Research

“A driver is any natural or human-induced factor that directly or indirectly causes a change in an ecosystem.” (MA 2005)

The Man’s influence on ecosystems is all-pervasive and complex and manifested through dozens of ways, altering structures and ecosystem functioning through its influence on the rates of synthesis of biological structures, chemical compositions, energy and material fluxes, population processes, species interactions and, thereby biodiversity.

The most of these ecosystem characteristics relies on general theories; theories make explicit quantitative predictions based on first principles; however current theories make possible to explain most of ecosystem changes due to natural drivers but almost always there is an unpredictable residual variation due to Man’s action. Such a residual variation can be measured as “departures from predictions”; the magnitude and direction of these deviations may provide clues to their causes.

Then, in the broadest sense, the unifying theme of research in my Lab is how natural drivers and the induced-by-Man’s-action residual variation affect ecosystem dynamics and changes, from species to population and community levels. Every form of human pressure on ecosystems, mostly aquatic, able to induce whichever deviation from natural common patterns calls our attention.

We are eager to investigate effects of both local (chemical [e.g., pollution], physical [e.g., thermal or boating noise]) and global (increasing temperature and CO2) disturbance, from benthic sessile to mobile pelagic organisms and from shallower intertidal to deeper subtidal habitats.

To do it, we exploit many tools like ecological behavioural traits, eco-physiological aspects or markers and features of organic matter’s flowing through ecosystems. Crucial in this, is to gain knowledge on how an ecosystem works under pressure of natural drivers to have major sharpness in comparing common natural patterns with those deviated under the Man’s action.

Lab people, from undergraduate students to post-docs, like to face similar issues with quantitative rigor and innovation. I push them into developing independent creative research, while I stress them to place their ideas into broader ecological contexts. Lab people are then call to write about their research and for me is an honour to have, in my Lab, guys eager to learn and to publish their own ideas since they are undergraduate.

Projects

  • 2018-2021 INTERREG Italia-Malta V-A 2016 [Principal Investigator], “The Italo-Maltese harmonization for a Good Environmental Status: sea-floor integrity and interactions with invasive species to preserve the marine ecosystem functioning (HARMONY)” – code C1-3.1-31 Priority Axis 3, Specific objective 3.1;
  • 2018 Università degli Studi di Palermo – Bandi CORI 2018 per l’Internazionalizzazione [Principal Investigator]. “INSHORE: Working Group on Impacts of Multiple Stressors on Marine Ecosystems”;
  • 2016 Università degli Studi di Palermo – Bandi CORI 2016 per l’Internazionalizzazione [Principal Investigator]. “Biodiversity and Ecosystem functioning”;
  • 2014-2017 Australian Research Council (ARC) [Co-Principal Investigator], Surviving in a hostile ocean: can marine organisms adapt and acclimatize to rapid climate change?;
  • 2013-2015 Programma Nazionale di Ricerca in Antartide (PEA 2013 PNRA) [Research Unit Leader], Bando 2013 Linea di Intervento C “TUNU Euro-Arctic Marine Fishes (TEAM-Fish): Impatto dei cambiamenti climatici su biodiversità, adattamento, bioaccumulo di contaminanti. Paragoni con l’Antartide”;
  • 2014-2015 Hong Kong Research Grants Council [Co-Principal Investigator] del Joint Project con School of Biological Sciences/The University of Hong Kong (Prof. Gray Williams). “Predicting the fate of marine bivalves in a warming world”;
  • 2012-2015 Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca (MIUR), Programmi di Ricerca Scientifica di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale (PRIN), [Research Unit Leader]. “Osservazione, analisi sperimentale e modellizzazione per la gestione di impatti multipli nei sistemi costieri (TETRIS)”;
  • 2012-2014 Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) per i Programmi di Ricerca in Antartide (PEA 2010 PNRA) [Research Unit Leader]. “Flussi di contaminanti organici persistenti tra comparti abiotici e biotici di ecosistemi polari”;
  • 2011-2012 Ministero dell’Ambiente [Principal Investigator]. Il sistema mesolitorale della riserva di “Capo Gallo ed Isola delle Femmine” (PA) (MEGIS);
  • 2009-2011 Climate Impact Research Coordination for a larger Europe (CIRCLE), European Commission (FP7 – Collaborative project) e Ministero dell’Ambiente, [Principal Investigator]. “The impact of climate change on Mediterranean intertidal communities: losses in coastal ecosystem integrity and services – INTER-MED”, ERA-NET Joint Research Project con University of Haifa (IL) e University of Dubrovnik (CR);
  • 2010 Assessorato Regionale delle Risorse Agricole e Alimentari della Regione Siciliana, [Principal Investigator]. “Campagne informative e di sensibilizzazione scolastica per una migliore conoscenza delle risorse del mare siciliano: lo studente va a pesca, n. II”;
  • 2008-2010 Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca (MIUR) – Progetti di Cooperazione Scientifica e Tecnologica recepiti negli accordi Italia-Cina (FIRB Internazionalizzazione e MOST CINA) [Principal Investigator]. “Coastal ecosystems – surviving at the edge: a multi-level assessment of the responses of sensitive marine areas to global warming and anthropogenic impacts”;
  • 2009 Università degli Studi di Palermo – Bandi CORI 2008 per l’Internazionalizzazione [Principal Investigator]. “Ecological Forecasting of Effects of Climate Change on Coastal Ecosystems”;
  • 2007-2009 Ministero dell’Ambiente [Principal Investigator]. Effetti del disturbo sonoro generato dal traffico nautico sulle comunita’ marine della riserva di “Capo Gallo ed Isola delle Femmine” (PA) (DINAUTIS);
  • 2007 Assessorato Regionale delle Risorse Agricole e Alimentari della Regione Siciliana, [Principal Investigator]. “Campagne informative e di sensibilizzazione scolastica per una migliore conoscenza delle risorse del mare siciliano”;
  • 2007 Università di Palermo, Fondo di Finanziamento Ordinario Progetto ex-60%, [Principal Investigator]. “L’impatto del climate change sulle comunità intertidali mediterranee”;
  • 2006-2007 POR-Sicilia 2000/2006 Misura 4.17b (Cod. 1999.IT.16.1.PO.011/4.17b/8.3.7/0053) [Principal Investigator]. “Ipotesi di un modello integrato di gestione della fascia costiera del Golfo di Castellammare attraverso l’uso di moderne tecniche di allevamento soft finalizzate alla riduzione degli impatti da maricoltura e all’integrazione e sviluppo economico del comparto della piccola pesca”;
  • 2004 BIOCE Project, Unione Europea e Università di Reykjavik (Iceland) [Research Unit Leader]. “Food web analysis and biomagnification in Sandgerdi shores (Iceland) using multiple stable isotopes”.

