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New discipline developed by Hebrew University researcher leads to 1st international study group

Movement ecology is on the move, with the world’s first international research group on this topic having begun its work this fall at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Advanced Studies

Movement ecology is a developing academic pursuit, combining expertise in a variety of fields, including biology, ecology, botany, environmental science, physics, mathematics, virology and others.

It has been largely developed by a Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher, Prof. Ran Nathan, who heads the Movement Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the university’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences.. It involves the study of how plant and animal matter travels from one place to another, sometimes for great distances and in highly surprising ways.

The research group now at work at the Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies was convened at the initiative and under the leadership of Prof. Nathan and includes participants from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Davis, Princeton University, Stony Brook University and Rutgers University, all from the U.S.; the Spanish Research Council; and from the Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

Prof. Nathan emphasizes that organism movement research is central to the understanding of how ecological systems work and has important implications for human life. A comprehensive understanding of movement as a process will help to conserve biodiversity, adapt to changes produced by global warming, and cope with environmental threats such as infectious diseases, invasive alien species, agricultural pests and the spread of allergens.

The field of movement ecology and Prof. Nathan were given a large boost of recognition in a recent special issue of Science magazine on migration and dispersal. The issue included an article by Prof. Ran Nathan on his specialty of long-distance dispersal of plants.

In addition, the same issue contained a news article which largely focused on the work of Nathan and his students, as well as others in the U.S., Britain and Australia, focusing on dispersal of both plants and animals.

The article noted that researchers have sought, for centuries, “to understand when, why and how various species crawl, swim, fly, float or hoof it to new locales. That work has led to maps of migration routes and details about dispersals.”

“But,” the article quoted Prof. Nathan as saying, “few biologists have tried to fit those data into a big picture of movement in general.” Now, said the article, through the new discipline called movement ecology, Nathan and others “are beginning to derive testable hypotheses about the mobile behaviors of animals, microbes and even the seeds of plants. Their goal is to join empirical work to theories and to build models that fill in gaps in our understanding of movement -- be it over millimeters or continents or by groups of individuals – in the natural world.”

Last year, Nathan was chosen as the winner of the Hebrew University President’s Prize for the Outstanding Young Researcher for his pioneering work on seed dispersal. In May this year he was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Bessel Research Award from the Humboldt Foundation of Germany.

Jerry Barach | alfa
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