Marion Pfeifer is candid about her decision to research tropical ecology. “I was working in Europe, in Spain, and it was too cold,” she said.
“I decided I needed to work somewhere warmer that would be better suited to my constitution.”
Looking at the lizard orchid
Trained as a biologist in her native Germany, Marion carried out research on the very beautiful lizard orchid for her PhD and for two years of her post doctoral work.
She said: “It’s a species we expect to be affected by climate change, and for its habitat to move northward.
"I was measuring the growth and flowering and genetic structure of populations in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and Belgium.
"This was to understand why the species seemed to do so well at the northern range margin and to see how well it was doing at the southern margin.”
Biodiversity patterns in East Africa
A successful application for a Marie Curie Fellowship took Marion to the University of York. The city isn’t generally noted for its clement weather.
But the fellowship provided an opportunity to research biodiversity patterns in East Africa. It shifted her research interest to a wider ecosystem basis, and she has never looked back.
She said: “My interests are very much concerned with ecosystem functions, so I wanted to look at the functioning of the kind of mixed forest canopy and shrub lands that are prevalent in that part of the world.
"I spent two years working on this, trying to understand how the canopy varies and is being affected by climate change.
"The idea is we can then set up a model to help predict the response of forest ecosystems and their functioning to future climate changes, in particular under rising human population pressures affecting the resilience of the forest ecosystems."
Modern ecology involves data
Much of the research Marion is carrying out involves analysis of large quantities of data. This kind of number crunching is something she says she enjoys.
She said: “It’s not the data itself I’m focusing on, but rather the patterns that are emerging from it. In ecology nowadays you can’t expect to do good work without getting involved in statistical analysis.
"Although my background is in biology, in Germany that is a degree subject where you are subjected to quite a mixture of different disciplines: physics, chemistry, botany and so on.
"You wouldn’t specialise so much until MSc level when you might focus on something like ecology, botany or zoology.”
Forest fragmentation in human-modified landscapes
When her research project at York came to an end, Marion got involved in consultancy work.
She applied her knowledge of remote sensing technology, acquired during a 6-month stint at University College London shortly after her PhD and during the East African postdoctoral research.
She subsequently went on to an appointment at Imperial College, where she researched how the history of the forest fragmentation process in human-modified landscapes contributes to present-day biodiversity patterns.
She said: “I was working with an interdisciplinary team, including an excellent mathematician. We were investigating what happens in landscapes to create the kind of biodiversity patterns we can observe today.
"At the same time, we compiled data in a global database, the BIOFRAG project. The data has already proved to be very valuable, leading to new understanding of the impacts of forest edges on vertebrates. An article was published in Nature in 2017.
"The hope is that more researchers now contribute to the database and make use of the data for their own research interests.”
Moving to Newcastle University
With this five-year project and her research nearing a conclusion, Marion was looking out for a more permanent post in academia.
Success in her application for a lectureship brought her to Newcastle, and to her current research. It focuses on two main topics: the resilience of ecosystems and human/wildlife conflicts.
The latter is quite a controversial subject, particularly in developing countries, as humans increasingly encroach on the territories of large mammals, by building houses, roads and other infrastructure.
She said: “There are a lot of arguments about how authorities should approach protected areas, whether they should be fenced or not."
“Fencing, for example, can interfere with the natural territories and habitat of the wildlife. The counter argument is that people have to live with these animals, which may pose a danger to life, ruin crops or create hazards on the roads and so on.
"It’s an interesting topic for our research group. One of our PhD students is currently researching lions and their relationships with humans and habitats in human-modified landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa, trying to establish under which environmental and socio-economic conditions may be an appropriate conservation and management tool or not.”
Mozambique-bound to measure crop quality
Marion is off to Mozambique soon, on a research trip to measure crop quality in relation to the quality of forest canopy.
It’s a topic that brings together the need for global food security and the ecology of the region.
It also provides her with an opportunity to enjoy a tropical climate, which she admits will be a change from the weather in Newcastle.