Director of the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and Professor of Biology
As an ecologist, Miles R. Silman is an avid outdoorsman who is drawn to the wildest places left on earth. He is interested in how biodiversity is distributed across the globe both in space and through time which leads him to explore why some places are highly diverse and other places less so, looking at the ecosystem as whole, to understand the roles of species interactions such as herbivory, predation, competition,
As an ecologist, Miles R. Silman is an avid outdoorsman who is drawn to the wildest places left on earth. He is interested in how biodiversity is distributed across the globe both in space and through time which leads him to explore why some places are highly diverse and other places less so, looking at the ecosystem as whole, to understand the roles of species interactions such as herbivory, predation, competition, and partnerships that structure the world we see and inhabit.
Silman’s main study area is the New World tropics, especially in the highest biodiversity and most wild forests left on Earth in the Western Amazon and Andes. Here Silman has been working for the last 25 years to not only understand, but also protect the planet’s last best forests. This is a landscape of trackless forest, large predators, and indigenous peoples still in isolation.
The work has involved paleoecology—finding remote lakes in the Andes and Amazon and packing in equipment to remove mud and look at the plants that have lived there over the past 10,000-1,000,000 years—as well as extensive forest inventories of plants and animals. His current work seeks to turn this basic knowledge about the way nature functions into solutions for pressing problems of global change, such as deforestation, illegal gold mining, and climate change.
Silman’s conservation projects include work on tropical agriculture, soils remediation after gold mining, and monitoring and assessing deforestation using drones developed in his lab at Wake Forest. A major effort has been to take what we know about Andean and Amazonian carbon cycles – the way plants store and release carbon in the environment – and the controls on biodiversity, to use in innovative, private- and public-sector, ecosystem service projects that change land use by generating revenue for conservation and creating economic and social value for people living in the region.
His teaching philosophy is “take them with you” either to the intellectual spaces an academic inhabits, or the geographical spaces that we work in. To that end he has taken over 120 Wake Forest undergraduates on month-long field courses to his sites in the Andes and Amazon of Peru, as well as annual field trips to the coast and mountains of North Carolina.
Areas of Expertise
Techniques in Mathematical Biology
Duke University: Ph.D., Zoology
University of Missouri-Columbia: B.A., Biology
Benchmark map of forest carbon stocks in tropical regions across three continents
Developing countries are required to produce robust estimates of forest carbon stocks for successful implementation of climate change mitigation policies related to reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Here we present a ...
48,000 years of climate and forest change in a biodiversity hot spot
A continuous 48,000-year-long paleoecological record from Neotropical lower montane forest reveals a consistent forest presence and an ice-age cooling of∼ 5 to 9 C. After 30,000 years of compositional stability, a steady turnover of species marks the 8000- ...
Dominance and distribution of tree species in upper Amazonian terra firme forests
Amazonian forests are the largest and most diverse in the tropics, and much of the mystery surrounding their ecology can be traced to attempts to understand them through tiny local inventories. In this paper we bring together a large number of such inventories scattered ...
Tree species distributions in an upper Amazonian forest
Not a single tree species distribution in the Amazon basin has been reliably mapped, though speculation regarding such distributions has been extensive. We present data from a network of 21 forest plots in Manu National Park, Peru, totaling 36 ha and sited over an ...
Seed dispersal near and far: patterns across temperate and tropical forests
Dispersal affects community dynamics and vegetation response to global change. Understanding these effects requires descriptions of dispersal at local and regional scales and statistical models that permit estimation. Classical models of dispersal describe local ...