Mar Sobral





How can we understand the ecology of natural systems, as they change due to invasions, extinctions, land-use and climate change? I approach this question by studying the causes and consequences of biodiversity, specifically integrating work from multiple approaches always using plant-animal interactions as my system-tool. Observational and experimental studies on; natural selection in the wild, the limits of ecologically meaningful phenotypic variation, ecological consequences of epigenetic transgenerational effects and links between diversity, trophic interactions and carbon cycling.

The overlooked importance of phenotypic variation within-individuals

Phenotypic variation among individuals is the raw material for natural selection. However, variation in traits among organs, within a single individual, (in modular organisms such as plants) is now known to be; different among individuals, genetically and epigenetically based, and affect the individual fitness, moreover it changes the spatial distribution of functional traits in the landscape. Individuals are not any more the frontier to ecological and evolutionary meaningful phenotypic variation.

Ecological consequences of epigenetic transgenerational effects

Ecologically relevant epigenetic variation –that affecting phenotypic traits, has ecological and fitness consequences– challenges our current understanding of evolutionary processes. It is now known that a host of environmental factors can modify phenotypes directly via epigenetic modifications that are transmissible across generations and can be adaptive. In this way, epigenetically originated phenotypic variation can influence the course of evolution and provide a shortcut to evolutionary change.

Links between biodiversity and ecosystem function

My current research interests include the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function and services with the overarching purpose of addressing global ecological challenges that threaten nature and society. Human activity is decreasing biodiversity and ecosystem function at an unprecedented rate. Biodiversity loss lessens the ability of forests to sequester and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere –an ecosystem service that helps to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. However, our knowledge of the mechanisms that mediate the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function and services is still limited, hindering the progress of ecological conservation and restoration activities.

Links between evolutionary and ecosystem processes

  1. My final goal is to explore the intersections of my fields of interest: plant-animal interactions, biodiversity science applied to global challenges, and evolutionary ecology. I will study the relationships between biodiversity, selective pressures, and adaptation, and how these relationships affect services provided by nature.