Community and Urban Ecology Lab

About the lab

We are currently developing two main projects. We are first interested in ascertaining how habitat transformation affects community niche structure and thus intra- and inter-specific competition and predation from birds to insects.

We are also interested in determining the impact that urbanization, and particularly abiotic stressors associated with human activities, have on the breeding ecology of Barn Swallows.

Finally, we are developing a number of small projects on predation rates, urban biodiversity and zoonotic risk of urban fauna.

Featured projects (2)

How abiotic (niche expansion) and biotic (niche packing) factors shape niche assemblages of animal communities is currently object of debate. This question has been examined especially in relation to elevational gradients, while there is lack of studies addressing this issue in urbanization gradients. In south China there are currently many huge, expanding cities, which provides an excellent framework to study niche morphology of avian communities across increasing levels of urbanization.
The urbanization process implies a tremendous change in the structure of natural habitats so that urban organisms need to adapt their phenotypes to these particular conditions. These phenotypic changes should be quantified, and its genetic basis and fitness effects identified. Experimental approaches may then assess which factors drive these adaptations. In the last decades China has experienced a great expansion of its urban areas. Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) breed in a broad range of latitudes so different populations show divergent natural and sexual selection patterns. They are present in rural and urban areas and are therefore an optimal model to investigate urban eco-evolutionary dynamics. In this project, using a paired design across multiple locations, we aim to contrast phenotypic divergence between populations inhabiting the three main zoogeographical regions of China and between paired rural and urban populations across this geographical gradient. In doing so, we will be able to identify which traits are being selected and whether urban evolution counteracts naturally divergent eco-evolutionary dynamics through a predictable homogenization effect.

Featured research (11)

