Blanca Arroyo-Correa – Harper Prize Winner

Throughout the last month, we have been featuring all the articles that were shortlisted for the Harper Prize 2020. The Harper Prize is an annual award for the best early career research paper published in Journal of Ecology.

Here we hear more from Blanca Arroyo-Correa, who was jointly awarded this year’s prize alongside Atul Joshi!

About me

My academic formation started at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where I pursued a BSc in Environmental Biology (2014-2018), while collaborating in several projects at the Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF). This first research experience introduced me to the study of ecological interactions, especially those established between plants and their pollinators, and soon it really got me hooked. Besides my short stay at Doñana Biological Station, as an undergraduate I also did an internship at the University of Stirling in Scotland, where I conducted a study on the mechanical properties of floral vibrations during buzz pollination supervised by Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marín.

Following my keen interest in multiple aspects of plant-animal interactions, during 2019 I developed my MSc final project on the underlying mechanisms shaping individual-based plant-pollinator networks. Last year I was awarded a PhD scholarship by the Spanish Government and five months ago I started my PhD project under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Pedro Jordano and Dr. Ignasi Bartomeus at Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC). From now to 2024, I will have the opportunity to combine my PhD research training with teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Seville.

About the study

During the summer between the 3rd and 4th year of my BSc studies I did a research internship at Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain. That was where I met Dr. Carine Emer, who was doing a postdoc. Carine gave me the excellent opportunity to collaborate with her and Dr. Laura Burkle from Montana State University on this fascinating study.

Our study sites were located in subalpine meadows of the South Island of New Zealand, in which 68% of the sampled plant species and 14% of the pollinator species interacting with them were alien. Using data on plant-pollinator interactions collected in this area by my co-author Carine Emer, we aimed to unveil the temporal aspects of the alien invasion on pollination networks while accounting for the trophic-level effects of alien species on the seasonal dynamics of native communities. We found that alien plant and alien pollinator species played totally opposite roles in structuring the communities in which they occur. Moreover, alien species interacted more with each other than with native species through the season, forming the so-called ‘invader complexes’. Our results also revealed that both alien plants and pollinators increased the temporal turnover of interactions (i.e., the reassembling of pairwise plant–pollinator interactions across the flowering season) via completely different mechanisms.

Overall, our findings highlight the importance of considering the consequences of aggregating interaction data with an underlying temporal structure as well as the trophic level of the invasion when it comes to assessing the impacts of alien species in community structure. Specifically, we show for the first time that both alien plants and alien pollinators influence the organization of ecological networks over a flowering season; yet the causes and consequences for the local communities are widely dependent on the trophic level of the invasion.

A native bee (Leioproctus flavescens) visiting flowers of the alien Leucanthemum vulgare (A) and Cirsium arvense (B) in invaded subalpine communities of the South Island of New Zealand (C). Photographs: A&B – . C – Carine Emer.

About the research

The relationships established between plants and animals build up complex networks of interactions. Coming from other fields, the analytical tools of network theory have been widely used to visualize communities and to compare and model complex patterns of interactions under different contexts. However, the species-level interaction patterns described in most ecological networks arise from the aggregated modes of interactions shown by individuals within populations, such as the interactions established between individual plants and their pollinators. The variation in interaction patterns among individual plants within a population, which can be driven by differences in phenotypic traits, phenology or microhabitat characteristics, has important functional consequences for the reproductive success of those individuals. These functional outcomes at the individual level influence therefore plant species establishment and persistence and, consequently, the plant community assembly.

The main objective of my PhD project is to investigate how complex ecological networks of plant-pollinator interactions upscale from populations to the community level. Specifically, I aim to assess how the context-dependency of individual plant-pollinator interactions configures the overall plant-pollinator network at the community level and influences its stability and functioning. To address this goal, I am using an integrative framework by combining fieldwork sampling at Doñana National Park (Southern Spain) and pioneering analytical tools, such as multilayer networks, interaction motifs and advanced mathematical models.

Blanca Arroyo-Correa Estación Biológica de Doñana, CSIC, Sevilla, Spain

You can read Blanca’s winning article here: Alien plants and flower visitors disrupt the seasonal dynamics of mutualistic networks by Arroyo-Correa, Burkle, & Emer.

You can also read all 8 shortlisted papers in our Harper Prize 2020 Virtual Issue.

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