The Editors of the Journal of Ecology are pleased to honour Professor Mark Westoby in our continuing Eminent Ecologist virtual issue series. The virtual issue is available on the Journal of Ecology website.
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology
Seeds, dispersal biology, seedling establishment
Hughes, L., M. Dunlop, K. French, M. Leishman, B. Rice, L. Rodgerson and M. Westoby. 1994. Predicting dispersal spectra: a minimal set of hypotheses based on plant attributes. J. Ecol. 82:933-950.
Leishman, M.R., E. Jurado and M. Westoby. 1995. Correlates of seed size variation: a comparison among five temperate floras. J. Ecol. 83:517-530.
During the 1980s we were interested in myrmecochory, plant species whose seeds bear an oil-body that motivates ants to disperse them. (None of that work appeared in J Ecol, however.) In low-nutrient sclerophyll vegetation in Australia, commonly 30-40% of species use this dispersal morphology. By 1990 we were still working on seed biology and seed size (e.g. in J. Ecol. Jurado, Westoby & Nelson 1991; Jurado & Westoby 1992; Leishman & Westoby 1992, 1994a; Saverimuttu & Westoby 1996) but moving to the broader question how different plant traits went together in constellations. Sometimes particular trait combinations may not be mechanically or developmentally possible. But mutation and evolution over tens of millions of years can make many things possible, so other times trait correlations across species arise because some combinations are more competent or competitive than others.
One outcome was Hughes et al (1994), which was written as a group project in the lab. Rather than simply writing a review about how dispersal morphology, seed size, plant growth form and habitat went together, we thought a more interesting challenge would be to write down a semi-quantitative a set of rules for predicting what dispersal morphology a plant species should be selected to adopt. This paper has been quite widely cited as a review, but so far as we know no-one has yet taken the opportunity to test how well the proposed rules predict evolutionary transitions between one dispersal morphology and another.
Seed size has big consequences for seedling establishment and for seed output as well as for dispersal modes. By the early 1990s we were interested to move beyond studies of tens to hundreds of species in particular floras and to assess the consistency of patterns at world scale. Leishman et al (1995) was our first compilation in this direction.
The review process for Leishman et al 1995 also brought into the open a debate about “phylogenetic correction”, which appears in a separate section below.
Hughes, Dunlop, Rodgerson and Leishman were all students at Macquarie, completing their PhDs during 1990-93. Lesley Hughes’s PhD was on the ant behaviour involved in myrmecochory. Then at postdoc stage she shifted to impacts of climate change, working initially on plant-insect interactions. She has become very visible in science communication and science policy via IPCC and Climate Commission. She has won the Australian Ecology Research Award and a Eureka Prize for science communication. She was Head of Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie for a while and is now Pro-VC for Research.
Lou Rodgerson completed her PhD on myrmecochory at Macquarie and then taught at U Wollongong for some years (she was a notably passionate teacher and developed new curriculum). She then married Mike Dunlop, moved to Canberra and had three sons. Currently she is active through the Stephanie Alexander Foundation that integrates kitchen gardens, cooking and science in schools. Mike Dunlop joined CSIRO and works on future scenarios for Australian landscapes and rural industries. Michelle Leishman spent postdoc time at Imperial College London, then returned to Macquarie having won a postdoc from Australian Research Council, and after a while won a faculty position. She is currently Head of the Dept of Biological Sciences, and a member of the Editorial Board of J Ecol. Kris French came from a background in bird ecology. She was a postdoc in our lab 1988-90 in order to work on dispersal of fleshy fruits. She subsequently went to U Wollongong and is now a professor there. She was president of Ecological Society of Australia 2011-13.
Barbara Rice was Mark Westoby’s wife. She was an honorary associate at Macquarie, backbone of our lab over more than 30 years, and elder sister and mentor to many postgrads. She passed away in 2009. She is remembered through two activities. There are prizes at Macquarie University for the best postgrad field research, recalling her enjoyment and self-reliance in remote fieldwork. There is a Rice Memorial Poster Session at Ecological Society of Australia meetings, recalling her very sincere dislike of public speaking.
Other J Ecol papers from our lab dealing with seeds and seedlings were (Zammit & Westoby 1988; Jurado et al. 1991; Leishman & Westoby 1994b; Saverimuttu & Westoby 1996; Moles et al. 2004; Moles & Westoby 2004; Westoby, Moles & Falster 2009).
Prof. Mark Westoby