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Current Fellows

James S. Barnes

University of Virginia (Virginia)

Tactical Growth: Biodiversity, Perception, and More than Human Architecture in a K-5 Virginia Schoolyard

Schools should be among our best designed landscapes. In K-5 education, regular exposure to greenspace supports child health, learning, and can seed pro-environmental values later in life. Yet, most U.S. children attend public schools and may not have regular access to quality, biodiversity-rich outdoor learning environments. Moreover, many school districts face numerous challenges including lack of resources, cultural inertia, and specific site conditions. As an architectural provocation, this research explores how temporary biodiversity interventions might bridge future landscape desired states and be a novel source of knowledge on how to promote positive biodiversity interactions. It employs a modular, mobile system of green walls, façades, and floors that feature miniature plant ecologies – integrated as architectural elements of an outdoor nature-based classroom. The plant ecologies represent a spectrum of biodiversity, ranging from monocultures to pollinator gardens. The system is being tested at a Title 1 elementary school in central Virginia in partnership with teachers. Two sets of questions are being explored as part of this study. First, how do the temporary interventions affect site biodiversity, student perception of this biodiversity, and classroom engagement?  Second, could this system provide a scalable strategy to shift school lawn and pavement to more ecologically rich conditions? The partner elementary school is the pilot location for a district-wide series of outdoor learning environment improvements. This research could thus inform future improvements at seven other schools in the district and be a model for other school districts.

Current Fellows

Manuel Bernal Escobar

University of Miami (Florida)

Exploring Endemism through a Permanent Forest Dynamics Plot at the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

The montane forest of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, is naturally isolated from other mountainous areas such as the Andes, which causes it to be biologically unique. There are many species of birds and frogs that are found nowhere else. Despite this, there is still a lack of knowledge about the trees of the Sierra Nevada, and it is possible that there are undiscovered tree species and recorded species that have never been observed in the region. To begin to fill in this gap in botanical knowledge, we will establish a permanent 1-hectare (100x100 m) forest plot in a patch of undisturbed forest around 2300 m above sea level (asl). Inside the plot, we will tag, measure, map, and identify every tree above 10 cm diameter at breast height. Given the scarcity of sampling plots in the area (none above 1000 m asl) and the high rates of endemism, we expect to expand on currently known species ranges and to find species new to science. All the samples will be sent to the Cartagena Botanical Garden Herbarium. Then, the samples will be dried, preserved, identified, mounted, and accessioned into their permanent collection, which works like a searchable library of plant specimens. Later, through comparing our samples with other vouchers and consulting with experts, we will determine the correct species identifications of all the individuals in the plot. Thus, we will be able to better assess the endemism of trees in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta flora.

Current Fellows

Camille DeSisto

Duke University (North Carolina)

Ethnoecological Networks: Integrating Diverse Knowledge of Lemur-plant Interactions to Advance Rainforest Habitat Restoration

Human disturbance changes how plants and animals interact, negatively affecting biodiversity and ecosystem health. In Madagascar, lemurs promote forest biodiversity by eating and defecating seeds, spreading the seeds throughout forests in nutrient-rich feces. These highly endangered animals can also affect rainforest plants by destroying seeds and eating leaves, bark, etc. Therefore, understanding the complex relationships between plant and lemurs is critical for restoring Madagascar’s threatened rainforests. Deforestation, logging, and hunting endanger the relationships between lemurs and plants in COMATSA, a recently-established (since 2015) protected area connecting two hyper-diverse National Parks. How does forest degradation affect ecosystem resiliency in COMATSA? How does lemur loss affect ecosystem resiliency? Which plant and lemur species are most important for forest restoration, and why? Understanding how disturbance affects lemur-plant interactions is critical for answering these questions. Here, I propose to partner with local communities in botanical research and outreach focused on ecological interactions in Madagascar. Honoring local botanical knowledge, our team will research this biodiverse, mountainous rainforest through a combination of plant inventories, lemur observations, and social surveys. We will also conduct detailed educational outreach (bilingual educational materials, strategic conservation planning, student mentoring, local capacity building, language/ cultural exchanges, and anti-harassment training). This project will advance restoration in a highly-threatened rainforest landscape that provides critical resources for over 200 tree species, nine lemur species, and numerous human communities.

