Tāmaki Innovation Campus


Jamie Stavert


Jamie Stavert
Jamie Stavert

POLLINATION REVEALS SECRETS OF LAND USE IMPACT

Integrating research with international travel has been an aspect of Jamie Stavert’s PhD that he’s thoroughly enjoyed, but he admits it comes second to his passion for all things insect.

His recently-submitted thesis on the process of pollination is an ideal topic to investigate how human land use change alters biodiversity and consequently, ecosystem functioning at large scales.

His work was funded through the University of Auckland, Plant and Food Research, along with a Todd Foundation Award for Excellence and a Claude McCarthy Fellowship to visit the prestigious Winfree lab in New Jersey.  Collaboration with Plant and Food Research was valuable, as was work with researchers at Estación Biológica de Doñana in Spain.

And for the boy who had always been intrigued by the complexity and beauty of the natural world, the academic pathway was clear even as a young child.

“In my first year of school I remember telling my teacher that I wanted to be an entomologist, so I was set on this path from a very young age. Mum and Dad were often left dealing with boxes and boxes of insects that I had collected and housed in my wardrobe,” he says.

“At high school, I wasn’t particularly interested in science:  I think it had something to do with the sterile, non-tactile way that science was taught. In my first year of university, the ecology major became available and I knew that was the course for me. I enjoyed my time studying as an undergraduate and by my third year, I knew that I wanted to pursue a research career as an ecologist. I thoroughly enjoyed my masters and found the research process particularly fulfilling and exciting. Doing a PhD was a natural progression.”

Jamie completed his undergraduate in ecology, and postgraduate degrees in Biodiversity and Biosecurity at the University of Auckland.

“My master’s thesis was on the feeding ecology of endemic New Zealand dung beetles, an intriguing group of ancient insects that evolved in New Zealand without the usual mammal dung food sources. The poor things have probably been stuck eating bird poo for the last 80 million years.”

He furthered this interest in his thesis topic, looking at the importance of pollinator biodiversity for pollination function. “I found that pollinator species that perform the same role in ecosystems often respond in a similar way to land use change. This is important as it shows, for the first time, we are losing critical components of the pollinator community as we change the way we use the land.

“Further, I found pollination services from exotic species mostly increase with increased land use intensity whereas pollination services from native species decrease. This is likely to have important implications for reproduction in a range of native plant species and crops.”

In a side project Jamie also developed a method for measuring pollinator hairiness and found that hairiness is very strongly related to pollinator effectiveness. i.e. hairier insects deposit more pollen grains on flowers.

He says a key achievement has been contributing novel findings to science. “My findings have been by no means ground breaking, but I believe they have progressed my field of research. This is very important to me; and working with and meeting super clever people from New Zealand and all over the world has also been a highlight.”

There have been many challenges. Keeping the big picture in mind while doing the little things well has been one of the greatest challenges. In the second year of my PhD I conducted a very ambitious cage experiment with different combinations of plants and pollinators. This was particularly challenging, as I had to keep both plant and pollinators alive in the cages for several months. When you’re running a large cage experiment of this nature you can’t have a day off; that’s particularly difficult when the experiment runs over Christmas and new year.”

Jamie also echoes the feelings of fellow PhD candidates, in that maintaining healthy personal relationships is one of the biggest challenges to manage, with the all-consuming PhD and the ensuing difficulty of separating work and personal life.

He says the combination of applied and theoretical components was irresistible.  “Although I enjoyed the natural history aspect of my masters I wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of ecosystems in a way that would help humanity. I was also fascinated with the idea that biodiversity enhances ecosystem functions; for instance, that ecosystems often perform better where they encompass a greater diversity of life.”

“However, human activities, particularly the way humans use the land and modify habitats, is causing species extinctions at an alarming rate. So, understanding how human landuse alters biodiversity and what the implications of these changes are for the ecosystems functions (e.g. pollination) on which humans rely seemed like and exciting and relevant topic.”

“I would like to do a postdoc in my field of research, and continue to mesh together applied and theoretical ecology in a way that has real-world conservation and restoration applications. They all feed into my interests of ecology, pollination biology, conservation and storytelling.”

Jamie Stavert credits his family with providing support during his academic career, and says his PhD peers, friends and supervisors have been particularly supportive.

And, whilst the elections are consigned to history, here’s how three of EEB’s postgrad students (including Ecology Ngātahi’s Jamie Stavert) thought about the conservation policies of political parties in the lead up to the election.

https://twitter.com/Jamienzherald/status/900440772440281088