Funded PhD in Brazilian savanna restoration


University of Exeter


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Start Date

Monday, January 4, 2021

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for the WWF/Exeter Alumni PhD Studentship in Brazilian Savanna Restoration, to commence in January 2021 or as soon as possible thereafter.  The studentship will cover tuition fees (Home or International) plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in Geography and the Global Systems Institute in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Location: Geography, Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project Description

In collaboration with WWF, this PhD will work on plugging a science gap to allow the generation of new tools to facilitate large-scale restoration of the Cerrado (savanna) biome in Brazil. The Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Brazil, housing numerous different vegetation physiognomies ranging from closed-canopy dry forests, to open grassland. The native vegetation is vital for supplying up to 43% of Brazil’s surface water, yet it remains <20% intact, due to intensive land-use change, primarily for agriculture. Brazil has recognised the need to restore large areas of the Cerrado through committing to restore up to 5 million hectares of the Cerrado by 2030. This would drastically increase ecosystem service provision through improving water security, increasing carbon sequestration, improving the supply of pollinators to both large and small-scale agriculture and securing local livelihoods for some of the poorest communities in Brazil. However, despite Brazil’s targets, no form of general guidance exists on how to restore Cerrado vegetation effectively in a manner that promotes long-term sustainability, particularly given that any vegetation restored now will likely be facing a different climate by the time the ecosystem matures.

In this PhD we will develop techniques through integrating species distribution modelling with a understanding of plant function to develop the means to predict what is the optimal vegetation to restore in different areas of the Cerrado. This will require a renewed focus on understanding what controls the mosaic structure of the Cerrado, where vegetation can vary from closed canopy forest to grassland across small geographic gradients. These issues will be addressed through a focus on three key objectives:

1. Integrating plant species occurrence data across climate and soil gradients within the Cerrado biome
2. Collecting new botanical inventory data in areas which lack key data on species occurrences
3. Understanding the function and environmental limits of key Cerrado plant species and how this may change under future climates.

These objectives will be achieved through extensive field campaigns in forests, savannas and grasslands across the Cerrado. These objectives remain intentionally broad, as the specifics of how they can be addressed will be determined through the candidate co-designing a cutting-edge field research programme with the supervisory team. This plan will specify focal research questions, as well as what to measure in the field. This studentship will complement existing research projects led by all three supervisors and involving joining a large team of world-renowned scientists, with specialisms ranging from restoration and conservation policy, plant functional trait analysis, plant biodiversity and species niche modelling. This provides the candidate with a breath of research specialism to draw upon, when designing their research.

With the support of WWF we envisage the results from this PhD contributing to the creation of a new online application that can help land-owners to identify the most optimal species to plant in order to promote long-term, climate-smart restoration, which can generate key ecosystem services including water and carbon sequestration providing local economic return.

This project has been made possible thanks to the support of WWF and Exeter alumni.