Current Fellows

Richard Hull

Indiana University (Indiana) 

Identifying Changes in the Wabash River’s Vascular Plant Flora

Vascular plants are one of the most important organism groups on Earth. There are over 340,000 species worldwide, which collectively provide ecosystem services, food, or habitat to all terrestrial animals. Despite their importance, vascular plants are under threat from two intensifying human-caused forces: Non-native species and climate change. Furthermore, how these two stressors have impacted the distributions of vascular plant species in the United States since the early 1900’s is largely unknown. Here I outline a study that is documenting the current flora of the lower Indiana Wabash River corridor in order to determine how it has changed since it was last documented by Charles and Stella Deam from 1896-1952. The findings from this analysis will be used to construct predictions of the region’s rare flora at future time intervals of 25, 50, 75, and 100 years. This data, in combination with current updates on rare and non-native species in this region, will be used to generate a conservation plan for the region’s native flora that will be shared with the Indiana Plant Conservation Alliance, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and several Indiana land trusts. Overall, this study will inform and prepare these organizations for the effects that exotic species and climate change will have on the Indiana flora, while also characterizing past responses these forces have had on the native flora in order to better predict native species’ future distributions and conservation needs.

Current Fellows

Lydia Soifer

University of Florida (Florida)

Impacts of Land Use Change on Epiphyte Diversity, Distribution, and Ecosystem Function in Panama

Over the last several decades, Panama has experienced extensive deforestation to create additional pastureland. Converting forest to pasture produces landscapes of grasses dotted with isolated trees. These isolated pasture trees provide habitat for epiphytes (commonly known as air plants), which are plants that live on trees without harming their host. However, the communities of epiphytes that live on pasture trees often contain fewer and different species than the communities of epiphytes that live on trees in the forest. Previous research suggests that the isolation of pasture trees and differences in their microclimate conditions contribute to these changes in epiphyte communities. Additionally, large epiphytes serve an important ecosystem function, providing cool and moist microhabitats for small animals, such as insects and frogs, that live in the tree canopy. However, lower tree cover in pastures may reduce the ability for epiphytes to provide this important service. I will therefore 1) evaluate differences between epiphyte communities in pastures and forests and 2) determine whether large epiphytes in pasture trees provide similar microhabitats to large epiphytes in forest trees. Based on the results of my study, I plan to work with local conservation organizations and landowners in Panama to develop conservation plans that could help maintain epiphyte diversity in landscapes containing a mix of pastures and forests.

Current Fellows

Cassandra Ziegler

Duquesne University (Pennsylvania)

Evaluating the Impact of Ecological Forestry Gaps on Avian Diet Composition in Western Pennsylvania Forests

Although logging is often perceived as damaging to forests, it can be an important tool that proactively improves species diversity and age structure. Because of this misconception, there is a greater need for outreach and education to understand the value of ecological forestry. In western Pennsylvania, the Foundation for Sustainable Forests (FSF) manages forests by removing unfavorable trees to create small ecological forestry gaps (EFGs), which in turn can provide a diversity of habitat and food resources for a variety of wildlife, including many birds. Bird populations have been declining since 1970, largely due to habitat loss. In a collaboration between the FSF, the National Aviary, and Duquesne University we examine the impact of these EFGs on the diet of migratory song birds by using cutting-edge methods to identify specific plant and insect DNA from fecal samples of birds banded in these EFGs from this past summer. This year we will compare the diets of Wood Thrush to the closely related Veery, both of which have been declining over the past 50 years and utilize these forests gaps. It is common for non-native plant species, typically viewed as problematic, to colonize disturbed areas but may produce fruits and host insects that are an important as native species in supporting newly fledged birds preparing for autumn migration. This study will help further bird conservation efforts and aid in forest recovery, especially the 1,500 acres of Pennsylvanian forests have been cleared for Marcellus Shale gas extraction activities.

Top photo © Paul g. Wiegman