Project Highlights:

  • Field work in the Amazon rainforest to quantify the role of insects in an important component of the tropical carbon cycle.
  • Modelling to explore impact of these results on carbon cycling under future predicted climate scenarios
  • Collaboration with local Peruvian Scientists and NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation)


Accurately measuring carbon fluxes in tropical forests is important due to their role in understanding and mitigating climate change. However, gaps remain in our understanding of factors affecting wood decomposition, an important component of the carbon cycle. Termites which are a functionally dominant force in tropical forests play a direct role in wood decomposition as well as an interactive role with the microbial and fungal communities which drive wood decay. These factors have never been assessed in the Western Amazon region which means an important driver of the global carbon cycle is yet to be fully understood. This project will address this gap.

The forest composition of Western Amazonia is driven by fluvial dynamics, with a difference of 10 metres in height between high water season and low water season (Figure 1). This phenomenon influences the spatial and temporal distribution of termites and hence wood decay processes, leading to seasonal changes in the carbon cycle of the region.

Repeated extreme floods and severe droughts have increased in frequency over recent decades. Termites, which are estimated to account for 10–20% of wood decomposition, show behavioural and demographic responses to changes in abiotic conditions. It has been shown in other regions that shifts in moisture availability alter the functional role of termites in wood decay and hence carbon cycling. Therefore understanding how these projected changes in fluvial dynamics in Western Amazonia will impact termites and wood decay processes will increase accuracy of future global carbon cycling models.

This study will use on the ground exclusion experiments and carbon flux monitoring to assess the role of termites in wood decay spatially and temporally over the flooded forest annual cycle. This will then be matched with remotely sensed data of the extent of flooded forest in order to model how termite driven contribution to wood decay and the carbon cycle will change under predicted climate change scenarios.

Amazonian flooded forest in Peru during high water season (left) and low water season (right). The magnitude of both high and low water season have been increasing over time and are predicted to continue to intensify with changing climate.


This project will involve field work in the Yarapa River region, Peru. Assessing the functional contribution of termites to wood decay is a standard procedure achieved with wood blocks. These will be placed over representative areas and sub-types of forest, with exclusion experiments used to quantify the mass loss due to termites, microbial and fungal process.

Carbon flux measurements will be taken over the course of the year under different forest types through the annual flood cycle.

Flood monitoring using remotely sensed imagery will be used to assess the spatial coverage and temporal duration of flood pulses and dry seasons.

The results of the exclusion experiments will be used to quantify the changes in wood decomposition, termite activity and carbon cycling over the course of annual flooding. These will then be used to model these processes under current conditions and under future climate scenarios.

Training and Skills

This PhD will involve training in tropical experimental ecology and measuring carbon fluxes in the field.

The student will be trained in remote sensing and ecosystem modelling, a valuable transferable skill.

Via collaboration with the CASE partner (Operation Wallacea) the student will receive training in expedition citizen science, gaining skills such as project management, student teaching and supervision.


Year 1: Set up wood exclusion experiments and carbon flux monitors.

Year 2: Remote sensing of flood cycle and geographical range in Yarapa region. Analysis of first year’s data and presentation of initial findings at conferences.

Year 3: Combine results of on the ground experimental data on functional contribution of termites to wood decay and their changes under annual flood cycle with remote sensed data to calculate impact of flood dynamics on wood decay processes and carbon cycle dynamics.

Writing up of thesis and scientific papers for publication.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The CASE partner is Operation Wallacea who have worked in the study region for over 10 years, providing a baseline of information on forest dynamics and wildlife impacts in which this study can be situated. Operation Wallacea are an expedition organisation and as such an important part of this project includes site management and supervising volunteers assisting with data collection. Spanish language skills would be an advantage, or a willingness to learn.

The local NGO FundAmazonia will be project partners in Peru with Professor Richard Bodmer as the local collaborating scientist. Dr Bodmer is Honorary Professor in Conservation at the University of Kent and has been working in the Amazon for over 30 years.

Further Details

This project has been selected as a CENTA Flagship project. This is based on the projects fulfilment of specific characteristics e.g., NERC CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS), or a potential applicant co-development of the project.


Dr Moya Burns

Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science

Department of Genetics and Genome Biology, University of Leicester


Dr Moya Burns is an insect community ecologist with expertise in saproxylic fauna and forest insect dynamics. She has worked in the Yarapa Region of Peru for four years leading long term monitoring of populations in response to changing climate conditions.

Dr Kirsten Barrett Associate Professor of Remote Sensing Kirsten.Barrat@leicester.ac.uk

Dr Kirsten Barrett is an expert in using remotely sensed data to study ecosystem processes such as disturbance recovery cycles, primarily in boreal forest ecosystems as well as tundra and tropical forests. She currently leads a NERC funded project on persistent forest loss following wildfires in Siberia.