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How species distrubitions are moving in response to climate change

I'm Takuji Usui, I'm a PhD candidate with Amy Angert's lab here at the Biodiversity Research Centre. In my research I'm currently looking at how climate change affects species’ geographical distributions.

For a long time ecologists and evolutionary biologists have been trying to understand what determines species distributions, and trying to understand the patterns of biodiversity that we see today. More recently there's also been an urgent need to understand how distributions are changing with climate change. There's been a general tendency for species to move their distributions in order to track climate change, but at this point we don't know which species are able to move, and thus are able to keep up with current change. And so to better predict how different species move their distributions I use a combination of ecological and evolutionary theory - shorthand referred to as eco-evolutionary dynamics. Species are usually distributed across a very large space, and so in order to make it practical to study, them I'm recreating species ranges in the greenhouse, and by simulating climate change in the greenhouse, I'm able to test how species respond and move across space.

What is your favourite research memory?

So as an evolutionary ecologist I've been so fortunate to be able to do fieldwork all across the world - from the deserts of California, to beautiful woodland forests in Scotland - but my favourite research memory is when I spent a month in the tropical rainforest in Uganda, to survey the growth of woody vines and these woody vines also turned out to be really good swing poles for chimpanzees, especially baby chimpanzees, and so whilst we were out in the rainforest trying to survey, we would encounter troops of wild chimpanzees along the way. And being there in the middle of the forest, just with my friends who were working alongside me, looking at these chimps playing around, they're moments that you'll never forget in your life.

What is your favourite organism?

I'm generally fascinated with all aspects of the natural world, but at the moment I've been most interested in duckweed, which I'm using as the model organism from experiments. Duckweed is a small, freshwater plant that you can find in ponds all across the world. And they are amongst the world's smallest known, flowering plants, and grow extremely fast, which makes them great for studying evolution in real time. Within one pond you can typically find many species of duckweed growing together in the community, which also makes them valuable for studying species interactions, and how species are able to co-exist together in a community.

Other than in my field of research, duckweed is being looked into for many other uses, including research by NASA, into their potential use as both space food for astronauts, and as a biological filter to clean water. So look out for them next when you're by a pond, and see how many species of duckweed you can identify.


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