New approaches to discovering biodiversity and understanding its response to climate change

From global to local scales, biodiversity - the variety of genes, species and ecosystems - is geographically patchy. Some geographic areas have more species than others (richness) and some have a higher proportion of unique diversity (endemism). Understanding how such “hotspots” of richness and endemism formed and were sustained in response to past environmental change is a key challenge in evolutionary and ecological biology. It is also highly relevant to conservation in the face of rapid environmental change. Improving knowledge of how biodiversity responded to past change, and developing the ability to predict geographic foci of diversity and endemism at relevant spatial scales is central to improving conservation policy, planning and practice. The Australian continent provides a superb template on which to tackle these globally relevant questions as (i) much of its biodiversity has evolved in isolation from that on other land masses, (ii) it represents a single mega-diverse nation encompassing a wide range of biomes, and (iii) there is a rich baseline of information on species distributions and environmental variation to build from. There is also a great opportunity to transform the science underpinning species discovery and biogeography by integrating new capabilities in genomics, phylogenetic inference and spatial modeling with traditional approaches in systematics.

The proposed research aims to:

  1. Improve understanding of biodiversity dynamics in response to climate change.
  2. Develop and test methods for predicting hotspots of genetic and species endemism.
  3. Improve the predictive and analytical power of biogeography and species discovery.
  4. Improve policy and practice relevant to conserving biodiversity.

New technologies will be used to predict and discover biodiversity hotspots in Australia, especially in the, as yet, poorly-known monsoonal tropics. The science that underpins species discovery and understanding of evolutionary history is set to be transformed through rapid advances in genomics, statistical inference and spatial modeling of dynamics. Exploiting the unique biodiversity of Australia, especially lower dispersal taxa across the under-explored monsoonal tropics, this project will harness these methods to improve prediction of biodiversity hotspots, discover diversity and infer evolutionary responses to past climate change.

Opportunities abound for motivated students at all levels to undertake research on phylogeography, phylogenetics, environmental modeling and phenotypic analyses of widespread species and clade that occur across northern Australia. A further goal is to translate results into more effective conservation policy and practice.

This project is supported by an ARC Laureate Fellowship (2012-2017).