Are plants Ecosystem Engineers?

Will Matthaeus presents a case to the International Biogeography Society in Prague

In the frosty early days of January, Dr Will Matthaeus went to Prague to deliver a talk at the Ecosystem Engineering Symposium organized by Kate Lyons and Amelia Villaseñor at the 11th Biennial Conference of International Biogeography Society (IBS). In a session covering everything from Edicarian bioturbation to anthropogenic impacts and rewilding—500 million years of ecosystem engineering—Will presented plants as a foundational aspect of terrestrial ecosystems and classic examples of ecosystem and landscape reorganization with plant evolutionary changes (e.g., ‘The Devonian Plant Hypothesis’). The earliest plants were little more than ‘green slime.’  These small, prostrate organisms that were limited to wet environments may still have impacted global ecosystems by altering atmospheric oxygen concentrations.  Over the course of the evolutionary transformations that led from green slime to boreal forests and savannahs, plants have likely increased the diversity and maximum effect in their impact on ecosystems. Synthesis of paleo-plant traits, among other paleontological techniques, may provide insight into this function over periods of change, upheaval, and extinction in terrestrial environments that are informative for our future. However, understanding these changes requires expertise in a broad variety of disciplines; IBS meetings are a valuable opportunity for developing the frontiers of paleoecology through new collaborations.

Dr Richard Nair awarded SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship

Dr Richard Nair awarded SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship

RODEO: Root Dynamics for Ecosystem Observation is a SFI-Royal Society University research fellowship awarded to Dr Richard Nair. RODEO is an 8-year project where Richard and the interdisciplinary RODEO team will build on his previous work building instruments and AI methods to understand root phenology (seasonal cycles) and use this to understand the links between root and shoot phenology. Phenology is important because it affects how much CO2 is taken up by vegetation and thus how plant life can buffer climate change. But most phenology information is only above ground, so if the changing environment causes differences in root and leaf activity, we cannot understand this from above-ground observations only leading to uncertainty in future predictions. RODEO will allow the team to study the links between whole plant phenology and CO2 uptake and release under real field conditions, and help improve forecasts, adaptions, and management of climate change.


RootCheck: Image-Based Root Health Assessment Tools for Sustainable Agriculture

RootCheck is a SFI-funded National Challenge Fund project, led by Dr Richard Nair with co-PI Dr Saoirse Tracy at University College Dublin. Health and physiological syndromes can affect roots and leaves differently, but there are no tools to help assess root health under field conditions. Generally, roots are much more difficult to measure than leaves, but root health status may not be visible above-ground. RootCheck will develop new tools for rapid and non-destructive in-field assessment of root health status using a combination of cheap sensors and artificial intelligence methods. RootCheck will build an interdisciplinary team to approach this challenge with an end-user focus. The output of RootCheck will help ensure data parameterized agricultural systems, helping ensure long-term agricultural sustainability and productivity in uncertain future conditions.