Projects

Our group's research aims broadly to understand how human activities are altering the structure and diversity of ecological communities, and what the consequences of these changes are for human societies. Our work falls within a number of (often overlapping) research projects.

Quantifying and Predicting Land-use and Climate Effects on Biodiversity

Land use and climate are likely to present the two greatest pressures on biodiversity in the coming decades, but our understanding of their joint and interacting effects is still very limited. Much of our recent work has sought to quantify the effects of land use and climate on biodiversity, and to make predictions about the future effects of these pressures.

This work has been funded primarily by my University Research Fellowship from the Royal Society, but also by a Research grant and an International Exchanges grant, also from the Royal Society. This work has been carried out mainly by Tim, Jess, Adrienne, Gonzalo and Chloe, in collaboration mainly with Andy Purvis and Jeremy Kerr.

There have been four key aspects to this work:

  1. Improving understanding of land-use impacts on biodiversity. This started with my work on the PREDICTS Project (see under Past Projects, below). More recently, we have investigated which species are most impacted by land use (positively and negatively), demonstrating that species with certain traits and belonging to particular functional groups are most impacted by land-use change (Newbold et al., 2020), that rare species are disproportionately lost while common species gain with human land use (Newbold et al., 2018; Sykes et al., 2020), and also that human disease hosts are favoured by human land-use disturbance (Gibb et al., 2020). We also contributed to a big collaborative study, showing that coordinated international action might permit a 'bending of the curve' of global biodiversity loss from land-use change (Leclère et al., 2020).
  2. Improving understanding of climate impacts on biodiversity. We have been developing a new method for understanding climate impacts, allowing a general way to estimate when species become exposed to climatic conditions beyond their limits. This method has been used to show the clearest signal yet of climate change on observed bumblebee declines over the past century (Soroye et al., 2020).
  3. Quantifying the combined biodiversity impacts from land-use change and climate change. We have been combining models of land-use and climate impacts to understand the relative threat to biodiversity from each of these pressures, and to understand which regions of the world are most at risk. We have shown that climate is likely to match or overtake land use as the major driver of biodiversity declines by the middle of this century (Newbold, 2018), and that tropical and Mediterranean ecosystems are most at risk from both pressures (Newbold et al., 2020).
  4. Understanding the effects on biodiversity of interactions between land-use change and climate change. We have begun to explore the potential for land-use-climate interactions. So far, we have mainly reviewed (Williams & Newbold, 2020) and explored the biodiversity effects of local climatic changes brought about by land-use change (Williams et al., 2020).

Biodiversity Interactions and Trade-offs with Agriculture (BIOTA)

Agriculture is one of the main drivers of biodiversity changes on land, but itself depends on the many ecosystem services that biodiversity provides. The BIOTA Project aims to understand the feedbacks, interactions and trade-offs between agriculture and biodiversity loss, and the role of international trade in these relationships.

BIOTA is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Natural Environment Research Council. BIOTA is a collaboration with Carole Dalin. Work is mainly carried out by Charlie, Monica, Joe and Tim.

We recently published a review of the gaps in current research on biodiversity-agriculture-trade linkages (Ortiz et al., 2021).

The research within the BIOTA Project has three main objectives:

  1. To identify the situations where agriculture has a lesser or greater impact on biodiversity. We are using the PREDICTS database (see under past projects, below) to understand how characteristics of agricultural systems and the surrounding landscape influence the biodiversity within those systems (Outhwaite et al., in review).
  2. To understand how agriculture impacts groups of species known to support agriculture (specifically, pollinators and pest controllers). We have developed a method for searching the literature to identify species likely to be pollinators or pest controllers. We have applied this method to identify as many pollinator species, across many different species groups worldwide (Millard et al., 2020). We have used this list as a basis for exploring how pollinators respond to land use (Millard et al., in press). We are now also applying the same method for pest-controlling species. As part of our collaborative project on bumblebees (see below), which are an important group of pollinators, we have also shown the clearest signal yet of climate change on bumblebee declines (Soroye et al., 2020).
  3. To understand the role of international trade in driving agriculture-biodiversity relationships. So far our work on trade has focused on agriculture in the Philippines, in a paper led by Monica (Ortiz & Torres, 2020). We are currently working on global studies of the biodiversity impacts of trade, jointly with our work on the TRADE Hub (see below).

