Interviews with tropical ecology researchers


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Kawika winter

Amelia, our InFocus editor, spoke to Kawika Winter, a reserve manager at the the He`eia National Estuarine Research Reserve in Hawai’i

1. Could you describe your current research interests?

My current research interests are in social-ecological system theory, resilience, and Indigenous resource management. My worldview was not born out of neoclassical thinking, so my approach to science is a bit different from researchers whose thinking is shaped by that worldview. I view humans as a part of nature, as opposed to humans being separate from nature. The latter view isn’t supported by science, particularly evolutionary biology, so I am honestly perplexed by ecologists whose research seems to be predicated on the notion that humans are intrinsically bad for nature.  In my research, I view humans as ecosystem engineers, who – like beavers and ants – engineer their environment with help from members of their own species in a social context to create more suitable habitat for themselves.  My own research focus is on Hawaiian social-ecological systems and Hawaiian resource management.

Photo: Kawika Winter

2. Have you recently come across some particularly interesting research?

My research operates in an intellectual ecotone. So, much like the systems we study, there is an abundance of novel diversity to be explored. I operate in the confluence between ecosystems and humanity, which we refer to as the biocultural realm. Early in my career we developed a methodology to quantify co-evolution. While it has the potential for broad applications, we used it to specifically examine the co-evolutionary relationship between people and plants. More recently, we have applied this methodology to quantify the biocultural value of landscapes, and used the results to designate certain forest types as “critical cultural habitats” for Indigenous peoples.  This research is currently ‘in press’ in Ecology and Society. 

In another line of research we have recently conducted a more thorough investigation of the biocultural realm in relation to Indigenous resource management. After observing recurring themes in Hawaiian resource management that reflect trends in other Indigenous places, three dozen of my closest colleagues and I put together a concept paper that describes Indigenous resource management on a landscape scale as ‘ecomimicry.’ In it we explore, in a nuanced assessment, various approaches that humans have used for millennia to engineer social-ecological systems in a way that optimizes a broad swath of ecosystem services. That paper has also been accepted in Ecology and Society, and will be published later this year.

3. Where is your dream destination to conduct fieldwork?

I’ve already won the lottery by being born in Hawai’i.  I am blessed to be doing work in my home studying the systems that I love.

4. What is your favourite part of being a tropical ecologist?

My favourite part about being a tropical ecologist is the opportunity it provides to use science to translate between worldviews. I believe there is much for the world to learn about the wisdom and practices of Indigenous peoples that have been shaped my living in Place for millennia.

Maisie Vollans

Maisie is a first year Zoology PhD student in the Mathematical Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford.

1. How did you get involved in the field of tropical ecology?

It is kind of (very) cliché, but from being a very young child I was rarely seen out of Epping Forest and formed a deep connection to that type of ecosystem. Growing up in London, I did not get to do any ecology field work at school and my only experience of the jungle was through a, rather excessive, watching of ‘The Jungle Book’. However, in the second year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, I was fortunate to go on the Tropical Forest Ecology Field Course to the Danum Valley Field Centre, Malaysian Borneo, funded by the Pier Giorgio Frassati Travel Fund, and the JCR Art Fund at Pembroke College.

Photo: Maisie Vollans

I found the jungle so incredibly beautiful and an unusual mix of tranquil and extremely loud. I loved the way you could tell the time by the surrounding sounds; the constant immersion in unpredictable wildlife; the isolation from much of the complexity of modern life and the camaraderie of living and working with a small group of people. Despite the physical and mental challenge, I found the fieldwork really interesting and rewarding. The whole experience was a great introduction into tropical ecology, and my only concerns upon leaving were “When can I come back?” and “How will I choose which area to specialise in?”. 

2. Have you read a recent paper that was particularly impressive?

I have recently become interested in the use of mathematical modelling in ecology, particularly within disease ecology. A paper I enjoyed is ‘The ecological and epidemiological consequences of reproductive interference between the vectors Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus’ – work conducted by Dr Robert Paton, and my supervisor Professor Mike Bonsall.

