Monday 28 November 2016

Biosciences Seminar Speaker 01 December 2016

Biosciences Seminar Series - Autumn 2016
01 December 2016 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

The devil is in the details: on a quest for causality in ecology and evolution

Dr Achaz von Hardenberg

Photo by Yves Adams

Our speaker of this week, Dr Achaz von Hardenberg from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Chester (UK) will present his research on the links between parasites, behaviour life history variation and genetics in mountain mammals, using causal inference methods for ecological research. Achaz is a conservation ecologist, interested in behavioural ecology, population dynamics and conservation, especially of mountain ungulates and marmots. Previous to Chester, Achaz worked at the National Centre for Statistical Ecology (University of Kent, UK) and before going back to Academia, Achaz was as a research biologist and head of the science section at the Gran Paradiso National Park (GPNP, Northwestern Italian Alps), responsible for the long term ecological research and conservation projects in the Park.

Disentangling cause-effect relationships is a primary, understated, goal in evolutionary biology and ecology. Controlled and randomised experiments, the golden standard in causal inference, can be used to study ecological and microevolutionary processes in the lab but are rarely applicable in ecological studies on wild populations, or when the interest lies in explaining the macroevolutionary processes behind the variability in traits among species. With few exceptions field ecologist and comparative evolutionary biologists thus renounce to make any inference about causality from their observational studies, resigning to the sobering precept - we all learnt during our undergraduate statistics courses - that correlation does not imply causation. 

However, recently new structural equation modelling (SEM) approaches have been developed, providing formal methods to specify and compare complex models of the relationships among ecological variables, in order to disentangle direct and indirect causal effects when only observational data is available. In this talk I will provide a short introduction to causal inference and show how we have applied these powerful methods to test causal models of the complex relationships between corticosteroid hormones, parasites, behaviour, genetic variability and life history traits in various wildlife species including Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) and Alpine marmots (Marmota marmota). 

Recently we have also extended causal inference to phylogenetic comparative studies, developing a method for Phylogenetic Path Analysis which finally allows
evolutionary biologists to formulate causal models of hypothesised direct and indirect evolutionary relationships between life history, ecological and morphological traits in comparative studies taking into account the underlying phylogenetic signal. Finally I will discuss the potential of causal inference to provide better evidence to inform conservation.

Hope to see many of you - everyone most welcome to attend!

For the list of forthcoming seminars, see here, and here.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Biosciences Seminar Speaker 24 November 2016

Biosciences Seminar Series - Autumn 2016
24 November 2016 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Hot dogs: understanding climate change impacts in a tropical mammal

Prof Rosie Woodroffe

Our speaker of this week, Prof Rosie Woodroffe from the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London, will present her research on the ecological drivers of an African carnivore, the wild dog (Lycaon pictus). Rosie's research is wide ranging and interdisciplinary, at the interface of conservation biology, wildlife management, disease ecology, and animal behaviour/behavioural ecology, and with a strong commitment to using science to influence both policy and conservation action. Whilst hence most of her research applied, not rarely has it lead also to advancements of basic ecological interest. 

Rosie's main research focuses on three themes. Regarding the conservation of wildlife that conflicts with people, an increasingly important topic in human-dominated landscapes, her work has focused on identifying the ecological drivers of human-wildlife conflicts (especially in African carnivores) and finding technical measures to resolve the latter. Her work on infectious disease in ecology and conservation has lead her to become one of the most important UK researchers on the contentious issue of the role of badgers in bovine tuberculosis (TB; e.g. see here). Her work on species conservation planning has led her to become part of the IUCN/SSC Task Force on Species Conservation Planning, coordinate the African wild dog working group of the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group, and in drafting recovery plans and national management plans for endangered species across America and Africa.

Last, but not least, Rosie won the Science Slam at the 2015 BES Annual Meeting (see here), so we might well expect an engaging talk!

Climate change imposes an urgent need to recognise and conserve the species likely to be worst affected. Physiologists predict direct impacts of rising ambient temperatures on tropical species, yet ecologists have mostly characterised indirect effects on temperate and polar species. In this talk I will describe direct impacts of high ambient temperatures on reproductive success in a tropical carnivore, the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). 

High temperatures directly constrained wild dog packs’ foraging time, especially during the energetically-costly pup-rearing period. Packs which reared pups at high ambient temperatures produced fewer recruits, and took longer to produce their next litter, than did those rearing pups in cooler weather. Over time, rising temperatures coincided with falling wild dog recruitment, suggesting that climate change may already be impacting this endangered species. 

These impacts would have been missed by simplistic trait-based assessments of climate change vulnerability, highlighting a need for species-specific assessments where possible, especially among tropical wildlife.

Hope to see many of you - everyone most welcome to attend!

For the list of forthcoming seminars this term, see here, here, and here.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Biosciences Seminar Speaker 17 November 2016

Biosciences Seminar Series - Autumn 2016
17 November 2016 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

The diversifiers of life history strategies in animals and plants

Dr Roberto Salguero-Gómez

Our speaker of this week, Dr Roberto Salguero-Gómez from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, will present his research on the drivers of differences in life history traits across plants and animals. Rob's research is wide-ranging, comprising animal and plant demography, including novel research on senescence (see here), drivers of variation in life history traits, causes of animal and plant performance, or effects of climate change on native biota. 

In addition to his association with Sheffield, Rob is also associated with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland, Australia, the Evolutionary Biodemography Laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, and the School of Natural Sciences at the Department of Zoology & Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Hence, this week's seminar at Swansea is a rare occasion to meet and chat to Rob in person somewhere else from an airport or a seat on a transcontinental flight :-)

Life history traits are the events in our lives that control our demographic performance, our well-being and the well-being of societies. Examples include the age at maturity, reproductive window, mean and maximum longevity, post-reproductive lifespan, number of babies produced, and mortality rate, to mention a few. These factors, which are rather well understood and known to influence human population dynamics, our economics, insurance plans, and retirement funds, to mention a few, are not unique to Homo sapiens. Life history traits can be calculated for any population from any species where the individual can be clearly defined and where demographic information is available. The great potential for application of the tools that allow for the calculation of life history traits from a rich repertoire of organisms, from orchids to ferns to redwoods, to mice, bats, bears and C. elegans would allow evolutionary ecologists to tap into questions of global scope such as what strategies are most successful in what environments, what are the factors enhancing the diversification of life history strategies, and which one restrain them. 

Up until recently comparative studies examining variation in life history traits had been limited mostly to mammals and birds, mostly due to the lack of comprehensive repositories for other taxonomic groups. Here, I introduce the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database and the COMADRE Animal Matrix Database (, which together contain high-resolution demographic data in the shape of matrix population models for over 2,500 animal and plant species around the globe. I use the demographic machinery developed in the last years to decompose biologically meaningful life history traits from these matrices to examine what are the phylogenetic and environmental factors driving the diversity in life history strategies across plants and animals.

Hope to see many of you - everyone most welcome to attend!

For the list of forthcoming seminars this term, see here.