I have a number of core research areas, but underlying them all is a desire to understand how spatial configurations can affect ecological processes, how we can reliably sample in the field, and how we can best utilise statistical analyses to robustly maximise our understanding of ecological systems.
Species loss is currently occurring at such a rate that it is now being termed as the ‘sixth mass extinction’. If we are to manage these declines or to mitigate them in any way we will need to understand current biodiversity distribution patterns, how diversity is generated and what the consequences of species loss are. Reliably mapping diversity is difficult as it requires field sampling which, by definition, is limited and incomplete. I’m interested in how we can optimise sampling protocols in order to maximise their reliability in estimating the true patterns in biodiversity.
For many years there has been much debate over whether increasing diversity enhances or weakens the stability of communities and ecosystems. This has largely resulted in conflicting conclusions which may be due to the different approaches that have been taken. Researchers tend to either utilise the ‘horizontal’ approach whereby they investigate how species within the same trophic level compete with each other for common resources, or they take the ‘vertical’ approach and utilise multitrophic food web frameworks. My post-doc (Alfred Burian) is currently developing a framework that is trying to integrate these two approaches in order to obtain a more complete approach to addressing the biodiversity-stability debate.
In order to understand spatial biodiversity patterns we are currently monitoring a large number of permanent quadrats in a grazed meadow. Each year we are surveying the quadrats and recording the coverage of each plant species. This is enabling us to follow plant community dynamics as well as assess how these dynamics may vary over small spatial scales. This experiment has been going for four years and we hope to continue for many years to come.
Animal behaviour and welfare
There are millions of captive animals worldwide, and many are in zoos which are at the interface between public engagement and conservation. Animal welfare is therefore a priority for zoos to ensure that visitors see the animals at their best, maintaining healthy and viable populations of rare species for reintroduction, and from the obvious ethical point of view. But assessing welfare is difficult. This is normally done by quantifying relative amounts of behaviours and comparing with the expected patterns based on observations in the wild and having minimal levels of stereotypical behaviours exhibited by individuals. However, the recording of patterns of behaviour include much more information than is utilised by standard analytical methods. We are currently developing new methods of analysis, both to better visualise overall patterns of behaviours and to increase the pool of useful metrics for assessing welfare levels.
Corals and disease
Although coral reef structures support a substantial proportion of global biodiversity, corals are currently exhibiting some of the highest sensitivity to increasing sea water temperatures and ocean acidification. With increasing water temperature, corals my bleach, and if this continues over an extended period of time they will die. Increasing temperatures also appear to make corals more susceptible to disease. The microbial communities associated with corals seem to be very important, and research indicates that these communities change in structure when corals are diseased. At the moment it is not clear as to whether the microbial community changes are leading to disease, or that they are a consequence of disease. Along with Mike Sweet and our postdoc Alfred Burian, we are working on novel ways of tracking microbial community changes and identifying key structural changes. If we are successful, the next step will then be to determine the functional consequences of these changes in relation to coral health.
Environmental DNA (eDNA)
eDNA is DNA which has been released from individuals into the environment in the form of mucous, skin and various tissues. Samples of the environment can collect the eDNA, which can then be amplified, sequenced and matched to a particular species. Over the last few years there has been a great proliferation in the use of eDNA, particularly in environmental consultancy. Sampling of eDNA has huge potential for monitoring rare species, detecting invasive species and for tracking changes in ranges and establishing community structures. However, there are many aspects of the field, laboratory and analytical steps in this process which have potential problems, and the extent to which these are real and affect our interpretation of results is under researched. Mike Sweet has a number of PhD students working with eDNA and I’m working with them to try and establish the components in the process which present the greatest risk of error, as well as developing the use of site-occupancy modelling to account for these sources of error and to establish the key environmental variables which are likely to affect the probability of detecting eDNA in the field.
