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Source: University of Canterbury

21 January 2021

Two University of Canterbury (UC) mathematicians have been granted $710,000 from Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, the Marsden Fund, to investigate mathematical models for extinction events in the tree of life. Using a mathematical and algorithmic framework, Distinguished Professor Mike Steel and Professor Charles Semple hope to address some fundamental questions in biodiversity theory and conservation.

‘Trees of life’ are used to model the evolutionary history of species and their ancestral relationships. Every time a species goes extinct, a branch is effectively lost from the tree. Mass extinction events have dramatically reshaped life on earth five times over the last 500 million years, wiping out unique traits and bringing widespread loss of genetic diversity.

Working with an international team based in Canada and Switzerland, UC’s Professor Steel and Professor Semple plan to use mathematics as a tool to investigate how evolutionary trees are generated, as well as processes of extinction.

“Unfortunately, human impacts on the natural world are precipitating a sixth mass extinction,” says Professor Steel. “We intend to develop and apply new mathematical techniques and models to investigate the precise relationships between the different measures of biodiversity that are based on evolutionary trees and explore the extent to which extinction of species is linked to the loss of feature diversity.”

Additionally, the research team aims to develop and apply more complex models of multiple species loss based on ‘extinction cascades’, investigating their impact on feature diversity loss.

This is one of five ground-breaking UC research projects to have received Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Funding in 2020. The funding recognises research excellence at UC including some of the fertile collaborations underway with international research partners.