Biodiversity and Evolution Research Group
The Biodiversity and Evolution group explores the diversity of life at levels ranging from the molecular and genetic, to organismal and ecosystem. The main themes are outlined below. The group contributes theoretical insights and underpinning for practical measures for protection of biodiversity. Current funding sources include NERC, BBSRC, the Royal Society, the Environment Agency, the Research Council of Norway, EU, and non-governmental and governmental organisations.
Our current research
Evolutionary ecology of plant reproduction
Scott Armbruster works on the evolution and ecology plant-animal relationships, especially pollination. Tools used include quantitative genetics, molecular phylogenetics, and functional morphometrics. This research addresses broader questions about the origins, maintenance, and future of terrestrial biodiversity. These relationships are being modelled onto geographic scales through field studies by Rocio Perez-Barrales, with a view to putting these species-species interactions into the context of multispecies interactions and community ecology. Rocio Perez-Barrales also works on sex polymorphisms in plants in relation to pollinators and their ability to promote pollen flow between different floral forms.
Biodiversity and genome science
The team of Alex Ford uses a transcriptomic approach to characterise the effects of parasites on gene expression in crustaceans and to detect markers for gender expression in animals subject to pollution. Simon Cragg’s team is prospecting for enzymes of value for biofuel generation. They investigate wood-consuming marine organisms to determine which proteins are produced during the digestive process (with Matt Guille of the Epigenetics and Development Group), to define enzyme characteristics (with John McGeehan of Molecular Biophysics Group) and to build up a whole-genome from one of the borers. The first output of the Gribble Genome Project (with Rhiannon Lloydfrom School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences) is the mitochondrial genome.
Invasive species and biogeography
Invasive non-native species (INNS) are a significant threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services and their ecological impacts are difficult to reverse. The total annual cost of INNS to the British economy is estimated at approximately £1.7 billion. Research into invasive species has a long history in UoP including the discovery of the Japanese seaweed, Sargassum muticum, in the 1970s through to more recent arrivals including the red-clawed crayfish and colourfully named killer and demon shrimp (Dikerogammarus spp.) into our British Waterways.
Modelling of marine wood borer distribution has highlighted the potential of expansion of these economic pests into new environments in response to climate-driven changes. We recently discovered the establishment of a breeding population of a marine wood borer from the Caribbean into the eastern Mediterranean and a South American slipper limpet in Spain. Research in Indonesian mangroves has revealed that wood borers create niches which support of rich fauna of intertidal crevice dwellers ranging from amphibious fish to spiders and thus act as ecosystem engineers, supporting biodiversity. Exceptionally high sympatry (related species cohabiting) has been found among fiddler crabs in these mangroves.
Palaeoenvironmental change in deep time
The group uses high resolution stratigraphy based on bio- and chemostratigraphy ( δ13C) to investigate rates and magnitude of sea level changes in Silurian and Cretaceous times, and to provide evidence of control mechanisms on ancient sea levels and episodes of faunal change. In the Cretaceous, Nd-isotopes, in conjunction with faunal and floral realm data, are used to investigate water mass displacement associated with major palaeoceanographical perturbations, such as Oceanic Anoxic Events. Integration of δ13C data and biostratigraphy with long, orbitally tuned time series is used to develop Milankovitch Cycle based timescales for the Cretaceous, and to compare these with the Astronomical Solution for Cretaceous eccentricity generated by calculatio
Reconstructing phylogeny; the roles of morphology, molecules and fossils
Analysis of gene sequences has revolutionised our understanding of the phylogenetic history for many groups of living organisms. However, morphological corroboration of these trees is an essential part of understanding evolutionary history, and sometimes, as in the case of the asteroids (Echinodermata) morphology provides a very different story to the molecular phylogeny. Sound morphological trees are also essential to enable correct placement of important fossil taxa within phylogenies. We are currently working on barnacle (Cirripedia, Crustacea) phylogeny in collaboration with molecular studies currently underway in the USA and Europe.
ORGANISM-SUBSTRATE INTERACTIONS THROUGH TIME AND SPACE
Animals and their environments have been interacting and modifying one another since life began. The activities of benthic organisms leave behind physical structures in sediments that are readily preserved in both modern and ancient environments. These provide a proxy for investigating the make-up of ecosystems through time and space and their responses to major events in the history of the Earth. Active research includes ecosystem engineering during major transitions in evolution represented by the Cambrian explosion and colonization of land; the application of animal-sediment interactions in palaeoenvironmental analysis; and experimental analysis of modern animal-sediment interactions.
Future research aims to exploit expertise from the Biogeochemistry and Ecosystem Research Group and Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Portsmouth in order to conduct multi-scale research that integrates analysis of long-term trends in organism-substrate interactions observed in the geological record with shorter-term modern field and experimental studies. This will be important for emerging policy in better predicting the impacts of ongoing environmental and biotic change on ecosystem properties.