Angela Moles: Rocking the ecological boat

Until recently, everyone thought that the biologically active candidates for new drugs would mainly be found in high-biodiversity tropical forests.

Angela Moles. Credit: UNSW/Peter Morris

“No,” says plant ecologist Angela Moles. “Up in the Arctic tundra are 100-year-old willow trees just a few centimetres tall. They grow just a few leaves each year and can’t afford to lose them. So, as you get closer to the poles, the chemical warfare intensifies.”

She studies thousands of species at once—by scouring the world’s computer databases and undertaking extensive field trips across jungles, deserts and tundra, assisted by a global army of collaborators— and hopes to help predict the impact of climate change, so that we cope better with its effects.

Angela has used data on 450,000 species from 40,000 different sites for the first serious analysis of how plant height varies with latitude, again with surprising results. Typically plant heights decrease with distance from the equator, but Angela found a sudden drop in height at the edges of the tropics, suggesting a complete change in growth strategy.

For her work in establishing Big Ecology—the study of ecology at a global level—Angela was awarded the 2013 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the year.

Photo: Angela Moles
Credit: UNSW/Peter Morris