PhD Estación Biológica de Doñana

Research, science, ecology, animal, plants, conservation, tips…

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Alejandro Trillo

Alejandro Trillo

I am Alejandro Trillo and I am doing my PhD since February 2014, under Monserrat Vilà supervision at the Integrative Ecology Department. My main aim is study ecological effects of bumblebee spillover from strawberry crops to surrounding habitats.

Habitat loss, fragmentation and isolation reduce diversity of particular species and their function, as it is the case for pollinators. Pollinators are essential for the ecosystem services they provide to sustain wild plant populations, and also fruit and seed production for human consumption. Huelva province is amongst the major producer of strawberry worldwide. To improve their yield, growers place commercial hives of bumblebees. In this thesis, we want to disentangle ecological consequences about this bumblebee spillover. So, we will assess bumblebee abundance in the surrounding habitat related to greenhouse cover, we will answer questions about pathogen prevalence in a landscape context. We will explore population genetics. We will research if spillover affects entomophilous plant fitness. And finally, we will assess if managed pollinators could affect abundance of native species in the crops.

PhD Severo-Ochoa


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Vanessa Céspedes Castejón

Foto-Vanessa Céspedes Castejón_EBD_PhDBlog

I am currently at the beginning of my PhD project on the “Ecology of the invasive species Trichocorixa verticalis and their effects on the ecosystem” with a Severo Ochoa grant with Andy J. Green and Marta I. Sánchez who are my supervisors. We aim to increase understanding of the variety of traits observed in aquatic Hemiptera and other insects, as well as their ecophysiology and interactions with the environment, predator-prey interactions, (including those with other Hemiptera, Cladocera and Artemia), besides host-parasite interaction. In addition, we are studying the biogeography and dispersal of Hemiptera, especially the movement of flying adults between wetlands and their movement within wetlands, in particular the distribution patterns of the invasive species Trichocorixa verticalis and the ecological mechanisms that govern its establishment and spread in recipient habitats or regions. The invasion and impact can be expected to depend on a combination of species traits, characteristics of the receptive ecosystem and invasion event factors such as time since invasion and the frequency of introduction. We will apply techniques within a multidisciplinary context, from molecular genetics and from population modeling to isotopic analyses, using theoretical, experimental and observational approaches. Ultimately, our aim is to build the scientific basis needed for the conservation of biological diversity, particular with respect to the impacts of the invasion by T. verticalis in Doñana Ecological Station and ultimately across Europe and the Mediterranean region.


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Erica Pacífico


My PhD in the Conservation Biology Department is under supervisor of Dr. José L. Tella. We started working together in March 2014 in an investigation of the deterministic and stochastic effects that may be acting upon the dynamics of the remaining population of the endangered Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), an endemic species from the Caatinga (Brazilian tropical dry forest), using a multidisciplinary approach with molecular tools, ecological modeling, stable isotope analysis and indices of breeding success.
The Lear’s Macaw nesting and roosting sites are sandstone cliffs walls in the Raso da Catarina Ecoregion, in the Bahia state of Brazil and the Licuri Palm fruit, Syagrus coronata, is their main food item in part of the year. The entire population of 1263 birds (estimated in 2012), of which only 20% are breeders, is concentrated in two localities, and it may be the outcome of a recent demographic increase from the two hundred birds estimated before the 2000s. If the population does not expand geographically, the continuous increase could result in the saturation of environmental resources and generate negative density dependent effects. In this context, to better understand the population dynamics, the following questions need to be answered: Do breeding site and food availability constrain the breeding success and the distribution of the Lear’s Macaw population? Is the genetic diversity of the current population constrained as a result of a genetic bottleneck? Is there sexual bias in the current population? Can the viability of the population be affect by any of these processes?



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The evolution towards a post-doctoral research

The first snows of the 2014 also brought the first roundtable of the year. This month Ivan Gomez-Mestre has spoken with the PhD students about his scientific interests and his scientific career.

