REBECCA DALTON, Duke University (NC), Ecology and Evolution of Flowering Plants in a Changing Climate. Due to human consumption of natural resources and production of industrial pollutants, global changes are occurring, from rising temperatures to increased variability of weather patterns. Humans, animals, and plants are affected by these changes and will continue to face uncertainty in the future. One noticeable change in our ecosystem is earlier appearance of vegetation and flowers. Although reproduction may only occur a couple of weeks earlier than a few decades ago, these changes may influence how plants and their pollinators interact. In Colorado, wildflower communities are particularly susceptible to these changes because flowering too early may expose them to frost. Therefore, understanding if these changes will eventually reduce overall population size is vital. This summer, I propose to examine how flowering species in Colorado are affected by earlier flowering and if and what the consequences may be for future population growth.
Research Advisor: Dr. William F. Morris, Professor, Biology Department, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke University
ANDREA DRAGER, Rice University (TX), Staying Connected: How Pollination Relates to Tree Density in the Afrotropics. The incredible diversity of trees in tropical forests around the world is possible due to the high number of locally rare species that exist at very low densities. Despite being spread out in space, the majority of tropical species studied produce few, if any, viable offspring through self-pollination. Instead, they rely primarily on animal pollinators to move their pollen to the flowers of other individuals. As the number of tree species in a community increases, it is expected that competition for pollination services will increase between them, leaving rarer species at a disadvantage. My research aims to understand how these low-density species achieve reproduction by examining several aspects of pollination in a highly diverse African rainforest. These aspects include: 1) Are lower density trees receiving less pollen, and is this limiting the number of offspring they produce, compared to their more abundant neighbors? 2) Do such species have adaptations to help them compete for pollinators? For example, trees may modify when they bloom, the floral rewards they provide, or how many different types of pollinators can pollinate them. Addressing these questions will help us better understand the importance of plant-pollinator relationships in the maintenance of tropical forest diversity. It will also give us information on plant-pollinator ecology in the Congo Basin, which is urgently needed in the face of increasing forest degradation and fragmentation. These forests are also of great economic and social value as sources of timber, local medicines and foods, and sites for drug discovery. Without this knowledge, it will be difficult to ensure the conservation of threatened tree species or to design management plans which incorporate the needs of their pollinators.
Research Advisor: Dr. Amy Dunham, Assistant Professor, Department of Biosciences, Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University
STEPHEN MURPHY, The Ohio State University (OH), Forest Landscape Change in Southwestern Pennsylvania (PA). Why does a tree grow here but not there? This perhaps seems like a trivial question, but it is one that has perplexed ecologists and foresters for centuries. In fact, the question gets at the root of the entire field of ecology, which is to understand the underlying factors controlling the distribution and abundances of species. The question is particularly difficult to answer for plants because they compete for just a handful of resources (i.e., light, water, CO2, and a few soil nutrients), yet we often find dozens to hundreds of plants coexisting together. As a result, ecologists have deemed this question the ‘paradox of plant diversity’. The proposed project attempts to address this paradox in a southwestern Pennsylvanian forest. I will test several hypotheses related to how soil nutrients, land-use history, and white-tailed deer influence where trees grow and survive. This work will be accomplished through the use of an already existing large-scale vegetation survey dataset, as well as through a series of smaller subplots established in 2013 to measure forest regeneration. The project will considerably enhance our understanding of how humans and the environmental together shape forests. However, the work is also highly important for human health and wellbeing. The diversity and composition of a forest determines what types of ecosystem services it provides, such as pollution and water filtration, and timber and recreational products. Therefore, to preserve or manage the most beneficial types of forests, we must first understand the underlying processes that have created them.
