Beyond Triffids: Plants without Prejudice – collaboration with artist Léonie Hampton

We’re excited to welcome Léonie Hampton from the artist collective Still Moving to our group and department for a 6-month artist residency.

Together, we will develop a project exploring perceptions of human and plant “nativeness” to perceive ourselves in relation to biodiversity and climate crises. 

Activate from the series 'Beyond Triffids: Plants without Prejudice' 2023 by Léonie Hampton.

 Activate from the series ‘Beyond Triffids: Plants without Prejudice’ 2023 by Léonie Hampton.

Beyond Triffids: Plants without Prejudice

Invasive alien species are recognised as one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity, their invasion facilitated by, and compounding impacts of, climate change.  Within ecology and conservation biology there is a heated debate about whether alien plant invasions are good or bad for biodiversity. Do human-introduced alien species increase diversity and compensate for native species loss? Or are alien plants a major threat to biodiversity, warranting active management and restrictions on trade and travel?

Through the lens of alien plants we will particularly focus on perceptions of “nativeness” – both human and plant. Our interdisciplinary approach – co-created between arts, science and humanities – will challenge and interrogate understandings and value judgements, and how these values may need re-evaluation in light of biodiversity loss and migration.

Just as speculative fiction creates the potential, far off in space, where we might see ourselves more clearly, this creative collaboration will work with the perceptions and values of plants to perceive ourselves in relation to our urgent biodiversity and climate crisis.  

Our first public outreach event through this collaboration will be held at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton on 4 March: Climate Conversations & Honiton Seed Swap. This will take place on the final day of Léonie’s exhibition “A Language of Seeds“.

The residency is funded by King’s Culture and supported by our ERC project AlienImpacts. More about this collaboration and five others supported by King’s Culture can be found here.

Congratulations, Dr Mabey! Congratulations, Dr Shepherd!

In some very exciting news, Abbie and Harry both completed their PhDs this year. Waahoo! Massive congratulations to both of them!

PhDs are always a monumental feat (as signified by the change in title; those two little letters, “D” and “r”, represent a ridiculous amount of work) – and Abbie and Harry both did stellar jobs, producing very interesting and important bodies of work.

Abbie’s thesis centred on Investigating the role of traits in species invasiveness in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. She’s published two papers from her PhD already (here and here) with another two nearing the end of their journeys (watch this space!).

Abbie is now working as a Carbon Rating Scientist at BeZero and loving it!

Harry’s thesis was about Peatlands on the mend: using plant-microbe interactions to restore peatland structure and function. One of Harry’s papers is already out (here), with others to follow.

Since finishing, Harry has joined the AlienImpacts team as a postdoc at KCL (we’re delighted!). He spent his first month setting up plots for species monocultures at Cedar Creek Ecosystems Science Reserve in the US. Warm work but a nice change from the final throes of a PhD!

It’s always a little sad when students finish up, but it was fantastic (and incredibly gratifying) to see what they achieved and I am very excited about what they will do next. It was an absolute privilege co/supervising both of them, so I thank them for the experience and all they taught me.

Abbie’s PhD papers to date:

  • Mabey, A.L., Catford, J.A., Rius, M., Foggo, A., & Smale, D.A. (2022). Herbivory and functional traits suggest that enemy release is not an important mechanism driving invasion success of brown seaweeds. Biological Invasions, 24: 3919-3934. link
  • Mabey, A.L., Parvizi, E., & Fraser, C.I. (2021). Pathogen inferred to have dispersed thousands of kilometres at sea, infecting multiple keystone kelp species. Marine Biology 168: 47. link

plus other ones:

  • Enders, M., Havemann, F., Ruland, F., Bernard-Verdier, M., Catford, J.A., Gómez-Aparicio, L., … Mabey, A.L. … Jeschke, J. M. (2020). A conceptual map of invasion biology: Integrating hypotheses into a consensus network. Global Ecology and Biogeography 29: 978-991. link
  • Palma, E., Mabey, A.L., Vesk, P.A., & Catford, J.A. (2021). Characterising invasive species. In R. A. Francis (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Biosecurity and Invasive Species. link

