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Coomes Group: Hyperspectral analysis of plant biodiversity and evolution


Supervisor: David Coomes (Plant Sciences
Co-Supervisors: Samuel Brockington (Plant Sciences) and Ulf Büntgen (Geography)

Importance of the area of research concerned:

Shaped by their evolutionary histories, plant lineages differ in leaf anatomy, morphology and metabolic properties. These properties, in turn, affect the amount of light that leaves absorb, transmit and reflect in different wavelengths (i.e. their electromagnetic spectrum). It is increasingly realised that spectral measurement provides a powerful approach for integrating biodiversity science with evolutionary and remote sensing science. For example, spectral maps obtained by flying spectrometers over vegetation are being used to map plant traits and assess spatial variation in plant biodiversity over unexplored tropical rainforests. Several space agencies are launching imaging spectrometers in recognition of the key role that spectral analyses could play in monitoring the rapidly changing biodiversity of our planet. However, we first need to gain a clearer understanding of the links between plant traits, phylogeny and spectra across the entire plant kingdom.

Project summary:

The project will involve measuring leaf traits, stem traits and spectra of about 300 plant species, selected from the living collection of 8000 species held at the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. These traits will be mapped onto a phylogeny and onto species distribution models, giving us fresh insights into the evolution of functional traits at a global scale.

What will the student do?

The student will measure 20 physico-chemical traits for leaves and stems of about 300 species sampled from our wonderful Botanic Garden. Leaf spectra of species will also be measured using a field spectrometer. The student will construct a phylogeny and map the distribution of each species using GBIF or other databases. Analyses of trait variation within the phylogeny will be used to test hypotheses regarding the evolution of plants and establish the links between traits, evolution and spectra.


  • Cavendar-Bares et al. (2017) Harnessing plant spectra to integrate the biodiversity sciences across biological and spatial scales. American Journal of Botany
  • Chadwick, K. D. & Asner, G. P. 2016. Organismic‐scale remote sensing of canopy foliar traits in lowland tropical forests. Remote Sensing of Environment vol 8, pp 87-92.
  • Jetz, W. et al. 2016. Monitoring plant functional diversity from space. Nature Plants: 16024.

Apply to: The NERC DTP programme


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