I am originally from Nottingham in the UK. In 2012 I obtained a BSc in Zoology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2013 I returned to education and obtained an MSc in Entomology from Harper Adams University, Shropshire. Following this I worked for a short time as a volunteer research assistant at Reading University, assisting in the identification of Carabid beetles as part of a PhD project.
In 2015 I was awarded a Western Sydney University International Scholarship to study Pollination Mutualisms with Professor James Cook and Associate Professor Sally Power at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. In 2016 I invited Dr Justin Welbergen to join my supervisory panel and, in doing so, became a member of the Lab of Animal Ecology.
Mutualisms account for much of the diversity of life that we see in the natural world. Obligate pollination mutualisms (OPMs) are highly specialised pollination interactions in which plants and pollinators are entirely dependent upon each other for reproduction.
Mutualisms often involve very different organisms swapping resources for services or other resources. OPM pollinators provide a service by transporting pollen between the male and female flowers of a single host species. The pollinators then lay eggs within the flowers that they fertilise (see video). Pollinator offspring develop by feeding on a proportion of the seeds fertilised by their mother (resource).
Natural selection will act on mutualists to maximise the benefits of the interaction and minimise the costs. Selection could therefore result in “cheating”, where services and resources are not fairly traded and interacting results in net loss of fitness to a partner. Mechanisms must therefore exist to prevent partners in a mutualism from overexploiting each other. Identifying these mechanisms is fundamental to understanding the persistence of mutualisms. In addition, by comparing mutualisms we may gain new insights into the factors that promote their co-evolution.
In 2003 an entirely new pollination mutualism was described between moths in the genus Epicephala (Gracillariidae) and three species of plant in the genus Glochidion (Phyllanthaceae). OPMs involving Epicephala moths are now believed to occur in approximately 500 species of Phyllantheae, making it the second largest OPM group. The vast majority of the OPMs within Phyllanthaceae have yet to be described or studied.
Breynia oblongifolia is common and widespread native Australian plant, occurring from as far north as Papua New Guinea to southern New South Wales. It is known to be involved in an OPM with Epicephala sp. moths. My project will involve the description and study of the OPM occurring between B. oblongifolia and Epicephala sp. moths across it’s range. My research will provide us with increased knowledge of Australian native species and their interactions. In addition, it may give us new insights into the origins of mutualisms and co-evolutionary processes.