My work leverages existing long-term data sets from restored and intact sagebrush communities to quantify temporal changes (trajectories) in floristic and functional trait composition and diversity in order to answer four questions with the goal of improving future restoration designs to be more predictable and stable in the face of climate change.
Fig. 2: Intact sagebrush steppe communities which lie at the foot of the Teton range are sampled with quadrats which record species abundances as cover classes.
Fig. 1: A roadmap which lays out the core purpose of my research, the questions at hand, and the ultimate applications of the work.
Fieldwork efforts are ongoing to collect additional years of more complete data on sagebrush community composition by repeating the methods that have been used for nearly the last decade. Transect and quadrat methods have been used respectively in restored and intact sites to monitor vegetation changes. Additionally, I am collecting functional trait data from individual species in the community. Functional traits are morphological properties of plants (e.g. seed mass, height at maturity) that are theorized to affect growth, survival, and reproduction under a given set of conditions. Therefore, traits could provide ecologists and restoration practitioners with a measurable variable that increases the power of prediction for restoration trajectories and responses to climate.
Question 1: What drives community trajectories?
I will examine how climate of the seeding year, site soil type, seeding method, and seed mix design affect community composition and success in meeting restoration goals such as similarity to nearby intact sites.
Fig. 4: A stunning spread of diverse leaf traits in a tube rack. These are samples undergoing re-hydration so that fresh weights and areas can be taken for later calculation of specific leaf area.
Question 3: Can traits predict plant responses to climate?
If traits are useful predictors of species-level changes in abundance in response to shifts in precipitation and temperature, future restoration efforts could incorporate a trait-based perspective during design to create climate resilient communities.
Fig. 6: A figurative depiction of how a commonly measured leaf trait, specific leaf area (one-sided area of a fresh leaf, divided by its oven-dry mass), could relate to annual changes in precipitation. This figure also demonstrates how a community containing species on different ends of the trait spectrum could "stabilize" changes in response to inter-annual climatic variation.
Fig. 3: Balsamorhiza sagittata (arrowleaf balsamroot), a native forb species that is iconic to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, thrives in the oldest restored site.
Question 2: Are traits more predictable than species identities during restoration?
Restoration efforts are often challenged by unpredictable outcomes and unique combinations of species that do not match reference conditions. If traits more directly relate to a plant's ecological strategy, trait composition may be a more predictable and attainable target.
Fig. 5: Water droplets on the hairy compound leaves of Lupinus argenteus (silvery lupine) are a visually poetic representation of the link between leaf traits and precipitation gradients.
Question 4: Do trait predictions scale to community level stability?
Communities with a high diversity of functional traits may be more stable to climatic variation in terms of total cover and invasion resistance. This could occur if plant species on one end of the trait spectrum do poorly in response to a climatic shift while species on the other end of the spectrum do well, therefore balancing out the total change.
Floral Traits and Pollinator Behavior, Advisor: Dr. Alyssa Anderson
Behavioral studies of painted lady butterflies which compared the impacts of UV and visible spectrum floral traits on the frequency of floral visits, orientation to the nectar center, foraging rates, and associative learning.
Impact of Restoration on the Soil Microbiome, Advisor: Dr. Jodie Ramsay
Soil samples collected from restored prairie communities of varied ages were analyzed for NPK concentration and soil slurries were cultured to isolate and identify the functional groups and richness of the microbial community.
West Nile and Mosquito Prevalence Assessment, Advisor: Dr. Jon Mitchell
Research conducted under a Centers for Disease Control funded grant to track West Nile infection rates within mosquitoes. Responsibilities included baiting mosquitoes, identifying insects to species level, preparation for PCR and West Nile testing, and pyrethrin resistance assays.
Fungicidal Activity of Plant Metabolites, Advisor: Dr. Jon Mitchell
Raw and commercial metabolites were characterized for five native plant species using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Fungicidal activity was determined through modified Kirby-Bauer assays and minimum inhibitory/fungicidal concentration broth microdilution tests.