Harry’s PhD papers to date:

  • Shepherd, H.E.R., Catford, J.A., Steele, M.N., Dumont, M.G., Mills, R.T.E., Hughes, P.D.M., & Robroek, B.J.M. (2021). Propagule availability drives post-wildfire recovery of peatland plant communities. Applied Vegetation Science 24:  e12608. link

plus other ones:

  • Shepherd, H.E.R., Atherden, F.S., Chan, H.M.T., Loveridge, A., & Tatem, A.J. (2021). Domestic and international mobility trends in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic: an analysis of facebook data. International Journal of Health Geographics 20: 46. link

A field season at Cedar Creek

In this post, AlienImpacts postdoc Josh Brian recounts some of his summer activities…


I have just returned from three months at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, an amazing field station run by the University of Minnesota. I was there to set up an experiment on the enemy release hypothesis, which states that alien species succeed because they are released from their native enemies (e.g. predators, parasites and pathogens) which limit them in their native ranges. Using sixteen different grassland species as our ‘invaders’, planted into two different community contexts and hand-treated with combinations of insecticide and fungicide, we will exploring the contexts (if any) under which enemy release facilitates invasion success.

When a photo opportunity presents itself in BigBio you are obliged to say yes!

The season was a busy one – everything adds up fast when you are trying to establish 288 plots, or hand-paint over 1500 seedlings with pesticide! But thanks to a great team of staff and interns at Cedar…

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Congratulations, Dr Fischer!

Sarah Fischer recently passed her PhD at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis was entitled “Promoting growth and regeneration of riparian trees in a degraded swamp”.

Part of the team of UniMelb, Parks Victoria and Zoos Victoria staff who built two weirs to block channelised sections of Macclesfield Creek and reengage and restore floodplain areas that support the critically endangered lowland Leadbeater’s Possum. From left: Genevieve Hehir, Fiona Ede, Sarah Fischer, Frederic Cherqui, Simon Dent, Rob James, Darcy Watchorn, Pete Poelsma. Photo by Joe Greet, 2020.

A member of UniMelb’s Waterway Ecosystem Research Group, Sarah worked at Yellingbo Nature Conservation Park in Victoria and was supervised by Joe Greet, Chris Walsh and me. Her work contributed towards our broader ARC Linkage project on “Overcoming multiple constraints to wetland forest restoration”, which we conducted in collaboration with Parks Victoria, Melbourne Water, Greening Australia and Zoos Victoria.

In an impressive effort, Sarah has already published all of her data chapters, a list of which is below.

Massive congratulations, Sarah, on completing this excellent body of research – and doing so under such trying circumstances. Fantastic work!

Sarah’s main PhD papers:

  • Fischer, S., Greet, J., Walsh, C. J. & Catford, J. A. (2021) Flood disturbance affects morphology and reproduction of woody riparian plants. Scientific Reports, 11, 16477. link (open access)
  • Fischer, S., Greet, J., Walsh, C. J. & Catford, J. A. (2021) Restored river-floodplain connectivity promotes woody plant establishment. Forest Ecology and Management, 493, pdf
  • Fischer, S., Greet, J., Walsh, C. J., Catford, J. A. & Arndt, S. K. (2022) Riparian trees resprout regardless of timing and severity of disturbance by coppicing. Forest Ecology and Management, 507, 119988. link author accepted version

Plus two related ones:

  • Greet, J., Fischer, S. & Russell, K. (2020) Longer duration flooding reduces the growth and sexual reproductive efforts of a keystone wetland tree species. Wetlands Ecology and Management, 28, 655-666. link
  • Greet, J., Fischer, S., Walsh, C. J., Sammonds, M. J. & Catford, J. A. (2022) Restored river-floodplain connectivity promotes riparian tree maintenance and recruitment. Forest Ecology and Management, 506, 119952.  link (open access) pdf

Spring *lab* retreat

L to R: Josh Brian, Luis Moliner Cachazo, María Ángeles Pérez-Navarro, Junru Shen, Angela Bartlett, Harry Shepherd and Billy Catford, the lab lab.