Ivan started the meeting introducing the field he is dedicated to: evolutionary biology. He explained the most important arguments to understand the great biodiversity that we find both at a micro- and macro-evolutionary scale. He started with a retrospective look, comparing elements of the classical evolutionary theory with the new knowledge that incorporates the extended synthesis, such as environmental induction of gene expression through epigenetic regulation.

Moreover, he presented many examples showing the evolution of phenotypic plasticity as a possible mechanism to understand the great diversity observed in nature, arguing that it cannot be solely explained via gradual accumulation of mutations in protein coding genes. It is not only the genes we have, but also the way they are regulated, that determine the phenotype. The most extreme phenotypes are normally expressed by the most plastic genotypes. The plasticity evolution via genetic accommodation can ultimately lead to new species.

Furthermore, Ivan passed some advice regarding the postdoctoral period. He suggested to find a highly motivated advisor, possibly in his/her tenure track. It is a time to be productive while trying to maintain a coherent and personal line of research. He also spoke about how he formed their current research group after obtaining the Ramón y Cajal contract and how important it was. He thinks that a scientific career is a long-term quest that has to be enjoyed as much as possible along the way.

So, Ivan’s tips for after the thesis were:

–       Enroll in a dynamic group whose advisor is productive and enjoyable.

–       Investigate what you enjoy and that you feel you have more questions to answer.

–       Never stop improving English.

–       DO NOT GIVE UP!! The Spanish science situation will get better!!


Link to the group’s website:

By: Pablo Burraco and Rosa Arribas

la foto-4


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Macroecology at ETH-Zurich

For a couple of months I’ll be in Zurich visiting Levine’s Lab. I came to work with one the post-docs of the group, Jeff Diez, who I met in my first year PhD at University of Michigan. We are currently working on identifying niche shifts of non-native species between the native and the invaded range. You can have a look at a similar study recently published in Science where they found that plant niches are rather conservative between both ranges.  We’re going to build upon their methods using Oxalis pes-caprae  (soursop EN, vinagreta ES, suring AF) as our model species. As it is a ruderal species in both native and invaded range we expect not only to analyze climate shifts but also disturbance and habitat type. So far the analyses are looking great and we already found some niche changes. They aren’t amazingly huge but reflect a trend towards more disturbed sites in the invaded range than in the native one.

Besides my work, I am learning a lot about the projects currently running on the lab. ETH experiment at CalandaThey have very interesting projects about spread of invasive species, competition… Specially they have one on the Calanda mountain near Chur, where using transplanting experiments they try to understand the relative importance of biotic interactions and climate for shaping species’ responses to climate change. I was impressed by the amount of work and resources this project have. Even they had an helicopter to help with the transplanting and during the growing season they are every week up there measuring survival, growth and many more things. I am trying to implement a similar experiment on Sierra Nevada, of course without such amount of resources. Everything will depend on how good I am doing with my PhD, the support of the Ecology Lab from Granada and the required permits. Anyway it seems a really good approach to test how well invaders will perform in future climates. You can have a look at the whole set up of the experiment in this video.

Lake of ZurichAnd of course, everything isn’t research while abroad. Zurich is a lively city full of activities, a great lake to hang around and enjoy, gorgeous mountains to hike nearby and really nice people. Of course, prices are really high here. For example I got a very cheap room for Zurich standards in a shared apartment for only 400€ a month! Considering that it isn’t in downtown it’s more than double what we’re paying back home in Sevilla. Anyway there are always cheap ways to enjoy the city such as making barbecues close to the lake or the open air festivals that every weekend some neighborhoods are organizing. Definitely, Zurich is a fancy and expensive city where you never can get bored but at the same time the mountains around and the impressive amount of green areas make you feel in a very comfortable place to enjoy why not, a very well paid post-doc!

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PhD seminars – A little bit of “human” science

Due to the closeness of the summer, the round table scheduled for July has been brought forward to this week. This time our invited researcher was Curro Braza, from the department of Ethology and Biodiversity Conservation at the EBD.