A key concept in this paper is reproductive interference, which is where mating activities occur between members of different species (in this case, the mosquito species Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus), causing either one or both species to have a reduction in fitness. I found their exploration of how Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus populations are impacted by reproductive interference really interesting. I would recommend giving it a read. It is accessible to biologists without a mathematical background, as the equations are essentially slightly more complicated versions of Lotka-Volterra competition.

3. Can you tell us your favourite tropical ecology fact?

Approximately 50% of plant and animal species exist in tropical rainforests, despite them covering less than 2% of Earth’s total surface area. The exact figures differ between sources, but the incredible density of biodiversity is what I find most amazing about tropical rainforests!

4. Where did you conduct your most recent fieldwork?

My most recent fieldwork was at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project, a large ecological experiment studying how human modification impacts biodiversity and ecosystem function in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. I was there conducting research for my thesis in Tropical Forest Ecology (MRes) at Imperial College London, under the co-supervision of Dr Lauren Cator and Professor Rob Ewers.

My dissertation was in disease ecology, and explored how land use change affects the availability of mosquito larval habitats during an El Niño event. I spent the best part of four months searching for mosquito larvae and attempting to attract adult mosquitoes in tropical forest and neighbouring oil palm plantations. Whilst not too glamorous, it was an exciting and interesting project, and since then I have continued with disease ecology research in my PhD. I am really grateful to the research assistants and staff at the SAFE project, without whom this project would not have been possible.

The field camp at the SAFE Project was basic, though very beautiful. It was situated in the middle of the tropical forest, with a stream running nearby.  Every day we would eat delicious food prepared by Rizma (her sambol is to die for!) and there would often be communal sports in the evening, mainly volleyball and badminton. On special occasions, we would have massive BBQs, drink tapai (local rice wine) and perform traditional Bornean dances and karaoke!

Prolonged fieldwork is difficult, especially in an isolated area – you are in different surroundings, things go wrong and you do not have the support of either your supervisor/s, or your home friends and family. For these reasons, I feel lucky to have been in a field centre with such a sense of community and I have so many lovely memories from my time there.

Stanislas Zanvo

Stanislas Zanvo, a PhD student working between the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, and Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier in France, tells Amelia McKinlay about his research on pangolins in West Africa.

Tell us about your current research

My research project aims to assess the conservation status of pangolins using social science and evolutionary ecology research methods. My fieldwork takes place in forest habitats, wildlife markets, and local communities in Benin.

I am currently addressing three different research themes focused on the White-bellied Pangolin:

  • their diet using metabarcoding;
  • their population genetics; and
  • tracing the illegal trade using microsatellite markers.
Image of man with pangolin mother and baby on his shoulder
Stan with White-bellied Pangolins. Photo credit: Stanislas Zanvo.

Pangolins are elusive nocturnal species, which makes studying their spatial and behavioural ecology challenging. I am conducting my research activities to determine the prey species of the White-bellied Pangolin at high taxonomic resolution through environmental DNA and a DNA register.

Simultaneously, I am using microsatellite markers to understand the impact of long-term fragmentation and climate gradient on the population structure of the White-bellied Pangolin in Benin’s landscape.

By using results from the population structure, I will assign each of the sampled specimens on bushmeat and traditional medicine to a source forest using the same microsatellite markers. This will allow me to quantify the threat level of each local market.

What led you to start researching pangolins?

I started my work on pangolins by shedding the light on their geographic range and population trends.  I combined local ecological knowledge and direct occurrence evidence to map past and current geographic ranges, and assess population trends of the white-bellied and giant pangolins at countrywide scale.

Before undertaking my PhD research project, I led a research project on psychological acceptance of local people to live in harmony with wildlife despite the risk of Ebola epidemic in the Dahomey Gap. I used a psychological model in order to identify factors influencing people’s acceptance, on which I designed outreach material for a public awareness campaign.

