Ecology research within the School has a broad focus on understanding the impact of natural and anthropogenic processes on the abundance, dynamics and distribution of individuals, populations and species.

Our research extends from genes to landscapes with an emphasis on long-term, large-scale field studies of birds and mammals to provide a real-world understanding of how ecological and evolutionary processes affect natural populations, and time-series data to identify population responses to environmental change. This approach is supported by strong theoretical research and novel statistical, modelling and laboratory-based tools.

We ensure recursive interaction and collaboration with a broad range of end-user, stake-holder and policy-making groups such that our research excellence translates into management and conservation policy and has real impact and influence.

Key areas of research focus include:

Individual Variation

Understanding spatio-temporal dynamics of natural populations requires detailed knowledge of the magnitude and causes of demographic variation among population members. We maintain and exploit several long-term field projects (including choughs, starlings, song-sparrows, dolphins, seals, fulmars, voles, grouse and tropical trees) with the aim of measuring population dynamic consequences of temporal and spatial variation in demography.

These detailed field studies of free-living populations are combined with sophisticated statistical analyses and simulation modelling. We have a particularly focus on understanding the causes and consequences of social structure and interaction in animal populations.

Population dynamics and trophic interaction

Trophic relationships are key processes structuring ecological communities. We are renown for our use of large-scale field studies with birds and mammals to explore the implications of predator-prey, parasite-host, and plant-herbivore interactions on the population dynamics and co-evolutionary processes affecting animal and plant species in a wide range of ecosystems.

Our research on trophic interaction focuses on the functional linkages between oceanographic processes and the life history traits and population dynamics of top marine predators such as whales, seals and seabirds. We identify the critical life history stages and marine habitats where predator and prey species overlap, focusing on the biotic and abiotic processes that can enhance or destroy these linkages.

Fisheries Ecology

Effective management of sustainable fish resources requires a broad understanding of the biological, environmental, economic and social aspects of fisheries. To that end, our fisheries ecologists conduct multi-disciplinary research programmes that includes

  •  understanding better the factors that affect the abundance and distribution of commercially exploited fish;
  •  top-down and bottom-up trophic interactions involving fishery species;
  •  advanced modelling tools to identify factors affecting individual and population growth rates;
  •  the potential impacts of climate change on fish population dynamics.
  •  developing novel technologies to selective fish and understand discards.

Integrating this process-based understanding into management is done in collaboration with European marine institutes, industrial partners and national organisations.

Conservation Ecology

Much of our research on ecological and evolutionary dynamics in natural populations directly or indirectly informs conservation issues. We are involved in applied research from the arctic to the tropics and work with a wide range of end-user and policy making groups to inform the effective management of natural resources, tourism, harvesting and restoration. We dovetail expertise in ecology, socio-economics and land-use to develop interdisciplinary research, focused on delivering sustainable solutions to environmental conflicts.

High-profile examples include:

  1. Our work with rare plant the assess the impact that reproductive failure caused by the current worldwide loss of pollinators and habitat fragmentation may have on the long-term survival of populations as well as the effectiveness of experimental introduction on the genetic diversity of plant species;
  2. Collaboration between farmers, statutory agencies and other users of wildlife resources in the efforts to manage rare chough populations;
  3. Mitigation of the deleterious impact of the invasion of American mink on native water voles, while simultaneously testing hypothesis of life history tactics and predator-prey interactions;
  4. Application of molecular markers to identify identifying evolutionary significant units (ESU) for Scottish crossbills, capercaillie and water voles;
  5. quantifying the impact of hen harriers on grouse moors, exploring associated mitigation strategies, and promoting stakeholder dialogue to resolve conflicts and assess alternative management strategies.
  6. Understanding the impacts of ecotourism on marine mammal populations.

Tropical and temperate forest ecology

In tropical and temperate forest communities our research focuses on the mechanisms that structure communities and determine the distribution and relative abundance of species. We address the interactions of plants with other plants, and their herbivores, pathogens and symbionts, and the consequences of these interactions for the maintenance of biodiversity.

This research extends to management and restoration of degraded ecosystems, and the role of ecosystem services in poverty alleviation.

Theoretical ecology and modelling

We utilise a range of sophisticated statistical and dynamic modelling approaches to link ecological theory with data with a view to better understand, predict and manage ecological and evolutionary dynamics during environmental change.

In addition to applying existing modelling methodologies to applied questions, we develop novel methods, with areas of current development including

  1. Agent-based spatial population models
  2. Modelling frameworks that link ecological theory with population genetics
  3. Novel bioinformatic pipelines to characterise genes of ecological and adaptive significance
  4. Animal social networks

Life history variation

An individual's 'life-history' comprises its schedule of key events such as birth, maturation, reproduction and death. A challenge for ecologists is to determine why life histories vary among individuals, populations and species, and to develop population management strategies that take account of such variation in life histories. Long-term monitoring programmes are integral to describing the pattern and magnitude of life history variation in wild populations.

We work with a large range of data from such long-term projects, both in the UK and abroad. These datasets have been used to quantify both genetic and environmental influences on life histories in a wide range of species, and the resulting knowledge has been applied to a range of management issues, including fisheries management policy and assessing the impacts of environmental change on wild bird populations.