Two new postdoctoral positions in ecological network & vegetation modelling announced

21 07 2017


With the official start of the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in July, I am pleased to announce two new CABAH-funded postdoctoral positions (a.k.a. Research Associates) in my global ecology lab at Flinders University in Adelaide (Flinders Modelling Node).

One of these positions is a little different, and represents something of an experiment. The Research Associate in Palaeo-Vegetation Modelling is being restricted to women candidates; in other words, we’re only accepting applications from women for this one. In a quest to improve the gender balance in my lab and in universities in general, this is a step in the right direction.

The project itself is not overly prescribed, but we would like something along the following lines of inquiry: Read the rest of this entry »

Noses baffled by ocean acidification

18 04 2017

Clown fish couple (Amphiprion percula) among the tentacles of anemone Heteractis magnifica in Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) – courtesy of Mark McCormick. Clownfish protect anemones from predators and parasites in exchange of shelter and food. The fish tolerates the host’s venom because its skin is protected by a mucus layer some 2-3× thicker than phylogenetically related species (12); clownfish fabricate the mucus themselves and seem to obtain anemone antigens through a period of acclimation (13), but whether protection is acquired or innate is still debated. Clownfish are highly social bony fish, forming groups with one reproductive pair (up to 11 cm in length each) and several smaller, non-reproductive males. Reproduction is protandrous (also known as sequential hermaphroditism), so larvae are born male and, as soon as the reproductive female dies, her widower becomes female and the largest of the subsidiary males becomes the alpha male. The IUCN lists clownfish, generically named ‘anemone fish’, as threatened by the pet-trade industry and habitat degradation, although surprisingly, only 1 species has been assessed (A. sandaracinos). The clown anemone fish A. ocellaris is the species that inspired Nemo in the 2003 Academy-Award fiction movie – contrary to the logical expectation that the Oscars Red Carpet would generate support for conservation on behalf of Hollywood, of the 1568 species represented in the movie, only 16 % of those evaluated are threatened (14).

Smell is like noise, the more scents we breathe in one sniff, the more difficult it is to distinguish them to the point of olfactory saturation. Experimental work with clownfish reveals that the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater, mimicking ocean acidification, alters olfactory physiology, with potential cascading effects on the demography of species.

Places such as a restaurant, a hospital or a library have a characteristic bouquet, and we can guess the emotional state of other people by their scents. Smell is critical between predators and prey of many species because both have evolved to detect each other without the aid of vision. At sea, the smell of predators dissolves in water during detection, attack, capture, and ingestion of prey, and many fishes use this information to assess the risk of ending up crunched by enemy teeth (1, 2). But predator-prey interactions can be modified by changes in the chemical composition of seawater and are therefore highly sensitive to ongoing ocean acidification (see global measuring network here). Experts regard ocean acidification as the ‘other CO2 problem’ of climate change (3) — just to emphasize that anthropogenic climate-change impacts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems alike. Acidification occurs because the ocean absorbs CO2 at a rate proportional with the concentration of this gas in the atmosphere and, once dissolved, CO2 becomes carbonic acid (H2CO3), which in turn releases protons (H+) — in simple terms, pH is the concentration of protons (see video about ocean acidification): Read the rest of this entry »

Singin’ in the heat

9 03 2017
coqui & forest

Common coqui frog male (Eleutherodactylus coqui, snout-to vent length average ~ 3 cm) camouflaged in the fronds of an epiphyte in the El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico), along with an image of the enchanted forest of the Sierra de Luquillo where Narins & Meenderink did their study (4) – photos courtesy of Thomas Fletcher. This species can be found from sea level to the top of the highest peak in Puerto Rico (Cerro Punta = 1338 m). Native to mesic ecosystems, common coquis are well adapted to a terrestrial life, e.g., they lack interdigital webbing that support swimming propulsion in many amphibians, and youngsters hatch directly from the egg without transiting a tadpole stage. The IUCN catalogues the species as ‘Least Concern’ though alerts recent declines in high-altitude populations caused by chytrid fungus – lethal to amphibians at a planetary scale (9). Remarkably, the species has been introduced to Florida, Hawaii, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands where it can become a pest due to high fertility rates (several >20 egg clutches/female/year).

Frog songs are species-specific and highly useful for the study of tropical communities, which host the highest amphibian diversities globally. The auditory system of females and the vocal system of males have co-evolved to facilitate reproductive encounters, but global warming might be disrupting the frequency of sound-based encounters in some species..

It is a rainy night, and Don (Gene Kelly) has just left his love, Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), at home, starting one of the most famous musical movie scenes ever: Singin’ in the rain 

Amphibians (see Amphibians for kids by National Geographic) also love to sing in rainy nights when males call for a partner, but now they have to do it in hotter conditions as local climates become warmer. Vocal behaviour is a critical trait in the life history of many frog species because it mediates recognition between individuals, including sexual selection by females (1).

With few exceptions, every species has a different and unique call, so scientists can use call features to identify species, and this trait is particularly useful in the inventory of diverse tropical communities (2). Differences in call frequency, duration and pitch, and in note, number, and repetition pattern, occur from one species to another. And even within species, songs can vary from individual to individual (as much as there are not two people with the same voice), and be tuned according to body size and environmental temperature (3). Read the rest of this entry »

Fertilisers can make plants sicker

25 01 2017

sick-plantLast year we reported experimental evidence that the dilution effect was the phenomenon by which greater biodiversity imparts disease resistance in plant communities. Our latest paper shows the mechanism underlying this.

