Professor Toby Pennington
Professor of Tropical Plant Diversity and Biogeography
Laver Building 801b
Laver Building, University of Exeter, North Park Road, Exeter, EX4 4QE, UK
Office hours: No office hours this week - please email
No office hours this week - please email
**Please visit my personal webpage which are fully updated and give more details of research projects”
I am a Professor of Physical Geography with specialisms in tropical plant diversity and biogeography. My research and teaching interests are broad, ranging from plant biogeography to palaeoecology to conservation. My background is in the tropics, especially Latin America, where I have worked for more than 20 years across 10 countries. In recent years most of my research has focused on biodiversity, biogeography and ecology of dry biomes in the tropics. Much of my work has had clear implications for conservation and livelihoods, and this continues in new projects with focus on agroforestry and ecosystem restoration in some of the world’s most threatened tropical forests.
I have recently (September 2017) joined the University of Exeter from The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh where I was Head of Tropical Diversity, responsible for a group of 30 including PhD students, associate researchers and eight core-funded PhD level scientific staff.
Broad research specialisms:
Plant biogeography, plant taxonomy and floristic inventory, phylogenetics, conservation
BA Botany (Oxford)
DPhil Botany (Oxford)
My research has aimed to address one of the fundamental questions of tropical biology – how and when did the huge species numbers in the tropics arise? It is grounded in fundamental descriptive taxonomic, inventory and phylogenetic research, which provides the foundation to address biogeographic and evolutionary questions.
Principal areas of recent research include:
Floristic inventory and conservation of neotropical dry forests
Seasonally dry tropical forests (SDTF) occur as fragments throughout Latin America. They are the world's most threatened tropical forest but receive far less scientific and conservation attention than rain forests. I developed and lead the DRYFLOR network that now brings together more than 70 workers in SDTF floristics and conservation from across Latin America and the Caribbean. DRYFLOR has developed the first comprehensive dataset of the flora of neotropical SDTF across their full range. DRYFLOR’s data are freely available online (www.dryflor.info) and they help to pinpoint priority conservation areas.
Biogeography and Phylogeny
My research has focused on legumes, the third largest flowering plant family, which has a global distribution and enormous economic importance (e.g., peas, beans, lentils, soy). I have taken a leading role in the Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG) that aims to develop collaborative research towards a comprehensive phylogeny and classification for legumes. Because legume trees dominate the tropical forests and savannas of Africa and the New World, they are an excellent exemplar to investigate key questions of tropical biogeography and diversification. Recent research has demonstrated that historical dispersal, even across major oceans, is a driving force shaping tropical plant distributions and is a key factor controlling the assembly of the world’s richest tree communities in Amazonia. Another theme has been to investigate whether the distinct ecologies of different major vegetation formations (biomes) lead to distinct patterns of biogeography and evolution over evolutionary timescales.
Other phylogenetic research addresses how plant defences against herbivores have evolved and how have they influenced species radiations in the tropics. This collaboration with University of Utah, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and University of Edinburgh has offered an excellent opportunity to develop expertise in the application of next-generation DNA sequencing to front-line tropical biodiversity problems, and we published one of the first papers on the hybrid-capture technique in plant phylogenetics.
An overarching goal is to develop leadership in monitoring of biodiversity, carbon stored in forests, tree growth, and tree mortality in Latin America beyond rain forests and into tropical dry forests. This work is supported by UK (NERC)-Brazil Newton funding and forms a platform for ecological, biogeographic and evolutionary research.
Other research aims to address the challenges of conserving and restoring tropical vegetation in a manner that considers the livelihoods of local populations. One project in this area focuses on the legume tree genus Inga, which has fast growth rates, edible fruits and the ability to fix nitrogen, and so has excellent properties for agroforestry systems. This work will be supported by a recently awarded BBSRC GCRF grant, taking advantage of hybrid-capture phylogenetic techniques to pinpoint species with high potential in agroforestry and silvo-pastoral systems. Ultimately, the work aims to enhance emerging agrosystems which integrate sustainable food production with maintenance of ecosystem services, soil fertility and biodiversity across Latin America.
£600,000 BBSRC (Global Challenges Research Fund): “Improving agroforestry and silvopastoral systems in Latin America by maximising species and genetic diversity of the multipurpose legume Inga” (PI; 2017).