Some pics from our recent lab retreat in Wiltshire – complete with research planning, writing, workshopping, communal cooking, a (tiny) blizzard, a birthday and lots of fetch! A fabulous way to spend a few days.

Addressing context dependence in ecology

A phrase that you are bound to hear many times at any ecology conference is “it depends”. We see context dependence – variation in the magnitude or sign of ecological relationships depending on the conditions under which they are observed (Fig. 1) – in just about every study and every system. Such variation, especially when unexplained, can lead to spurious or seemingly contradictory conclusions across studies, which can limit understanding and our ability to transfer findings across studies, space, and time. Because of the wide prevalence of observed context dependence and the critical need to tackle it, a group of us recently knocked heads (and read lots of fabulous papers!) about how it can be addressed. Our reading, thinking, talking, drawing and writing culminated in this open access paper in TREE

Figure 1: Context dependence may be invoked when the observed relationship between two variables varies in (a) magnitude (strength), (b) sign (direction), and (c) uncertainty, applied here to hypothetical examples from plant invasions.

In the paper, we identify two types of context dependence resulting from four sources (Fig. 2). Mechanistic context dependence occurs when a relationship, say between variables X and Y, fundamentally differs under different ecological and spatiotemporal conditions. Such relationships arise from (i) interaction effects of another variable, Z, which modifies the effect of X on Y, reflecting ecological processes. Apparent context dependence occurs when the relationship between variables X and Y does not differ but appears to due to: (ii) the presence of confounding factors that are either unaccounted for or are measured and accounted for in some studies but not others; (iii) problems of statistical inference where studies differ in sampling accuracy and precision, statistical power, or interpretation of statistical measures; and (iv) methodological differences among studies whereby studies observe and measure variables or relationships in different ways.

Figure 2: Four sources of variation in the relationship between independent variable X and dependent variable Y, with illustrative examples and actions that can reduce unexplained variation and the likelihood of apparent context dependence.

We illustrate our typology using examples from biological invasions, a field where context dependence is prominent and widely discussed, but we propose that the typology is applicable across all areas of ecology (and it may well extend to all natural and biological sciences…). We conclude the paper by outlining steps for addressing the different types and sources of context dependence, and provide a decision tree that outlines key actions likely to be helpful. We believe that by recognising the different ways in which context dependence can arise, we can better account for context dependence and reduce the prevalence of unexplained variation in ecology.

Full paper: Catford, J.A., Wilson, J.R.U., Pyšek, P., Hulme, P.E. & Duncan, R.P. (in press) Addressing context dependence in ecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolutionlink (open access)

Welcome Josh and María Ángeles!

October has been an exciting month as we welcome Josh Brian and María Ángeles Pérez-Navarro to our lab group – and Junru Shen to London after she’s been doing her PhD remotely for a year!

María Ángeles has a PhD in Terrestrial Ecology (CREAF-UAB, 2020), and her research is mainly focused on understanding and predicting species distribution changes with global change. During her previous research at CREAF as a post-doctoral researcher, she investigated the impact of canopy-recruit interactions on climatic debt and analysed the differences in performance of planted and natural tree forest species. During her PhD, she analysed the relationship between species niche and population and communities responses to extreme climatic events, trying to disentangle some of the impacts of climatic variability driven by climate change on plant ecosystems.

Josh has recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, studying the community ecology of freshwater mussel parasites and the implications for the conservation of their hosts. Prior to that, he worked on the diversity and ecology of the symbionts of coral reefs in Timor-Leste. He is interested generally in community ecology, symbiosis and invasion biology.

María Ángeles and Josh will both be working on our AlienImpacts project. We’re delighted to have them in the group and are really excited about the fun science that is now in store!