What advice would you give someone trying to enter this field?

It is very important to be passionate before undertaking this adventure. For a promising career in ecology, you have to read other authors’ papers (recent papers in particular) and develop a good ability of observing in the field. It is important to partake in collaborative projects to learn from other researchers, and always take into consideration local ecological knowledge, as it is an important source of information about ecological relationships in tropical regions.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in this field?

It is very important to take into account indigenous knowledge that can help you to overcome many difficulties when in the field. For my example, I spent six months for looking for faecal samples of White-bellied Pangolins without getting any results. One day, after my fieldwork, I was discussing this with a hunter who told me to raise up each captured individual by its tail, as it will expulse faeces by stress. I used this technique that provided 28 faecal samples after five months in the field. This, among other experiences, made me realise how important it is to integrate local knowledge in ecological investigations wherever possible.

Connor Butler

Amelia McKinlay caught up with Connor Butler, who is a PhD student at the University of Southampton conducting research on the effects of agricultural expansion on amphibians in the montane forests of Peninsular Malaysia. She found out about his inspiration, exciting field experiences, and garnered a few words of wisdom for people new to tropical ecology.

What inspired you to work in the field of tropical ecology?

My interest in tropical ecology is likely a result of near-constant exposure to many David Attenborough documentaries during my childhood. As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by tropical rainforests, so I jumped at the chance to visit the Amazon during my undergraduate degree. I moved to Singapore as soon as I finished university and spent four years working in tropical rainforests throughout Southeast Asia. Now that I am back in the UK working on my PhD, I spend most of my time counting down the days until I can leave for fieldwork.

Connor Butler (Frog)
Connor Butler with a tropical frog. Photo credit: Connor Butler.

What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?

In my spare time you can often find me drinking coffee, cooking, and digging around in cow dung – obviously not all at the same time. My interest in dung – and more specifically dung beetles – came about after working with Darren Mann (Head of Zoology) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m primarily a tropical herpetologist but entomology has always been my escape when I’m back in the UK. There’s something uniquely beautiful about the idea of searching through sludgy, brown animal dung for these tiny, blueish metallic gems. Simple pleasures, right?

What has been your most notable experience when working in the field?

One of my most memorable experiences happened when I was working as an ecologist in Singapore. I was conducting a night survey and needed a field assistant. I bribed a friend to join me with the prospect of sighting a pangolin, or failing that, I’d buy them dinner (I should premise this by saying that I’d never seen a pangolin despite working in Singapore for a few years). The survey starts as per usual and as I am crouched in the forest searching the leaf litter for frogs I hear my friend whisper “Connor, there’s a pangolin over here”. I laugh, tell them to shut up, and go back to the leaf litter. “No, seriously, there’s a pangolin here”. As I turn around, I see this adult pangolin unabashedly waddling down the path straight towards us. We stay still and it walks straight past us, totally unfased by our presence. Adding to the excitement, as it passes we notice that it’s carrying a small baby on its back. It was a great night! Not only did we see two pangolins, but also I didn’t have to buy dinner.

If someone was just starting out in the field of tropical ecology, what would be your main piece of advice?

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it can be difficult navigating new cultures and places. LGBTQ+ people are still persecuted in many countries, which poses both legal and personal safety risks to many of us. My advice is to find a supervisor or local collaborator that you can trust and talk openly with about any concerns. Your safety and wellbeing is more important than any research.

Follow Connor on Twitter or Instagram for updates on his work.

Josie Phillips

Our InFocus Editor Amelia McKinlay spoke to Josie Phillips, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, to ask about her work on epiphytes, and her inspirations!

Josie sitting amongst the bird’s nest ferns housed in the Eden Project, Cornwall. Photo: Josie Phillips.

What is your current research focus?

