Researchers to study ‘fairy circles’, tree rings and smoke signals with Academy support

November 27, 2019
A collage of recipients of the Thomas Davies Research Grant
Recipients of the Thomas Davies Research Grant in 2019. Top (from left): Dr Fiona Walsh, Dr Edwin Lampugnani, Dr Jennifer Lavers and Dr Elisabeth Strain. Bottom (from left): Dr Danielle Verdon-Kidd, Dr Mark Waters and Dr Simon Williams.

Unlocking climate secrets in tree rings, understanding smoke signals and unearthing ‘fairy circles’ are the aims of some of the researchers awarded the Australian Academy of Science's 2020 Thomas Davies Research Grant for Marine, Soil and Plant Biology.

Seven researchers are recipients of the award this year.

Dr Danielle Verdon-Kidd from the University of Newcastle will use mangroves (Avicennia marina) to help reconstruct the climate record in east coast Australia. While Australia only has a short history of instrumental climate data, it does have natural archives—such as corals, tree rings and cave formations—that can be exploited to show our past climate.

Mangroves can live for hundreds of years and record environmental information in their wood, including wood density, vessel arrangement and isotopic composition. By studying the species, scientists have the potential to reconstruct the pre-instrumental record of rainfall and streamflow events and help unlock the flood and drought history of Australia’s east coast.

Dr Mark Waters from the University of Western Australia will study interactions between light and smoke signals in plant development, using mutant seedlings of rockcress, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard.

“This project is fundamental in nature and will increase our knowledge of how plants sense changes in their environment and respond accordingly,” said Dr Waters.

Dr Fiona Walsh, consultant ethno-ecologist from the Northern Territory, will investigate the patterns of bare circular patches known as ‘fairy circles’. Widespread across desert spinifex grasslands, these patches are pavements over the top of active or inactive termite colonies.

Desert termites are fundamental to the structure of soils, grasslands and the ecology of deserts. Termites convert dry spinifex and bulk grasses to animal foods and are described as the ‘krill of the desert’ as food for reptiles, echidnas, birds and small mammal species. 

The project draws on ecological methods and the knowledge of Aboriginal desert people, who used termites and termite pavements in many complex ways.

Dr Elisabeth Strain from the University of Melbourne will investigate the role of kelp in mitigating ocean acidification and its capacity to dampen nearshore waves—a key ecosystem service that could help reduce coastal erosion.

Dr Jennifer Lavers from the University of Tasmania will study the role of seabirds as vectors for both soil nutrients and pollutants on islands, and how a decline in seabird population can affect ecosystem processes in these remote locations.

Dr Edwin Lampugnani from the University of Melbourne will study plant cell wall biology using the common liverwort Marchantia as a model for how flowering plants make cellulose—the main substance that gives plant cell walls strength and stiffness and is also used to make paper and cloth.

Dr Simon Williams from the Australian National University aims to establish a system using the bacterium Escherichia coli to produce multiple plant immunity proteins that help plants detect and provide protection against infection by plant diseases.

The Thomas Davies Research Grant for Marine, Soil and Plant Biology is funded through a generous philanthropic bequest from the estate of the late Thomas Lewis Davies to the Academy.

The award will open for applications for the 2021 round early next year. Science grants of up to $20,000 are available for early- and mid-career researchers in the fields of marine, soil and plant biology. 

More about the Thomas Davies Research Grant

© 2019 Australian Academy of Science

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