Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Unravelling nature's networks

Guest blog by Dr Michael Pocock of CEH.

One definition of ecology is that it is the study of the inter-relationships of animals, plants and their environment. Through these inter-relationships all species are linked together in networks of interacting species.

Rarely are the relationships between hundreds of interacting species fully explored but that is exactly what I did in a paper published in Science last week entitled "The robustness and restoration of a network of ecological networks". This was a result of research I undertook before joining CEH in a project led by Prof Jane Memmott at the University of Bristol.

We looked at the relationships of over 600 species on a single farm in Somerset in one of the most complex studies of its kind. Of course, we could not study all species, but we chose to study a wide range of animal groups that relied on plants by eating leaves, visiting (and pollinating flowers) and eating plant seeds, and we included some of the animal groups that rely on those animals, such as the fleas on seed-feeding rodents. 

A dance-fly feeding on nectar from the flowers of  cow
parsley. Photo by Dr Michael Pocock.

Some of the animals we selected are UK headline indicators (birds and butterflies) and some are ecosystem service providers, which provide direct benefits to humans (such as the predatory insects that potentially provide biological pest control and the insect pollinators).

It was a huge effort to collect this data. Dozens of people helped gather the data, with ecologists spending hundreds of hours in the field sampling in all weathers and taxonomists in the lab identifying specimens.

Analysing the data provided a rich insight into the way that environmental change (such as the ways in which farmers manage their land) can affect biodiversity and the benefits nature provides.

The effect of environmental change (in all its forms) on whole networks of interacting animals and plants is one of the most pressing questions that we face today. In undertaking this research, I've found it humbling how complex and rich our natural world is, yet I have also found it sobering to discover more about its importance to us and its fragility.

Dr Michael Pocock is an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. His current research focuses on the impact of environmental change on networks of animal and plant interactions and engaging people with ecological science through projects such as Conker Tree Science.

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