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Department of Biological Sciences

 Plant-Insect Interactions and Climate Change Ecology Lab

 

Current Research

It is now widely agreed that the earth’s climate is rapidly warming. Global mean surface temperatures have increased by 0.6°C since the late 19th century, and by 0.2-0.3°C over the past 40 years. This warming has been associated with a change in rainfall patterns, sea level, sea surface temperatures, and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, including fires, floods, droughts and cyclones. There is now increasing evidence that these changes have already had a discernable impact on a number of species and their ecosystems, with changes in distributions, abundances, physiologies and phenologies all being documented. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that by the end of this century, the average temperature increase could be as high as 6°C and there is a growing concern this level of warming could have a major impact on the world’s biodiversity.

Ectotherms, including insects and reptiles, may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These animals gain their energy directly from their surroundings, and as a consequence, their life histories are intimately linked with environmental conditions. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns have been shown to directly influence rates of growth, fitness, activity, fecundity and survival, with concomitant effects on population dynamics and persistence. Plants are also likely to be directly affected by the rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is used by plants to photosynthesise and is a limiting factor for C3 plants at ambient levels. Higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide cause an increase in photosynthesis, providing other resources such as nutrients and light intensity are not limiting. Studies on crop species show that with a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations, plants will increase in biomass by 30-40%. These trends appear to be accompanied by greater water use efficiency, higher carbon to nitrogen ratios in leaves and wood, and greater leaf thickness with lower specific leaf area.

Species may respond to climate change via a number of mechanisms, including shifting distributions polewards or upwards in elevation, altering the timing of their life cycle events, modifying their behaviours or by evolving. However, there is doubt as to whether many species will be able to adapt sufficiently quickly in order to keep pace with current levels of warming. Further, species respond individualistically to changes in climate due to species-specific differences in physiological tolerances, life history traits and dispersal abilities. In this way, climate change has the potential to alter the interactions between species and their prey, habitat, predators and competitors, and influence threats such as invasive species and disease.

In our lab, we aim to determine how climate change is affecting natural ecosystems using a combination of laboratory experiments, bioclimatic modelling and fieldwork across NSW and Queensland. Specifically, we investigate the impacts of climate change on species interactions and aim to identify those species likely to be most at risk from range losses, population declines and extinction.

Hover fly on rocket

Photo courtesy of Andy Burton

 

 

Pied lacewing (Porismus strigatus)

Photo courtesy of Andy Burton

 

 

Acacia longifolia

Photo courtesy of Andy Burton

 

 

Tailed emperor (Polyura sempronius)

Photo courtesy of Andy Burton

 

 

What a lovely sidebar!

It surely is nice!

 

What a lovely sidebar!

It surely is nice!