Research and teaching statement

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living”

Jules-Henri Poincaré

I am an Associate Professor at the Departments of Ichthyology and Hydrobiology, and at the Department of Botany, Biological Institute, of the Tomsk State University (Russia) since 2015.

Moreover, from 2017, I serve as the Head and Scientific coordinator of the International Master’s degree program in Biodiversity of the Tomsk State University in Russia.

In 2018-2019, I also worked as a Research Associate at the Forest Advanced Computing and Artificial Intelligence (FACAI) Lab, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, of the Purdue University (USA) and, in Summer 2019, I was a Visiting Professor of the Beijing Forestry University, in China, to teach a class in Biodiversity.

I earned a MSc in Evolutionary and Environmental Biology and a Ph.D. in Forest Ecology in Italy. 

I obtained a 2nd level Master’s Degree in Global Environmental Protection and International Policies. I attended the School in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, with an internship in Alpes de Haute-Provence, France.

My research interests are at the interface between Evolution, Ecology, and Ethology. I am specialized in Biodiversity (with applications in Conservation Biology), Eco-physiology of animals and plants (with applications in Climate Change Biology), and Theoretical/Experimental Ecology (with applications in Ethology and Evolution).

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Scientific background

My earliest research interest stemmed from my involvement in environmental NGOs activities. During my scientific high school and university P1100726years, I was the founder and the coordinator of WWF (10 years) and Greenpeace (3 years) local groups in the south of Italy and I aimed to provide scientific support to environmental protection and conservation actions.

To improve my scientific and field expertise, in 2007 I worked at WWF protected area “Le Cesine” in Lecce, Italy, studying the flora and fauna of wetlands and dunal ecosystems.

The same year, I also worked as a biologist at the “Center of recovery for sea turtles” of the CTS in Brancaleone (RC, Italy), monitoring turtle nests, and giving support on rehabilitation and reintroduction of injured sea turtles.

In 2008 I worked with Pokret Gorana NGO in Serbia for an international cooperation project to study and protect Lake Rusanda National Park’s biodiversity and environment.crosschcek

In 2009 I worked in Indonesia, at the recovery center “Cikananga Wildlife Center” on Java island, conducting ethological studies (especially on orangutans), collaborating to forensic and autopsy studies on rare Javan leopards found injured or killed and providing assistance in the rehabilitation of wild animals (orangutans, langurs, gibbons, moon bears, leopards, crocodiles, birds of prey, etc.).

Research focus

During my undergraduate internship (Bachelor’s degree) I worked one year at the Laboratory of Marine Ecology at the Department of Ecology, University of Bari (Italy), on the implementation of project MEDITS, to analyse marine resources and develop population models to better manage Mediterranean fishery and set temporary or long-term fishing bans.

For my Master’s degree, I worked at the Anthropology laboratory carrying out research on animal stereoscopic vision (primate visual system) and on the differences among visual systems (invertebrate-vertebrate, insects-birds-mammals) to define general stereoscopic patterns of vision. I simulated in the field and laboratory different visual systems and developed a three-dimensional convergence test using stereo-cameras and modelling software.

These studies suggested me the idea to develop a new three-dimensional biometric analyzer for marine wildlife monitoring. Moreover, I worked to test an innovative platform for micro and macro surgery based on this three-dimensional biometric analyzer at the hospital centre of the Policlinic of Bari, in Italy.

In the next years, during my II level Master’s Degree in Global Environmental Protection and International Policies, I spent six months in an internship at the Natural Resources, Land and Water Department (NRLD) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), in Rome, and then I was employed for three years as an Environmental scientist/consultant. At the FAO my research focused on forest ecology and carbon/biomass estimation, Essential Climate Variabilities analysis, Biodiversity Variables development, Land cover and remote sensing surveys related to climate change, GIS mapping, and Multilateral Environmental Agreements implementation.

Foto 1471In the same years, I joined – as a scientific member – the Commission of Ecosystem Management (CEM) and the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), leading the Climate Change Adaptation Working Group. In 2012, after collecting and studying global adaptation strategies, I co-authored the IUCN book Building resilience to climate change: Ecosystem-based adaptation and lessons from the field (Ecosystem Management Series No. 9).

After three years of field research in semi-arid Mediterranean ecosystems characterized by Festuco-Brometalia, Quercus ilex-Quercus pubescens and Thero-Brachypodietea associations, I published a book on the environments, flora and fauna of these biocenosis cataloguing about 1500 species, discovering a station of the regionally rare plant Dictamnus albus, describing a new species of orchid and two, new to science and still under classification, Coleoptera species.

