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Emma Carroll

2017: Dr Emma Carroll, University of Auckland, has been awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for research entitled: 'Family matters: developing close kin mark recapture methods to estimate key demographic parameters in natural populations'.

Biography

Dr Emma Carroll is a molecular ecologist and statistical modeller who combines micro-chemical markers, genomics, and life history data to investigate and monitor natural populations. After completing a PhD, and subsequently a postdoctoral fellowship, in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, Dr Carroll moved to the Scottish Oceans Institute, University of St Andrews, Scotland. As a Research Fellow, with first a  Newton International Research Fellowship and then a Marie Curie Research Fellowship, she investigates the influence of migratory culture on connectivity in the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis).

Dr Carroll was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland, and became an Editorial Board member of Scientific Reports in 2016. Having succeeded at bringing together cross-disciplinary and trans-university collaborations on the international stage, Dr Carroll intends to advance and facilitate integration of ideas from the fields of statistical and molecular ecology in the New Zealand research community. With this Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, Dr Carroll will return to New Zealand to continue her research at the University of Auckland.

Research summary

Climate change, direct hunting, and loss of suitable living areas (habitat loss), all contribute to an era of accelerating extinction rates. To mitigate this mounting loss of species, effective conservation management is paramount. This, in turn, requires a good understanding of key population parameters such as abundance, survival, and growth rates of affected species.

Traditionally, these parameters were estimated by following individuals throughout their lifespan, often requiring several decades to produce meaningful results. Recently, a new statistical technique, Close-Kin Mark-Recapture (CKMR), has been developed that provides key population parameters from a short-term sample. This method is based on the simple idea that every offspring has two parents. How often you capture the parents can tell you about the size of the adult population and how fast the population is growing.

Dr Carroll will combine the CKMR method with genetic biomarkers to identify parent-offspring pairs, and estimate age to determine who is the parent and who is the offspring. This information will then be used to estimate abundance, survival, and growth rates of the New Zealand southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), which is still recovering from over a century of whaling. Published estimates of these parameters, along with ample archived genetic material, makes this population of whales the perfect model to validate Dr Carroll’s new statistical framework. This work will also increase the information available for conservation management of this population. The framework will be refined to provide a generalised way to use CKMR in other hard-to-study species.

Once validated, Dr Carroll will apply her method to the under-studied South Georgia population of southern right whales in the sub-Antarctic South Atlantic. Her findings will provide valuable information on an endangered species and generate new methodologies that can be applied more broadly in the field of ecology.