Harper Prize

The John L Harper Early Career Researcher Award is given each year to the best paper in the journal by an early career author at the start of their career. In the absence of extenuating circumstances, ‘early career’ is defined as less than 5 years post- Ph.D. or -D.Phil. experience according to the date of your graduation certificate. The winner of the award will receive £250, membership of the BES, a year’s subscription to Journal of Ecology, and a contribution to the costs incurred in attending the BES Annual Meeting in the UK if they wish to give a presentation on their work. The winner is selected by the Editors of Journal of Ecology at the end of each year and an announcement is made early in the New Year following.

If the first author of a paper considers that they are eligible for this award they are invited to nominate themselves during the submission process of Manuscript Central. Those nominated are in the early stages of their research career.



Winner of the Harper Prize 2015

Yuuya Tachiki


A spatially explicit model for flowering time in bamboos: long rhizomes drive the evolution of delayed flowering 
Yuuya Tachiki, Akifumi Makita, Yoshihisa Suyama and Akiko Satake (Journal of Ecology, 103:3, pp 585–593)

Yuuya’s paper has been selected for this year’s Harper prize as an excellent example of a mathematical modeling approach to explore a perplexing phenomenon, namely that the vegetative growth period (flowering interval) in bamboos shows a geographic cline from tropical (short-interval) to temperate (long-interval) regions. With his colleagues, Yuuya examined the evolutionary stable flowering interval using a spatially explicit mathematical model to investigate how rhizome length, seed and pollen dispersal and inbreeding influence the evolution of the flowering interval. They found that rhizome length increased flowering interval, seed dispersal range decreased it, but less so at large range sizes, and inbreeding depression led to a longer flowering interval within aggregated genets. Their explanation for these findings proposed a balance between intragenet competition and kin competition among seeds. The Editors were impressed with the rigour of the study and the value of the findings that provide novel evolutionary insights into the reproductive strategy of clonal plants.

Yuuya Tachiki became interested in diverse reproductive behaviors in terrestrial plants whilst at graduate school. He studied mathematical models of the evolution of synchronized and highly variable reproduction (i.e. masting) at Kyushu University under the supervision of Prof. Yoh Iwasa. After completing his PhD, Yuuya became a post-doctoral fellow with Dr. Akiko Satake at Hokkaido University. He explored the role of plant-pathogen feedback to maintain the biodiversity and resist from the invasion of alien plant. He also studied the evolution of monocarpic clonal plants (e.g., bamboo), which resulted in his receipt of the Harper Prize 2015. Currently Yuuya is based Kyushu University as a post-doctoral research fellow and is continuing these projects.

Read the Virtual Issue bringing together the winning and highly commended papers from all the BES journals  in 2015.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2014

Michiel Veldhuis
The Editors are pleased to award the 2014 Harper Prize to Michiel Veldhuis for his paper A novel mechanism for grazing lawn formation: large herbivore-induced modification of the plant–soil water balance published with colleagues Ruth A. Howison, Rienk W. Fokkema, Elske Tielens, and Han Olff (Journal of Ecology, volume 102, issue 6, pp. 1506–1517).

Veldhuis’ study investigated the role of large herbivores (e.g. warthog, impala, plains zebra) in creating spatial heterogeneity through the creation of grazing lawns in tropical savanna. Grazing lawns are spatially distinct, intensively grazed areas of stoloniferous grasses often presented as an example of co-evolution between grazers and grazing tolerant grasses.  Previous work has proposed that grazing lawns were initiated and maintained in these grasslands through a positive feedback between large grazing herbivores and nutrient-rich lawn grasses. By contrast, Veldhuis and colleagues propose that defoliation and soil compaction may initiate grazing lawns through a change in plant-soil water balance favouring drought-tolerant lawn species. Through careful investigation and measurement they found that grazing lawn soil properties and water balance, and possession of drought-tolerant traits in grazing lawn species (e.g. Digitaria longiflora, Urochloa mosambicensis, Dactyloctenium australe and Sporobolus nitens) were consistent with their hypothesis. Their proposed mechanism of grazing lawn formation is general enough for worldwide applicability, especially for grasslands during dry seasons.

Michiel P. Veldhuis completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in ecology and evolution at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. During his Master’s he worked on two different research projects. The first explored the role of seed dispersing rodents (agoutis) in the creation/maintenance of tropical forest tree diversity. This involved tracking dispersing seeds at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, under the supervision of Dr. Patrick Jansen and Dr. Roland Kays. The second project took Michiel to the South African savannas of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which resulted in his receipt of the 2014 Harper Prize. As part of this project he studied herbivore effects on vegetation through changes in soil moisture.

