Much research has focused on understanding relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and stability (e.g. O'Connor & Crowe, 2005 Ecology, 86: 1783-1796). It has been shown that loss of species can affect ecosystem processes but we still cannot draw generalities regarding the effects that transcend experimental systems. This limits application of our knowledge for conservation and management requirements. Most previous work has only manipulated species diversity and thus could not assess the strength of diversity relative to other known drivers of ecosystem functioning. Our research simulates the loss of species and tests for interactions among effects of loss of species and other factors, such as variable environmental conditions or habitat structure, to identify the context-dependency of results (e.g. O'Connor et al., 2015 Journal of Ecology, 103: 862-870; Mrowicki et al., 2015 Oikos in press).
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Anthropogenic stresses on ecosystems rarely occur in isolation yet we still understand very little about the effects of multiple stressers on the diversity of communities and how this relates to ecosystem functioning and services. Some of our recent work aims to disentangle the effects of ocean warming, nutrient enrichment and the presence of an invasive species on primary production (e.g. Vye et al., 2015 Oikos 124: 1005-1012). Another recent project quantified the effects of anthropogenically-increased nutrient loads on the diversity and functioning of coastal ecosystems based on a series of experimental manipulations (O'Connor & Donohue, 2013 Global Change Biology, 19: 431-440) and a rigorous sampling programme (O'Connor, 2013 Ecological Indicators, 29: 501-509). Our findings are therefore highly informative for the implementation of several EU Directives (e.g., Habitats, Water Framework and Marine Strategy Framework Directives). We often work with regulatory agencies to develop indicators of ecological status for coastal ecosystems (e.g. Burrows et al., 2014 Marine Strategy Framework Directive Indicators for UK Kelp Habitats, JNCC Report 525) and design methodologies for the restoration of threatened biogenic habitats (Modiolus restoration).
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Developing renewable energy and food security are global research priorities. We are interested in the sustainable development of aquatic resources and monitoring the impact of aquacultural activities on coastal ecosystems. QUB has pioneered the cultivation of macroalgae for biofuel aimed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels (Enalgae) and we are developing cultivation methods while assessing their impact on coastal ecosystems (SeaGas). Other recent projects developed methods for enhancing yields of bivalve species (e.g. Calderwood et al., 2005 ICES Journal of Marine Science. 72: 1802–1810) and we are also testing methods for restoring threatened bivalve reefs and their interactions with native seagrass beds.
I'm also interested in the role of predators (O'Connor et al., 2008 Ecology, 89: 428-438) and community dynamics of coastal ecosystems (O'Connor et al., 2011 Marine Ecology - Progress Series, 443: 65-75). Experimental manipulation is required to identify key mechanisms that drive observed patterns and that is the focus of much of my research. A primary aim is identification and characterization of direct and indirect interactions among benthic species (O'Connor et al., 2013 Journal of Animal Ecology, 82: 438-448). The importance of underlying mechanisms may vary with physical attributes of the habitat. For example, biotic processes, such as recruitment, competition or predation may interact with abiotic processes, such as shore exposure, or habitat structure or even the effects of climate change (Mrowicki and O'Connor 2015 Ecology, 96: 1020-102).
Current projects include:
BBSRC: SeaGas - Production of bio-methane from seaweed by Anaerobic Digestion (AD)
The Royal Society: Context-dependency of effects of loss of species in real ecosystems
The Leverhulme Trust: Extinction, ecosystem structure and carbon cycling in coastal sediments
EURONADS - Phenology of key speices in rocky intertidal habitats: patellid limpets in changing world (co-ordinated by Dr. Louise Firth at Plymouth University)
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