Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year: Angela Moles

Angela Moles is identifying global-scale patterns never noticed before, and overturning ingrained ecology dogma.

Angela Moles: Adding to understanding of how ecology changes between climatic zones – unsw

When University of New South Wales ecologist Angela Moles began her research career, she had no intention of easing in gently. Moles wanted to uncover global-scale patterns in ecology, and had an ambitious plan to do it. In just two years, she proposed to collect samples from 75 different study sites around the globe, from the arctic tundra to the Congo rainforest to the Australian desert, and many habitats in between.

The reviewers of her Australian Research Council grant proposal were unanimous: the project was a wonderful idea, and achieving it would be impossible. Nevertheless, the reviewers clearly saw something special in Moles. “They backed me!” she says, even giving her slightly more money than she had asked for.

The reviewers’ faith in Moles paid off. After collecting data on 450,000 different species around the world, Moles is identifying global-scale patterns never noticed before, and overturning ingrained ecology dogma.

It had always been assumed that tropical plants did the best job of protecting themselves from being eaten by producing a pharmacopeia of defensive chemicals. For that reason, pharmaceutical researchers did most bioprospecting in the tropics. In fact, Moles found that it was the plants of fragile polar ecosystems like those of Greenland and Alaska that had the best-stocked armamentarium for biological warfare. “It makes sense,” she says. They have such a short growing season, every leaf is precious and must be protected against the predations of a hungry musk ox. But in the tropics, lush year-round growth suggests plants could better afford to lose leaves, so they would carry a modest store of chemical armaments.

By understanding how ecology changes between climatic zones, her work should also provide a better understanding of how the natural world will respond to climate change.

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