As well as disease dynamics in corals, I’ve very interested in the dynamics of bovine TB within badger populations. TB in badger populations seems to be extending in its range, despite a number of different strategies to prevent its spread being implemented. I use computer simulations to try and understand the dynamics of the badger populations and the disease. The spatial component (badger groups tend to be territorial) seems to be very important, and I’m interested in how the spatial configurations of habitat can influence the spread and prevalence of TB.
Biodiversity -ecosystem functioning
We rely on ecosystems to provide us with ecosystem services through ecosystem functioning. However, as species go extinct at the current rapid rate, there is strong evidence that the level of provision of services is declining. I’m interested in what determines the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and how the spatial structure of ecosystems can affect this relationship. Part of the work that I’m currently doing involves the permanent quadrats we have in a grazed meadow. As well as monitoring the coverage of plant species we are recording the plant biomass (an ecosystem function) in each quadrat, enabling us to quantify the biodiversity-ecosystem functioning relationship. We are tracking this through time, and we are hoping that this will help us to quantify the variation in the relationship both in time and space, and to identify which aspects of temporal and spatial variation in community composition are driving these relationships.
Sweet, M., Ramsey, A. & Bulling, M. (2017) Designer reefs and coral probiotics: great concepts but are they good practice? Biodiversity 18(1)
Robinson, L.A., Bryson, D., Bulling, M.T., Sparks, N. & Wellard, K.S. (2017) Post-feeding activity of Lucilia sericata (Diptera: Calliphoridae) on common domestic indoor surfaces and its effect on development. Forensic Science International 286
Barnes K., Ody H. & Bulling M.T. (2017) Effects of environmental temperature on oviposition behavior in three blow fly species of forensic importance. Forensic Science International 275, 138-143.
Sweet, M.J., Brown, B.E., Dunne, R.P., Singleton, I. & Bulling, M. T. (2017) Evidence for rapid, tidal related shifts in the microbiome of the coral Coelastrea aspera, Coral Reefs 36(3), 815-828.
Sweet, M.J. & Bulling, M.T. (2017) On the importance of the microbiome and pathobiome in coral health disease. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4:9 doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00009
Crooks, E.R., Bulling, M.T. & Barnes, K.M. (2016) Microbial effects on the development of forensically important blow fly species, Forensic Science International, 266, 185-190.
Sweet, M., Bulling, M.T. & Williamson, J.E. (2016) New disease outbreak affects two dominant sea urchin species associated with Australian temperate reefs. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 551, 171-183.
Cook, J.M., Edwards, A., Bulling, M.T., Mur, L.A.J., Cook, S., Gokul, J.K., Cameron, K.A., Sweet, M. & Irvine-Fynn, T.D.L. (2016) Metabolome-mediated biocryomorphic evolution promotes carbon fixation in Greenlandic cryoconite holes: Biocryomorphic evolution of cryoconite holes. Environmental Microbiology
Barnes K., Grace K.A. & Bulling M.T. (2015) Nocturnal oviposition behavior of forensically-important Diptera in Central England. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 60, 1601-1605.
Sweet, M., Bulling, M.T. & Cerrano, C. (2015) A novel sponge disease caused by a consortium of micro-organisms. Coral Reefs, 34(3)
Hardstaff JJ, Bulling MT, Marion G, Hutchings MR, White PCL (2013) Modelling the impact of vaccination on tuberculosis in badgers. Epidemiol. Infect. 141, 1471-1427.
Hardstaff JJ, Bulling MT, Marion G, Hutchings MR, White PCL (2012) The impact of external sources of infection on the dynamics of bovine tuberculosis in badger populations. Biomed Central Veterinary Medicine 8:92.
Langenheder S, Bulling MT, Solan M, Prosser JI (2012) Role of functionally dominant species in varying environmental regimes: evidence for the performance-enhancing effect of biodiversity. Biomed Central Ecology 12:14
Zetsche E, Bulling MT, Witte U (2012) Permeability of intertidal sandflats: II. Effects of temporal variability on sediment metabolism. Continental Shelf Research 42, 41-50.
