Prof Tim Blackburn
Professor of Invasion Biology
Genetics, Evolution & Environment
Div of Biosciences
- Joined UCL
- 22nd Sep 2014
My research primarily addresses questions relating to human-mediated biological invasions. Invasions are now so pervasive that alien species are a central element of current global environmental change, and a major drain on economic resources, giving a strong incentive to understand the process that leads to a species becoming invasive.
Progress in uncovering the rules governing the invasion process has come from studies that explicitly analyse the passage of taxa through the sequential stages in the invasion pathway (transport; introduction; establishment; spread). My initial work identified how biases in the early part of the process can affect interpretation of success (Blackburn & Duncan 2001, J. Biogeogr.), and how modeling these biases can identify characteristics that influence establishment success (Blackburn & Duncan 2001, Nature). Subsequent work showed the importance of propagule pressure (Lockwood et al. 2005, Trends Ecol. Evol.) and cognition (Sol et al. 2005, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA) in establishment, and defined frameworks for studying the invasion process (Duncan et al. 2003, Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst.; Blackburn et al. 2011, Trends Ecol. Evol.). A related interest has been extinction risk in island birds (Blackburn et al. 2004, Ecography, Duncan et al. 2013, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA), where my work includes studies on how invasive species impact on native bird extinctions on islands worldwide (Blackburn et al. 2004, Science), evidence for prehistoric hunting as a driver of extinction risk (Duncan et al. 2002, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B.), and the impact of invasions on biotic homogenization (Cassey et al. 2007, J. Biogeogr.). Much of this work is reviewed and placed in its wider context in my monograph on bird invasions (Blackburn et al. 2009, Avian Invasions. The ecology and evolution of exotic birds).
My current work aims to continue to develop understanding of invasions, using birds as a model taxon, and particularly focusing on later stages of the pathway. I have overseen development of a novel, spatially and temporally referenced, global data set on the distribution of all exotic bird populations worldwide. The Global Avian Invasions Atlas (or GAVIA) project comprises >25,000 distribution records for >900 alien bird species, which will allow the spatial and temporal dynamics of alien bird population spread to be explored. I have also recently developed a method to evaluate, compare and predict the impacts of different alien species, that can be applied to impacts that occur at different levels of ecological complexity, at different spatial and temporal scales, and assessed using a range of metrics and techniques (Blackburn et al. 2014, PLoS Biol.). I plan to use this method to understand variation in the impacts of different alien species and higher taxa, and to develop blacklists of alien species for use in conservation policy and practice.
I have broad experience of teaching students at a range of levels. During my time at the University of Birmingham, I contributed to undergraduate teaching in ecology, and set up and taught on a new final year module on Animals, Climates and Distributions. I was part of the group that set up the new MRes in Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation jointly run by UCL, the Institute of Zoology and the Natural History Museum, and taught on the segment run out of the Institute of Zoology. I also regularly teach on other Masters-level courses, and supervise MSc student projects. I am currently the primary supervisor for two PhD students, and a secondary supervisor for two more.
I obtained my DPhil in 1991, and became Professor of Macroecology at the University of Birmingham in 2005. My work in the 1990s with Kevin Gaston helped to define the newly emerging field of macroecology, most notably with our 2000 monograph on the subject (Pattern and Process in Macroecology). Since 2000, my research has largely focused on understanding the processes driving human-mediated biological invasions, using birds as a model taxon. My work helped to develop the field by applying phylogenetically and taxonomically explicit comparative analytical approaches from macroecology to a stage-based model of the invasion process, to identify the key factors determining which species become invasive. This work to 2009 was summarised in a monograph published by OUP (Avian Invasions: The ecology and evolution of exotic birds), but I continue to research and publish studies on invasions, as well as macroecology, extinction and life history.