Methodology

Main Research Lines and Methodologies:

  • Effects of human disturbance on ecological responses (Methodologies: experiments in field and mesocosms);
  • Mechanistic modeling of marine organism functional traits in a context of Dynamic Energy Budget Theory;
  • Experimental design, advanced statistical elaboration and simulation (Tools: GMAV, MATLAB, METAWIN, ORIGIN, PRIMER, SIGMAPLOT, Statistica);
  • Meta-analysis approach in reviewing effects of natural and anthropogenic variability on ecological processes (Methodologies: quantitative reviewing meta-statistics);
  • Physiological performance of filter feeders both in field and mesocoms at varying physical [temperature; irradiance], chemical [salinity] and trophic factors [food availability] (Methodologies: clearance rate [Coulter Counter], respiration rate [Stratkelvin], excretion rate [colorimetric], heart beat rate [non-invasive cardio-plethysmographic technique]);
  • Behavioural changes of coastal fish under noise pollution both under field mesocoms conditions (Methodologies: quantitative behavioural analysis [image analysis], acoustical analysis [hydrophones; acoustical amplifiers; sound analysis]);
  • Structure and dynamics of coastal population, both fish and invertebrate (Methodologies: biometry, gravimetric methods, secondary production, otolith analysis, gonad analysis);
  • Food web analysis and organic matter fluxes (Methodologies: chlorophyll-a [colorimetric], total organic matter [gravimetric], lipids, carbohydrates and proteins [colorimetric], carbon and nitrogen stable isotope).
  • Food web modeling, environmental determinants of trophic structure, feeding habit, organic matter origin studies (Methodologies: Stable Isotope Analysis, SIBER, MixSIAR etc.);

Main Ecological System:

    • ROCKY INTERTIDAL (Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Chinese Seas);
    • SOFT BOTTOM SHALLOW WATERS (saltworks, ponds and lagoons; Mediterranean Sea);
    • POLLUTED vs PRISTINE SUBTIDAL SYSTEM (aquaculture [organic], chemical, thermal, noise; Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Chinese Seas).

Laboratory

Ecology Lab @UNIPA includes many technical and professional skills with about 20 people among bachelor, master, PhD students and post-docs.

Laboratory includes facilities to study organic matter fluxes through aquatic ecosystems (chemical-lab), biodiversity, community and population ecology (wet-lab), and behavioural response of organisms (video analysis-lab).

The Lab is provided with a selection of aquaria both with scientific and educational purposes.

A small pc-carrel room (9 desktops), a lecture hall (more than 350 books and reports) and meeting facilities are offered on the premises (including a Italian coffee machine!).

Ecology Lab conducts research in marine ecology through advanced equipment including:

  • Coulter Counter II to obtain clearance rates in filter feeders;
  • four FireStingO2 (4 channels), fiber-optical oxygen meters to measure respiration of aquatic organisms, including algae;
  • CHN analyser;
  • spectrophotometer (Shimadzu 1800) and spectrofluorimeter (Jasco);
  • all lab equipment to carry out chemical and trophic analyses in water, sediments and animal tissues (total organic matter; chlorophyll-a, nutrients, lipids, carbohydrates, proteins);
  • vacuum pumps and beker rack to filter water (47 and 25 mm of diameter);
  • hardware and software to analyse and interpret behavioural video-images;
  • 18 pc desktop computers;
  • two optical microscope;
  • six binoculars (both Leika and Zeiss);
  • underwater cameras to record behaviour of aquatic animals;
  • one drone to study topography and microclimate of coastal areas;
  • one thermo-camera FLIR B2 (shortly in the Lab);
  • four amplifier cards to measure heart beat rates in invertebrates connected to a portable oscilloscope (Fluke™ 125) plus two laptop computers equipped with Fluke View 3.0 software;
  • four laptop computers for field measurements;
  • two climatic room 3m x 3m (0-40°C) with lamps to simulate different degrees of irradiance and fan to maintain humidity;
  • aquaria (80, 60, 40 and 10 l) to maintain experimental organisms;
  • one intertidal aquarium (1m x 1m, h = 50 cm) to simulate tidal rhythms (in climatic room);
  • Scope for Growth system (16-beker rack; in the climatic room);
  • multiprobe instruments (YellowSprings SD6000 plus 60-m cable with fluorimeter) for acquisition of oceanographic data and all sample collection gear to sample water (4 Niskin bottles, Secchi desks etc.), sediments (corers etc.), fauna (plankton and fish nets) and flora (nets);
  • hydrophones to record sounds in aquatic environments;
  • one telescope for field observations;
  • one wheater field station;
  • sedimentary traps (box corers).