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Community ecology

In ecology, the word community describes organisms that occupy the same space during a particular time. In Ocean Sciences, our research focuses on community interactions, responses of communities to disturbance, ecosystem engineers, and on how communities respond across environmental gradients. At the level of community, numerous streams of biology, ecology and physiology begin to interact, leading to a holistic sub-discipline of ecology that builds on the multidisciplinary nature of The School of Ocean Sciences.

1. Community interactions

Our research in plant-animal interactions builds on almost 60 years of published research in and around shores of the Irish Sea. We focus largely on the intertidal rocky shores (Jenkins) as a model ecosystem because the responses of species are predictably controlled by major abiotic factors such as immersion time and wave exposure, therefore it is possible to manipulate species and conditions to tease apart different interactions. We have particularly focussed on major groups of species on the rocky shore, including barnacles ( see population dynamics) and seaweeds.

2. Responses to disturbance

Understanding how communities respond to disturbance is central to ensure that we have a solid basis for determining future impacts. We achieve this by focussing on how physical disturbance from natural and anthropogenic sources influence species and communities. (Davies, Hiddink, Jenkins, Kaiser, Skov). In particular, we have used a variety of different approaches to determine responses, including manipulative experiments both in the field and the laboratory, observations of disturbance and spatial analysis. Rocky shores are prime sites for examining the responses of marine ecosystems to climate change ( see also marine conservation and resource management), such as that climatic stressors will influence the productivity, composition and cover of intertidal algae, and for tacking the distributional shifts of marine communities in response to global warming. Anglesey Island, where Ocean Sciences is based, forms a historical boundary between cold-adapted northern species and 'warmer' adapted southern species that colonise intertidal areas. We have recorded marked shifts of this boundary in the past decade, including the arrival of species that in historical memory were only observed on the south coast of the UK. We have shown that intertidal species, such as algae, will respond to increases in environmental stressors associated with emergent climate change. Intertidal hard substrates, including rocky shores, coastal defences and harbour structures, are also excellent sites for studying the distributional patterns of invasive species, their effects on ecosystem functioning and the possible methods for local eradication.

3. Role of ecosystem engineers

Ecosystem engineers can define entire communities by their presence. They influence the local environment, often resulting in positive changes that promote further growth. However, these may also have positive effects on other species, by providing heterogeneity, habitat and other resources that increase the abundance and diversity of other species. Because of this, ecosystem engineers are highly valued from a conservation, scientific and management perspective. Bangor is well placed for researching ecosystem engineers, as we have vast communities of mussels, worms and structural algae that provide excellent model organisms within easy travelling distance of the laboratory. In particular, we have track record in mussel dynamics, deep-sea and tropical coral reefs (see also Coastal and marine ecosystems) and reefs formed by Sabellid worms (Davies).

Responses to environmental gradients

Environmental gradients are found throughout nature, and often drive responses at many levels of biology, including the community level. At Bangor, we have a strong record of multi-disciplinarity, a critical element that is needed for such study. In particular, we have strong links with physical oceanography and geology researchers and have expertise across a range of communities including canopy forming algae (Davies), coastal lagoons (Gimenez), deep-sea coral reefs and fish species ( see our studies on climate change ecology).