UCL Division of Biosciences

Dr David Murrell

Dr David Murrell

Associate Professor

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Nov 2008

Research summary

Research group activity concentrates on understanding the key biological processes that maintain biodiversity. In other words, what acts as the glue to hold ecosystems together? We are also interested in the factors that determine species abundance in space and time. There is a particular emphasis on diverse plant communities such as tropical forests, but we also study (lichenised) fungi, bacteria, protist and vertebrate communities. Key question answered include:

 1.    What are the key drivers for the origin and maintenance of biodiversity at the taxonomic scale? We know biodiversity is unevenly distributed at all spatial, temporal and taxonomic scales, but what are the processes behind these heterogeneities? Answering these questions are important for management of declining ecological communities, and for ecological remediation and restoration. Much research group activity has focussed on plant competition because all plants require the same few nutrients, but we have also focussed on other types of ecology such predator-prey interactions, and we consider both the ecological maintenance of biodiversity and its origin through evolution. With an estimated 50+  million species on our planet, including perhaps 16,000 tree species in the Amazon Basin, this is a topic with many unanswered questions.

 2.    Population and community dynamics of threatened species and groups. We know there are many species currently at risk of extinction, and we have limited resources to monitor them and prevent their extinction. Recent/current examples include (i) understanding the importance of supplementary feeding and how feeding needs change over a season using the example of the (very) charismatic, and (very) rare Mauritius olive white eye; (ii) developing methods to understand and predict how much sampling is required to infer an accurate picture of ecological trends (ie changes population abundances) for large taxonomic groups (eg terrestrial vertebrates).

 3.    What are the effects of human disturbance on ecological communities? The human species is highly invasive and an excellent ecosystem engineer, but how is it affecting the other 50million+ species on planet earth, and more importantly how it is affecting the key ecosystem services on which it depends? We address these questions largely using field data on species presence/absence and abundance as well as taking into consideration functional diversity (ie what the species 'do') and phylogenetic diversity (evolutionary uniqueness). Recent and current examples include (i) developing theory on how multiple ecosystem stressors are expected to interact in freshwater systems; (ii) investigating the role of disturbance on cichlid communities in Lake Tanganyika; (iii) are taxonomic groups such as lichen good indicators of environmental pollution (run in part via UCL undergraduate projects).

Applications to join the research team: We are always keen to hear from individuals who are interesting in helping us answer these questions (and more besides). Those interested should have excellent skills in at least one of the following: field skills and data collection; mathematical modelling; statistical modelling; computer programming. But most of all they should have an open and inquisitive mind.

Teaching summary

I have the following teaching responsibilities:

  • Coordinator of the Biosciences undergraduate course BIOL0014, Fundamentals in Ecology. (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lifesciences-faculty-php/course/viewcourse.php?coursecode=BIOL0014)

  • Chair of the Plant and Animal Teaching Focus Group
  • Undergraduate tutor for the Biodiversity and Conservation degree stream (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/undergraduate/degrees/biological-sciences-bsc/)


I am a theoretical biologist who is interested in many questions regarding the ecology and evolution of the natural world, and my work often sits at the interfaces of ecology, evolution, and mathematics. I spent my undergraduate getting very excited by evolutionary theory, before learning how to computer programme and solve equations in a masters course at York. I then spent the three years of my PhD investigating the evolution of animal and plant dispersal, and generating a new framework for understanding how the non-random spatial structure of organisms alters population dynamics. A postdoctoral position at Imperial College London allowed me to further develop this framework, and I was lucky enough to be awarded a prestigious NERC Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2006, before moving to UCL in 2008 and extending my interests into new areas. In 2009 I set up the British Ecological Society Specialist Interest Group in Quantitative Ecology and this continues to thrive within the society.

1992-1995 BSc Biology, University of Wales, Bangor.
1995-1996 MSc Biological Computation, University of York.
1997 Teaching Assistant, University of York.
1998-2001 DPhil Theoretical Ecology, University of York.
2001-2006 Postdoctoral Research Associate, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London.
2006-2009 NERC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Sheffield.
2008-2014 Lecturer in Ecology, University College London.2014- Associate professor in Ecology, University College London