As a research scientist, I’m interested in insect biodiversity and conservation.
In particular, I investigate what effects habitat change and management practices have on insect diversity and ways that agricultural areas and other human-modified ecosystems can be managed to maintain this biodiversity. I also study how insects contribute to important ecosystem functions such as pollination and decomposition that can increase crop production.
Outside of my day job, I’m also a keen natural historian. Through working in both the tropics and the UK, I’ve found that amazing wildlife can be found anywhere – you don’t need to go to a tropical rainforest (although that is excellent!); you can see extraordinary wildlife in your own garden.
The sections below give some more information on the main research projects I’ve been involved with over the last few years.
The impact of rainforest fragmentation and conversion to oil palm plantation on insect biodiversity in Sabah, Malaysia.
This work is carried out in association with the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project, a ground-breaking ecological study spearheaded by Imperial College, London and the Royal society South East Asia Rainforest Research Project, and the Insect Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge.
In recent decades, oil palm cultivation has expanded dramatically in the tropics and represents a severe threat to global biodiversity. Despite this, there has been little research investigating management practices to benefit biodiversity within tropical agricultural ecosystems.
This research investigates ways that oil palm landscapes can be managed to maintain biodiversity and healthy ecosystem functioning without reducing agricultural productivity. In the SAFE Project we are using a network of over 500 specially-designed insect collection traps to monitor insect biodiversity across a habitat gradient ranging from pristine primary rainforest, at Maliau Basin Conservation Area, to degraded forest and established oil palm plantation. An important part of this research is based in an area of twice-logged forest that is earmarked for conversion to oil palm plantation in the coming year. By working closely with the land managers, SAFE has ensured that a network of different sized forest fragments (ranging from 1ha to 100ha and making up some 800ha in total) will be preserved during clearance. This represents a rare opportunity to experimentally test the effects of fragmentation and the role of different sized forest fragments in maintaining diversity.
In related work I also study insect diversity at finer scales in plantations, particularly the importance of understory plants and epiphytes in providing a habitat for insects. Our research has shown that these epiphytes can be important refuges for insects in plantations and can house significant diversity.
Managing chalk grassland reserves for butterflies
This research is carried out in association with the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust.
Chalk grasslands are among the most biodiverse habitats in the UK, housing a wide range of threatened plant and animal species. However, much of this habitat has been lost over the last few decades, owing to agricultural expansion and lack of appropriate management. Understanding the specific habitat requirements of threatened chalk grassland species is crucial to their conservation, as different species require specific environmental conditions and may be lost if management isn’t tailored to their needs.
This project investigates the habitat requirements of threatened chalk grassland butterflies: particularly the Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Small Blue (Cupido minimus) and Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon). By regularly surveying a network of chalk grassland patches and reserves for the butterflies over several years, and individually marking and recording the GPS location of the different species, we were able to discover how the butterflies used their environment and moved across the landscape. We found that each species had very different requirements and also occupied different parts of the reserve network. These result were used to inform management on the reserves to preserve this diversity.