£2,000,000 UK (RCUK) – Brazil (CONFAP-FAPESP) Newton Fund: “Nordeste: new science for a neglected biome” (co-I; 2016)
£80,760 UK (RCUK) - Brazil (CONFAP) Newton Fund: “Dry forest biomes in Brazil: biodiversity and ecosystem services” (PI; 2015)
£125,000 Leverhulme Trust International Network: “A Latin American Seasonally Dry Tropical Forest Floristic Network (DRYFLOR)” (PI; 2012)
£589,090 NERC: “Niche evolution of South American trees and its consequences” (PI; 2011)
US$1,999,882 NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity: “Dimensions: Coexistence, herbivore host choice, and plant-herbivore evolution in the recently radiated and speciose Neotropical tree genus, Inga” (PIs Phyllis Coley, Thomas Kursar, University of Utah; funding for 4 years postdoc for Inga/herbivore phylogenetics and Inga functional genomics in Edinburgh; 2011)
£25,000 BBSRC/NERC SynTax: “Chemistry, taxonomy and diversification in tropical plants: a case study of Inga” (PI; 2011)
£78,000 UK Government Darwin Initiative: “Tree diversity, agroforestry development and reafforestation in the Peruvian Andes” (PI; 2004)
£86,000 (191,000 Swiss Francs) Swiss National Science Foundation “South American seasonally dry tropical forests: are they current refugia or the result of long distance dispersal?” (co-PI; 2003)
£166,000 UK Darwin Initiative: “Tree Diversity and Agroforestry Development in the Peruvian Amazon” (PI; 2000)
£100,000 Leverhulme Trust: “Historical Biogeography of South American Seasonal Forests” (PI; 1998)
£125,000 SEERAD Flexible Fund: “Molecular Systematics of the Economically Important Neotropical Legume Genus Inga” (co-PI; 1998)
Publications by category
Publications by year
Toby_Pennington Details from cache as at 2019-06-20 12:34:46
External Engagement and Impact
International Association for Plant Taxonomy Stebbins Award for outstanding publication in systematics and/or evolution (with lead author Tiina Sarkinen (ex-PhD student) and coauthors Matt Lavin, Marcelo Simon, Colin Hughes; 2016)
Visiting Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh (2010-present)
Linnean Society of London Bicentenary Medal (awarded annually to a biologist under 40 for research achievement; 2003)
Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, evaluation of grants for Biology (2012-2015)
UK Natural Environment Research Council, Peer Review College (2008-2011)
Council, International Association for Plant Taxonomy (2005-2011)
Senior editor, Plant Diversity, Plants, People, Planet (2017-present)
Editorial Advisory Board, Kew Bulletin (2003-present)
Editorial Board, Taxon (2009-2017)
Editorial Board, BMC Evolutionary Biology (2010-2014)
International Congress of Conservation Biology, Cartagena, Colombia (2017)
Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation; Montpellier, France (2016)
10th Biennial Conference of the Systematics Association; Oxford (2015)
Latin American Botanical Congress, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (2014)
UK Plant Evolution, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2014)
Plant evolutionary radiations, University of Zurich, Switzerland (2014)
Biodiversity and the BioEconomy in Brazil, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonia, Brazil (2014)
64th Brazilian Botanical Congress, Belo Horizonte, Brazil (2013; plenary speaker)
The Prince’s Charities’ International Sustainability Unit, Critical Challenges and Opportunities for Tropical Forest Science, The Royal Society and State Apartments, St. James’s Palace, Clarence House (2013)
International Botanical Congress, Melbourne, Australia (2011; 2 presentations)
British Ecological Society Annual Symposium, “Forests and global change” (2011; plenary speaker)
DIVERSITAS International Open Science Conference, Cape Town, South Africa (2009)
International Biogeography Society, Merida, Mexico, invited speaker (2009)
Jean Andrews Visiting Fellow, University of Texas, Austin (3 lecture series, 2009)
III Congreso de ecosistemas secos, Santa Marta, Colombia, plenary speaker (in Spanish, 2008)
Coverage of recent papers in Science and PNAS on BBC website:
Live fast, die young strategy spawned Amazon tree boom (2014). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26434264
Dry tropical forests 'overlooked and under threat'. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37440485
History sheds light on Amazon's rich tree diversity. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38969249
John Bachelor Show, USA, 20 minute live interview covering tropical dry forests (2016: https://audioboom.com/posts/5163235-dry-forests-climate-change-toby-pennington-thebotanics-royal-botanical-garden-edinburgh-scotland-sciencemagazine)
BBC Radio Scotland, live interview covering the evolutionary history and use of cocoa (2015)
BBC Radio Scotland and BBC news 24, live interviews covering why plant species extinctions matter (2010)
Animated film to raise awareness of tropical dry forest (http://www.dryflor.info/page/movies), which has received > 40,000 youtube views, exceptional for a scientific film, and which was selected for screening at a series of international environmental film festivals in Europe and Latin America.
- GEO2331 - Research Design in Physical Geography
Supervision / Group
- Dr Peter Moonlight (NERC Newton PDRA 2017-2020): Newton funded project on Brazilian caatinga dry forests
- Hannah Atkins University of Edinburgh (2015-2020) 'Systematics and biogeography of Cyrtandra (Gesneriaceae)' Supervisors: Mark Hughes, Toby Pennington
- FlÃ¡via Pezzini University of Edinburgh (2015-2018) 'Systematics and biogeography of Ceiba (Malvaceae-Bombacoideae)' Supervisors: Toby Pennington, Catherine Kidner
- Jessica Rickenback University of Edinburgh (2017-2021) 'Savannas at the forest boundary: an understudied and at risk biome with an uncertain future' Supervisors: Caroline Lehmann, Toby Pennington
- Ms Alexandra Clark (NERC technician, 2012-2016): Lab technician (niche evolution of South American trees)
- Dr Kyle Dexter (US NSF Overseas Postdoctoral Fellow; 2011) Phylogeny and biogeography (niche evolution of South American trees)
- Dr Danilo Neves (NERC PDRA 2012-2015): Niche evolution of South American trees.
- Dr James Nicholls (US-NSF funded postdoc based at University of Edinburgh and RBGE 2012-2017): Plant herbivore interactions in Inga
- Ms Julia Weintritt (2012-2016): Floristic inventory and conservation of neotropical dry forests (network facilitator for Leverhulme-funded DRYFLOR International Network)