Senior Editor role at Journal of Ecology

I’m really excited to be joining the Senior Editor team at Journal of Ecology this month!

I absolutely love the journal (and the British Ecological Society more generally), so am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the journal, our science and our wonderful community of plant ecologists in this way.

Journal of Ecology is very excited to announce that Jane Catford will be joining our Senior Editor team! Jane has been an Associate Editor with our journal since 2016 and we’re thrilled to see her take on this new role.

Here we interview Jane about her current research, favourite plant species, ideal fictional lab partner & dream superpower!

Predicting impacts of alien plant invasions on community diversity

In some very un-2020-like news (?!), I found out in December that my grant proposal to the European Research Council was successful. The words “ecstatic”, “ridiculously excited”, “over the moon” don’t begin to cover it. Safe to say, I didn’t sleep for several days after hearing the news.

My project, Predicting impacts of alien plant invasions on community diversity (AlienImpacts), aims to develop an approach for accurately predicting impacts of alien plants on floristic diversity, and to identify the circumstances under which negative impacts will occur, using temperate grasslands as a model system. The project combines experimental, observational, theoretical and quantitative approaches, and will enable us to undertake some incredibly exciting and important research.

Funded through the ERC Consolidator Grant scheme, the project will run for five years, officially kicking off in April 2021, and will support a team of researchers – including four postdocs (the ads of which will come out soon, so please watch this space!).

I’m incredibly grateful to the ERC for supporting this important work, to friends, colleagues and 2019 reviewers* who helped me hone the proposal, and to collaborators who will be involved in the research.

Project summary: The Anthropocene, the current geological epoch, is characterised by human-induced ecological changes, which have prompted a global biodiversity crisis. Human-introduced alien plants could help to offset native species loss, augmenting diversity and maintaining the services and capital that humans derive from nature. However, alien species that become invasive are themselves a key threat to biodiversity. Alien species thus presents a huge challenge for biodiversity conservation in the Anthropocene: should their arrival and establishment be inhibited or disregarded as they can potentially both exacerbate and ameliorate biodiversity loss? Coupling empirical and theoretical approaches, AlienImpacts will directly address this challenge by developing an approach for accurately predicting impacts of alien plant invasions on plant community diversity and identifying the circumstances under which negative impacts will occur. Using temperate grasslands as a model system, AlienImpacts will use innovative field experiments and global observations to systematically quantify – for the first time – how often, for how long, to what extent, under what conditions and in what ways alien plants can impact plant community diversity. AlienImpacts will develop mechanistic niche models, validated with empirical data from grasslands in North America, Europe and Australia, that will enable realistic scenarios of invasion biodiversity impacts to be forecast, now and in the future. Developing empirically accurate mechanistic models that predict invasions and their biodiversity impact is a highly ambitious goal. Its achievement will mark a step-change in ecological theory and understanding, will inform environmental policy and management, and address a critical research challenge of the Anthropocene: how to conserve the biodiversity of plants – the dominant life form on earth – under global environmental change.

[*2020 was my second attempt after falling short in 2019. Reviewer and panel comments from 2019 were incredibly helpful, and enabled me to strengthen my 2020 proposal –> so I owe them many thanks for their excellent feedback – thank you!]

Community diversity outweighs effect of warming on plant colonization

Abiotic environmental change, local species extinctions and colonization of new species often co‐occur. Using a unique grassland experiment that isolates abiotic effects of warming from indirect biotic effects, we find that the biomass, richness and traits of plant colonists is more strongly affected by biotic resistance from residents than 6 years of 3°C‐above‐ambient temperatures. If these results were extended to invasive species management, preserving community diversity should help limit plant invasion, even under climate warming.

Full paper: Catford, J. A., J. M. Dwyer, E. Palma, J. M. Cowles, and D. Tilman. 2020. Community diversity outweighs effect of warming on plant colonization. Global Change Biology. link accepted author version

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