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Research Highlights Archive 2017

A selection of recent accomplishments from around our School drawn from the Disciplines of Botany, Geography, Geology, Zoology, Centre for the Environment, and the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research.


Policy makers and ecologists must develop a more constructive dialogue to save the planet


An international consensus demands human impacts on the environment “sustain”, “maintain”, “conserve”, “protect”, “safeguard”, and “secure” it, keeping it within “safe ecological limits”. But, a new study by an international team of environmental scientists, led by Ian Donohue, Assistant Professor in the School of Natural Sciences, shows that policy makers have little idea what these terms mean or how to connect them to a wealth of ecological data and ideas. Progress on protecting our planet requires us to dispel this confusion, and the team have produced a framework to do just that. The research shows that we have a remarkably poor understanding of the impacts on stability of the characteristics that define many, perhaps all, of the most important elements of global change. It provides recommendations for theoreticians, empiricists and policymakers on how to better integrate the multidimensional nature of ecological stability into their research, policies and actions.

This research gained international attention in National Geographic,, ScienceDaily, and  EurekAlert.


Scots Pine is Irish Through and Through

Scots pine

Botanists from the School of Natural Sciences have re-written Ireland’s natural history books by discovering that Scots pine trees are in fact native to the country, and that they have been thriving in County Clare for thousands of years. The research led by Professor Fraser Mitchell, has confirmed that the tree never died out in Co. Clare when it disappeared from the rest of the British Isles.  PhD student in Botany, Alwynne McGeever, is the first author of the study.  She said: “We haven’t found a new species but we have confirmed that Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) should now be added to the list of native Irish trees. We have also demonstrated a research approach that can be applied to explore the native status of this tree in other countries.  The relevance for Ireland is that we can now select native stock of pine for local provenance planting in conservation programmes like the Native Woodland Scheme.”



Unearthed: the cannibal sharks of a forgotten age

Scientists have discovered macabre fossil evidence suggesting that 300 million-year-old sharks ate their own young, as fossil poop of adult Orthacanthus sharks contained the tiny teeth of juveniles. These fearsome marine predators used protected coastal lagoons to rear their babies, but it seems they also resorted to cannibalising them when other food sources became scarce. The fossil evidence for shark cannibalism comes from distinctive spiral-shaped coprolites (fossil poop) found in the Minto Coalfield of New Brunswick, Canada. This was known to have been excreted by Orthacanthus because this shark had a special corkscrew rectum that makes identification easy. PhD candidate in the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, Aodhán Ó Gogáin, made the extraordinary discovery. His findings have just been published in the journal Palaeontology and were highlighted by



Pre-emptive action -- not reactive mitigation -- needed to save pollinators

Pollinators are facing changing and increasingly challenging risks; from the expansion of corporate agriculture to new classes of insecticides, climate change and emerging viruses. Research published by an international team identifies the most serious future threats to, as well as opportunities for, pollinating species. The results have left researchers to call for global policies of proactive prevention, rather than reactive mitigation to ensure the future of these vital species. Professor Stout, one of the co-authors of the study said: “Pollinators ensure seed and fruit production in the vast majority of crop and wild plant species, but many species of pollinator are in decline as a result of a range of human activities.” However, she added “The increased awareness of pollinator decline, and the enthusiasm of public and private bodies for their conservation, provide an opportunity to manage large areas of land in a way that is positive for pollinators. This requires co-operation and co-ordination between agri-food industries, NGOs and researchers.” She continued: “This is at the heart of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, which brings together governmental and non-governmental organisations to make Ireland pollinator friendly. We are currently publishing guidelines for different bodies (including local communities, gardeners, businesses and farmers) to promote pollinators across the island of Ireland. These actions will help mitigate existing and future risks to pollinators.”
This research was highlighted by the BBC and Science Daily.


