The Scurfield Bursary: Supporting steps towards a predictive ecology.
University of Zurich in Switzerland 7th Jan - Present
Jason Griffiths is a PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. His major interests lie in understanding the impacts of the current climatic changes on species abundances and on the survival of individuals within these populations. He aims to determine which processes currently hamper the reliable forecasting of future population abundances. Furthermore, he wants to examine how the accuracy and horizon of projections can be improved by using information about species traits, such as body sizes or swimming behaviour. Answers to these questions is important for the long term management of any populations but also has a critical role in our endeavour to make ecology a more predictive science.
To begin addressing these questions, Jason used the Scurfield Memorial Bursary to travel to the University of Zurich in Switzerland and work at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies. In the first week of January 2015 he joined the "Predictive Ecology" group, which aims to advance ecology as a predictive science, by improving our understanding of the fundamental processes governing communities. In line with his interests, they use pioneering laboratory experiments, mathematical modelling, and analyses of individual's morphologies and moment patterns to determine how processes like predation, adaptation and environmental change influence the number, size and behaviour of individuals.
Whilst in Zurich, Jason is performing a laboratory experiment, using simple microbial communitites, in which he takes repeated video snapshots of predator-prey populations living at different temperatures. Then, using automated digital video identification and tracking software, he is measuring the temporal patterns of abundance, morphology and simple movement behaviours within the populations. This data will allow him to examine how climatic conditions, ecological interactions and the selective impacts of predation influence a population's abundance. He will also be able to relate changes in a population's traits to future changes in abundance.
Using this approach Jason will be able to test our ability to generate accurate population forecasts, by splitting the data set in two. The first section will be used to learn about the relationships between past and future traits and abundances and allow population forecasts to be made. The second section allows verification of the performance of these projections. This validation approach will allow evaluation of the extent to which additional trait information can improve population predictions and allow identification of the biological traits of importance. It will also address important theoretical questions about the role of trait evolution in driving the dynamics of populations.
The Scurfield Memorial Bursary has greatly helped the initiation of this project, allowing Jason to commence this work, learn many new skills and form valuable new collaborations. Many thanks to the Scurfield family for their generous support.