Since November 2020, the Israeli-Slovakian biologist Dr Omer Nevo has been heading the new iDiv junior research group “Evolutionary Ecology”. Nevo has recently worked at the Institute for Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Genomics at the University of Ulm. He wrote his PhD thesis at the German Primate Centre of the University of Göttingen. The thesis, titled “Chemical ecology of primate seed dispersal”, was awarded magna cum laude. Nevo and his team will be funded for six years with 1.3 million euros from the Emmy Noether Programme of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The programme gives exceptionally qualified early career researchers the chance to qualify for the post of professor at a university by leading an independent junior research group.
What aspects will you focus on in your research at iDiv?
Fruits have evolved to be attractive to animals who feed on them and disperse their seeds. My research tries to understand how fruit and animals traits have evolved in this context, and I am particularly interested in chemical communication - the evolution of fruit scent and animal sense of smell. My research in the next years will focus on exploring this in a unique setting - figs from Madagascar that rely on seed dispersal by the local endemic primates, the lemurs. In addition to a lot of on-the-ground ecological work, the project will combine chemical and genetic approaches to try to understand how fig scent has evolved to signal to lemurs, as well as behavioral experiments with lemurs to understand how their sense of smell may have evolved in response.
What makes your research relevant for science and/or society?
Seed dispersal and the ecological process behind is the glue that holds many tropical systems together, since a collapse in reliable animal-plant interactions would stop forest regeneration and in the long run, drive a substantial decline in tropical biodiversity.
Moreover, I employ my expertise to promote conservation projects. One project in particular tries to use chemical ecology to create novel conservation tools of elephants. Crop raiding by elephants is a huge problem all across their home ranges, and can lead to economic devastation of subsistence communities, and thus to conflict that often ends with elephants being killed. In this project, my colleagues and I try to identify chemicals that function as safe and cost-effective repellents for elephants to mitigate human-elephant conflict.
Why did you choose to come to iDiv?
iDiv has established itself as one of the most exciting global research institutes, as it hosts a unique concentration of scientists and workgroups doing cutting-edge ecology. This is in stark opposition to most universities, where you’re lucky if you find another two or three other workgroups that might share some interests, model organisms, or methods. Thus, establishing my group in iDiv would give my students and me a unique opportunity to integrate our research into an environment rich in expertise in various subfields of ecology, which I believe would strongly benefit our research, but would also allow us to enhance the research of other iDiv members.