In 2012 he started his PhD at the University of Groningen under the supervision of Prof. Han Olff and Prof. Matty Berg. Michiel is working on the importance of ecological autocatalysis for savanna ecosystem structure. Michiel’s main interests are understanding what factors drive the organization and functioning of ecosystems, focusing on the interplay between abiotic gradients and biotic feedback mechanisms to understand how they’ve shaped ecosystems to what we observe today.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2013

Dr. Nitin Sekar

Publ_JEC_YIP2013 Nitin SekarThe Editors have awarded the 2013 Harper Prize to Dr Nitin Sekar for his paper Waiting for Gajah: an elephant mutualist’s contingency plan for an endangered megafaunal disperser published with Raman Sukumar (Journal of Ecology, Volume 101, issue 6, pp. 1379-1388).

Dr Nitin Sekar’s paper has been chosen as this year’s Harper Prize winner as an excellent example of well conducted field ecology. With colleague Raman Sukumar, their study rigorously investigated the dispersal ecology of a megafaunal fruit, chalta tree (Dillenia indica), in the face of potential extinction of its principal disperser, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Using a combination of focal tree watches, camera trapping, fruit aging trials, dung seed counts, and germination trials in an Indian tropical moist forest, Sekar and Sukumar were able to demonstrate that although elephants were observed to consume 63% of fruit removed from camera traps, D. indica has a risk-spreading dispersal strategy that will hopefully allow it to persist despite declining numbers of its primary megafaunal disperser.

Nitin Sekar is a doctoral student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He is interested in the functional ecology of endangered species, the links between ecosystem services and poverty, and policy related to wildlife conservation and equitable development in the Global South. His dissertation aims to reveal whether Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are functionally redundant as seed dispersers in a disturbed forest ecosystem in India. Nitin is also a candidate for an environmental policy certificate from the Woodrow Wilson School and Princeton Environmental Institute, where he researches the Indian government’s scheme to promote voluntary village relocation for tiger conservation.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2012

Dr. Simon Doxford

Publ _JEC_ SimonDoxfordThe Editors have awarded the 2012 Harper Prize to Dr. Simon Doxford for his paper Changes in the large-scale distribution of plants: extinction, colonisation and the effects of climate published with his supervisor Rob Freckleton.

The Journal of Ecology Editors were impressed with how Simon Doxford and his supervisor used novel statistical methods to analyse over six decades of records collected by members of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. They looked at how 1781 plant species distributions changed across the UK. Most plant species disperse slowly and the distribution of 45% of them are affected by climate, especially rainfall and temperature, but this is made more complicated by land use history patterns. Their study convincingly shows how historical distribution data, much of it collected by amateur botanists, can help understand current distribution patterns of plants with a view to predicting future changes.

As an undergraduate Simon studied Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield (2004-2008) where he first began to become interested in plant ecology. During his final year project Simon began working on large-scale plant distribution data under the supervision of Professor Rob Freckleton.

Simon went on to complete his PhD at the University of Sheffield (2008-2011) where he continued work modelling spatial distribution change in plants examining rates of extinction and colonization over time and the role of habitat and climate in these changes. Simon’s PhD also focused onthe population dynamics of annual plants in sand dunes along spatial and temporal environmental gradients.This work involved establishing field experiments at sand dune sites in Europe where he examined fine scale community interaction, such as those between annual plants and bryophytes. Simon has also carried out greenhouse studies examining the effect of a temperature gradient on developmental timing and plant performance.

After his PhD Simon went on to take up a research assistant role (2011-2012) continuing research into sand dune annuals where he has published work on incorporating measures of population growth and temporal gradients into the existing concepts of the Stress Gradient Hypothesis. This work was carried out with Dr Mark Ooi and Professor Rob Freckleton.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2011

Dr. Ryan Phillips

Publ _JEC_ RyanPhillipsThe 2011 Harper Prize for the best article published in 2011 in Journal of Ecology by a scientist at the start of his or her career, has been awarded to Ryan Phillips of Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, Western Australia, for his article “Do mycorrhizal symbioses cause rarity in orchids?”, published with Matthew Barrett, Kingsley Dixon and Steve Hopper.

Orchids are among nature’s most enigmatic terrestrial plants, especially in terms of their relationship with mycorrhizal symbiotic partners. In this fascinating study, Ryan Philips and his colleagues postulated that mycorrhizal specificity may contribute to rarity among members of the charismatic orchid genus Drakaea in Australia. However, by using a combination of in-situ baiting of seed with mycorrhizal fungi, ITS nrDNA sequencing of fungi isolated from adult plants, and in-vitro seed germination studies in the presence of fungal partners, Ryan was able to show that rarity among Drakaea species was more likely to be related to microhabitat, niche and pollination requirements than to mycorrhizal specificity. The Editors thought that the combination of field and laboratory work presented in this paper is an exemplary demonstration of the way in which a difficult ecological problem can be addressed experimentally.

