Community ecology

The study of interactions between ecological communities and their environment is essential to understand how anthropogenic activities influence the natural world

Much of our research focuses on the structure and functioning of marine algae and animal communities and their responses to environmental gradients. Dr Antony Knights uses a combination of field-based experimental approaches and theoretical models to assess the community-level processes underlying the formation and development of marine communities in terms of larval connectivity and recruitment dynamics (James et al. 2019) with a view to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem service provision. Dr Louise Firth is also interested in the community-level processes that shape patterns of distribution in marine organisms. Her current work in this area focuses on assessing the factors affecting the distribution of the honeycomb worm Sabellaria alveolata across Atlantic Europe (Muir et al 2020).

As part of our contribution to the NERC-funded BIO-PLASTIC-RISK project, Dr Mick Hanley along with associate Ecology and Evolution group members Drs George Littlejohn and Anne Plessis (see Environmental and Applied Biology Research Group), are looking at the ways in which Biodegradable bioplastics (BBPs) and their degradation products affect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. The interdisciplinary project, led by Professor Richard Thompson, spans several University of Plymouth research groups and extends into collaboration with the University of Bath and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. It aims to understand how BBPs, including those widely used as mulches in agriculture, react on entering the environment.

Our role is to assess BBP accumulation in soil and plant material and how BBPs affect organisms involved in ecosystem processes such as litter decomposition and herbivory. Tony Knights also has a strong interest in understanding the mechanisms affecting bioplastic accumulation in marine systems. Using a series of flume experiments, Lim et al (2020) showed that clumped blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) patches reduce boundary layer velocities and increase turbulence such that there is a 3-fold increase in mussel ingestion of plastic.

A number of Ecology and Evolution group members have been involved in recent projects to examine the potential for restoration of the semi-natural habitats once common to EW England. In work led by Dr Jon Ellis, PhD student Dr Mary Lane examined the potential to restore Atlantic Lowland Heath on former kaolinite mine spoil (see Lane at al 2020). Another recent doctoral graduate, Dr Tom Murphy, has been at the vanguard of research aligned with the reinstatement of native forests in upland areas to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem service provision (Murphy et al 2021).

Rowan tree. dartmoor. sheep
Ecology and evolution

Selected Publications

Firth LB, Duff L, Gribben PE & Knights AM (2021) Do positive interactions between marine invaders increase likelihood of invasion into natural and artificial habitats? Oikos

James M, …, Knights AM (2019) Reverse engineering field-derived vertical distribution profiles to infer larval swimming behaviors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116: 11818-11823.

Lane M, Hanley ME, Lunt PH, Knight ME, Braungardt CB, Ellis JS (2020) Chronosequence of former kaolinite open cast mines suggests active intervention is required for the restoration of Atlantic heathland. Restoration Ecology 28: 661-667

Lim HS, Fraser A & Knights AM (2020) Spatial arrangement of biogenic reefs alters boundary layer characteristics to increase risk of microplastic bioaccumulation. Environmental Research Letters 15: 064024.

Muir A, … Firth LB, Knights AM, et al (2020) Seascape genomics reveals population isolation due to ocean circulation patterns in the reef-building honeycomb worm, Sabellaria alveolata. BMC Evolutionary Biology 20: 100.

Murphy TR, Hanley ME, Ellis JE, Lunt PH (2021) Native woodland establishment improves soil hydrological functioning in UK upland pastoral catchments. Land Degradation & Development


Professor Richard Thompson (with Drs Mick Hanley, George Littlejohn, Anne Plessis Co-I) Biodegradable Bioplastics - Assessing Environmental Risk (BIO-PLASTIC-RISK). Natural Environmental Research Council £1,082,438. November 2020-October 2024.

Dr Phil Hosegood PI (with Dr Antony Knights Co-I) Conservation strategies for biodiversity hotspots and safe havens in a changing climate: Oceanographic drivers of ecosystem variability in the Chagos Archipelago. Garfield Weston Foundation £922,343. April 2019-March 2021.