Research Advisor: Liza Comita, Assistant Professor of Tropical Forest Management, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
CHELSIE ROMULO, George Mason University (VA), Working to Conserve and Sustainably Manage the Ecologically, Culturally, and Economically Important Palm Tree Aguaje in the Peruvian Amazon. The aguaje palm tree (Mauritia flexuosa) covers approximately 10% of the Peruvian Amazon. Its fruit supports many different animal species in the Amazon rainforest, including tapirs, primates, peccaries, birds, turtles and fish. The fruit of this tree is harvested from the wild and sold in the city of Iquitos, which is the largest city and commercial center of the Peruvian Amazon. The most common harvest method is cutting down the tree, even though alternative climbing methods are available. Despite the long-term benefits of using sustainable harvesting techniques, future paybacks can seem irrelevant to people who have difficulty meeting their daily survival needs. My dissertation research proposes to combine an evaluation of tree distribution with interviews of people along the market chain to better understand the current conservation challenges surrounding aguaje. I want to understand the motivation of people who harvest, wholesale purchase, sell, and consume the fruit of this palm and review how the distribution of the tree has changed over the past 25 years. The changes in tree distribution over time will be evaluated using satellite images from the NASA Landsat program, which go back to 1972. With a better understanding of the consequences of current harvest and the perspectives of the people involved in the market I will produce recommendations for the conservation and sustainable management of this threatened palm and the forest.
Research Advisor: Dr. Michael Gilmore, Associate Professor, New Century College, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, George Mason University
JESSICA TURNER, West Virginia University (WV), The Root of Sustainability: Understanding and Implementing Medicinal Plant Conservation Strategies in the Face of Land-Use Change in Appalachia (WV). American ginseng is the most interesting plant in the world. People in Appalachia harvest ginseng, and then they sell the root for ~$800/lbs into the international market. These roots are used for traditional medicine in China. Ginseng is rare for many reasons, including that it is overharvested, and surface mining is reducing its habitat. To conserve ginseng, the complex relationship between ginseng and surface mining needs to be addressed from an environmental and social perspective. (1) How the land was used previously can impact how plants grow. Through a reintroduction study, I will ask if medicinal plants grow just as well on land that used to be surface-mined or farmed, as compared to a more mature forest. If they can, ginseng can be reintroduced into any forest, regardless of history, to counter the ginseng that is lost due to mining. (2) Through surveys, I will understand how the individuals in West Virginia view surface mining and ginseng conservation. Which activity do they prioritize? Are they practicing sustainable harvest of ginseng? With these two studies, I can help develop environmental education based on the attitudes and conservation knowledge of Appalachians, as well as make recommendations to individuals who want to help conserve ginseng by planting it in their forested backyards. Understanding the impacts of surface mining on the role of ginseng in the forests, as well as the culture in Appalachia, will provide a basis for medicinal plant conservation. This internationally important plant needs to be around for the future.
Research Advisor: Dr. James B. McGraw, Eberly Family Professor of Biology and Aldo Leopold Leadership Program Fellow, Department of Biology, West Virginia University
RYAN UNKS, University of Georgia (GA), An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Sustainable landscapes in Laikipia, Kenya. Conservation initiatives in East Africa frequently focus on wildlife mobility as a key adaptation to the high variability of rainfall found in semi-arid environments. However, despite large implications for sustainability due to the tight coupling of herder livelihoods and vegetation resources, the connection between recent changes in mobility of livestock herders and recent changes in savanna vegetation is rarely a focus of research. This proposed PhD dissertation research will explore the relationships of changes in plant distributions and abundances as they relate to recent changes in herding practices, using a combination of satellite image analysis and ecological field work in Laikipia, Kenya. I also plan to explore herder’s understandings of landscape-level changes in plant diversity and abundance, as well as the drivers of these changes. This synthesis of ecological and anthropological methods has promise for leading to an improved understanding of how savanna ecosystems are changing and how these changes relate to local livelihoods. It is my hope that incorporating local understandings and ecological analysis can lead to better outcomes in conservation practice. Improved understanding of the drivers and implications of landscape change is a necessary foundation for determining appropriate policies for landscape-level conservation, vegetation restoration practices, and sustainable livelihoods. Using public outreach, I will solicit local community members to review my work and results, in hopes of connecting my research to the public to collaboratively explore the nuances of ecological and livelihood changes. The practical upshot of this dialogue will then be communicated to non-governmental conservation actors.