During his undergraduate years Ryan developed an interest in the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms underlying diversification and endemism. Ryan undertook his PhD at The University of Western Australia under the supervision of Stephen Hopper and Kingsley Dixon. The paper selected for the Harper Prize was part of his thesis in which he investigated the role of specialized pollinator and mycorrhizal interactions in causing intrinsic rarity in a genus of sexually deceptive orchids. Currently, Ryan is a post-doctoral research fellow working jointly in the labs of Rod Peakall at Australian National University and Kingsley Dixon at Kings Park and Botanic Gardens. While continuing the ecological studies of orchids initiated during his PhD, Ryan is also undertaking research on speciation mechanisms and floral evolution in sexually deceptive orchids.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2010

Dr. Yann Hautier

Publ _JEC_ YannHautierThe Harper Award for the best article by a scientist at the start of his or her career published in 2010 inJournal of Ecology is awarded to Yann Hautier from the University of Zurich for his article ‘Modelling the growth of parasitic plants’, published with Andy Hector, Eva Vojtech, Drew Purves and Lindsay Turnbull. This exciting work provides an excellent example of how modelling simple ideas, when combined with analysis of experimental data, can lead to new insights into phenomena which were previously thought to be well understood. Hemiparasitic plants are photosynthetically active, but rely on their hosts for water and nutrients. They can reach extraordinary densities in grasslands and play a key role in maintaining diversity, reducing the dominance of grasses and promoting forbs. It is commonly observed that the combined mass of hosts plus parasites is less than that of the host plants when grown alone, leading farmers to curse the parasite. This yield reduction has been attributed to some decrease in photosynthetic efficiency in the parasitized host or to reduced nitrogen-use efficiency by the parasite. In contrast to this view, Hautier and colleagues simply assume that the system productivity is determined only by the host’s growth, and that this, in turn, depends on host size. In their model, the parasite growth rate, therefore, depends solely on the host growth rate; the parasite simply extracts mass from the host and stores it inactively. This mass no longer contributes to growth; hence it inevitably leads to decreased total productivity as long as host growth is size-dependent. Hautier and his colleagues demonstrate experimentally that the basic premise of their model is correct, and then explore several important corollaries. First, when the parasite is rare (so that hosts are typically either uninfected or infected by a single parasite), parasites should be prudent because removing too much mass from their host will reduce their own future growth. Second, when hosts are infected by several parasites, a Tragedy of the Commons situation will occur, leading to over-exploitation of the hosts. This occurs because the prudent parasite would be outcompeted by a more aggressive parasite that takes a greater fraction of host mass. Leaving resources for your competitors is rarely a good idea.

Yann started studying grassland plant ecology during his master thesis at the University of Lausanne. With Antoine Guisan he was interested in the changes in reproductive investment with altitude in alpine plants. Yann then moved to the University of Zurich to accomplish his PhD studies with Professor Andy Hector. The paper selected for the Harper Prize 2010 is part of his PhD thesis entitled “Mechanisms of maintenance and restoration of plant diversity” for which he received a PhD thesis award from the University of Zurich. Currently Yann is a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Andy Hector and continues studying grassland community ecology.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2009

Dr. Nina Wurzburger

Publ _JEC_NinaWurzburgerThe 2009 Prize is awarded to Dr. Nina Wurzburger from Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA, for her article ‘Plant litter chemistry and mycorrhizal roots promote a nitrogen feedback in a temperate forest’ (Journal of Ecology – Volume 97, Issue 3, p 528-536), published with Ronald L. Hendrick.

The Editors selected this really interesting and innovative article because it is one of the few that consider, via a field study, how feedbacks between plant species and soil organisms influence nutrient availability to plants.

Nina first became interested in plant–soil relationships and root symbioses at the University of California, Davis, USA, where she worked with Dr. Caroline Bledsoe in forests of northern California as an undergraduate and an M.S. student. She then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia with Dr. Ronald Hendrick and published this paper from the work she carried out in the southern Appalachians as part of her PhD studies. Currently, Nina is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Lars Hedin’s laboratory at Princeton University and collaborates with Drs. Joe Wright and Ben Turner at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. She is exploring the limitation of soil nutrients in the diverse lowland tropical forests of Panama.

Winner of the Harper Prize 2008

Dr. Lucia Vivanco

Publ _JEC_LuciaVivancoThe 2008 Prize is awarded to Dr. Lucía Vivanco from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina (now at the University of California at Irvine, USA) for her article ‘Tree species identity alters litter decomposition through long-term plant and soil interactions in a natural forest ecosystem in Patagonia’ (Journal of Ecology – Volume 96, Issue 4, p 727–736), published with Amy Austin.

The Editors selected this article because of its elegant experimental approach, but also for the importance of its findings with respect to understanding how long-term plant–soil feedbacks regulate decomposition processes and forest dynamics at the ecosystem scale.