Human impacts on biodiversity

Principal Investigator

Professor Andy Purvis

Project summary

  • Focus: to model the response of biodiversity to environmental changes caused by human activity
  • Funding: NERC

We are modelling the response of different biosystems to environmental changes caused by human activity.

Human activities are causing major changes in biological communities worldwide, and these changes can harm biodiversity and ecosystem function. Ecosystem function is important for supporting plant and animal communities, and ensuring the long-term survival of human populations.

The main threats facing biodiversity globally are:

  • destruction, degradation and fragmentation of habitats
  • reduction of individual survival and reproductive rates through exploitation, pollution and introduction of alien species.

However, species do not all respond equally to these threats. Declines often show strong phylogenetic and ecological patterns.

So there is an urgent need to model the response of biodiversity on the intensity of threat and the species' ecological attributes.

By fully understanding the declines we can make projections to inform policy.


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

PREDICTS is a collaborative project that uses approaches similar to meta-analyses to investigate how local biodiversity typically responds to human pressures, such as land-use change, pollution, invasive species and infrastructure.

We collate comparisons of site-level biodiversity from scientific literature and using them to model inter-site biodiversity differences, in terms of human pressures faced by each site. We have collated more than 500 data sets, covering greater than 30,000 species from nearly 20,000 sites worldwide.

Discover the huge dataset helping us make predictions about future biodiversity changes. Ultimately, we aim to improve our ability to predict future biodiversity changes.

Map showing the location of the first 19,000 sites in the PREDICTS database.

Map showing the location of the first 19,000 sites in the PREDICTS database. For the full version see the PREDICTS website.

PhD projects

We have several PhD research projects investigating specific biodiversity questions.

  • Pollinator diversity
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Soil biodiversity

Modelling and projecting pollinator diversity and pollination provision in agricultural systems under change

PhD student: Adriana De Palma

Adriana has collated spatio-temporally explicit data on pollinator diversity in agricultural landscapes across the globe from the published literature. She is using this vast dataset, which spans more than 2,500 sites and 750 species, to model and project species responses to land-use change and intensification.

She is also exploring new ways to quantify land-use intensity and habitat degradation using remotely-sensed data.

Bumble bee collecting nectar and pollen from a flower.

Bumble bee collecting nectar and pollen from a flower. © Lawrence Hudson

The effect of habitat fragmentation and land-use change on biodiversity

PhD student: Helen Phillips

Helen works closely with the PREDICTS project, focusing on two main topics:

1) Quantifying the effects on biodiversity of the transitions between three different land-uses:

  • primary forest
  • secondary forest
  • plantation forest in the tropics, with emphasis on the effect of oil palm plantations.

2) Investigating the effect of habitat loss and fragmentation on biodiversity, using remote-sensed images to gain metrics of habitat fragmentation that can then be related to local measures of biodiversity.

Palm oil plantation in Indonesia

Palm oil plantation in Indonesia. © Achmad Rabin Taim, Wikimedia Creative Commons, CCA 2.0.

Statistical models of how soil biodiversity and ecosystem function respond to human impacts in UK ecosystems

PhD student: Victoria Burton

Nearly all studies of the effects of land use change on the biota only consider above-ground biodiversity and most focus on taxa not strongly linked to key ecosystem services.

Not enough is known about impacts on the biotas of the soil and leaf litter, despite their importance in developing soil structure and composition, nutrient cycling and water drainage.

Victoria aims to develop an integrative understanding of soil biodiversity and UK ecosystems, combining:

  • new data collection
  • citizen science approaches
  • analysis of existing data from monitoring and survey projects around the UK
  • compilation of already-published data from similar biomes worldwide.
Britain's largest earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris

Britain's largest earthworm, Lumbricus terrestris

Museum staff

External collaborators


Hudson, L., Newbold, T., Contu, S., Hill, S.L.L., Lysenko, I., De Palma, A., Phillips, H.R.P., and 236 other authors (2014), The PREDICTS database: a global database of how local terrestrial biodiversity responds to human impacts. Ecol & Evol, 4:4701-4735.

Tuck, S., Phillips, H. R. P., Hintzen, R. E., Scharlemann, J. P. W., Purvis, A. & Hudson, L. (2014). MODISTools: downloading and processing MODIS remotely-sensed data in R. Ecol & Evol, 4:4658-4668.

Newbold, T., Hudson, L., Phillips, H. R. P., Hill, S. L. L., Contu, S., Lysenko, I., Blandon, A., Butchart, S. H. M., Booth, H. L., Day, J., De Palma, A., Harrison, M. L. K., Kirkpatrick, L., Paynegar, E., Robinson, A., Simpson, J., Mace, G. M., Scharlemann, J. P. W. & Purvis, A. (2014). A global model of the response of tropical and sub-tropical forest biodiversity to anthropogenic pressures. P Roy Soc B-Biol Sci, 281, 20141371.

Mace, G. M., Reyers, B., Alkemade, R., Biggs, R., Chapin III, S., Cornell, S. E., Díaz, S., Jennings, S., Leadley, P., Mumby, P. J., Purvis, A., Scholes, R. J., Seddon, A., Solan, M., Steffen, W. & Woodward, G. (2014). Approaches to defining a planetary boundary for biodiversity. Global Env Change, 28, 289-297.

Diaz, S., Purvis, A., Cornelissen, J. H. C., Mace, G. M., Donoghue, M. J., Ewers, R. M., Jordano, P. & Pearse, W. D. (2013). Functional traits, the phylogeny of function, and ecosystem service vulnerability. Ecol Evol, 3, 2958-2975.

Funded by


Biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity

Diversity and informatics research

Researching undiscovered diversity in megadiverse systems using big data


The Museum’s 80 million specimens form the world’s most important natural history collection