I am a post-doctoral researcher working alongside Dr Farnon Ellwood at UWE Bristol. Our research focuses on the invertebrate inhabitants of the world’s largest epiphyte, the bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus). We use the fern, and its resident fauna, as a model ecosystem to investigate ecological interactions, such as competition, niche partitioning, resource sharing and predation in tropical forests. However, because bird’s nest ferns also occur across a range of landscapes, from the highest reaches of the forest canopy to the oil palm plantations that are now so common in the tropics, we can study the effect of changing land use and climate change on these functionally important communities.

My first, first-author, paper has just been accepted for publication in Biotropica. It provides the first focused study of the scariest invertebrate group – the centipedes – in tropical forest canopies. We revealed widespread resource sharing by centipedes in bird’s nest ferns, rather than the antagonistic interactions that one might expect from these typically ferocious predators. We even found brooding centipedes sharing the same nesting sites within the ferns, a brand new behaviour! One reviewer described the results of this study as ‘unprecedented’, and our estimates of the importance of this group in tropical ecosystems now need significant revision upwards.

Having shown how important these ferns are, I am now focusing my efforts on developing the bird’s nest fern into a conservation tool. I am working to promote bird’s nest fern plants as umbrella species, because efforts to protect and maintain these plants in degraded landscapes will provide inherent benefits for a wide range of animals and their associated ecosystem functions.

Do you have a favourite taxa or species?

Slow lorises (Nycticebus spp.) have long held a special place in my heart. My first position in conservation was as a research assistant for Professor Anna Nekaris working with her Little Fireface Project (LFP). LFP is amazing little NGO which aims to conserve these cryptic little primates through research, education and empowerment. The thing about slow lorises that really gets me is the fact that they are venomous. It says, ‘do not mess with me’. Between the centipedes and slow lorises, there must be some kind of attraction to venomous animals.

Do you have a preferred place you’ve travelled to for fieldwork? If so, why?

My fieldwork has almost always taken me to Southeast Asia, and my most favourite place to work was Java. The landscape is phenomenal, the culture is so rich and Javanese people are so warm and kind. I absolutely love food, and I have to say that Javanese food is the best I have eaten anywhere in the world. The field site I was based at was in a remote village on the edge of an agroforest area, absolutely everything we ate was fresh from the fields and on our way back from fieldwork we would always collect fresh chillies and baby cabbage leaves to garnish our dinner!

What inspired you to work in science?

When I was younger I was absolutely fascinated by everything. Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandad, an ex-marine who just loved to be outside, and to take me on adventures. He taught me to read a map and compass and bought me my first pair of binoculars. Once after I was stung by a bee, he went and found it, then handed it to me to look at under a magnifying glass. He wanted to show me that it was not something to be afraid of – instilling in me a love of the natural world. I was just so lucky that this fascination and passion for learning naturally progressed into an academic career.

Keep up with Josie via Twitter or find her on Instagram @josiephillips!

Andy Whitworth

Our InFocus Editor Amelia McKinlay caught up with Andy Whitworth, Affiliate Researcher at the University of Glasgow, who has worked at the Manu Biosphere reserve in the Peruvian Amazon, and is Executive Director of the NGO Osa Conservation. He tells about about his work and some of his favourite research papers!

Photo of Andy in tree with camera trap
Andy Whitworth with a canopy camera trap. Photo: Charlie Hamilton-James

What is your current research focus?

My current research focuses on the use of secondary growth, actively restored and degraded rainforest by wildlife. Lately this has been targeted towards the use of camera traps for understanding the responses of rainforest mammals and gamebirds; both on the ground and in the rainforest canopy. Specifically, I want to understand how different groups or species are affected, and what are the associated drivers.

Why do you feel your work is important?

Rainforest habitats are the arguably the most complex on the planet and the most biodiverse. They are our most precious habitats to ensure our management of climatic change. Much of the wildlife within them is responsible for helping to keep them functioning healthily, contributes to their heterogeneity in structure, and even the storage of high levels of above ground biomass and carbon. To understand how different species can tolerate or recover from disturbance is key to both keeping those standing forests functioning, and in helping new forests recuperate as quickly and effectively as possible.

