My research focuses on the ecological and evolutionary consequences of mutualistic interactions between animals and plants, with specific focus on interactions between plants and their seed dispersers and pollinators. The main research lines go in six distinct directions, each one addressing different aspects of this main scientific project:
• Ecological and demographic consequences of plant dispersal by animals.
• Patterns of genetic variation, gene flow, and paternity relationships derived from pollination and seed dispersal by animals.
• Interaction networks in plant-animal mutualisms: diversity, patterns of mutual dependence, and the complex structure of interaction webs.
• Comparative methods for assessing evolutionary relationships among animals and plants interacting in mutualistic systems.
• Patterns of phenotypic selection on quantitative traits of fleshy fruits derived from the interaction with frugivores.
• Plant dispersal in complex landscapes: dispersal events, connectivity, and gene flow.
This approach combines several ways to analyze complex biological questions about the evolution of ecological systems. I am basically a field ecologist fascinated by natural history and evolution. Over the years my research lines have unfolded to cover a wide array of aspects, including botany, zoology, population genetics, statistics, and theoretical models. I use an interdisciplinary approach that bridges different fields (field ecology, genetics, modelling) to study complex biological systems. The main theme encapsulating all them is evolution and, specifically, the evolution of complex plant-animal interactions in high-diversity systems.
Starting in 2001 I launched the Integrative Ecology Group (IEG), together with Jordi Bascompte and José Antonio Godoy <http://ieg.ebd.csic.es/ieg_res.html>. We attempt to develop an integrative ecology, aiming at interdisciplinary problems that cover fields such as plant-animal interactions, demogenetics, complex networks of interaction, trophic webs, population genetics, spatially explicit models of gene flow mediated by animals, and the restoration of Mediterranean-type vegetation. Our main motivation stems on a basic interest on natural history coupled with the need to explore complex patterns with the aid of technological tools such as bioinformatics (statistical modelling, analytical and dynamic models), molecular genetics, and field techniques.
My main scientific achievements have been incorporating complex network analysis in the study of plant-animal interaction networks in pollination and seed dispersal, an approach I already took in my early doctoral research. This emphasizes the highly diversified and low-specificity character of these interactions and represents a pathbreaking approach to the study of coevolution in mega-diversity systems. In addition I have developed molecular tools to track and measure seed dispersal distances by frugivorous animals. The approach is based on using maternally-derived tissue attached to the seed to characterize the maternal (source tree) genotype with microsatellite markers. This has represented a major conceptual and methodological advance in the study of seed dispersal systems because we can now better understand long-distance dispersal events of pollen and seeds mediated by animal mutualists.
At present I am associated to the Integrative Ecology Group, a young research team in the Estación Biológica de Doñana, a research institute of the Spanish CSIC. In the group (just my lab) we are approximately 12 people, including 1 staff researcher, 3 post-docs, 5 pre-docs, and 3 technicians (field, lab, and informatics); the three labs at IEG include ca. 28 people. We receive many visits from scientists from abroad and enjoy a large program of international collaborations.
I participate in several university courses, within the PhD and graduate programs at Universidad Pablo de Olavide (where I'm the director of the Master Course “Biodiversidad y Biología de la Conservación") and Universidad de Sevilla, both in Sevilla city, teaching themes on evolution, coevolution, plant-animal interactions, conservation genetics, and statistical analysis with R package. In addition, I am a co-organizer of the field course “Curso Ibero-Americano de Frugivoria e Dispersão de Sementes” that takes place each year in Brazil, with the collaboration of UNESP (Rio Claro), USP (São Paulo), UNICAMP (Campinas) and CYTED (an international cooperation program of nine Ibero-American countries and UNESCO).
My main scientific collaborations are with scientists from Brazil, Denmark, USA, Germany and France; besides I collaborate quite closely with other Spanish research groups from Universidad de Granada, Universidad de Sevilla, and other CSIC institutes. We have two active networks of research groups with shared research interests and a solid cooperative action (GLOBIMED and REDBOME), focusing on Mediterranean forest ecology.
I chair the Spanish panel for the National Research Plan, program of Biodiversity, Ecology and Global Change, Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación. I am also chairing the Starting Grants panel at the European Research Council and I've been the representative person of the spanish MICINN for the european research network EraNet-BIODIVERSA and the EuroCores EuroDiversity initiative of the European Science Foundation. I am jury member for the BBVA Fundation, Frontiers of Knowledge Awards (2009, 2010).