What are some good biological research topics
Current research topics
The ecology of species distributions
Species Distribution Modeling (SDM) aims to use data on the distribution of species in order to understand the influences on the distribution of species and to predict the potential future distribution of species. In our research we try to incorporate more biological details into such models (see this overview Higgins et al. 2012, Journal of Biogeography). In particular, we adapted the Thornley Transport Resistance model (a model that simulates the growth and allocation of plants) for species distribution modeling (see Higgins et al. 2012, Journal of Biogeography). This model not only describes species distributions well, but has also proven to be surprisingly useful. For example, we were able to use the model to understand why some species become invasive while others fail (see Higgins and Richardson 2014, PNAS).
The ecology of biomes
Biomes are major forms of vegetation that are defined based on common structural and functional properties rather than floristic species composition. New research has shown that the same biome of different floristic origins can react very differently to climate change. We have shown that this is because the functional and structural properties of some biomes are more influenced by their evolutionary past than by selection (see Moncrieff et al. 2014, Global Ecology and Biogeography). And in fact we see from the climatic profiles of the world's biomes that they are not well delimited by the climate (Moncrieff, Hickler and Higgins 2015, Global Ecology and Biogeography). We have proposed a new functional definition of biomes that circumvents some of these problems (Higgins et al. 2016, Global Change Biology). This paper builds on analyzes of global leaf phenology patterns (e.g. Buitenwerf, Rose and Higgins, 2015 Nature Climate Change).
Dynamic global vegetation models (DGVMs)
The aim of dynamic global vegetation models is to use biophysical principles to predict how the vegetation is influenced by climate, soils and disturbances. We developed a DGVM in 2009 (which we called aDGVM, Scheiter and Higgins 2009, Global Change Biology) that enabled a better representation of how fire and plants interact. We used this model to research the conditions of potential future vegetation in Africa and Australia (e.g. Scheiter et al. 2015, New Phytologist). A few years later we switched to developing a trait-based DGVM (which we called aDGVM2). aDGVM2 enables individual plant traits to evolve within simulation runs (see Scheiter, Langan and Higgins 2013, New Phytologist for an overview). Basically, this forces the model developer to focus more on the tradeoffs between traits than on the trait values themselves. Although this greatly simplifies the process of model parameterization, it challenges our understanding of fundamental trade-offs in ecology: This in turn sets priorities for empirical work. Working with DGVMs is a sobering experience as it confronts one with the fact that our ability to foresee the plant communities that will emerge / will form with climate change is rudimentary (see Higgins 2017, Ecosystems). Our work with the aDGVM2 represents an attempt to model the “assembly process” (the processes by which a plant community comes together) using a trait-based approach that focuses primarily on trade-offs between traits and competitive interactions between the Species concentrated.
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