New insights into a billion-person problem: Ascaris roundworm infection

Scientists have unearthed a potential new preventative option to combat Ascaris roundworm infection.  Ascaris lumbricoides is an intestinal parasite that results in severe health consequences, including growth retardation and impaired cognitive development. The infection, which affects an estimated one billion people worldwide, is estimated to be responsible for 60,000 deaths per annum. Based on prior work, the team used a proteomics approach to study the differences between two different mouse strains. They have just published their findings in the international journal, PLOS NTDs. Co-author and Professor of Zoology in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity, Celia Holland, has spent over a decade developing this mouse model to study Ascaris infection and said: “By focusing on the liver we aimed to target the metaphorical front line in this particular host-parasite interaction.” Lead author Gwen Deslyper said: “Given our findings and the central role of the liver in the Ascaris migratory pathway, we suggest a potentially novel research direction to develop alternative preventative control strategies for Ascaris.” Professor Holland added: “Significant research is now required to fully understand the determinants of resistance to Ascaris in the murine model, but the findings seem to have at least presented new options in the pursuit of strategies to control a disease that affects around one eighth of our planet’s population.”



Comet Craters - Literal Melting Pots for Life on Earth

Geochemists from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences may have found a solution to a long-debated problem as to where – and how – life first formed on Earth. In a paper published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, the team proposes that large meteorite and comet impacts into the sea created structures that provided conditions favourable for life. Water then interacted with impact-heated rock to enable synthesis of complex organic molecules, and the enclosed crater itself was a microhabitat within which life could flourish. First author Edel O’Sullivan, now a PhD candidate in Switzerland, said: “Previous studies investigating the origin of life have focused on synthesis in hydrothermal environments. Today these are found at mid-ocean ridges - hallmark features of plate tectonics, which likely did not exist on the early Earth. By contrast, the findings of this new study suggest that extensive hydrothermal systems operated in an enclosed impact crater at Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.”



Scientists Reveal Origin of Earth’s Oldest Crystals


Research from Trinity’s Geologists suggests that the very oldest pieces of rock on Earth – zircon crystals – are likely to have formed in the craters left by violent asteroid impacts that peppered our nascent planet, rather than via plate tectonics as was previously believed. The origin of these crystals, which are approximately the width of a human hair and more than four billion years old (the Earth being just over four and a half billion years old), had become a matter of major debate. However, by sampling thousands of zircons from the Sudbury impact crater, Ontario, Canada, researchers from Trinity College Dublin discovered that the crystals were indeed formed in impact craters. Lead researcher Gavin Kenny, whose findings were published in the academic journal 'Geology', said the team believed "our planet suffered far more frequent bombardment from asteroids early on than it has in relatively recent times." This suggests Earth shares striking similarities with other planets. "It makes more sense that the Earth looked like Mercury and that we share more of a similarity with other planets," Mr Kenny said.
This research was highlighted in the Irish Independent, The Irish Times, Silicon Republic and The Daily Mail.



Ancient, Deep-Earth Heat Sources Cause Greenland’s Ice Sheet to Melt Faster

Melting rates below ice sheets are small, relative to those at the surface, but they disproportionally influence ice transport toward the ocean

Research conducted by an international team of geoscientists has indicated that ancient heat sources in the Earth’s crust are responsible for making Greenland’s ice sheet melt and flow faster. The team has, for the first time, proved that processes deep in Earth’s mantle are coupled with the flow dynamics and subglacial hydrology of large ice sheets. Critically, the finding confirms that climate change assessments based on ice sheet movement must take into account the possibility that important factors may be at work miles below the surface. Research Fellow in Geology in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, Dr Alan Vaughan, was a co-author on the paper that has been published in leading international journal Nature Geoscience. Dr Vaughan said: “This study demonstrates an unexpected link between hotspot history and ice sheet behaviour. It shows that the influences on ice sheets span a huge range of timescales from the month by month changes of the ice cover to the multi-million year epochs over which the Earth’s mantle and tectonic plates evolve.”



Agricultural Land-Use Reports Underestimate Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Research from Trinity College Dublin suggests that recent practice in annual reporting on agricultural land use in Ireland is at odds with its cropland history, which could lead to inaccuracies in greenhouse gas accounting. As a result, the research should have major implications for climate policy. Ireland’s agriculture is dominated by grasslands, which are utilised by grazing animals and raises a number of environmental issues including phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, and large greenhouse gas emissions. Reporting on these issues requires precise knowledge of the area of grasslands and of other agricultural land use, mainly arable land. Until now we have assumed that about 90% of the agricultural area is being used as pasture, with a relatively small area dedicated to arable land. We have also assumed that there are relatively small changes in land use over time. Research Fellow in Botany at Trinity, and first author, Dr Jesko Zimmerman, said: “We conducted an in-depth analysis, using the geographic database developed to assist farmers and authorities with the single-farm payment scheme, and found that agricultural land use in Ireland is much more dynamic than annual reports suggest. While the area annually reported as cropland was on average 3,752 km2, this area has been shifting around the country. In the 12 years for which data was available (2000 to 2012) only about half of that area could be considered permanent cropland (1,252 km2). In contrast, the area that showed arable history in the timeframe was 7,373 km2.
This research was featured in Irish Times, Irish Examiner, and Irish Independent