Curro has focused his carrier on the behavior of mammals in their natural environment. He started his carrier working with ungulates, he then moved to primates and for the last twenty years he has been working with humans. Being humans his study species, apparently, makes him a kind of rara avis at the EBD. Therefore, we wanted him to tell us about his research and the similarities and dissimilarities that the methodology he employs with humans has with the one that we employ with our study species and systems.

Ending up working with humans was for Curro the natural outcome of a carrier focused every time in more intelligent and alimentary efficient species. However, it also implied a qualitative change in the literature he reads, that now embraces areas of Psychology, Physiology, Neurophysiology and Anthropology.

The main objective of his research is to detect social behaviors in children of four-five (sometimes up to 11) years old that could be early signals of certain future risk behaviors (aggression, depression, anxiety) or syndromes (e.g.  autism). The underlying idea is that behaviors that are observed in children irrespectively of their origin, culture, education, etc. might have an adaptative meaning andthere might be mechanisms to minimize their deleterious effects. In that sense, he is currently involved in a study about bulling in schools, a worldwide extended behavior that shows and increasing trend.

To illustrate the similarities and dissimilarities in the methodology he employs, Curro presented us one of his latest papers: “Girls’ and boys’ choices of peer behavioral characteristics at age five” (this and his other publications are listed in As Curro told us, his work is not that different from ours and we could make some analogies with the Material and Methods section of our studies:

Study species = children of four-five years

Study site = schools’ playgrounds

Selection of study sites = meetings with directors, teachers and parents

Sampling data = films of children interacting, surveys and saliva samplings (for hormone tests)

Response variables = frequency of certain play and behavioral patterns

Independent variables = sex, social status, parental group, levels of certain hormones, etc.


Of course, during the round table many curiosities and questions about the results and conclusions of Curro’s investigations arose, but that would need another post…


by Ana Montero 

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PhD seminars – Tips for scientific writing

This month we hosted a round table discussion led by Carlos Herrera, who chatted with us about how to write scientific papers. We all have the task to communicate our results and the truth is that, even if theory of writing seems easy, the first time we face it, it is not.

Carlos told us that the first thing we need before start writing is a story. It could be something new that we discovered, something that no one did before or something that changes a view or a paradigm. You may describe it, broadcast it and it must be verifiable.

Everything started four centuries ago, in 1665, with the publication “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society“. For instance, Leeuwenhoek or Darwin used to publish there. And the aim has always been the same, communicate your story. What has changed is how, where, the style, the trend, etc. all of these things are secondary but also important.


When we have our story, the first thing before starting to write is having a clear idea of what are we going to say. If you don’t, a good advice is to read, read a lot of everything! Even of those papers that are opposite to yours because they will set your brain on fire. It’s common to have good ideas while reading or when we’re doing research, never waste this enlightenment! Write it down wherever you want, a notebook, on the edge of a sheet,… but if you don’t you’ll lose it and never will come back!

A good headache is the introduction – How to give the exact importance to our work? We don’t want to be pretentious and neither underestimate it. However, when starting to write this is difficult to know, so a good thing to take into account is to choose our publication thinking of our public and then decide how to write or ask for advice to our supervisors. Publishing in journals you read will be a sure shot too, as you may like the contents in them.

Another problem is to decide which ideas should be included in the introduction and discussion sections. Carlos advised us that if you hesitate, it must go on the discussion. What’s more, it is useful to do so, because later you can connect introduction and discussion by these points. Remember, in a common paper, an introduction should never have more than three pages. So all that excess could go in the discussion! If you don’t know how to start the discussion, mention those points from the introduction.

Finally, Carlos commented some common errors in PhD students. We usually fail to put things in a logical order (I must admit I did it today) and we don’t connect a chain of structured ideas. We also tend to concentrate only in one hypothesis but we have to strive to be the devil’s advocate! All the alternatives hypothesis we are able to think about might be recorded in the discussion, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!