One of my main research interests is in the relationship between biodiversity and community or ecosystem stability. Ecosystems vary greatly in not only their taxonomic diversity (the number of species, also called species richness) but also in the variety of functional roles performed by organisms in a community (i.e. functional diversity). Ecologists have been studying diversity-stability relationships around the world for decades, but there are still few generalisable and concrete ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ when it comes to the way complex systems behave, particularly in response to disturbances such as climate change or extreme events (e.g. droughts). I’m interested in trying to unite multiple research areas to uncover any general trends in how diversity-stability relationships are maintained in nature and how they respond to human activity.
State Shifts and Ecosystem Rewiring
As global change continues to drive species to extinction, increasingly ecosystems face new pressures and situations that they might not have experienced before. Under these mounting pressures, ecological systems often ‘rewire’ to produce drastically different communities of species. This rewiring is one of the main ways ecosystems respond to disturbance, so understanding when and how ecosystems undergo these changes is important if we are to understand whether and how to prevent or reverse these shifts, as well as understanding what the causes and consequences are of community transitions.
When trying to measure biodiversity or monitor changes over time, it is very difficult to get a holistic picture of what ecosystems are doing – how they’re functioning and providing services to humans, and how they’re responding to global change. Not only is this difficult, but it’s expensive! To cut costs and make biodiversity monitoring more practical, ecologists often use ‘indicators’ – techniques that allow us to get an indication of large scale processes using only a small-subset of the effort/investment needed to measure everything. Ecological indicators include particular species or groups of species that are important in ecosystems whose presence/absence/abundance generally gives us a picture of how healthy ecosystems are. For example, birds are thought to be good indicators as their diversity generally reflects the diversity of all other groups of species in the ecosystem too. But it’s not just groups of animals that make good indicators; we can also infer ecosystem functioning by measuring some particular part of an ecosystem that saves us physically counting all the species. ‘Soundscape ecology’ is developing as a field that allows us to monitor the sounds that occur in ecosystems in real time. This allows us to remotely measure biodiversity using the diversity of all animal sounds in the ecosystem. Approaches like this are becoming vital, particularly when conservation or science budgets are limited.
The Ecological Significance of Individuals
All community- or ecosystem-level responses to global change are products of changes at the individual level. For example, if communities lose species (i.e. species go locally extinct), it is because individuals within those species emigrate or die and are not replaced quickly enough by births/immigration, so the population crashes. Individuals also vary. This has been recognised for hundreds of years and is the fundamental basis of evolution by natural selection of individuals that are better in some way than others. The impact of variation within species for larger-scale responses is still not frequently addressed, and i’m interested in finding out when individuals do or do not make a difference to ecological processes.
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 (that is, learning from another individually rather than learning something alone), and determining when as it might be better to use information gained alone over something learnt from another individual. Some of my past work has addressed these questions under laboratory conditions using the model system Poecilia reticulata, the Trinidadian guppy.
Global Change: Individual, species and community responses to Climate Change
Climate change caused by human activity is one of the greatest threats facing the diversity of life on earth, and it is widely recognised that we are facing an extinction crisis (the 6th mass extinction event). We need to understand what makes individuals or species particularly vulnerable to climate change if we are to minimise the impact of global-scale changes in climate. We need to think about how species’ functions in ecosystems might change and how that impacts ecosystem services (the range of goods and services we, as humans, get from ecosystems). To understand this, we should turn our attention to species traits: why are larger-bodied species more at risk? Which traits limit species dispersal? Are certain trophic groups most at risk (does it matter who eats whom)?
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 ever before, and the number is rising. We 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 (e.g. rooftop gardens etc.) and ‘vertical farming’ where purpose built food/energy farms occupy multiple levels to increase the space available for farms. Grand projects are being conceptualised as sustainable cities tower over land and sea; these are especially popular projects in rapidly growing South-East Asian countries. As well as researching the impacts of urbanisation on ecosystems, I am interested in collaborating with architects/engineers to better understand how we can continue to sustain a growing population in balance with nature in future years.
Advancing Methodologies: Reality Mining
I am also interested in the development of new monitoring techniques that allow real-time biodiversity monitoring. We often have more data on anthropogenic disturbance or on weather and climate than we do on biodiversity itself, so by combining biodiversity monitoring with these data, we can begin to see in very fine detail, the costs of human activity on wildlife. Studies over long time-scales or over very small time-scales but in huge detail are really interesting for asking questions about human impacts on biodiversity.