Research Advisor: Dr. Elizabeth G. King, Assistant Professor, Odum School of Ecology, Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, University of Georgia
AURELIE JACQUET, Purdue University (IN). Neuroprotective activities of Nepalese and Native American traditional medicines in Parkinson’s disease. (Nepal and United States). Parkinson’s disease (PD) is an age-related disorder that affects five million people worldwide. Current therapies only treat symptoms, and there is as of yet no cure to help brain cells to survive. The people of Nepal and Native Americans have a long tradition of herbal medicine and take advantage of the local flora to prepare medicines. In 2012, we identified 46 plants in Nepal that could be potential cures. We plan to write a book for the people of the Panchase region of Nepal, to return our research results and help preserve the ancestral knowledge of this protected area. Today, Native Americans live within a globalized culture but traditional medicine is still widely used as a health care strategy. We interviewed Native Americans from the Lumbee (North Carolina) and Blackfeet (Montana) tribes to learn how they use plants to treat PD-related symptoms. We overall documented more than 300 uses, but we need to spend more time with the Lumbee people to provide a more complete overview of their medicine. Because herbal medicine is sacred and secret among people of the tribe, information about these practices is only shared after a trust relationship is established between the healer and the researcher. Our central hypothesis is that the plants used in Nepalese and Native American traditional medicines have a high potential to alleviate neuron death and changes in brain cells associated with PD. We collected medicinal plants and are conducting controlled tests to determine the safety and therapeutic efficacy of the samples.
Our research contributes to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal #1 “Eradicate poverty and hunger” through generation of knowledge capable of initiating new discussions in the field of public health policy, and the preservation of traditional practices.
Research Advisor: Jean-Christophe Rochet, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, Purdue University.
Learn more about Aurelie and her research here.
ANNA JOHNSON, University of Maryland Baltimore County (MD), Biodiversity in the City: the Interactive Effects of Land-Use Legacies and Environmental Gradients on the Diversity of Fragmented Urban Plant Communities (MD). While most of the global human population lives in cities, our urban ecosystems remain one of the more understudied environments from the perspective of ecological science. We rely on the plants that grow in cities to provide services to the human population such as cooling and cleaning the air and making our neighborhoods more beautiful. We know relatively little, however, about what factors are most important for creating the patterns of urban plant diversity that we observe. This project explores how history of land-use in vacant lots affects the plants that grow there today and tests a restoration strategy for increasing urban plant diversity. I previously have conducted surveys of existing plant diversity in vacant lots in Baltimore, MD, USA. I found that in these vacant lots, there was more variation in plant diversity within areas that were remnant backyards than within the areas of the lots where buildings previously stood. I plan to expand these results to study whether the effects of different legacies of land-use on plant diversity change predictably over time, by collecting property records and reconstructing the history of when each house was abandoned and demolished. This will result in a description of what happens to abandoned urban land without human intervention. I will also collect data from a two-year long field experiment that experimentally increased the diversity of native wildflowers in “weedy” plant communities. I will use what is learned from this smaller experiment to guide a similar experimental restoration plan for entire vacant lots.
Research Advisor: Christopher M. Swan, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of Geography & Environmental Systems University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Learn more about Anna and her research here.
KELLY KSIAZEK, Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden (IL). The influence of seed and pollen movement on the diversity of green roof plant populations (IL). The conversion of natural land to cities means that more plants and animals need to live alongside people. Special rooftop gardens, called green roofs, could include plant species that have lost their normal living spaces on the ground. If plants are able to live successfully on green roofs, they could provide resources like food and nesting materials to many insects and birds. However, green roofs, like other urban gardens, tend to be located far away from each other. Spaces between the roofs might not be good places for plants and animals to live, causing green roofs to act like isolated islands throughout a city. If plants on green roofs are not connected to other plant populations, inbreeding can occur between a few closely related individuals. Over time, this could mean that all individuals on a green roof were related and would share the same inability to respond to stressful situations like droughts.
However, if green roofs received seeds and pollen from other locations, the plants could have a greater ability to adapt to changes in the environment. To date, little is known about how green roof plant populations are connected with plants in other habitats throughout cities. My research will determine the characteristics of plants that allow them to get to new green roofs and will compare the movement of pollen on green roofs to a typical natural habitat. Results of this research will allow future green roofs to be designed to support diverse and resilient groups of plants.
Research Advisor: Krissa Skogen, PhD Conservation Scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University.
Learn more about Kelly and her research here.