Variety is the Spice of Life: Diversity May Reduce our Reliance on Fertiliser


Ecologists have, for the first time, teased out the many interacting factors that explain why species diversity and productivity vary so greatly between different grassland ecosystems across the globe. The findings suggest that promoting diversity here in Ireland - and further afield - could help to boost productivity in a similar way to how fertilisers have in the past. Reducing our reliance on fertilisers will be critical if we are to intensify agricultural practices sustainably in the future. The team of ecologists, which included researchers from Trinity College Dublin, published findings in the leading international journal Nature. Professor of Zoology in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, Yvonne Buckley, said: “We have traditionally relied very heavily on fertilisers for increasing productivity in grasslands but by paying attention to species diversity grasslands can produce the multiple benefits that we need, such as habitat for critical pollinators, while still maintaining productivity.” 



Bees Not the Pollination Be-All and End-All

Bees are the most effective crop pollinators world-wide, but new research confirms they are not the be-all and end-all. This is because the contributions made by ‘non-bee’ pollinators also play a significant role in crop production and stability in the face of environmental change. Non-bee insects such as flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps and ants were researched in 39 different studies across five continents to directly measure their pollination services in comparison to bees. According to the study published in the leading journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the “non-bees” performed 25-50% of the total number of flower visits. Professor Jane Stout, from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences, co-authored the study. She said: “We know that non-bee insects are important pollinators of wild plants and this study shows that they are also important for crop production. Therefore, we can’t just concentrate on bee conservation and ignore other pollinators.” Dr Rader, lead author of the study, added: “Although non-bees were less effective pollinators than bees per flower visit, they provided slightly more visits; so these two factors compensated for each other resulting in similar pollination services.”



Cry Me a River, and Make Me Millions…

Welcome to the Jungle, Fields of Gold, Moon River – not just great songs, and not just great million-dollar songs, but great million-dollar songs inspired by Mother Nature, whose beauty and power has provided the music industry with a $600 million shot in the arm since 2003. That is according to research carried out by Dr Luca Coscieme, IRC Post-Doctoral Fellow in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, who is the lead author on the paper in the journal Ecosystem Services. Dr Coscieme said: “We are aware that nature and its ecosystems provide us with services, which confer huge financial benefits for society. For example, they sequester carbon and provide clean water. Their aesthetic benefits are often discussed too – think of the jaw-dropping beauty of Iguazu Falls, and the mystery of unexplored rainforests – but what we are discovering with analyses such as these is that their cultural value actually puts dollars in our pockets. It’s also really cool to think that anyone listening to one of these songs is being touched in some way by nature, even if they don’t necessarily know it!”
This research was featured in the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Daily Express, Business Standard, The Statesman, New Kerala, Big News Network and Daiji World.


Botanists Discover Critically Endangered New Species

New Species

Botanists from Trinity College Dublin have discovered a beautiful new tree species from the coffee family in the Cusuco National Park in Honduras, but, sadly, the species has been immediately placed under the critically endangered banner of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The find has been described in the international journal PhytoKeys. Dr Kelly said: “This tree epitomizes the plight of so many species today. This is just one of a number of plant and animal species that are known just from this National Park – and nowhere else in the world. The site where it is growing is also the location of another plant species new to science, also discovered by Trinity’s Forest Botany team.  Swathes of forest were felled in this area in 2011-13, and our site was literally within earshot of the chainsaws! We still know little about this plant, and nothing at all about its possible uses – are those cherry-like fruits edible or poisonous? What secondary compounds are contained in that lush foliage, and could they have medicinal uses – like quinine from the related Cinchona? There is a real danger that this and other species will be lost to the world before they have even been properly investigated. Exploring the rainforest is not just fascinating; it is really, really urgent.”