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Big Cat Biogeography, Morphology, and Climate Change

Dr David Cooper successfully defended his thesis in November 2019 after 4 years as a PhD student within the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and co-supervised by National Museums Scotland.

Last updated: 8 February 2022

About the research

It is well known that big cats, such as lions and tigers, now occupy small fragments of their former ranges. However, much less is known about the extent and permanence of these  historical ranges through longer, evolutionary timescales. David’s PhD research looked at identifying the changing ranges of big cats since the peak of the Last Ice Age, whilst analysing morphological variation in the skulls of lions and tigers, which reflect these changing distributions and the connections between populations. 

Understanding the shifting ranges of big cats through the turbulent climatic conditions of the Late Pleistocene and Holocene allows for a better appreciation of the geographical variation we see today. Using species distribution models with palaeo-climate data, David modelled the likely ranges of big cats through the glacial and interglacial conditions they endured. Additionally, by exploring the current morphological variation found in big cats, he gained insight into how lion and tiger populations may have evolved. Skull measurements, collected from museums across Europe including National Museums Scotland, were integral in creating a global dataset on big cat skulls, from which David was able to explore the morphological variation in big cats across their respective ranges. 

David’s research has important implications for conservation strategies of lions and tigers that currently do not take into account these deep-time changes in distributions and the phenotypic responses to changing ecological conditions.


Lead image: David Cooper on placement with Panthera Corporation, working with the Kyrgyzstan snow leopard program. Photo credit: Sebastian Kennerknecht.

Doctoral research project details

Project title

Big Cat Biogeography, Morphology, and Climate Change


Dr David Cooper

Project active

2015 - 2019


NERC E3 (Edinburgh Earth and Environment) Doctoral Training Partnership

University of Edinburgh Supervisors

Professor Andrew Dugmore and Bruce Gittings - School of Geosciences

National Museums Scotland Supervisor

Dr Andrew KitchenerDepartment of Natural Sciences

Research theme


David is now Postdoctoral Researcher on the Wellcome Trust Project: From ‘Feed the Birds’ to ‘Do Not Feed the Animals’.

Persian leopard

Do Not Feed the Animals

This collaborative project looks at the roots of animal feeding, to establish the benefits and risk to humans, animals, and the environment.

Find out more
Email icon Dr Andrew Kitchener

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