The majority of my research to date has focused on finding out about the ecological dynamics of the coastal peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia; a hugely carbon-rich, biodiverse ecosystem that is highly threatened, predominantly by the expansion of oil palm agriculture. During my doctorate at the University of Oxford (2008-2012), I used fossil pollen to investigate the long-term ecological dynamics (over the last 7000 years) of the coastal peatlands of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, in northern Borneo. I wanted to find out how these forests have responded to disturbances in the past, in the hope that I might reveal some information of use for their current management under large-scale and rapid land-use change. I counted fossil charcoal to look at fire disturbance, and looked at various other proxies to see how the peat swamp forest has responded to different disturbances through time. Included in my thesis was an exploration of the values different stakeholders assigned to this ecosystem, and what visions they had of its future under increasing pressure from agricultural expansion and other development. For bedtime reading, my thesis is now online.
One of the first chapters in my thesis explored recovery rates, calculated from published fossil pollen diagrams, of different tropical forests over the last 20,000 years (i.e. Holocene and a bit beyond). This meta-analysis yielded some interesting results: the main ones being that Asian tropical forests, some of the most threatened at present from the expansion of urban areas and industrial agriculture, seemed to recover the slowest from disturbances, and forests exposed to more frequent disturbance through time were quicker to respond.
My Masters thesis involved more animals than plants: I investigated human-wildlife conflict in the agricultural matrix abutting Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, north-east India. A fascinating and challenging month of fieldwork for me, but nothing compared to what the farmers, and the elephants, rhinos, tigers and other magnificent animals all sharing this limited area, are experiencing every day, all trying to feed themselves somehow.
And before that, for my undergraduate dissertation, I measured a character-building number of xylem vessels to figure out whether trees under ‘stressful’ environmental conditions still grow according to allometric scaling laws. You can find out more about that here (Coomes et al., 2007), headed up by Professor David Coomes.
My foray back into academia after some time in “industry” avec Rezatec, involved ten months working with Jenny Hodgson and Kath Allen at the University of Liverpool, helping to trial Condatis < a decision support tool for enhancing ecological connectivity across fragmented landscapes > in rapidly developing, highly biodiverse countries. I learnt about the dynamics of ecological connectivity under climate change, the challenges of developing a web-based application and the politics of landscape management in diverse landscapes across Ghana, Indonesia and Malaysia.
And now, I’ve migrated further north to the University of St Andrews, to join Katy Roucoux and her team, as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, working on a Leverhulme Trust funded project that aims to explore and record the multiple values, from ecological to economic, cultural to climatic, of a number of hydrologically-intact tropical peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon. There will be updates on this and our associated projects on the Tropical Wetlands Consortium website.