PhD Scholarship: Identifying the Drivers of Macro-Ecological Processes

Friday, 23 February 2018

Ecological niche modelling has been extensively used to describe and predict the distribution of individual species, and the factors that drive their distributions.

Ecological niche modelling has been extensively used to describe and predict the distribution of individual species, and the factors that drive their distributions. This project aims to exploit the power of niche models in a novel way to investigate the ecological conditions which favour the persistence of particular functional traits, rather than of particular species. We will look across species for abiotic and biotic environmental variables, which predict spatial patterns in the prevalence of features such as:

  • The climatic drivers of migration in mammals
    • A recent review by Harris et al. (2009) illustrated how little we know about mammalian migration, but how substantial human impacts on those migrations were.
  • The drivers of stick-nest building in mammals.
    • Species that build stick nests are in some strange places – Neotoma woodrats in the Americas and Leporillus spp in Australia. Are there bioclimatic factors that explain this distribution among taxonomically-distant species?
  • The drivers of hole-drilling bird distribution worldwide
    • Is hole-excavation driven by taxonomy or features of the environment they live (e.g. soft wood with minimal resin)?
  • The drivers of facial ornamentation in micro bats.
    • Obviously facial features have evolved to direct echolocations to the ears, but the diversity of facial features to do this suggests there are features of the environment/habitat that each species uses that drives their shape.
  • The drivers of a subterranean life
    • Do species live in burrows for thermal tolerance solely or are there are other factors at play (glacial history, soil characteristics, etc).
  • The drivers of gliding in mammals or of myrmecophagy or hibernation
Clearly, there are a multitude of macro-ecological hypotheses to test, and this field has already began to develop (da Silva et al. 2017).
We will use ecological niche modelling of the distribution records of groups of species exhibiting each functional trait under investigation. We will focus on mammals and birds, for which distribution data and information about functional traits are relatively complete and reliable. Data on traits will be obtained from literature searches. Environmental predictor variables will include the standard 19 BIOCLIM variables, as well as plausible biotic drivers such as the distribution of particular prey/food and predator species, productivity (NDVI), soil nutrient levels or hardness, etc. depending on the particular hypothesis being studied.
This study is important because a) understanding global patterns of biodiversity is a key objective if we are to understand and manage the impacts of environmental change; our novel approach will add a functional context to existing research exploring drivers of species distributions and therefore this research is of central importance in measuring, predicting and conserving biodiversity; b) the work is inter-disciplinary in nature, bringing together functional ecology and macroecological modeling in a novel way; and c) the work will have direct management implications to conservation stakeholders tasked with conserving macroecological processes, as well as species.


University of Newcastle Research Scholarship: $27,082 p.a. (2018 rate), indexed in January each year for three and a half years.


This scholarship is suited to a student with an honours degree and an interest and ideally experience with modelling, biogeography and macro-ecology. Visit the higher degree by research scholarships website for further information about eligibility criteria (

This opportunity is available to domestic and international students.


Expressions of interest should include a cover letter explaining your research, experience with ecological modelling, understanding of biogeography and interest in macroecology;  a copy of your academic record; a curriculum vitae (cv) and 3 referees and be sent to by 5pm, Friday 23th February 2018.

For more information please contact:

Contact Name: Associate Professor Matt Hayward
Phone: +61 2 4921 7472

APPLICATIONS CLOSE 23th February, 2018

Find out more about applying for PhD and research masters at UON