Have you read a recent paper that was particularly impressive?

I very much enjoyed the work by Peres et al. (2016) who found that without large Ateline monkeys and tapirs, that are both important dispersers of many trees and very susceptible to overhunting, forest carbon storage could decline by 5.8% on average, and up to 37.8% in some cases! See “How Monkeys Sequester Carbon” (Brodie 2016).

And I also enjoyed Senior et al’s. (2019) work “Global loss of climate connectivity in tropical forests“. Their statement of “… 62% of tropical forest area failed to achieve successful climate connectivity, whereby species’ range shifts within existing forest cover could circumvent climate warming” is shocking and really emphasises our rapid need to both protect our intact, and restore broken forest gradients. These are the richest areas of biodiversity!

What do you feel is your biggest achievement?

I was delighted to have a paper published recently in Diversity and Distributions after many years of intensive field work in the rainforest canopy of Peru (“Human disturbance impacts on rainforest mammals are most notable in the canopy, especially for larger‐bodied species”), but most of all I relish leading a conservation organization in the field, doing applied work in restoration and community engagement through citizen science. Although much more complicated than taking in all of my own camera traps, community networks of multiple stakeholders provide the greatest on-the-ground engagement and impact (see

Richard Corlett

Here, Professor Richard Corlett talks to our Newsletter Editor Daniel Turner about the third edition of his book “The Ecology of Tropical East Asia”, published in July 2019.

Richard Corlett image
Image credit : Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences

The book provides an overview of the terrestrial ecology of Tropical East Asia: from southern China to Indonesia, and from Bhutan and Bangladesh to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. Now in its third edition, it has been substantially revised, to reflect the explosion of new research in the region in the last few years and the increasing use of new tools, particularly from genomics and remote sensing.

Richard, could you give us a brief summary of the book?

The book provides an overview of the terrestrial ecology of ‘Tropical East Asia’: basically, SE Asia plus southern China, Ryukyu Islands, Andaman Islands, NE India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, minus eastern Indonesia. It is targeted at graduate students and advanced undergraduates, but should be useful for anyone interested in this region. It is information-dense and has a detailed index, so it can also be used for reference.

Why and how did you become interested in tropical ecology? Were you interested in the natural world since you were a child? Or, did you become interested in ecology through a trip, a wildlife encounter, or an inspiring teacher?

I was obsessed with natural history growing up in Northwest London, and on summer holidays in the Isle of Man, but my interest in the tropics was sparked by attending EJH Corner’s last undergraduate lectures at Cambridge, as well as a course taught by Peter Grubb.

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

Eating with a group of Thai graduate students in a restaurant in Bangkok and realizing that (a) they knew a huge amount about their own study sites but, (b) they knew very little about the rest of the region they lived in and, (c) had no easy way of finding out. I wrote the first edition in Hong Kong and Singapore, the second in Singapore and China, and the third in China, so the inspiration for each update has been different.

What are the biggest threats facing the biodiversity in East Asia?

Habitat destruction and, for vertebrates, hunting. Climate change is probably a significant threat but we have very little direct evidence for this yet.

What solutions would you like to see implemented to overcome the problems you outlined?

Well-managed protected areas have been very successful in Tropical East Asia, but few protected areas in the region are well-managed. I think that a post-2020 30% target for protected area coverage, incorporating managed forests and abandoned marginal agricultural land, would be practical for most countries and, if accompanied by a big improvement in management, in collaboration with local communities where practical, would provide long-term protection for most habitats and species. On top of this, countries need to set a ‘zero extinction’ target, to ensure that species which depend on habitats outside the protected area system are also protected.

Where is your favourite wildlife destination in East Asia, and why?

Either Hong Kong’s Country Parks, which show the resilience of tropical nature in the face of everything we can do to it, or Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam, which shows what knowledgeable and dedicated staff can achieve in a very challenging situation.

Thanks for taking the time to talk!

The new, third edition, of Richard’s book is available to buy now from online bookshops.