Global Insect Threat-Response Synthesis (GLITRS)

Several recent studies have highlighted steep declines in insect population and distributions. The GLITRS Project, which is led by Nick Isaac, aims to understand insect declines and their consequences.

GLITRS is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Natural Environment Research Council. Our contribution to GLITRS is carried out mainly by Charlie and Tim.

GLITRS has four main objectives:

  1. To collect the best data on insect biodiversity trends worlwide.
  2. To develop a threat-response model to understand insect biodiversity trends.
  3. To confront our model of insect trends with data to assess where key uncertainties and knowledge gaps lie.
  4. To explore the consequences of insect declines for a range of ecosystem functions and services.

Land-use and climate impacts on bumblebee biodiversity

Bumblebees are an important group of species for pollinating both wild plants and crops, but have been shown to be in steep decline at least in North America and Europe. In this project, we are exploring how land-use change and climate change are driving changes in bumblebee communities.

This project was funded by an International Exchanges grant from the Royal Society, and is undertaken in collaboration with Peter Soroye and Jeremy Kerr at the University of Ottawa. In our group, the research is mainly carried out by Jess and Tim.

So far in this project, we have shown the clearest signal yet of climate change in observed bumblebee declines over the last century (Soroye et al., 2020). We are now exploring how the effects of land use interact with the effects of climate change.

Social and environmental trade-offs in African agriculture (Sentinel)

Africa is expected to see rapid land-use changes to meet growing human demands for food. The Sentinel Project is investigating how ongoing and potential future changes in African agriculture are influencing social and environmental outcomes in three sub-Saharan African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia.

The Sentinel Project is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, and led by Barbara Adolph. Our contribution to Sentinel is led by Abbie, Lizzie and Tim.

At UCL, we are exploring how current land-use patterns encroach on areas of importance for biodiversity (Chapman et al., in review), how historical land-use changes have impacted biodiversity and people, and how future land-use changes may impact biodiversity.

The Dynamics of African Ecosystems Under Multiple Human Pressures

Africa is a particularly interesting case study for trying to understand human effects on ecological communities. African ecosystems are expected to be exposed to high levels of several important pressures on biodiversity: climate change, land-use change and bushmeat hunting. Data on the structure of ecological communities in Africa is sparse and patchy, thus predicting the effects of human activities across the whole of the continent remains a challenge.

The Dynamics of African Ecosystems Project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Work on this project done by Georgina, Lizzie and Tim.

In this project, we are making improvements to the Madingley General Ecosystem Model (see below) to make it better able to represent the effects of human pressures on ecosystems, and then using the improved model to make predictions about the past and future effects of land use, climate and bushmeat hunting on the structure of ecological communities. In order to test whether our predictions agree with observed changes, we are also conducting empirical analyses using the PREDICTS database (see below). So far, we have compared predictions of the status and future of biodiversity in African tropical grasslands and savannas made by models from the PREDICTS Project with predictions made by the Madingley Model (Newbold et al., 2017), and we have investigated how removal of vegetation from ecosystems (caused, for example, by human land use) is likely to impact the structure of ecosystems (Newbold et al., 2020; Bartlett et al., 2017). We have also conducted empirical analyses to test how effects of land use on species differ across the functional groups used in the Madingley Model (Newbold et al., 2020), and to explore the impacts of land use on African ecosystems (Jung et al., 2017), and in under-studied dryland ecosystems (Garcia-Vega & Newbold, 2020). Finally, we contributed to a study exploring how different biodiversity indicators capture the effects of human actions (Hill et al., 2016).

