Improving our understanding of plant diversity to better protect it

What is the phylogenetic and ecological distribution of palm diversity? How can this knowledge inform palm conservation and sustainable use?

Despite its global importance and rapid extinction, biodiversity is far from being completely characterized and the mechanisms of its evolution are not yet fully understood. Conservation work is often planned based on species-level data but by taking infra-specific trait variation and genetic diversity into account, better estimates of species resilience and economic value could be made. In addition, deciphering the respective influences that adaptative phenotypic plasticity, genetic diversity and anatomical constraints have on the evolution of different types of diversity requires to follow an integrative, multidisciplinary, approach. This project aims at documenting palm intra-specific diversity and its environmental and genomic correlates to improve our fundamental understanding of plant biodiversity and to demonstrate how it can inform our actions to protect and benefit from this diversity.

Palms comprise ca. 2500 species mostly inhabiting the tropics and many of them are endangered. The loss of palm resources threatens the livelihoods of millions of people who use them for handcraft, food, timber or medicine. The extant to which palm diversity has been harnessed by humanity has not been fully characterized so far, and the mechanisms at the origin of this diversity are also unclear, especially below the species level. Characterizing palm diversity and its correlates will improve our fundamental understanding of biodiversity and will reveal taxa and areas of high interest or vulnerability. This will be used directly to inform IUCN assessments, important areas delimitation, and useful taxa identification, and indirectly to improve our predictions of species response to global and local changes.

The objectives of the project are (i) increase current knowledge of palm diversity in traits known to influence provision of ecosystem services and species response to climate (e.g.: stem size, leaf size, leaf mass per area, flower number, seed size, genetic diversity), (ii) investigate genomic and/or ecological correlates of variation in these traits, and (iii) explore ways to improve palm conservation and to use palms in a sustainable manner based on this new knowledge on palm diversity. To achieve these objectives, the project will have to be highly multidisciplinary. It will involve databasing and measuring traits in living and herbarium collections at Kew and in other institutions, collecting samples and data in the field, and performing various analyses on the data, such as genome content studies, ecological statistics, population genetics, and species distribution modeling. Field work will be most likely conducted in South-East Asia, where palm diversity is very high, but the precise localities, taxa and traits to be studied will be decided with the student. The results will be published in high impact factors journals and made available for policy makers. Outreach activities will be encouraged and supported.

Kew is a global centre for plant science research tackling urgent environmental challenges, employing c. 250 scientists and >60 PhD students. The unique collections, amassed over 150 years, and comprehensive laboratory facilities, place it at the forefront of botanical research. Kew has a long tradition of palm research, including phylogenomics, taxonomy, ethnobotany, anatomy and development, diversification and evolution. The student will join an active and multidisciplinary research group with extensive international network, and benefit from the substantive existing datasets available at Kew. This project is an exciting opportunity to use the research infrastructure at Kew to answer a pivotal question in the understanding and use of biodiversity. The project will also be co-supervised by Dr William J. Baker, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Aims of the Project

Increase current knowledge of palm diversity in traits relevant for conservation or ecosystem services

Investigate genomic and/or ecological correlates of this diversity

Explore ways to improve palm conservation and management based on this new knowledge

Methods to be used

Anatomical and ecological measures in the field and in ex-situ collections, molecular lab work.

Bioinformatics applied to the analysis of next generation sequencing data.

Statistical inferences of character evolution, population genetics, ecological statistics, species distribution modelling.

Specialised skills required

Training in field, laboratory and bioinformatics skills will be offered. Basic knowledge of any programming language, basic molecular lab work skills, and basics in phylogenetics and/or population genetics and/or ecological studies will be an advantage.

If interested, please contact Richard Grenyer and Sidonie Bellot