Biography

I am an evolutionary biologist and I am fascinated by biodiversity and the processes that govern its distribution. My research focuses on questions such as: Why are some areas biologically richer than others? Why have certain lineages been successful and others less so? These questions necessarily require a comparative phylogenetic perspective contrasting the diversity of closely related taxa in different areas and different taxa in the same areas.My practical research has been focused on the continent of Africa where I have invested substantial effort in fieldwork to support my research and in training students from home and abroad.

Qualifications

Privatdozent in Biogeography at the University of Basel, Switzerland (2014)

Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Glasgow and Natural History Museum, UK. (2005)

M.Sc. Advanced methods in Biodiversity and Taxonomy from Imperial College and the Natural History Museum, London (1999)

B.Sc. Zoology from University of Leeds (1998)

Research interests

I have particular specialist research expertise and interest in biogeography, systematics, vertebrate biology, molecular evolution, herpetology, and conservation.

Research projects

Most of my projects involve the following aspects:

Biological history and diversity of the Eastern Afromontane Region and Coastal Forests of East Africa

Eastern Afromontane Region and Coastal Forests of East Africa are biodiversity hotspots with remarkable patterns of endemism. Many taxa are restricted to single areas of, a pattern thought to reflect a history of persistent but fluctuating forest cover. In contrast other areas show lower diversity and species with more widespread distributions - indicative of more recent historical processes. Principally using amphibians - a group considered especially sensitive to environmental change - I am investigating the evolutionary relationships of different amphibian groups in order to understand biogeographic patterns in these areas.

East Africa amphibian diversity and conservation

Amphibians are an important component of tropical assemblages, however many species are threatened with extinction. The rapid declines in amphibian species numbers - greater than that seen for any other vertebrates - are correlated with a number of factors - including habitat change, UV radiation and fungal disease. Habitat loss and habitat over-utilization seem to account for many of the declines, but other 'unidentified processes' threaten amphibian species. So far, few conservation measures have been suggested which could mitigate amphibian declines, and this means many hundreds of amphibian species across the globe face an increasing extinction threat. Throughout Africa, therefore, long-term fieldwork on amphibian distribution, ecology and systematics is required in order to understand the conservation risks to amphibians, and to find ways to mitigate the increasing number of declines and extinctions.

Current species estimates are likely to underestimate diversity in East Africa because of the general paucity of previous research and the lack of modern molecular techniques to address species limits. We predict that there is substantially higher species diversity than current estimates suggest. Furthermore, East Africa has also been strongly impacted by human-induced habitat change. Natural habitats are increasingly being lost and this poses a serious risk to species associated with restricted habitats, such as amphibian species of the montane region.

Bioinformatics in Biodiversity Research

Tools are increasingly required to manage and access the burgeoning amount and types of biological data being generated. We have developed an integrated data management system for taxonomic data that allows subsequent dissemination of taxonomic knowledge. Our database focuses on amphibians found in the Eastern Afromontane Region of Africa - an area designated as a biodiversity hotspot, poorly understood with a large undescribed cryptic diversity and highly threatened. Biological data has been obtained from over 20 years of fieldwork and previous historical collections. The database is based on FileMaker, MySQL, and Java. It allows the storage of different types of data including genetic, morphological, distribution records, acoustic, and images. All data can be queried and searched for and subsequently exported in a range of formats. One important aspect is the implementation of BLAST in the database that allows the querying of genetic data against GenBank and other new unpublished genetic data simultaneously (including genetic similarity scores and adjustable cut-off %). This allows rapid and comprehensive barcoding of new and unknown samples including easy data extraction for making phylogenetic trees.

People

Towards these projects I have established a research group aimed towards addressing these questions. I am currently establishing a new group in the University of Roehampton having started in September 2015. Below are colleagues I worked with in Basel and for many remain collaborating on various projects:

Current PhD Students:
Chris Barratt: Using Next Generation Sequencing data to estimate the Biodiversity value of the Coastal Forests of East Africa. Funded by Humer Foundation. Aim to finish 2016.
Gabriela Bittencourt Silva: Lacuna Mozambique: completing the Afromontane biodiversity hotspot jigsaw. Funded by ESKAS foreign scholarship. Aim to finish 2016.
Beryl Bwong: How Hot? Are the Shimba Hills of Kenya part of the Eastern Arc Biodiversity Hotspot. Funded by Stipendienkommission für Nachwuchskräfte aus Entwicklungsländern. Aim to finish 2016.
Michele Menegon: Biogeography of the Eastern Afromontane Region of Africa; Supervised by Stuart J Marsden (main supervisor), Simon Loader (University of Roehampton) and Tim Davenport (Wildlife Conservation Society). Aim to finish October 2015.

Bio-informatics technician:

Reto Hagman: BNF/SNF funded Researcher on African Biogeography and Bioinformatics.

Former Post-doctoral Researcher:
Dr Christoph Liedtke: On The Periphery: Does Peripatric Speciation Promote Rainforest Diversity In East Africa? Funded by Nachwuchsförderung University of Basel.
Dr Vaclav Gvozdik: Post doc: Speciation in Sky Islands. Sciex Fellow.
Dr Sara Ceccarelli: BNF funded Researcher on African Biogeography

Former PhD Students:
Christoph Liedtke: The evolution of terrestrial breeding in african amphibians. Funded by Swiss National Science Foundation.
Abebe Ameha Mengistu: Systematics of the Amphibian fauna of Highland Ethiopia. Funded by Stipendienkommission für Nachwuchskräfte aus Entwicklungsländern.

Former MSc group members:
Julian Hafner: MSc on Putting the optimal range expansion phenotype to the test
Steve Leiser: MSc on Co-diversification patterns of East African squeaker Frogs
Maita Laserna de Himpsl: BNF funded Researcher on African Biogeography
Sandra Dürrenberger: MSc on New approaches for formulating conservation priorities in the Southern Highlands, Tanzania
Dominic Hugli: MSc on Barcoding Rwandan Amphibians
Christian Riesterer: MSc on Historical biogeography of Eastern Arc leaf folding frogs ; co-supervised with Walter Salzburger
Sandra Rudolf: MSc on Across the Makambako gap
Simon Steiner: MSc on Soil microarthropods: spatial patterns and bar-coding; co-supervised with Jan Beck
Silvia Schwaller: MSc on Environmental change in Harenna Forest, Ethiopia; co-supervised with Dr Juerg Utzinger
Johannes Darnuzer: MSc on Phylogeography of Crunoecia irrorata; co-supervised with Stefanie von Fumetti

Professional affiliations

Swiss Systematic Society Board member (2013 - 2015)

Honorary Scientific Associate of the Natural History Museum, London (2007- onwards): Carrying out collaborative research on systematics and biogeography.

Associate Editor of Herpetological Journal (2011 - onwards).

Co-Organiser for 2012 African Amphibian Working Group Meeting in Trento, Italy.

Co-Organiser for IUCN Red Listing of Threatened Amphibians of Africa 2012 in Trento, Italy.

Consultancy work

Contracted to carry out biodiversity surveys (Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia)

Assisting in setting up Natural History Museum collection and training of curators (Cambodia, Mozambique)

Teaching

I teach on UG modules "Biosciences Research Methods", "Animal Biology 1" and the week-long "Biosciences Research Methods" based in Wales during late Spring. I supervise a number of second year project proposals, third year independent studies, and third year projects, which often look at Systematics of African organisms and biogeography of East Africa.

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