Trade, Development and the Environment (TRADE) Project

I am involved in the massive GCRF-funded, WCMC-led TRADE Project. This project aims to understand how changes in international trade policies, ongoing and in the future, are impacting the environment. We will be hiring a post-doctoral research assistant for this project in the near future.

The Madingley Model

A few years ago, I was part of the team that developed the first global General Ecosystem Model (Purves et al., 2013; Harfoot et al., 2014). This is a mechanistic, individual-based model of the dynamics of ecological communities. It represents all plants, and all animal organisms larger than 10 μg. There are several completed (but as yet unpublished) and ongoing analyses using the Madingley Model to understand and predict the effects of human activities on the structure and dynamics of ecosystems (see also Dynamics of African Ecosystems Project, above).

James Rosindell at Imperial College London and I have recently been awarded a grant to use neutral-theory simulations to convert Madingley Model outputs into predictions of species richness, thus making the model more comparable with other models currently in use and more relevant to applied conservation questions. The Imperial College component of this project is now up and running. We will be hiring a post-doctoral research assistant at UCL shortly.

Species Traits and Responses to Human Pressures

A lot of my work over the past few years has investigated how the ecological characteristics of species influence the way that they respond to environmental change driven by human pressures. One piece of work showed that for bird species in tropical forests, large-sized, slow-breeding, non-migratory forest specialists with diets of fruits and invertebrates respond to more to land use than other species (Newbold et al., 2013). By projecting these models onto maps of land use, we estimated the consequences of trait-mediated responses to land use for the diversity and functional structure of forest bird communities across the tropics (Newbold et al., 2014a). I have also done some work trying to answer similar questions - but for more species than just birds - using the PREDICTS data. So far the only published work is that showing that traits of bees influence their responses to land use (De Palma et al., 2015), but there are more analyses ongoing.

Related to this work, I have also been interested recently in whether rare and common species respond differently to environmental changes, especially human land use. We had a recent paper showing that geographically rare species are consistently lost in human land use while common species increase (Newbold et al., 2018). I have a couple of other pieces of work on the same topic currently underway.

▼ Past Projects (click to expand) ▼

Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems (PREDICTS)

Before moving to UCL, I worked full time on the PREDICTS Project, and I am still involved as project partner. In the first phase project, we compiled a global database (now publicly available) of observed land-use effects on species in ecological communities. The database currently contains over 3 million records, from nearly 30,000 locations on the planet, for more than 50,000 species including invertebrates, vertebrates, plants and fungi (Hudson et al., 2014). These data were used to generate global models relating biodiversity to land use (Newbold et al., 2014b; Newbold et al., 2015). By projecting the models onto global maps of land use (historical, current and under future scenarios), we have made predictions about the status and possible futures for the diversity of ecological communities (Newbold et al., 2015; Newbold et al., 2016). We also conducted analyses showing the effects of land use on the turnover in species composition among land uses (Newbold et al., 2016), showing that protected areas are effective in conserving local species diversity even where humans use the land for agriculture (Gray et al., 2016), and showing that traits of bee species influence their responses to land use (De Palma et al., 2015.

Species Distribution Models as a Tool for Conservation

In my PhD I investigated the use of species distribution models for guiding conservation, particularly in the context of Egypt. At the time one of my PhD supervisors, Francis Gilbert, was on sabbatical in Egypt running - together with Samy Zalat - the BioMAP Project, which was collating recorded sightings of species in Egypt. I used these data to develop distribution models, which I used to estimate patterns of species richness (Newbold et al., 2009a), and to show that ecological characteristics of butterfly species influence how well their distributions correlate with climatic conditions (Newbold et al., 2009b). I also conducted fieldwork to show that the distribution models gave a reasonable estimation of species' distributions (Newbold et al., 2010), and wrote a review of the use of museum data for modelling species' distributions (Newbold, 2010).