STEPHEN J MURPHY, The Ohio State University (OH). Forest landscape change in southwestern Pennsylvania (PA). A common misconception is that forests are static entities, remaining relatively unchanged through time unless subjected to a severe disturbance such as fire or logging. In reality, forests are constantly changing as certain species increase in abundance, others decrease, and yet others remain stable over time. Understanding this dynamic nature of forests is extremely important for predicting how they will look in the future, because changes in species composition can influence the types and values of services that these ecosystems provide. For example, the availability of suitable habitat for wildlife could be impacted, the types of nutrient input from litter could shift, or the types of timber that will be available for commercial purposes could change.
An existing series of forest plots established at Powdermill Nature Reserve offers a unique opportunity to study such changes in the forested landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania. I propose to resample a subset of these existing plots to determine how the number of species, the abundances of those species, and their overall sizes, has changed over a period of six years. Because significant changes in other forests throughout the eastern United States have been documented previously, I expect that the forests of southwestern Pennsylvania will also experience similar dynamism. Specifically, I expect to observe a decrease in drought-tolerant individuals, and an increase in moisture loving species. And because areas of the reserve are still recovering from past human land-use impacts, I expect to see an increase in the overall biomass of the forest.
Research Advisor: Liza S Comita, Assistant Professor, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, The Ohio State University.
CHELSIE ROMULO, George Mason University (VA). Working to conserve and sustainably manage the ecologically, culturally, and economically important palm tree Mauritia flexuosa (aguaje) in the Peruvian Amazon (Peru). The aguaje palm tree (Mauritia flexuosa) covers approximately 10% of the Peruvian Amazon. Its fruit supports many different animal species in the Amazon rainforest, including tapirs, primates, peccaries, birds, turtles and fish. The fruit of this tree is harvested from the wild and sold in the city of Iquitos, which is the largest city and commercial center of the Peruvian Amazon. The most common harvest method is cutting down the tree, even though alternative climbing methods are available. Despite the long-term benefits of using sustainable harvesting techniques, future paybacks can seem irrelevant to people who have difficulty meeting their daily survival needs. My dissertation research proposes to combine an evaluation of tree distribution with interviews of people along the market chain to better understand the current conservation challenges surrounding aguaje. I want to understand the motivation of people who harvest and sell the fruit of this palm and review how the distribution of the tree has changed over the past 25 years. The changes in tree distribution over time will be evaluated using satellite images from the NASA Landsat program, which go back to 1972. With a better understanding of the consequences of current harvest and the perspectives of the people involved in the market I will produce recommendations for the conservation and sustainable management of this threatened palm and the forest.
Research Advisor: Dr. Michael Gilmore, Assistant Professor of Life Sciences/Integrative Studies. New Century College, George Mason University.
JESSICA B. TURNER, West Virginia University (WV), The Root of Sustainability: Understanding and implementing medicinal plant conservation strategies in the face of land-use change in Appalachia (WV). American ginseng is a valuable medicinal plant that is culturally important worldwide. Ginseng is harvested by people in Appalachia and sold on the international market. Through human activity, ginseng’s habitat is being reduced; much of this land-use change is due to surface mining. How land was used historically can influence how well a plant grows and reproduces. My research studies the relationship between ginseng and surface mining, both from the ecosystem and social science perspective: (1) Can ginseng, and another medicinal plant, goldenseal, grow just as well on land that was previously surface-mined, as compared to forests with other types of land-use history? Through this reintroduction study, I will understand, depending on how well these plants grow, if previously mined-lands are lost as potential medicinal plant habitat, or if people could grow medicinal plants on previously mined lands. (2) How do people in Appalachia view surface mining and ginseng conservation? Through surveys, I will learn if people in both the Appalachian and ginseng harvester communities prioritize the forest and practice conservation. I will also be able to assess if attitudes toward surface mining effects might be different if restoration of medicinal plants was possible. By researching how people think about ginseng and surface mining, I can develop environmental education based on the community’s perspective of ginseng conservation. Understanding the impacts of surface mining on the role of ginseng in the forests, as well as the culture in Appalachia, will provide a basis for how people can conserve medicinal plants.
Research Advisor: James B. McGraw, PhD, Eberly Professor of Biology, West Virginia University.
Learn more about Jessica and her research here.