Hicks N, Bulling MT, Solan M, Murray L, Raffaelli D, White PCL, Paterson DM (2011) Impact of biodiversity-climate futures on primary production and metabolism in a marine ecosystem. Biomed Central Biology 11:7 (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6785/11/7).
Godbold, J.A., Bulling, MT., Solan, M (2011) Habitat structure mediates biodiversity effects on ecosystem properties. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 278, 2510-2518.
James, P.A.S, Smart, J., Smith, J., Bulling, MT., Beed F.D., Luwandagga, D. (2011) The effect of participation in the Ugandan National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAADS) on willingness to pay for extension services. African Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 6(1), 1-19.
Ahrends A, Rahbek C, Bulling MT, Burgess ND, Lovett JC, Kindemba VW, Owen N, Fanning E, Sangu AN, Marshall AR, Mbago F, Meshak C, Hall JB, Pohill R, Mhoro BE, Marchant R (2010) Conservation and the botanist effect. Biological Conservation 144, 131-140.
Ahrends A, Burgess ND, Gereau RE, Marchant R, Bulling MT, Lovett JC, Platts PJ, Kindemba VW, Owen N, Fanning E, Rahbek C (2010) Funding begets biodiversity. Diversity and Distributions 17, 191-200.
Maire O, Merchand J, Bulling MT, Teal L, Grémare A, Duchȇne JC, Solan M (2010) Indirect effects of non-lethal predation on bivalve activity and sediment reworking. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 395, 30-36.
Ahrends A, Burgess ND, Bulling MT, Milledge SAH, Clarke GP, Lewis SL (2010) Predictable waves of forest degradation spreading from an African city. Prceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA 107, 14556-14561.
Langenheder S, Bulling MT, Solan M, Prosser JI (2010) Bacterial biodiversity-function relations are modified by environmental complexity. PLoS ONE 5(5).
Bulling MT, Hicks N, Murray L, Paterson DM, Raffaelli D, White PCL, Solan M (2010) Marine biodiversity-ecosystem functions under uncertain environmental futures. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 365, 2107-2116.
Vergeer P, van den Berg LLJ, Bulling MT, Ashmore MR, Kunin WE (2008) Geographical variation in the response to nitrogen deposition in Arabidopsis lyrata petraea. New Phytologist 179, 129-141.
Bulling MT, Solan M, Dyson KE, Hernandez-Milan G, Luque P, Pierce GJ , Raffaelli DG, Paterson DM, White PCL (2008) Species effects on ecosystem processes are modified by heterogeneity. Oecologia 158, 511-520.
Teal LR, Bulling MT, Parker ER, Solan M (2008) Global patterns of bioturbation intensity and the mixed depth of marine soft sediments. Aquatic Biology 2, 207-218.
Solan, M., Batty, P., Bulling, MT, Godbold, J.A. (2008) How biodiversity affects ecosystem process: implications for ecological revolutions and benthic ecosystem function. Aquatic Biology 2: 289-301.
Dyson KE, Bulling MT, Solan M, Hernandez-Milian G, Raffaelli DG, White PCL, Paterson DM (2007) Influence of macrofaunal assemblages and environmental heterogeneity on microphytobenthic production in experimental systems. Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B 247, 2547-2554.
Bulling MT, White PCL, Raffaelli DG, Pierce GJ (2006) Using model systems to address the biodiversity-ecosystem functioning process. Marine Ecology Progress Series 311: 295-309.
Hanley ME, Bulling MT, Fenner, M (2003) Quantifying individual feeding variability: implications for mollusc feeding experiments. Functional Ecology 17(6): 673-679.
Halls, PJ, Bulling M, White, PCL., Garland L, Harris S (2001) Dirichlet neighbours: revisiting Dirichlet tessellation for neighbourhood analysis. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 25, 105 117.