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Coomes Group: A hard nut to crack: the evolution, ecology and conservation of tropical oaks


Supervisor: David Coomes (Plant Sciences)
Co-Lead Supervisor: Jeannine Cavender-Bares (University of Minnesota)

Brief summary:

Discover more about the distribution, ecological function and conservation status of tropical oak species (i.e. Lithocarpus) - key elements of montane forests that remain poorly understood.

Importance of the area of research concerned:

Much of SE Asia's lowland forests have been clear over the last 50 years, leaving montane forests as important refugia for wildlife and plants. Lithocarpus species are often key elements of these forests, yet their distribution and ecological function remain poorly understood. The proposed will shine light on the broader significance of montane forests in the region (e.g., see DOI: 10.1111/nph.16091).

Project summary :

There are some 300 species of stone oaks (Lithocarpus species) dispersed across Asia, yet little is known about their ecology or evolution. This contrasts with the advanced state of knowledge about temperate oaks (Quercus species): physiological studies and analyses of trait variation, combined with highly resolved phylogenies, have revealed much about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints associated with adaptation to cold and drought, and about the origins and diversification of the clade. The new project aims to build on this research platform to address some of the following questions: why are stone oaks insect pollinated while oaks are wind pollinated? How is adaptation to aseasonal, cool temperatures on tropical mountains different from adaptation to seasonal cold temperatures at higher latitudes? Do oaks and stone oaks have similar mechanisms to tolerate drought?

What will the student do?:

  • Bring together data on the location of species, taken from herbarium databases and field plots, to map distributions and discuss conservation threats;
  • Collect leaf, root and/or wood samples from Lithocarpus species growing in botanic gardens and the field; collect functional trait information from these samples (e.g. venation patterns, xylem properties etc); map these traits onto a phylogeny, to understand trait evolution using various statistical approaches; sampling will focus on strong water-balance gradients in the region (subject to local permissions);
  • Field observation of pollination of species (if the student selects this question within the set provided).


  • Cannon, C.H., Manos, P.S. 2003 Phylogeography of the Southeast Asian stone oaks (Lithocarpus). Journal of Biogeography 30: 211-226.
  • Cavender‐Bares, J. (2018). Diversification, adaptation, and community assembly of the American oaks (Quercus), a model clade for integrating ecology and evolution. New Phytologist
  • Chen, X, Kohyama, T.S, Cannon, C.H. (2018) Associated morphometric and geospatial differentiation among 98 species of stone oaks (Lithocarpus). PLOS One

For details on how to apply to the Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships see



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