I have always found biology fascinating, and when deciding upon a career path, marine sciences presented a thrilling opportunity for me. My work uses marine animals to explore the rules of life. To succeed, every single species depends upon solving the problem of finding food, growing and reproducing, all while avoiding predators. Yet the oceans are also often dilute with respect to life-sustaining food, and full of hungry predators, and so the diverse strategies that aquatic species have developed to solve this problem, present exciting research possibilities.
Professor Liz Sheffield
My research has focussed on the most successful plant on the planet – bracken fern. It grows on every continent except Antarctica and quickly rampages over newly available habitats all over the world. I wanted to find out how, for example, the devastated slopes of Mt St Helens – purged of forest and buried in several metres of ash – bore a dense covering of bracken as far as the eye could see, just seven years after the eruption. The answer lies in how bracken reproduces – not with flowers, but with tiny spores, capable of intercontinental travel in the jet stream. By sampling plants on all the Hawaiian Islands (it’s a hard life being a bracken ecologist!) I was able to show that spores had arrived from both Northern and Southern hemisphere populations (at least 3,200 km away). No wonder this plant is such a feared weed – not only does it contain cancer-causing compounds but if eradicated, it invariably returns, thanks to its tiny airborne propagules.
Seabirds can do some amazing things, from the deep-diving feats of penguins to the trans-global migrations of terns and shearwaters or simply the European shag finding enough fish to rear three chicks to adult size in six weeks. Understanding how these animals are able to do these things has driven my research from the very beginning. Understanding whether they will continue to be able to do them in the face of challenges such as fisheries competition, global climate change and habitat loss provides the reason to continue this work and motivates my students to find out more.
I like solving ecological puzzles - the challenge with ecological puzzles is we don't always know which bits of the problem are missing. At the moment I am interested in figuring out how savannas work. My part of the puzzle focuses on understanding the role of disturbances (fire and grazing) in creating heterogeneity and influencing biodiversity, and understanding the functional importance of social insects.
I am often asked why I specialised in studying marine ecosystems. The answer is that I have always felt there is so much more to learn about them and at the same time, a growing urgency to understand enough about them so that we can fully support their sustainable use. As humans we will continue to exploit and interact with the oceans around us, but at what point do we tip the balance and begin to cause irreversible harm to these ecosystems? How does this relationship vary in different ecosystems and can we predict the vulnerability of different marine species, communities and habitats to human exploitation? These questions are key to my research and teaching and I hope to inspire students to care about these questions too.
I started being interested in ecology as a kid, when I spent lots of time searching for animals in the streams near my house. It wasn't until I started an ecology degree that I realized I needed mathematics and statistics to understand how the species in a community affect each other. Since then, I've done research on all kinds of ecosystems, from temporary pools in Israel that hold water for only a few weeks each year, to ancient woodlands and coral reefs. I try to find new ways of understanding the patterns of change in communities, often using data collected over long periods of time by other people.
My fascination with the marine world began through rummaging in rock pools, and reading about the strange organisms in the deep sea. Oceans provide many environmental challenges, and I'm intrigued by the diversity of responses exhibited by aquatic life. That developed into an interest in what animals do: where do they go, what do they eat and how do they catch it, how do they avoid being caught, and what are the physiological mechanisms which allow them to behave in these various ways? Particularly, I'm keen to investigate the diversity of behavioural responses even within species, and how such 'personality' is important in determining fitness and survival.
I have always been fascinated by animal behaviour and especially the behaviour of individuals. We know from humans and our pets that individual animals can be very different, even if they are the same species. I work on capturing these differences in seabirds and looking at the causes and consequences for individuals, populations and species. For example, why do some birds forage very close to the colony but others a great distance away? When you try to catch birds, why are some so aggressive and others so calm? Why can some birds successfully rear a chick every year and others never manage? I combine behavioural and evolutionary ecology, with marine and conservation biology to answer these questions and help improve our understanding of seabirds.
I have collected shells since I was six years old, and now I get paid to do it professionally! I am an intertidal ecologist, and I run the longest time-series in the world for rocky shores, surveying over a hundred sites around the UK every year for the MarClim project. These data look at how climate change is forcing species to shift their distributions to cooler waters at higher latitudes, and the resultant impacts at community and ecosystem levels. I also set out experiments in the field, and have a mesocosm system in the laboratory where I can manipulate different conditions to represent climate change, ocean acidification, nutrients, salinity and microplastics. Physiological parameters of organisms are measured during these experiments to show us how marine species respond to multiple stressors.
I was lucky enough to grow up close to the coast and spent many a happy summer on the Atlantic coast of N. Ireland in Donegal. My first experiences of marine biology were spent fishing in rock pools and then later seeing the wonders of the underwater world while snorkelling and diving. At University I became fascinated by deep sea ecosystems and have spent most of my career to date studying this unique environment. Deep-sea communities are food limited and I am particularly interested in understanding how deep-sea communities survive this limitation. In order to achieve this I use a biochemical tool kit to unravel food webs and energy flow through communities. To do so, I have studied food webs in a diverse range of environments from cold-water corals, abyssal plains (which are soft sediment environments) and low oxygen environments to polar ecosystems.