Our Applied Ecology Research Group (AERG) undertakes world class research to understand and provide innovative solutions to a myriad of urgent and complex global issues facing natural ecosystems.
The primary focus of the AERG is to assess, understand and mitigate anthropogenic impacts such as plastic pollution, climate change, invasive species, agriculture and urbanisation, on biodiversity and ecosystem services in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Our cutting edge research uses a range of modern tools, including ecological network analysis, ecosystem modelling, satellite tracking and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) along with interdisciplinary techniques, for example, combining the disciplines of biology and ecology with molecular biology, biogeochemistry and microbiology. Our research is used to engage and educate the general public and to enhance decision-making for natural resource management and sustainable development.
Some of our research goals align with those of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group and the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) promoting a good intellectual environment rich with collaborative opportunity. Members of our group include academics, postgraduate researchers and professional staff.
We welcome collaboration and enquiries from potential incoming Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellows under the European Union's new Horizon 2020 programme.
New research has discovered that cigarette butts – the most common form of litter on the planet – significantly reduce plant growth.
Led by Dr Dannielle Green, Director of our Applied Ecology Research Group, School of Life Science, and co-authored by Dr Bas Boots, Lecturer in Biology, the new study was published during July in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. This research is the first of its kind and shows the damage that cigarette butts can cause to plants. The results have gained global interest.
"Despite being a common sight littering streets and parks worldwide, our study is the first to show the impact of cigarette butts on plants. We found they had a detrimental effect on the germination success and shoot length of both grass and clover, and reduced the root weight of clover by over half.
"Ryegrass and white clover, the two species we tested, are important forage crops for livestock as well as being commonly found in urban green spaces. These plants support a wealth of biodiversity, even in city parks, and white clover is ecologically important for pollinators and nitrogen fixation.
"Many smokers think cigarette butts quickly biodegrade and therefore don’t really consider them as litter. In reality, the filter is made out of a type of bioplastic that can take years, if not decades, to break down.
"In some parks, particularly surrounding benches and bins, we found over 100 cigarette butts per square metre. Dropping cigarette butts seems to be a socially acceptable form of littering and we need to raise awareness that the filters do not disappear and instead can cause serious damage to the environment."
"Although further work is needed, we believe it is the chemical composition of the filter that is causing the damage to plants. Most are made from cellulose acetate fibres, and added chemicals which make the plastic more flexible, called plasticisers, may also be leaching out and adversely affecting the early stages of plant development."
Dannielle and Bas received an enormous amount of attention for this research. The paper reached the top 5% for media attention globally, appearing on BBC local, national and World news. It’s been broadcast on TV, radio, in newspapers and blogs in every continent with thousands of comments from many different countries on social media.
Dr Dannielle Green and Dr Paul Dyer from our School of Life Sciences have been awarded £10K for a collaborative project to investigate the biomedical implications of environmental microplastics.
Dr Dannielle Green, Director of our Applied Ecology Research Group, and Dr Paul Dyer from our Biomedical Research Group, were recently awarded funding by a charitable foundation interested in environmental issues.
Dannielle, a marine biologist who studies plastic pollution in the oceans, and Paul, a biomedical scientist, have joined forces to develop tools to investigate the human implications of microplastic accumulation using cell models.
The impact of plastic pollution on marine life has been generally well documented on TV programmes such as Blue Planet II. Smaller plastic particles, microplastics, are most often derived from mechanical degradation of larger pieces and from the cosmetic industry. Microplastics are generally thought to be the most prevalent contaminants in the human environment, being in the air that we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.
Much has been learnt about the environmental impact on marine fauna, however the human implication on the accumulation of microplastics in the main site of exposure, the lungs and intestine, has not been well characterised. This exciting development will help support our understanding of how many microplastics enter our systems, and how these interact with the cells and tissues of our bodies.
This successful award follows a School investment in specialist technology to enable us to count for the first time very small micro- and nano-sized particles derived from environmental samples.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
Dr Olivia Norfolk was invited to attend the expert consultation on the formation of a new EU Pollinator Initiative.
Wild insects play a crucial role in the pollination of crops and wild plants, but are experiencing widespread declines across Europe. These declines are primarily driven by human activity and agricultural intensification. There is an urgent need for strategic intervention across Europe to conserve pollinators and ensure the future productivity of the agricultural sector.
In December 2017 the European Commission published a roadmap for the development of a new EU Pollinators Initiative. This involved a public consultation, as well as workshops with experts.
The two-day workshop in Brussels brought together eighty scientists, stakeholders and policy makers from across Europe. The event focused on identifying knowledge gaps, tackling the causes of the pollinator declines and improving collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Olivia hosted a discussion session where she raised the importance of regulating the densities of honeybee hives which have been shown to put pressure on wild pollinators. She also provided an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Common Agricultural Policy for pollinator conservation and discussed strategies for enhancing pollinator habitats at a landscape-scale.
These contributions will inform the development of the EU Pollinator Initiative which is set to be released in summer 2018.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
A study led by Dr Peter Brown highlights the dominance of the invasive harlequin ladybird and involved taking recordings at four sites across East Anglia, nine times a year over an 11-year period from 2006-2016. The study shows an alarming decline of native ladybirds in the UK. The research was published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity, 2017, and is referenced below under key publications.
Dr Olivia Norfolk led a new study that was recently published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, 2018, and is referenced below under key publications. It indicates introduced ‘alien’ honeybees are competing for resources with native bees and threatening the survival of plants that rely on interactions with specific pollinators. Read the full news article entitled 'Alien honeybees could cause plant extinction'. 2018.
Dr Dannielle Green has shown the wider impact of microplastics in her research indicating that even small concentrations of plastic, such as microbeads found in toothpaste, cosmetics and household cleaning products, can have a serious impact on entire marine habitats. Dannielle's research was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, 2017, and is referenced below under key publications.
Research led by Dr Olivia Norfolk shows that coffee and timber plantations are providing a safety net for butterfly species in Ethiopia, as the country’s tropical forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The study has been published in Biotropica, the journal of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and is referenced below under key publications. Read the full article 'How butterflies benefit from coffee corridors'. 2017.
Brown, P. and Roy, H.E., 2017. Native ladybird decline caused by the invasive harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis: evidence from a long‐term field study. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 11, pp.230-239.
Green, D.S., Christie, H., Pratt, N., Boots, B., Godbold, J., Solan, M. and Hauton, C. 2017. Competitive interactions moderate the effects of elevated temperature and atmospheric CO2 on the health and functioning of oysters. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 582, pp.93-103.
Green, D., Boots, B., O'Connor, N. and Thompson, R. 2017. Microplastics affect the ecological functioning of an important biogenic habitat. Environmental Science and Technology, 51(1), pp.68-77.
Mowles, S.L., Jennions, M. and Backwell, PRY., 2017. Multimodal communication in courting fiddler crabs reveals male performance capacities. Royal Society Open Science, 3(4).
Norfolk, O., Gilbert, F. and Eichhorn, M.P., 2018. Alien honeybees increase pollination risks for range‐restricted plants. Diversity and Distributions, 24, pp.705–713.
Norfolk, O., Asale, A., Temesgen, T., Denu, D., Platts, PJ., Marchant, R. and Yewhalaw, D., 2017. Diversity and composition of tropical butterflies along an Afromontane agricultural gradient in the Jimma Highlands, Ethiopia. Biotropica, 3(49), pp.346-354.