examination602 hours1-15Written
Written conservation pitch402000 words1-15Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExamination1-15August Ref/Def
Written conservation pitchWritten report1-15August Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination or submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Mark V. Lomolino, Brett R. Riddle, Robert J. Whittaker and James H. Brown. 2010. Biogeography, Fourth Edition. Sinauer.
  • Alan Queiroz. 2014. The Monkey's Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. Basic Books

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

  • DRYFLOR (54 authors; PENNINGTON, R.T. senior author; 2016). Plant diversity patterns and their conservation implications in neotropical dry forests. Science 353: 1383-1387.
  • Baker, T.R., PENNINGTON R.T. Dexter, K. G., Fine, P. V., Fortune-hopkins, H., Honorio, E. N., Huamantupa-chuquimaco, I., Klitgård, B. B., Lewis, G. P., De Lima, H. C., Ashton, P., Baraloto, C., Davies, S., Donoghue, M. J., Kaye, M., Kress, W. J., Lehmann, C. E., Monteagudo, A., Phillips, O. L. & Vasquez, R.  Maximising synergy amongst tropical plant systematists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
  • A.B. Nicotra et al. 2010. Plant phenotypic plasticity in a changing climate. Trends in Plant Sciences. 15: 684-692.

Key words search

biogeography, biodiversity, phylogenetics, dispersal, physiology, plant function, adaptation, conservation, biomes

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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