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Searching for ecology’s Holy Grail

31 October 2012

Searching for ecology’s Holy Grail

A University of Waikato researcher is working on a model to predict where plant species grow and how they will react to climate change.

“The potential of predicting species abundances has generated tremendous interest, inspired vigorous debate, and has been heralded as the Holy Grail of ecology,” says Waikato ecologist Dr Daniel Laughlin.

“The litmus test of a scientific theory is its ability to predict what is observed in nature. Predicting species abundances is crucial given the urgent need to understand the rate and direction of species migration in a rapidly changing world.”

He received a $345,000 Marsden Fund research grant and will spend the next three-years collecting data in collaboration with Landcare Research.
His team will initially test the model at Puketī Forest, near Kerikeri, by measuring leaf and wood properties and then compare model predictions to what they observe in the bush.

In the second stage his team will collect leaf and wood trait data from common trees around the entire country, to gain a better understanding of how trees may respond to shifts in climate from the coasts to the mountains.

“The model will test fundamental assumptions about what we think we know about how plant communities assemble. This project will advance our understanding of the ecological processes that drive the distribution and abundance of organisms.”

The Marsden Fund is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Marsden Fund Council, and funded by the New Zealand Government. It supports projects in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths, social sciences and the humanities.

The University of Waikato won six Marsden Fund grants.

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