As a Ph.D. student, in the next three years, I focused on forest ecology and particularly on African rainforest ecology and biodiversity. Supported by the ERC Project “GHG Africa”, I carried out field studies in several tropical countries (Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, India and Australia) collecting data on biomass and biodiversity (I surveyed more than 100 forest plots in national parks and surrounding areas). Tropical deforestation for timber extraction is well known to have serious negative consequences for biodiversity, terrestrial carbon sinks and the balance of atmospheric greenhouse gases. By contrast, selective logging of tropical forests is often regarded as having a lesser impact on the ecosystem particularly in the long term, even though there have been a few negative evaluations of the practice, particularly in Africa. My study aimed to understand what are the consequences of selective logging on P1100895biodiversity and carbon storage (ecosystem service) by comparing three different management regimes (untouched, clearcutting and selectively logged) from filed data of trees located in West and Central Africa.

Moreover, as a field research staff member, I was appointed by the University of Tuscia to validate Lidar data taken from aircrafts by collecting biometric data on the ground in 50 plots in Ghana (35 in Ankasa National Park and 15 in Bia National Park). These data were used to analyze the Lidar detection reliability on species and to develop the best statistical fit model for biomass estimations.

My further research during my Ph.D. studentship focused on understanding the role of African tropical rainforest on the GHG balance of the atmosphere and determining the carbon source/sink strength of African tropical rainforest in the pre-industrial versus the 20th century by temporal reconstruction of biomass growth.

For this purpose I collected, using drills and augers, 50 cores and 30 wood trees diametrical sections of tropical species for dendrochronological studies (in collaboration with the University of Caserta). I analysed samples collected in tropical forests of Africa (Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Gabon) to estimate the trees’ growth trends of the last century. These samples were measured with the optical dendrochronological methods to evaluate the growth trends of old trees born in the pre-industrial age (17th century) compared with younger trees born in the modern age (20th century).

Then, I resumed the data collected in three years field research in Africa in a public (open source) database of biomass and biodiversity of African trees with about 400 species and over 1500 individuals in 100 plots.

DSCN5294Furthermore, I carried on with the study of applications of stereoscopic vision and 3D experimentation: I made a three-dimensions experimental video documentary in Ankasa National Park forest in Ghana with a 3D camera to test a new biometric measurement protocol.

During my last year as a Ph.D. student and, after that, as a PostDoc, I worked as a lecturer at the Forest Ecology course of Tuscia University giving lectures on the ecology of tropical forests and following bachelor’s degree theses on the biomass and biodiversity of African forests as a co-supervisor.

In 2013, I was also appointed as an invited co-supervisor for a doctoral thesis of an Indian biologist at the University of Kolkata.

During my Ph.D. research, I also published a peer-reviewed paper on niches differentiation showing that the species themselves allow the enhancement of niches in terms of basal space. I found that using a multi-dimensional model as hypervolume and testing the theory on a Mediterranean study site, it is possible to demonstrate that each species plays a fundamental role in facilitating the colonization of other species by simply modifying the environment and exponentially increasing the available niches’ space and number. I resumed this hypothesis in the Biodiversity-related Niches Differentiation Theory (BNDT), stressing with this definitionDSCF6171 that the process of niches differentiation is strictly addressed by species. This approach has various consequences, first in consideration of relations among species, second in terms of predicting the number of species present in an ecosystem following the information theory and third in a better understanding of cooperation/competition dynamics.

In the next years, I analysed the global patterns of human development and environmental protection by comparing the Human Development Index and the Living Planet Index. My paper suggests that society follows common patterns of development from the indigenous’ lifestyle to a developed status through a developing phase. Following these steps, each society exploits its natural resources during the economic development towards its “civilization”. I suggested that if no actions are taken to skip the “intermediate” stage of overexploitation of natural resources during the economic growing phase for the “developing countries”, the Earth system will not be able to keep alive the global biodiversity and to provide services to sustain human life in an immediate future.

The following years, my research focused on evolutionary patterns of biodiversity and I published a review paper which argued that the understanding of the mechanisms that allow the origin of species has shed light on many processes such as speciation, adaptation, and extinction, but explaining the existence of such a huge diversity of species on Earth still remains a mystery. Many theories and evidence have corroborated the processes that allow species to evolve or become extinct. Currently, there are different hypotheses but no clear demonstrations of the factors that maintain the species diversity of ecosystems. Those based on competitive principles have been criticized on Foto 004both theoretical and empirical approaches. I suggested that only by studying biodiversity in the context of evolution, natural history and ecology (taking into consideration the avoidance of competition and dispersal abilities, the phenotypic plasticity, the heterogeneous landscape, the facilitation and the endogenosymbiosis) we can understand values and gaps of past theories trying to provide a broader understanding of life on Earth towards a Unified Theory of Biodiversity. In this work, I provided a graphical model on mechanisms which address the evolution of biodiversity.