In addition to landscape changes, urbanization also brings about changes in environmental factors that can affect wildlife. Despite the common referral in the published literature to multiple environmental factors such as light and noise pollution, there is a gap in knowledge about their combined impact. We developed a multidimensional environmental framework to assess the effect of urbanization and multiple environmental factors (light, noise, and temperature) on life-history traits and breeding success of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) across rural to urban gradients in four locations spanning over 2500 km from North to South China. Over a single breeding season, we measured these environmental factors nearby nests and quantified landscape urbanization over a 1 km2 radius. We then analysed the relationships between these multiple environmental factors through a principal component analysis and conducted spatially explicit linear-mixed effects models to assess their effect on life-history traits and breeding success. We were particularly interested in understanding whether and how Barn Swallows were able to adapt to such environmental conditions associated with urbanization. The results show that there is significant variation in the exposure to environmental conditions experienced by Barn Swallows breeding across urbanization gradients in China. These changes and their effects are complex due to the behavioural responses ameliorating potential negative effects by selecting nesting sites that minimize exposure to environmental factors. However, significant relationships between landscape urbanization, exposure to environmental factors, and life-history traits such as laying date and clutch size were pervasive. Still, the impact on breeding success was, at least in our sample, negligible, suggesting that Barn Swallows are extremely adaptable to a wide range of environmental features.
Resolving trade-offs between economic development and biodiversity conservation needs is crucial in currently developing countries and in particularly sensitive systems harboring high biodiversity. Yet, such a task is challenging because human activities have complex effects on biodiversity. We assessed the effects of intense economic development on Hainan Island (southern China) on different components of biodiversity. This highly biodiverse tropical island has undergone extensive economic development and conversion of forest to agriculture and urban area. We identified 3 main transformation areas (low, medium, and high transformation) based on land-use, local-climate, and economic changes across 145 grids (10 × 10 km), and estimated changes in avian biodive6rsity from 1998 to 2013. We recorded ongoing taxonomic biotic homogenization throughout the island. Differences between traditional and directional alpha diversity decreased by 5%. Phylogenetically clustering increased by 0.5 points (W = 7928, p < 0.01), and functional overdispersion increased by 1 point (W = 16,411, p < 0.01). Initial taxonomic, phylogenetic, and functional scores correlated negatively with changes in these scores across all transformation areas (all ps < 0.01). At the local scale, economic and environmental indicators showed complex and divergent effects across transformation areas and biodiversity components. These effects were only partially ameliorated in an ecological function conservation area in the mountainous central part of the island. We found complex effects of economic development on different biodiversity dimensions in different areas with different land uses and protection regimes and between local and regional spatial scales. Profound ecosystem damage associated with economic development was partially averted, probably due to enhanced biodiversity conservation policies and law enforcement, but not without regional-scale biotic homogenization and local-scale biodiversity loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly disrupted academic activities, particularly in disciplines with a strong empirical component among other reasons by limiting our mobility. It is thus essential to assess emergency remote teaching plans by surveying learners’ opinions and perceptions during these unusual circumstances. To achieve this aim, we conducted a survey during the spring semester of 2021 in an environmental science program to ascertain learners’ perceptions on online and onsite learning activities in ecology-based modules. We were particularly interested not only in comparing the performance of these two types of activities but also in understanding the role played by learners’ perceptions about nature in shaping this pattern. Environmental science programs are rather heterogeneous from a conceptual point of view and, thus, learners may also be more diverse than in traditional ecology programs, which may affect their interest for ecology-based modules. We assessed connectedness to nature by computing the reduced version of the Nature Relatedness Scale. Here, we found that online activities systematically obtained significantly lower scores than onsite activities regardless of the wording employed, and that altruistic behaviors were prevalent among learners. Interestingly, scores for both onsite and online activities were strongly influenced by learners’ connectedness to nature, as learners with a stronger connection to nature gave higher scores to both types of activities. Our results suggest that an effort to improve the efficacy of remote learning activities should be the focus of research about teaching methodologies in predominantly empirical scientific disciplines.
Multidimensional approaches examining complex trait-niche relationships are crucial to understand community assembly. This is particularly important across habitat transformation gradients because specialists are progressively substituted by generalists and, despite increasing functional homogenization, in both specialist and generalist communities niche partitioning is apparent. Here, in line with the continuum hypothesis, we expected that divergent trait-niche relationships would arise in passerine assemblages across the natural-to-urban transformation gradient. More specifically, we expected that traits linking form to function would be more important in less transformed habitats, while population density and traits linked to dispersal and dominance would predominate in more transformed habitats. Accordingly, we found that beak length and its interaction with tarsus length correlated significantly with isotopic niches in natural and rural habitats, where specialists predominate. Conversely, body size and aggressiveness only showed significant relationships with isotopic niches with increasing habitat transformation, where generalists prevail. Interestingly, we recorded a mix of these processes in rural habitats, which acted as a frontier between these two domains. Our study is thus important in showing that a complex combination of morphological and behavioral traits determine niche characteristics, and that these relationships are dynamic across habitat transformation gradients. Asia is a land of contrasts. This is the largest and most populated region of the world, it is where urbanization is increasing at the highest rate (Seto et al., 2012). At the same time, it is extremely biodiverse (Myers et al., 2000), so that promoting harmonious human-wildlife coexistence is complex. This complexity is not recent. Ancient civilizations populating this area have left a lasting impact on its nature (Ellis et al., 2021), and recent impacts add to these historical effects. This issue is acknowledged by governments across Asia, who have recently developed numerous initiatives to protect their biodiversity (Ghosh-Harihar et al., 2019;Wu et al., 2019). Yet, despite increasing regional conservation efforts, not all species will make it. For instance, millions-year old species are still being led to extinction (Zhang et al., 2020). In a recent positive development, the United Nations' Convention for Biodiversity (COP-15) will set a 30% threshold of protected areas of terrestrial land (Zhu et al., 2021). But, to achieve such an ambitious biodiversity conservation goal, urgent action is needed. This Research Topic aimed to assess the impacts that human-driven habitat transformation has on species, biodiversity, and ecosystems in our region, and to envision ways in which these impacts can be minimized. Moreover, our intention was to bring together research works from around Asia (and the rest of the world) which address this issue. We gathered papers authored by researchers from 8 countries, i.e., India, China, Singapore, Australia, Pakistan, Brunei, Sri Lanka, and United States. We are convinced that collaboration among Asian nations is an essential condition for any meaningful biodiversity conservation targets to be achieved (Chen et al., 2019;Bawa et al., 2020). We are also convinced that biodiversity conservation should develop interdisciplinary approaches outside the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, and that it should be science that addresses people's and nature's needs (Kremen and Merenlender, 2018). This collection of 12 papers is our humble contribution to achieve these conservation targets in Asia.

Lab head

Emilio Pagani-Núñez
  • School of Applied Sciences
About Emilio Pagani-Núñez
  • I'm a field ornithologist with broad interests in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour. My research spans from individuals to species and communities. Lately, I’m becoming increasingly interested in the impact that human activities have on the ecology of wild species and in investigating ways in which these impacts can be minimized. My last two projects investigate the impact that habitat transformation has on niches of passerine communities and on the breeding ecology of Barn Swallows.

Members (5)

Yu Zeng
  • Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Sihao Chen
  • University of Liverpool
Yixuan Hong
  • Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Zeyu Li
  • RMIT University
Kinga Zrombkowska
  • Edinburgh Napier University
Natasha Sutherland
Natasha Sutherland
  • Not confirmed yet

Alumni (7)

Mingxiao Yan
  • Southern University of Science and Technology
Cynthia Wardhana
  • Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Weijia Feng
  • Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University
Yuyang Wu
  • Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University