UCD Earth Institute

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    Inform solutions for tomorrow.

Ecology & Evolution

Animals, plants and microbes have been hot-wired to adapt and survive an ever-changing environment.

As carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere reach their highest concentration ever since the dawn of mankind we look to animals and plants for genetic-signatures of survival that enabled adaptation and evolution in challenging environments.

Fossils also offer a unique window into the Earth’s past helping us to explore how microorganisms, plants and animals reacted to large-scale climate and atmospheric events and tipping points.

This helps us predict how our ecosystems will evolve in response to change and how we can preserve the rich biodiversity of our planet’s oceans and terrestrial systems.

Our scientists are interested in the ecological and evolutionary processes that underlie patterns of life on earth. Their research interests include population genetics, molecular evolution, quantitative genetics, animal behaviour, plant and animal ecology, evolutionary theory, species interactions, invasion ecology, marine and freshwater ecology.

Key words: Population Genetics, Conservation Ecology, Molecular Evolution and Phylogenetics, Evolutionary Genomics, Species Interactions, Invasion Ecology, Marine and Freshwater Ecology.

Earth Institute academics working in this area:

Research impacts

How will natural ecosystems respond to future global change? Why should we be concerned? These are complex questions which scientists have been grappling with for decades.

Prof. Jenny McElwain at UCD Earth Institute uses the plant fossil record and an experimental approach to address these questions. By tracking the responses of ancient 200 million year old forests to natural global warming events in the geological past, McElwain and her team have established that high concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide result in chemical, physical and functional changes in plants in order to survive.

Although these apparently simple adaptions were expected, they had unexpected consequences for the cycling of water and for prevalence of fire in these ancient ecosystems.

The intensity of fire increased five-fold because leaves adapted to the new hotter climate were more dissected and more dissected leaves burn hotter, faster and release more fire propagating chemicals than less dissected leaves. More water was lost from the land into rivers, lakes and the sea taking valuable nutrients and organic carbon in the run-off. A halving of the number of stomata on leaf surfaces played a direct role in the changes in the hydrological cycle because fewer stomata release less water from plants which ultimately leads to less water be recycled through the vegetation and more being lost from land to sea following a rainfall event.

The important implications of this research is that it shows that subtle biological responses to climate change can have a disproportionately large effect on other important processes in the Earth system, such as the hydrological cycle and fire ecology.

Biodiversity and associated ecosystem services are fundamental to humanity but are threatened by human activity in a range of sectors.

Dr Tasman Crowe has been studying the impacts of multiple stressors imposed on marine ecosystems by sectoral activities and climate change. Based on this work, Dr Crowe led the development of guidelines on setting conservation objectives in marine Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for the then Department of Environment Heritage and the Gaeltacht, helping Ireland to comply with the requirements of the EU Habitats Directive and to avoid fines following a European Court of Justice ruling that found Ireland in non-compliance. Ireland’s non-compliance included and still includes controversy over the licensing of aquaculture in SACs, which is causing great difficulties to the industry.

The guidelines Dr Crowe and his team at UCD Earth Institute developed included recommendations for a fundamental review of the framework for assessing conservation status of SACs. They have been influential at national and international level and have helped provide a basis for informed decisions about which activities should and should not be permitted in marine SACs.