New professor to discuss why soft (marine sediment) bottoms matter

9 June 2016

Professor Conrad Pilditch

Professor Conrad Pilditch will discuss the ecology of marine sediments at his Inaugural Professorial Lecture, 21 June.

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Mexico does it cause a hurricane in China?

Conrad Pilditch thinks it does. The biological sciences professor at the University of Waikato specialises in the processes that influence the structure and function of soft-sediment communities - in other words, a butterfly effect of how large changes can occur as a result of small actions.

His particular focus is in how hydrodynamics (liquid forces) and benthic organisms (organisms that live in and on the bottom of the ocean floor) interact to affect sediment transport, recruitment, nutrient fluxes and food supply.

At his inaugural professorial lecture on 21 June, Professor Pilditch will discuss his current research on soft sediments, and why we should care about them.

“Basically, if you value clean water, productive fisheries and collecting kaimoana, you should care about soft sediments,” he says.

Professor Pilditch’s research seeks to understand how the major stressors in coastal environments – nutrient and sediment inputs from land – are affecting the biodiversity of soft bottom ecosystems in estuarine and coastal habitats.

“The changes in nutrient and sediment inputs affect how organisms behave, their abundance and diversity, and have consequences for the ecosystem’s function,” says Professor Pilditch.

He says that what may seem like a small change to a soft bottom ecosystem, such as a slight increase in nutrient input affecting primary food supply, can have far-reaching implications.

“Look at the godwit bird, for example. They feed during our summer in the Firth of Thames, and migrate to Alaska to breed in the winter.

“As a wading bird, they feed in shallow water. If their food sources become scarce as a result of changes in the soft sediment habitat, they won’t have the energy to fly north to breed, and that will then have consequences to their breeding environment in Alaska.”

Professor Pilditch says his research also aims to answer the question of why biodiversity matters, how to preserve it, and what the exact limits of biodiversity change are.

“We have had a lot of land use change in New Zealand, so we need to understand the implications of increasing, multiple stressors on coastal and ocean environments, and the levels of change they’re bringing about in order to adapt our actions accordingly.”

Professor Pilditch has published more than 100 peer-reviewed research articles and more than 150 conference presentations. He maintains an active student research laboratory, is an independent expert advisor to several regional council-led working groups and government agencies, and is a regular reviewer for leading marine ecology research journals.

Professor Pilditch’s inaugural professorial lecture takes place on Tuesday 21 June, 5.15pm in the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts.