The group’s research focuses on monitoring and mitigating the impact of environmental change. This covers a wide range of topics from acoustic monitoring of biodiversity and anthropogenic disturbances to looking at the roles of complexity and biodiversity in supporting ecological processes, there is an emphasis on tropical ecology, entomology and a particular reference to oil palm plantations.
Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity in the Oil Palm Landscape
With oil palm plantations now covering over 21 million ha of plantations across the tropics (FAOSTAT, 2016), there is an urgent need to look at the sustainability of the industry, to reduce the environmental impact of plantation practices, to maintain and improved high yields and ultimately prevent further loss of tropical forest. There are a number of areas where the group are active in this area, however current research centres on the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) programme in Sumatra, Indonesia.
The Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) programme (www.oilpalmbiodiversity.com) aims to quantify the effect of habitat complexity within oil palm plantations on biodiversity and experimentally testing the role plantation biodiversity has in ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services. The project is run in collaboration with University of Cambridge and industry partners, Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Corporation Research Institute (SMARTRI).
Acoustic monitoring of biodiversity and anthropogenic disturbance
At a time when research and conservation funding continue to come under extreme pressure, advances in technologies are allowing for the development of low-cost, energy-efficient acoustics sensors. Collaboration with Alex Rogers (University of Oxford) and Patrick Doncaster (SoBS) with two successful PhD studentships (Peter Prince and Andy Hill) led to the development of AudioMoth. AudioMoth is a versatile open-source, low-cost, full-spectrum acoustic logger. Along with assessing biodiversity in various landscapes, we are using AudioMoth to monitor hunting pressure in Belize.
Tropical Ecology and Conservation
Research in the group covers a whole range of taxa, mammals, birds, arthropods, but it is the arthropods particularly insects which get the lions share of our attention. Rather than just the diversity we are interested in the interactions between taxa; the roles taxa have on ecosystem processes, such as nutrient cycling and pollination; and how these are all effected by environmental change.
There has been a focus on how epiphytes and forest leaf litter contribute to forest arthropod communities. Notably describing fungal litter-trapping systems, overlooked contributors to canopy litter habitats. These fungal networks can retain more leaf litter than other systems, with conservative estimates of around 100 kg/ha for Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia. They are most abundant in the first five meters of the forest understorey though they have been recorded up to heights of around fifteen metres in the canopy. These systems occur globally in moist tropical forest regions. Forming a network of dark thread-like rhizomorphs (a dense mass of hyphae) that attach to living vegetation the rhizomorph systems capture and securely retain falling leaf litter on its decent to the forest floor.
Perceptions and Values of Biodiversity and Nature
The world’s population is increasingly disconnected from nature, living in modified, human-dominated landscapes that are expanding at the cost of the natural environment and biodiversity. This is thought to lead to a cycle of disaffection whereby people become progressively less aware of the importance of natural ecosystems, the ecological processes that they perform and apathetic about their value. Referred to as the “extinction of experience”, this is analogous with the “shifting baselines syndrome” – where past experiences of the state of the environment shape people’s expectations.
The research in the group aims to understand the factors which influence people’s connections with the natural world and its significance for conservation and influence on decision making from a variety perspectives, including biodiversity education, public awareness or consumer choice.