UCL Division of Biosciences

Prof Richard Pearson

Prof Richard Pearson

Professor of Ecology

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Jun 2013

Research summary

My research focuses on fundamental questions relating to the evolution and conservation of biodiversity: where are species distributed? why are they distributed there? how do distributions and abundances change over time? Deepening our understanding of these questions requires a melding of ecological and evolutionary theory, and will be crucial for developing effective conservation strategies in a time of rapid global environmental change. My expertise is in the application of modern computational technologies, including ecological modelling, remote sensing, GIS, and machine learning.

Development of ecological theory

I have developed ecological niche theory within the context of macro-scale challenges, such as predicting species’ distribution shifts in response to climate change. Key contributions have included exploring a hierarchical niche concept, in which different factors (e.g., climate, biotic competition) are important for defining species’ niches and distributions at different spatial scales (Pearson & Dawson 2003, Pearson et al. 2004). These ideas have been influential in the literature (Pearson & Dawson 2003 has been cited >3,000 times) and formed an important part of my co-authored monograph Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions (Princeton University Press 2011).

Methodological advances

I have been active in advancing the field of species distribution modelling, including applying new algorithms (e.g., Pearson et al. 2002), assessing uncertainties (e.g., Pearson et al. 2006), and developing novel tests of predictive performance (e.g., Pearson et al. 2007). More recently I have focused on developing a next-generation of predictive tools that couple species distribution models with process-based demographic models (e.g., Pearson et al., 2014) and with Bayesian networks to incorporate biotic interactions (Staniczenko et al. 2017). I have also developed novel null models that utilize randomly translocated and rotated replicate distributions to test biogeographic hypotheses, particularly relating to the biogeography of speciation (e.g., Nunes and Pearson 2017).

Predicting biodiversity responses to environmental change

A major aim of my research is to understand how biodiversity responds to environmental change. My early work investigated ways to optimize protected area design under climate change (e.g., Pearson and Dawson 2005) and more recently I have explored vegetation shifts in the Arctic and potential feedbacks to climate (Pearson et al. 2013). I apply these tools to develop improved assessments of species’ vulnerability, which will be important for informing national and international systems that identify conservation priorities, including the IUCN Red List (Akçakaya et al., 2014; Pacifici et al. 2015). A natural progression from this work has been to explore the relationships between changing environmental drivers (e.g., climate and land use change), impacts on biodiversity, and the provision of ecosystem services for the benefit of humans. I am Co-I on a NERC-funded project (ADVENT) that is looking at impacts of future energy scenarios on ecosystem services, and I lead elements of a Wellcome Trust-funded project (SHEFS) that focuses on the role of biodiversity in underpinning sustainable and healthy food systems. I have also published a novel conceptual framework for valuing ecosystem services (Pearson 2016).

Understanding the geography and ecology of speciation

I combine niche-based ecological models with molecular and morphological data to study the geographic and ecological mechanisms by which speciation occurs. Using species-rich endemic radiations in Madagascar as a study system, we have explored biogeographic patterns of divergence among geckos and chameleons (Raxworthy et al. 2007, 2008; Pearson and Raxworthy 2009), lemurs (Blair et al. 2013) and snakes (Burbrink et al. 2019).

Teaching summary

Richard teaches a module Species Conservation and Biodiversity, which is available to third and fourth year undergraduate students at UCL. He also gives lectures on the first year module Life on Earth and the Master’s degree program Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation.

Richard taught a NERC-funded short course on Species Distribution Modelling in November 2014 and has made the talks available online. He has also made available videos of an undergraduate lecture on how to read and write a scientific paper. Richard has also made teaching materials freely available through the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP): modules on Species Distribution Modelling (2007) and Observed Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity (2008).


Richard Pearson is Professor of Ecology and Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, which is a research centre within the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at UCL. Richard completed his Doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2004. From 2005-2013 he was a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Richard is one of the world’s most Highly Cited Researchers in the field of Environment/Ecology. His research focuses on how biodiversity responds to environmental change, including climate change, and on evolutionary biogeography. In his role as Director of CBER, he leads a vibrant community of 13 academic staff and senior research fellows, around 18 postdoctoral scientists, and over 30 PhD students. Richard also teaches biodiversity and conservation biology to undergraduate and master's students at UCL.

Richard is on the editorial boards of the journals Global Change Biology and Journal of Biogeography. He is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Climate Change Specialist Group, has been a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and is a member of the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s Peer Review College. Richard is the author of a non-specialist book on the impact of climate change on biodiversity (Driven to Extinction, 2011) and in 2018 he delivered a public lecture on the value of biodiversity as part of UCL's Lunch Hour Lecture series.