In my ongoing collaboration with the crack team of plant community ecologists led by Shurong Zhou at Fudan University in Shanghai, we have now shown that nitrogen-based fertilisers — in addition to causing soil damage and environmental problems from run-off — reduce a plant community’s resistance to fungal diseases.

This means that prolonged use of artificial fertilisers can lead to the extinction of the most resistant plant species in a community, meaning that the remaining species are in fact more susceptible to diseases.

Continuing the experimental field trials in alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau, we tested the biodiversity resilience of an isolated  plant community to increasing concentrations of nitrogenous fertilisers. In this diverse and pristine ecosystem, we have finally established that extended fertilisation of soils not only alters the structure of natural plant communities, it also exacerbates pathogen emergence and transmission. Read the rest of this entry »

Rich and stable communities most vulnerable to change

16 08 2016

networkI’ve just read an interesting new study that was sent to me by the lead author, Giovanni Strona. Published the other day in Nature Communications, Strona & Lafferty’s article entitled Environmental change makes robust ecological networks fragile describes how ecological communities (≈ networks) become more susceptible to rapid environmental changes depending on how long they’ve had to evolve and develop under stable conditions.

Using the Avida Digital Evolution Platform (a free, open-source scientific software platform for doing virtual experiments with self-replicating and evolving computer programs), they programmed evolving host-parasite pairs in a virtual community to examine how co-extinction rate (i.e., extinctions arising in dependent species — in this case, parasites living off of hosts) varied as a function of the complexity of the interactions between species.

Starting from a single ancestor digital organism, the authors let evolve several artificial life communities for hundred thousands generation under different, stable environmental settings. Such communities included both free-living digital organisms and ‘parasite’ programs capable of stealing their hosts’ memory. Throughout generations, both hosts and parasites diversified, and their interactions became more complex. Read the rest of this entry »

Higher biodiversity imparts greater disease resistance

12 03 2016

fungal infection

Is biodiversity good for us? In many ways, this is a stupid question because at some point, losing species that we use directly will obviously impact us negatively — think of food crops, pollination and carbon uptake.

But how much can we afford to lose before we notice anything bad is happening? Is the sort of biodiversity erosion we’re seeing today really such a big deal?

One area of research experiencing a surge in popularity is examining how variation in biodiversity (biowealth1) affects the severity of infectious diseases, and it is particularly controversial with respect to the evidence for a direct effect on human pathogens (e.g., see a recent paper here, a critique of it, and a reply).

Controversy surrounding the biodiversity-disease relationship among non-human species is less intense, but there are still arguments about the main mechanisms involved. The amplification hypothesis asserts that a community with more species has a greater pool of potential hosts for pathogens, so pathogens increase as biodiversity increases. On the contrary, the dilution hypothesis asserts that disease prevalence decreases with increasing host species diversity via several possible mechanisms, such as more host species reducing the chance that a given pathogen will ‘encounter’ a suitable host, and that in highly biodiverse communities, an infected individual is less likely to be surrounded by the same species, so the pathogen cannot easily be transmitted to a new host (the so-called transmission interference hypothesis).

So I’ve joined the ecological bandwagon and teamed up yet again with some very clever Chinese collaborators to test these hypotheses in — if I can be so bold to claim — a rather novel and exciting way.

Our new paper was just published online in EcologyWarming and fertilization alter the dilution effect of host diversity on disease severity2. Read the rest of this entry »


24 02 2016

frogWhile I’ve blogged about this before in general terms (here and here), I thought it wise to reproduce the (open-access) chapter of the same name published in late 2013 in the unfortunately rather obscure book The Curious Country produced by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia. I think it deserves a little more limelight.

As I stepped off the helicopter’s pontoon and into the swamp’s chest-deep, tepid and opaque water, I experienced for the first time what it must feel like to be some other life form’s dinner. As the helicopter flittered away, the last vestiges of that protective blanket of human technological innovation flew away with it.

Two other similarly susceptible, hairless, clawless and fangless Homo sapiens and I were now in the middle of one of the Northern Territory’s largest swamps at the height of the crocodile-nesting season. We were there to collect crocodile eggs for a local crocodile farm that, ironically, has assisted the amazing recovery of the species since its near-extinction in the 1960s. Removing the commercial incentive to hunt wild crocodiles by flooding the international market with scar-free, farmed skins gave the dwindling population a chance to recover.

redwoodConservation scientists like me rejoice at these rare recoveries, while many of our fellow humans ponder why we want to encourage the proliferation of animals that can easily kill and eat us. The problem is, once people put a value on a species, it is usually consigned to one of two states. It either flourishes as do domestic crops, dogs, cats and livestock, or dwindles towards or to extinction. Consider bison, passenger pigeons, crocodiles and caviar sturgeon.

As a conservation scientist, it’s my job not only to document these declines, but to find ways to prevent them. Through careful measurement and experiments, we provide evidence to support smart policy decisions on land and in the sea. We advise on the best way to protect species in reserves, inform hunters and fishers on how to avoid over-harvesting, and demonstrate the ways in which humans benefit from maintaining healthy ecosystems. Read the rest of this entry »