One of my main research interests is in the relationship between biodiversity and community or ecosystem stability. Systems vary greatly in not only their taxonomic diversity but also in the variety of functional roles performed by organisms in a community (i.e. Functional Diversity). There exist many studies of diversity-stability relationships across taxa and systems, but arguably these studies are still too disparate to provide any definitive unified theory of these relationships. Further, with both biodiversity and stability being such multidimensional concepts, even global scale meta-analyses struggle to identify general patterns.
State Shifts and Ecosystem Collapse
As global change continues to drive species to extinction, increasingly ecosystems are potentially facing novel state shifts and maybe even complete collapse. I am interested in when and why ecosystems change states. Under what conditions, if any, do tipping points exist in systems beyond which the system is unable to return to its previous state? Is it possible to reverse these state shifts and what might that mean for conservation under global change? Is it possible to gain a more accurate measurement of how close a system is to collapse by using a variety of complementary approaches? When can early warning signals be useful for conservation?
Reversals to Pre-Human States
State shifts are also particularly interesting when considering anthropogenic impacts on systems. We have the power to modify landscapes and shape ecological communities, but what happens to semi-natural ecosystems when humans disappear? By using exclosure plots and long-term exclosure experiments we can gain insight into the role that specific species play in communities. Further, we can use ‘natural experiments’ to test the impact of humans by assessing community dynamics in their absence, such as in the regenerating Chernobyl ecosystem.
The Ecological Significance of Intraspecific Variation
All community- or ecosystem-level responses to change are products of individual-level responses. Using an individual-based approach to ecological questions acknowledges the fundamental importance of individual variation which even Charles Darwin acknowledged as being crucial to the theory of evolution by natural selection. In terms of ecological responses to change, individual variation matters. Whether by providing greater redundancy among species in functional trait space, or by response thresholds affecting responses to everything from disturbance to behaviour, it is increasingly apparent that individuals matter. My current work acknowledges this by incorporating intraspecific trait variation into measures of functional diversity with the aim of determining how best to consider individual variation for incomplete or patchy data, as is often the case for data on higher taxa.
Behavioural Ecology: Animal Personality, Social Learning and Group Behaviour
I also maintain a secondary interest in behavioural ecology, particularly the factors that influence social learning, and when individuals may opt to use asocial information over socially acquired information. Some of my past work has addressed these questions under laboratory conditions using the model system Poecilia reticulata, the Trinidadian guppy.
Global Change: Responses to Climate Change
Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the diversity of life on earth. As such, it is imperative that we aim to reduce the impact of anthropogenic climate change on species globally, but to do this we require a deeper understanding of how species are likely to respond to changing climate. Advances in species distribution modelling including climate envelope models are beginning to shed light on how species may respond under future climate change, but these models still have their limitations. I like my work to have an applied conservation focus, whether through individual species responses to climate change, or looking at global change from the ecosystem level.
Global Change: Urbanisation, Future Cities and Urban Agriculture
With current rates of human population growth and urbanisation, we need to focus on sustainable future development as a society. A greater proportion of people live in cities than every before as the number is rising. We therefore need more research into how cities and, in particular, megacities can sustain the millions of people that live in them while reducing the impact of these urban areas on the environment. I am particularly interested in how megacities can adopt novel technologies to reduce environmental impacts, as well as developments in urban agricultural practices and carbon-neutral buildings, particularly the growing popularity of zero-acreage farming and ‘vertical farming’ where purpose built food/energy farms occupy multiple levels to increase the space available for farms. Increasingly, grand projects are being conceptualised as sustainable cities and towers over land and sea; these are especially popular projects in rapidly growing South East Asian countries. I am interested in collaborating with architects and engineers to further research how we can continue to feed our rapidly growing population in future years.
Advancing Methodologies: Reality Mining
I am also interested in studies at extreme resolution allowing an intricate investigation into ecologically realistic scenarios. Advances in biologgers and similar technologies allow high resolution studies of individual movement or behaviour at hours, minutes or in some cases even seconds, reinforcing the popularity of these ‘reality mining’ studies and techniques.