Research

My group is interested in range of basic questions in ecology, genetics and evolutionary biology, and ultimately how these can help us with solutions for biodiversity conservation. We work in 3 main areas with varying overlap.

  • Population genetics and molecular ecology – how do patterns of genetic variation in natural populations relate to adaptation and disease susceptibility?
  • Disease ecology ā€“ what are the mechanisms by which new diseases emerge and become important conservation threats?
  • Marine mammal conservation – What are the conservation threats facing landlocked pinnipeds? – with a particular focus on Caspian seals (Pusa caspica)

We use a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches, for example models to test hypotheses about the evolution of disease resistance, comparative genomic techniques to examine genetic variation in host candidate genes in relation to specific wildlife diseases, or the importance of virus adaptation in host switches. Our disease ecology research focuses on understanding disease risks by looking at the abundance, distribution, structure and evolution of parasite and vector (e.g. mosquito) populations, and how these relate to environmental change and human activities. In our marine mammal studies we use aerial surveys and satellite telemetry to look at population abundance and habitat use, and well as integrating work on genetics and health.

Our work has had impact in the wider world. Together with collaborators and Ecuadorian partners we established the first ever molecular genetics and pathology laboratory in the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos is one of the most iconic places in the world for evolution and biodiversity, but many of the endemic species in the archipelago are now vulnerable to introduced diseases, or changes to the ecology of native diseases. Here we use a range of genetic and pathology methods to determine what the current and future disease threats are, and to develop disease mitigation strategies for the Galapagos National Park Service. Our research guided plans to reduce the risk of introduction of West Nile Virus to the archipelago, and led to the introduction of new biosecurity laws to protect Galapagos. For this work we were awarded the inaugural University of Leeds Vice-Chancellors Award for Research Impact (Medicine & Biological Sciences) in August 2015.

We also work with Institutions in the 5 Caspian states to develop solutions for conservation of the Caspian seal, which has declined by more than 90% since the start of the 20th century, and is now listed as Endangered by IUCN. We developed a conservation action plan for the species, frameworks for development of seal protected areas in Caspian countries, and advise energy industry operators about potential impacts and mitigation for their activities on Caspian seals.

Pages with more details about specific projects will be available soon.