Project 4: Projected effect of global change on species’ change in extinction risk

This project aims at assigning species to archetypes of life-history traits, and project changes in extinction risk under plausible scenarios. Based at Sapienza Università di Roma (Rome, Italy), with a secondment to BirdLife International (Cambridge, UK; 6 months).

This is Project 4 out of 15 PhD positions currently available as part of the Inspire4Nature training programme. Deadline for applications: 23 April 2018 at 12:00 (mid-day) Brussels time. We are no longer accepting applications to this project.

PhD topic

Life-history traits are generally defined as those traits that are directly connected with fitness, such as fecundity, reproductive time and survival. A variety of studies have found that species displaying certain traits are more prone to extinction than others (Cardillo et al., 2008; Di Marco et al., 2014). Traits that are commonly associated with extinction risk are high body mass, long lifespan, reduced number of litters produced, and high specificity in habitat and diet. In addition, in the specific context of risk from climate change, the intrinsic characteristics of species considered are related to their ability to tolerate climatic changes or to adjust to them (e.g., ability to disperse, thermal tolerances; Pacifici et al., 2017). Therefore, identifying the biological traits that make a species more sensitive to climate change could help optimizing conservation action by directing efforts in research and habitat protection to those species that are most likely to be threatened by climate change. Mammals and birds are ideal taxonomic groups to investigate this relationship, since they have large databases of trait information already available (Jones et al. 2009, Tacutu et al. 2013, Wilman et al. 2014).

This project will aim at identifying those life-history traits that are related to higher sensitivity to climate change. These traits will be then grouped into archetypes, and then combined with spatially explicit climatic data. Some species may fall into more than one group, i.e. may respond differently in different parts of their range. These data will be used to identify species that are likely to become at risk in the near future, if certain environmental conditions will occur, thus helping future Red List assessments. The final output of this project will be the projection of plausible future changes in extinction risk based on changes in drivers (climate and land use change).

Related references

  • Butchart, SHM, et al. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328.5982 (2010): 1164-1168.
  • Cardillo, M, et al. The predictability of extinction: biological and external correlates of decline in mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 275.1641 (2008): 1441-1448.
  • Di Marco, M, et al. Drivers of extinction risk in African mammals: the interplay of distribution state, human pressure, conservation response and species biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 369.1643 (2014): 20130198.
  • Jones, KE., et al. PanTHERIA: a species‐level database of life history, ecology, and geography of extant and recently extinct mammals. Ecology 90.9 (2009): 2648-2648.
  • Pacifici, M, et al. Species' traits influenced their response to recent climate change. Nature Climate Change 7.3 (2017): 205-208.
  • Rondinini, C, et al. Global habitat suitability models of terrestrial mammals. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 366.1578 (2011): 2633-2641.
  • Tacutu, R, et al. Human Ageing Genomic Resources: integrated databases and tools for the biology and genetics of ageing. Nucleic acids research 41.D1 (2012): D1027-D1033.
  • Wilman, H, et al. EltonTraits 1.0: Species‐level foraging attributes of the world's birds and mammals. Ecology 95.7 (2014): 2027-2027.

Institutional context and supervision

The PhD student will be hired by the Global Mammal Assessment (GMA) programme at Sapienza Università di Roma, the largest University in Europe, and enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Doctoral Program in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology. The student will be physically based at the GMA lab in the Zoology building (Sapienza), in Rome, Italy. The GMA is the leading conservation group operating in the Department of Biology and Biotechnologies. The academic supervisors of the project will be Carlo Rondinini, coordinator of the GMA and Research Scientist, and Michela Pacifici, Postdoc Researcher in the GMA lab.

This project is in close collaboration with BirdLife International, the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, whose work focuses on the conservation of birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. The student will interact in strongly with the Science, Policy and Information Management Department, which carries out research to underpin the conservation programmes of the BirdLife Partnership, identifying priorities for policy and action. There, s/he will be supervised by Stuart Butchart (Chief Scientist). The student will spend 6 months at the BirdLife's headquarters in Cambridge, UK, in the David Attenborough Building. This building houses nine conservation organisations and several departments of the University of Cambridge, who together form the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Ideal candidate

Candidates must meet all the general eligibility conditions applicable to all Inspire4Nature PhD positions, as described under “check if you are eligible” in this page. In particular: candidates cannot have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in Italy for more than 12 months within the previous 3 years, and must be early-stage researchers (no PhD yet, within the first 4 years of their research careers). In addition:

Required for this position:

  • An enthusiasm for Science in general and for Ecology in particular.
  • A commitment to biodiversity conservation.
  • A strong academic record in Ecology or a related field.
  • A Master’s Degree or equivalent.
  • Having previously completed at least one individual research project lasting ≥ 3 months (e.g. a Master’s thesis).
  • Good proficiency in English: at least B2 level in understanding, speaking and writing as defined by the European Language Levels Self-Assessment Grid.
  • Proficiency in the R language, GIS software (GRASS GIS, ArcGIS/QGIS), Bash programming languages.
  • Experience in species distribution modelling, scenario projections, climate change vulnerability assessments
  • Good knowledge of statistical analyses.
  • Good collaborative skills.

Desirable for this position:

  • Conversational skills in Italian and/or Spanish.
  • Experience in Geographic Information Systems.
  • Experience in scientific communication and outreach.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview planned for the 6th-8th June - please keep these dates open.

Useful links


For any questions regarding application procedures, check this page first. If you cannot find your answer there, contact us. For any questions regarding the scientific content and institutional context of the PhD, contact Dr. Carlo Rondinini and Dra. Michela Pacifici

Ready to apply?

For the instructions on how to prepare and submit your application, go to this page. Pay close attention to the specificities of the application procedure for positions with Sapienza University of Rome: besides the documents required to apply to all Inspire4Nature positions, you will need to fill additional forms specific to the University of Rome. You should then submit your application file directly by email to the University of Rome.

Only applications that are complete, in English, that respect the instructions in this page and that have been submitted before the deadline (23 April 2018 at 12:00, mid-day) will be considered eligible.

 We are no longer accepting applications to this project.


 Academic Host

    Sapienza Università di Roma 
Rome, Italy
        Carlo Rondinini
        Michela Pacifici


    BirdLife International
Cambridge, UK
        Stu Butchart