PHD Project

October 11, 2022

Establishing the relative importance of a rainforest microcosm in oil palm plantations


Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on Earth and expanding oil palm (Elaies guineensis) plantations are a major contributor to the global biodiversity crisis. When tropical forests are converted into oil palm plantations, the removal of aboveground vegetation reduces structural complexity and ecosystem function. As plantations mature their canopies close and they become more suitable for ecological interventions to restore some biodiversity and ecosystem health. This project provides an exciting opportunity for fieldwork in Borneo, and a chance to participate in the development of government policies and management practices with Sabah Forestry Department and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification. You will build on existing research to investigate whether the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus) can be used as a conservation tool for improving biodiversity and nutrient cycling withing oil palm plantations.

As the world’s largest epiphytes, bird’s nest ferns are keystone species, reaching 200kg in the forest canopies of Borneo. Suspended soils associated with the ferns support microbes including fungi and bacteria, and enough invertebrates to double the estimate of the invertebrate biomass of an entire rainforest canopy. If we could link the fern’s internal and external biogeochemical processes, we could use them as a silver bullet to restore ecosystem function throughout millions of hectares of degraded oil palm landscapes.

The successful candidate will determine whether the inclusion of bird’s nest ferns within oil palm plantations benefits oil palm health, providing a win-win for conservation by sustainably increasing oil palm productivity whilst at the same time providing refuges for biodiversity. You will also investigate whether fern leachate creates a hotspot of biodiversity and nutrient cycling within and beneath the fern. This will confirm whether the ferns restore soil biodiversity and ecosystem function in addition to improving palm health.

Enthusiastic graduates from a wide range of environmental, biological, and geographical degree subjects are eligible for this project. Applicants should hold a 2i degree classification or above. Feel free to get in touch.

Contact either Farnon Ellwood (, Andy Smith ( or Karina Marsden ( for an informal chat and further information.