Moreover, in collaboration with Italian researchers at Oxford University and at different Italian universities, I coordinated a policy research stressing the importance of an “economological” (which merges economy and ecology) approach to the energy policies of Italy.

Subsequently, I have addressed my research on the global distribution of biodiversity. For a long time, ecologists have bIMG_2497een questioning the variations of biodiversity across the latitudinal gradient. It has emerged that the changes in β-diversity are caused simply by changes in the sizes of species pools. I combined the species pool size and the fractal nature of ecosystems to clarify some general patterns of this gradient. Considering temperature, humidity, and NPP as the main variables of an ecosystem niche and as the axis of the polygon in the Cartesian space, it is possible to build fractal hypervolumes, whose fractal dimension rises up to three moving towards the equator. In a research paper, I showed that the best figure that graphically synthesizes the evolutionary forces that fit this ecosystem hypervolume is the fractal cauliflower.

After my Ph.D. thesis discussion, I worked for 2 years as PostDoc Researcher at the Impacts on Agriculture, Forest, and Natural Ecosystems (IAFENT) Division of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) and my research moved towards a more theoretical approach. In collaboration with some colleagues from CMCC, I proposed the “canopy height-biodiversity relationship hypothesis” which was tested by comparing data derived from the new NASA Global Canopy Map and the Global Map of Vascular Plant Diversity.

Then, I explored topics such as animal behaviour (publishing a paper on animal self-awareness and testing a new sniff-test of self recognition on dogs), evolution and autocatalysis of biodiversity (publishing theoretical papers on autocatalytic networks and niche emergence in collaboration with some world’s leading experts in theoretical biology), biodiversity analyses (studying plant and animal diversity in terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems), environmental physiology (analysing the effects of climate change on the biology of some target animal and plant species and on worldwide ecosystems) and astrobiology (developing a research paper on Gaia’s evolution and reproduction).

Currently, I am carrying out research studies on the measurement and modelling of biodiversity, the impacts of climate change on species’ eco-physiology (in tundra, taiga, mangrove and tropical forests, in bogs and swamps, and in mountain and freshwater ecosystems), the global patterns of biodiversity distribution (in space and time), the long-term trends of bird populations in Russia and North America, the impact of tropical products (palm oil, coffee, tea, cocoa, timber, etc.) on forest biodiversity, the biology of some rare Mediterranean fish species, the self-awareness of wolves, and the eco-physiology, behaviour and diversity of terrestrial Isopoda.

Future Plans

My studies and research experiences have given me insight into global and regional environmental protection, conservation biology, biodiversity analyses, field, and theoretical ecology, zoology and ethology, botany, climate change biology, environmental education, UN-agencies and NGOs policies, and natural resources management.Foto 778

In the last years, I have been studying biodiversity and theoretical/experimental ecology in depth and I published academic books on biodiversity, in theory and in practice, with an evolutionary approach.

My plans for the future involve building strength in each of the focal areas of my research interest, as outlined above, and particularly in biodiversity, ecology, evolutionary and conservation biology, eco-physiology, and ethology. Specifically, I plan to adapt my future research years developing some of the following fields of study depending on the availability of positions and funds:

  • Ecology and Evolution: theoretical, empirical and global ecology; tropical and temperate ecosystems ecology with a particular focus on global patterns and anthropogenic impacts; population ecology and plant-animal coevolution; evolution of symbiosis (and, in particular, of mutualism); parasite-host interactions in tropical diseases; eco-physiological adaptations of animals and plants; climate change biology and impacts on terrestrial and marine ecosystems; astrobiology and planetary ecology;.
  • Ethology: the evolution of cooperative behaviour; self-awareness of Canidae (wolves, foxes and dogs); self-cognition of vertebrates and invertebrates; prey-predators interactions in vertebrates and invertebrates; invertebrates and plants senses and behaviour.
  • Biodiversity: global patterns of biodiversity; biodiversity trends under anthropogenic stresses; species coexistence.

In addition, as these research activities develop over the next years, I plan to focus on publishing academic books and papers, building international research groups and teaching (undergraduate and graduate courses in Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Eco-Physiology, Conservation Biology, and Environmental Statistics) at my affiliated universities.