Project highlights

  • A multidisciplinary project at the cutting-edge of Anthropocene research that seeks to establish resilient ecologies for the future
  • A project that is designed to enhance the environment for human and nonhuman occupants
  • The opportunity to work closely with a Wildlife Trust organisation

Overview

The English Midlands are a highly human-modified landscape that is farmed, managed, and urban, with remnant woodlands. Into these landscapes non-native species have been introduced such as the Jenkin’s spire snail and Japanese knotweed, reflecting a global phenomenon of accelerating homogenisation of the biosphere. Introduced species can be beneficial, neutral or damaging. Many proliferate where human environmental impacts are significant and where native species are on the back foot. This begs the question of what facilitates these introductions and their subsequent expansion, and such a question is also germane to understanding how invasive pathogens – like Covid-19 –are introduced and proliferate.

Worldwide, species introductions have accelerated over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of globalisation, and especially so in the late 20th century. We wish to establish a detailed record of introduced species into one region of the English Midlands during this period, taking Leicestershire and Rutland as a model. The two counties are a microcosm of England in general, with a range of landscapes from moorland to wetland, industrial and urban. We will assess times of introduction relative to first arrival in the UK, modes of introduction (human vectors, climate change), distribution, and abundance in different ecologies. We will characterise introduced organisms in terms of their impact on ecologies. We will investigate archives from hydroecological systems (e.g. sediment/fossil archives in wetlands, lakes, canals and rivers) to reconstruct a temporal (biostratigraphical) record of introduction, targeting such organisms as molluscs and crustaceans, and utilising the fossil record of pollen and spores. When coupled with chronological markers, like carbon-dating or patterns of fly ash accumulation, our combined geo-ecological approach will examine rates of introduction and proliferation compared with temporal landscape change (agricultural/urban), transportation (e.g. canals, rail, roads), influx of non-biodegradable materials (e.g. landfills), and removal of barriers (e.g. re-engineering rivers). Identifying key drivers of detrimental and beneficial ecological change will inform the design of ecosystems that are ‘future proofed’ against harmful introduced species.

Host

University of Leicester

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Mark Williams (GGE, UoL),

Co-investigators

  • Juan Carlos Berrio (GGE, UoL)
  • Stefano De Sabbatta (GGE, UoL),
  • Moya Burns (Biosciences, UoL)
  • Sergei Petrovskiy (Mathematics and Actuarial Science, UoL)
  • John Clarkson (Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust)

How to apply

Methodology

The project will analyse available datasets to build a spatial analysis of introduced species that can be correlated with land use. It will explore the use of data from volunteered geographic information projects, such as iNaturalist, to evaluate the current spread of species throughout the region. Targeted fieldwork will ground truth impacts on ecologies that are affected by introduced species. Comparison timelines for introductions into the UK will be used to analyse and model routes and rates by which introduced species infiltrated the local region. Geo-ecological archives of species invasion (sedimentary archives from wetlands, rivers, lakes, canals, ponds) will be collected, utilising state-of-the-art coring equipment. Sediment sampling will examine, for example, the fossil record of the spread of non-indigenous plants via residential gardens or transport networks. Geological and ecological analyses will be integrated to develop land use practices that foster diverse ecosystems that exclude damaging invasive organisms.

Training and skills

You will receive detailed training in micro- and macrofossil analysis (spores, pollen, molluscs, arthropods) and stratigraphical approaches to determine late Holocene and Anthropocene environmental change. These are core skills applicable to careers in geological, geographical and archaeological contexts. In tandem –and working with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust –you will acquire skills in understanding how ecosystems have been reconfigured by humans, the impact of introduced species, and how ecologies may be restored. These are core skills applicable to careers in environmental science and conservation. Further skills will be developed in archive analysis, computer modelling, GIS, and integrated datasets.

Partners and collaboration

This is a citizens of change project, forging a strategic alliance with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT) to improve the ecological resilience of this region. Our chief collaborator there – and a co-supervisor of this project – is ecologist John Clarkson (also Honorary Visiting Fellow at University of Leicester – UoL). We have already successfully developed a PhD project with John’s team at LRWT that will work towards understanding and restoring natural forested landscapes in this region. This project greatly extends and complements that work by understanding the impacts of introduced species on remnant native and human-remodelled ecologies.

Further details

For more details please contact Mark Williams (mri@le.ac.uk) and Juan Carlos Berrio (jcb34@le.ac.uk) at the University of Leicester, or John Clarkson at the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust (jclarkson@lrwt.org).

https://le.ac.uk/study/research-degrees/funded-opportunities/centa-phd-studentships

Possible timeline

Year 1

Analysing and synthesising all available datasets for introduced species in Leicestershire and Rutland, and ground truthing in the field. Construction of a GIS system that incorporates the various historical, geological and ecological data of the project. Commencement of targeted field studies to determine the impacts on ecologies that are affected by introduced species and identify geo-ecological archives of species invasion (from sediments in aquatic environments that will form a palaeontological record of landscape modification and species introduction). Building comparison timelines with when species were introduced into the UK and establishing the routes and rates by which these infiltrated into the local region. Identifying key human-modified and remnant natural ecologies and characterising these in terms of infiltration and proliferation of introduced species.

Year 2

Build a hypothetical biostratigraphy of species introduction and replicate a physical record of this by targeted collection of sedimentary archives (as above). Examine how various parameters (e.g. building of transportation routes, urban development, engineering water bodies, degradation of native ecosystems) facilitated the local influx of introduced species. Targeted collection here, will for example, examine the fossil record of the spread of non-indigenous plants via residential gardens, preserved in archives of pollen and spores in canals and city ponds. Evolve the GIS system to relate modern land use to the pattern of introduced species, and link with the below-ground record of how these patterns involved.

Year 3

Using the integrated datasets of ecological records of introduced species and sedimentary archives develop an integrated stratigraphy of human-influenced landscape change over the past 2 centuries and identify ecologies and species that appear to have been resilient to such change. Identify patterns of species influx that coincide with major changes in, for example, urbanisation, transport, and agricultural practice. Identify ecologies which have benefitted from species introductions and those that have not. Develop a model of a human-modified landscape that can foster the development of ecosystems that are resilient to environmental change, both rural and urban, and be resistant to the influx of detrimental introduced species.

Further reading

Dinerstein, E. et al. (2017) ‘An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half of the terrestrial realm’, Bioscience, 67, pp. 534-545.

Jeschke, J. (2018) ‘Invasion Biology: Hypotheses and Evidence’ CABI.

Lewis, M.A. et al. (2016) ‘The Mathematics Behind Biological Invasions’, Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics, 44. pp. 1-362.

Thomas, J. A. et al. (2020) ‘The Anthropocene: a multidisciplinary approach’, Polity books.

Wilson, E. O. (2016), ‘Half-Earth: our planet’s fight for life’, Liveright.

Williams, M. et al. (2016), ‘The Anthropocene: a conspicuous stratigraphical signal of anthropogenic changes in production and consumption across the biosphere’, Earth’s Future, 4, pp. 34–53.

COVID-19

This project works with local organisations and fieldwork is in Leicestershire and Rutland. It also utilises existing datasets on introduced species and can switch between physical and remote (online) work. It seeks to understand how species are introduced, and the physical and behavioural mechanisms that enable this, thereby addressing some of the broader issues around the transmission of Covid-19. Fieldwork includes local rural and urban sites and does not involve foreign travel, reducing the possibility of the project itself being a vector for Covid-19. And reducing the project’s carbon signature.