UC ecologist awarded $800,000 to tackle major environmental challenges

04 October 2018

A University of Canterbury ecologist will tackle major environmental challenges in new ways thanks to being awarded an $800,000 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

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    A postdoctoral fellow in the College of Science’s School of Biological Sciences, Dr Jonathan Tonkin has been awarded a 2018 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship by the Royal Society Te Apārangi for his research titled: Rethinking ecological networks in changing environments.

A University of Canterbury ecologist will tackle major environmental challenges in new ways thanks to being awarded an $800,000 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, announced today.

A postdoctoral fellow in the UC College of Science’s School of Biological Sciences, Dr Jonathan Tonkin has been awarded a 2018 Rutherford Discovery Fellowship by the Royal Society Te Apārangi for his research titled: Rethinking ecological networks in changing environments.

Dr Tonkin, who is a quantitative community ecologist, says he is delighted to be recognised as a rising New Zealand researcher with the awarding of the fellowship, worth $800,000 over five years.

“It will allow me to build my research programme here in New Zealand after several years overseas.  Importantly, it allows me the time to tackle major environmental challenges in a way that is not necessarily possible over shorter timescales,” he says.

“I hope this research can help us to find sustainable solutions to managing our precious natural resources in New Zealand in a time of rapid change.”

Since completing his doctorate in ecology in 2014, Dr Tonkin has conducted research as a lecturer at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Gelnhausen, Germany, and at Oregon State University, Corvallis, United States.  During these appointments, he was able to gather the wide-ranging expertise to establish his own laboratory back in New Zealand.  He has a strong empirical background in river ecosystems, but his research asks more general questions to understand ecological networks in dynamic environments.

Rethinking ecological networks in changing environments - research summary:

Modern ecologists are good at understanding individual different parts of ecosystems, but are often less proficient at understanding the shared dynamics of entire ecosystems. Connecting these different ecosystem sectors and unravelling complex high-dimensional data remains a major challenge for both basic and applied ecology. Global climate and land-use change are rapidly altering the environment on which ecological interaction networks assemble and persist.  Networks comprise species-specific responses to environmental fluctuations and interactions between species. These interactions may amplify or dampen environmental signal and noise. Thus, we cannot understand and predict how a network will respond to a changing environment without understanding how responses and interactions vary over time.

Dr Jonathan Tonkin, will address this critical need in ecology.  He proposes a fundamentally different way of thinking that relies on coupling the detailed natural history of species with mechanistic models to generate understanding of networks under fluctuating environmental conditions. Instead of incorporating biological interactions at the outset, these emerge from the model itself under different environmental contexts. Dr Tonkin will employ this novel modelling framework to quantify how targeted management interventions under uncertain environmental futures propagate through entire ecosystems altering interactions among species.  Then he will disentangle how different environmental fluctuations interact with the spatial scale at which species move, to generate new insight into ecosystem stability under global climate change.  His work will use global datasets to deconstruct the role of both natural and human-altered environmental fluctuations on species coexistence and interaction networks across broad spatial and temporal scales.  The advances to our understanding of ecological networks provided by this research will enable better prediction and management of entire ecosystems in future climate settings where natural cycles in the environment are disrupted.

Rutherford Discovery Fellowships

The fellowships seek to attract, retain and grow New Zealand’s most talented early to mid-career researchers and support their career development by helping them to establish a track record for future research leadership. The Rutherford Discovery Fellowships receive government funding of $8 million per annum, and award $800,000 over five years to each Research Fellow. There are at least 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows supported at any one time. Ten new fellows have been named today.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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