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Anne Magurran, Hon. MRIA: Ecologist

06 July 2023

Professor Magurran’s research examines the rate of change in the species composition of the ecosystems around us, the consequences for ecosystem function, and how we can protect biological diversity.

Anne Magurran Hon. MRIA, is professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of St Andrews

My research interests in biological diversity—biodiversity—began when I was studying woodlands in Co. Derry, while a PhD student at the University of Ulster. This was in the middle of the Troubles. My main study site at Banagher Glen, an ancient Irish oakwood with nature-reserve status, was close to places like Dungiven and Claudy that became grim milestones in the history of that era, but Banagher was both my refuge and my inspiration. My task at the time was to quantify the biodiversity of the glen and compare it to the adjacent conifer planation dominated by non-native sitka spruce. As I quickly discovered, a systematic survey of all the different types of organisms in the area by a single person, over a limited period, is an impossible goal. The Clare Island Survey initiated by Robert Lloyd Praeger is testament to the extent of expertise and effort that comprehensive surveys require. So, I focussed on vegetation and moths, and found that although both sites adhered to the classical ecological pattern of a few abundant and many rare species, the oakwood was more diverse than the conifer plantation and had more plants and insects that are typical of a habitat that once covered much of Ireland. Natural ecosystems consist of co-evolved groups of species adapted to the local environment, and they support a web of interactions. I drew on this research to write a book on how to measure biological diversity: Ecological Diversity and Its Measurement (Princeton University Press, 1988). The timing was fortuitous—it was published as interest in the topic was growing, and it laid the foundations for my career.

Fast forward, and I have since had the good fortune to work on biological diversity in many parts of the world, including studying the fishes of the flooded forest in the Amazon, and birds and plants in abandoned cocoa plantations on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Along the way I have learned a huge amount from the colleagues I worked with in these places, and I hope I have been able to pass on some knowledge and skills in return. I am conscious too of how much I learned from my own mentors when I was starting out, including Amyan Macfadyen and Palmer Newbould.

Today, there is widespread concern about how biological diversity is being degraded by the changes that we humans are imposing on the world in which we live. Recent research by myself and colleagues is showing that the species composition of the ecosystems around us appears to be changing at a greater rate than has occurred in historical times, and that the pace of this change exceeds the predictions of ecological theory. The consequences for ecosystem function are currently unknown. This biodiversity crisis is happening alongside the climate crisis, with nature-based solutions viewed as a potential solution to the latter. Yet, the appetite for planting trees as a way of sequestering carbon often translates into pressure to plant fast-growing, non-native species, such as sitka spruce. Which brings me back to where I began. Nature-based solutions need to work with nature, not against it, if we are to protect biological diversity and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

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