Delving into taxonomy – in the marine realm

I’ve recently had the opportunity to expand my academic horizons by assisting a Ph.D. student (who has now completed his degree!) with statistical analysis of morphological data from two purported species of New Zealand brachiopods, which are shelled marine animals in their own phylum that is closely related to the molluscs. Though we were unable to statistically distinguish the species based on morphometrics, enzyme analysis indicated that they should remain separated. Moreover, we confirmed that morphological differences between brachiopod species in other genera range from very small to quite large. It’s been quite a novel experience for this plant community ecologist to have a hand in taxonomic research, and on marine animals at that!


NZES Conference 2015

Last week the 2015 New Zealand Ecological Society conference was held at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and I presented a poster on my work in collaboration with Dr. Barbara J. Anderson that shows evolutionary priority effects occur with similar strength in secondary as well as primary grasslands in NZ. This suggests that evolutionary priority effects can persist through major environmental disturbance, providing further support for previous work in our group that has found evolutionary priority effects to occur in alpine and forest ecosystems in NZ.

The conference had a great opening session focusing on non-governmental conservation efforts, with brief talks given by leaders of several local and regional initiatives throughout NZ to enhance biodiversity value and sustainability in the lands they cherish — from Northland to Cape Kidnappers to northwest Nelson. These talks were followed up by a Massey University professor and the Director-General of the Department of Conservation, and finally a keynote address from Dr. Peter Kareiva of The Nature Conservancy, all highlighting different initiatives and examples of successful, often innovative, approaches to integrate conservation goals with social and economic concerns. It’s becoming increasingly evident that successful conservation of biodiversity requires explicit consideration of human needs, values, and involvement, rather than the false notion that humans are entirely separate from nature. This may be stating the obvious, but it is often overlooked as we become absorbed in what every other organism is doing!


A colleague just tuned me in to the fact that myself and another colleague feature in some of the photos taken from the NZES conference poster session! Check out the conference’s Facebook page and photo album.

Botany colloquium and Botanical Society talks — all in one month!

It seems that neat events are often clustered (perhaps a spatio-temporal analysis is in order to back up my anecdote…), and that certainly happened this month when I was invited to speak at two events. On 9 October, the Botany department at the University of Otago here in Dunedin hosted its annual post-graduate colloquium, at which I was invited to give the guest research talk. And the following Wednesday I was the invited speaker for the monthly seminar series of the Botanical Society of Otago, a great organisation with excellent field trips in which I’ve often taken part. Both were excellent opportunities to present my current research to local botanical enthusiasts (many of whom are much more familiar with the NZ flora than me!), and I had many stimulating discussions about the eco-evolutionary dynamics in NZ plant communities with them as a result. Dunedin is certainly a great place to be a plant ecologist!


I’ve just returned to New Zealand from attending the centennial meeting of the Ecological Society of America, held in Baltimore, MD, where the first gathering of American ecologists to form the society occurred. Even President Obama made a special effort to congratulate the ESA on its 100th anniversary. It was a fantastic meeting, catching up with many friends and colleagues as well as making new contacts.

I presented at the very end of the day on Wednesday about some interesting results from work with my colleague Barbara Anderson, showing that evolutionary priority effects may persist in the face of dramatic environmental disturbance (e.g. anthropogenic habitat conversion). I had an attentive and engaged audience — they even chuckled at my Lord of the Rings references!


My ESA tote bag became famous (or perhaps infamous?) by being posted on the EEB & Flow blog’s opening ESA100 post. Photo credit to Caroline Tucker

My former post-doc advisor, Jean Burns, presented new results from our common garden experiment investigating the role of plant-induced soil heterogeneity on coexistence in an Organized Oral Session she co-organised with Anny Chung. Data on soil chemistry, moisture, and bacterial communities suggest that both abiotic and biotic drivers may contribute to mutual invasibility between Rumex congeners. Thus, our results from this multi-year experiment are supporting our coexistence prediction from the net pairwise soil feedbacks effect we initially observed on Rumex recruitment (Brandt et al. 2013). Very cool to see this project coming full-circle!

Seminar at Lincoln U

Earlier this month I was invited to present a seminar on my post-doc work at Landcare Research investigating how immigration timing of ancestral taxa and subsequent diversification of lineages affects extant plant community structure and diversity. I had a great visit at Lincoln University with my host, Will Godsoe, as well as several stellar post-docs and faculty members. Really cool work going on in the Bio-Protection Research Centre there!

Paper out in New Phytologist

My first publication from our Marsden-funded project on evolutionary priority effects in the New Zealand flora is now available for early view in New Phytologist. Led by Dr. Andrew Tanentzap at the University of Cambridge, this paper tests the hypothesis that early-arriving plant lineages had greater access to niche space in the alpine zone and were thus able to diversify within that space, preventing later arrivals from dominating the community. We find evidence to support all of our predictions. This paper was first inspired by a Radiations Symposium in Switzerland last June, attended by Dr. Tanentzap and my supervisor, Dr. Bill Lee. I also spoke about this work at the New Zealand Ecological Society’s annual meeting last November.

Two new papers out – co-authored with undergraduates from CWRU

After a busy couple of months doing final revisions and checking proofs for two manuscripts co-authored with stellar undergraduates from the Burns Lab at CWRU, I was happy to find that both manuscripts went online yesterday!

First, in an experiment that manipulated the timing of plant establishment in competition between congeners, we found evidence for plasticity in two functional traits that is consistent with predictions for adaptive trait plasticity in some species, where the later-establishing plant’s trait values would maximize resource capture. The type of plastic response — either a difference between late- vs. early-establishing plants of the same species or divergence in trait values between potmates — differed by genus. Moreover, divergence in specific leaf area between potmates positively correlated with combined biomass of those potmates, consistent with putatively adaptive trait plasticity. This work, co-authored with Conor Leahy and Nicole Zimmerman as well as Dr. Jean Burns, is now published in Oecologia. Nicole has now completed a Master’s degree in biostatistics from the University of Michigan and I especially appreciated her help with the statistical analysis in this paper.

Second, in a paper led by Gaston del Pino and now published in Plant Ecology, we show evidence for functional trait plasticity in response to experimentally-manipulated heterogeneity in both the above- and belowground environment (light and soil heterogeneity, respectively). We found that above- and belowground heterogeneity can interact to affect trait expression. We also found non-additive effects of mixing soils of two origins (i.e. collected from the zone of root influence of different plant species in the field), which is consistent with findings in my previous work with Dr. Burns (here and here).