Current Fellows

Kate Douthat

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (New Jersey)

Plant Community and Water Quality Characteristics of Green Infrastructure with Two Different Pollutant Sources

Green infrastructure is an approach to water management that uses the natural storage and filtering functions of plants and soils. We don’t yet have a good understanding of which plants are best suited to green infrastructure applications, or how the plant communities will change over time. Likewise, we don’t have clear understanding of how much or which types of pollution  can be filtered from water using green infrastructure. Each green infrastructure project is complex, as the surroundings influence the amount of pollution and the types of plants that will live there. Pollutants are removed from water in different ways, including settling on the surface, sticking to soil particles, and being digested by microbes. These processes are affected by many factors, including the types of plants, so my study will look at the factors that affect pollution removal and plant communities in green infrastructure. My results so far suggest that catch basins in parks are the best candidates for restoration of native species, and roadside catch basins are more suited for water quality improvement due to higher pollution inputs and frequent colonization by invasive plants. This study will compare the effects of different types of pollution inputs and processes at the surface and different depths in the soil. By understanding the pollution-removal process and how it is related to plants in green infrastructure, we can improve design and effectiveness to improve water quality and the beauty of the landscape.

Research Advisor: Dr. Jean Marie Hartman, Associate Professor Ecological Design and Plant Ecology Research, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Current Fellows

Nina Fontana

University of California-Davis (California)

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Ethnoecosystems in the Carpathian Mountains

Imagine rolling hills, lush blueberry bushes amidst ancient trees connecting hand-built wooden homes along forest edges. Considered the “Amazon of Europe”, the Carpathian Mountains are one of Europe’s last fully undeveloped landscapes. Over 200 rare and local plants dot this landscape and provide a source of food, medicine and livelihood for over 16 million people. For centuries, Hutsuls, an indigenous group of people, have inhabited these mountains of Ukraine. This region is facing huge ecosystem change surrounding the decline of forest health. The main threats are deforestation and disturbance due to illegal logging. This region is rich in traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), a dynamic knowledge base of careful observation and response to an ever-changing environment. This knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. For example, wild thyme can be found growing on anthills and can be used as a medicine and a spice. By exploring TEK of Carpathian Hutsuls, specifically the management and uses of wild edible plants, incredible insights can be gained to inform land stewardship policy and conservation. My project explores three questions: 1) In what ways do Hutsul communities use and care for various wild plants found in their forests? 2) How is Hutsul traditional ecological knowledge changing in response to threats like illegal logging? 3) Do the ways that Hutsuls gather plants impact plant reproduction? Information regarding wild plant use and management is non-existent in this region and is important to perpetuate sustainable harvesting practices.

Research Advisor: Dr. Beth Rose Middleton Manning, Associate Professor of Native American Studies, University of California-Davis

Current Fellows

Zoe Hastings

University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (Hawai'i)

A Functional Trait Approach to Agroforestry Design for Biocultural Restoration on a Pacific Island

Sustaining biodiversity while meeting global resource needs is a critical challenge. This is especially true in remote Pacific Islands like Hawai‘i where over 25% of native plants are threatened or endangered, and nearly 90% of food is imported (Loke and Leung 2008). Expanding local food production and restoring native forest are highly valued culturally and ecologically, yet are challenging economically given the high cost of conservation and generally low returns on farming due to labor and land costs. Agroforests offer the potential to link ecosystem services, biodiversity protection, and agricultural production particularly on fallow agricultural lands dominated by non-native species (currently 40% of all agricultural lands in the state). Agroforests were widespread in Hawai‘i prior to European contact, yet few remain today. The design and restoration of these multifunctional systems is a knowledge intensive process and little quantitative data exists on how plant species selection and combinations of species affect the provision of ecosystem services. We established 10 research and demonstration plots with a local nonprofit farm to test the effects of species selection on ecosystem services. We will evaluate changes in erosion and biodiversity metrics (native and invasive species cover and target species survival and growth) across two approaches to agroforestry establishment. Results will improve our understanding of ecosystem service provisioning in agroforestry systems as well as provide a model for widespread restoration of this traditional multifunctional land use across the Pacific. 

Research Advisor: Dr. Tamara Ticktin, Botany Department, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Current Fellows

Toby Liss

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (New York)

Diversity and Evapotranspiration in Green Roof Plants: Manipulating Plant Selection to Maximize Stormwater Retention

Each year as cities grow, the areas covered by hard materials like rooftops, asphalt, and concrete grow too. These surfaces, although great for walking, driving, biking, and staying dry, are impervious – that is, they don’t allow water to soak in. Many cities have storm drains that take the stormwater from urban hard surfaces to the local rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, stormwater sometimes carries oil, gas, and other contaminants with it from the city to the local waters. When there is a large storm, the stormwater can mix with sewage and end up in your local lake or river. Green roofs are one way to help this problem. By putting soil and plants on a roof, we can slow down the rainwater or even stop it from running off at all. The plants send the water back into the atmosphere in a process called transpiration. But living on a green roof is really tough for plants! So, we need to pick species that are adapted to the dry, windy, hot conditions on roofs. But what combination of plants will remove the most water? My project goal is to study plants when they are grown in groups of mixed species and see if being in a group affects how they remove water from the soil. I want to use this knowledge to help designers make the best choices of plants when they build a green roof. Improving green roofs can mean safer, cleaner water to swim, fish, and play in for city dwellers and rural residents too!

Research Advisor: Dr. Donald J. Leopold, Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Current Fellows

Rachel Reeb

University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)

Using Phenology to Improve Resoration Outcomes in Invaded Landscapes

Nonnative plants are species that have been introduced by humans to a location outside of their original range. These species slow efforts to restore degraded ecosystems because they displace native plants and reduce overall species diversity. In my graduate research at the University of Pittsburgh, I study how the timing of nonnative species’ life cycle events such as spring leaf-out and flowering impact their ability to invade an ecosystem and compete with native plants for resources such as soil nutrients and light. My previous research has found evidence that nonnative species living in old-field ecosystems—a prevalent habitat type in the eastern United States—tend to reproduce earlier in the growing season compared to native species. However, we do not know how the timing of these life cycle events impact nonnative species’ ability to invade and compete. In the upcoming year I will: 1) observe the growth of Pennsylvania old-fields to construct a complete timeline of when native and nonnative species leaf-out, flower, fruit, and set seed, 2) investigate how overlapping life-cycle events impact resource competition between native and nonnative plants, and 3) collect plants from different locations across the eastern US to test how species’ populations from different local climates respond to changes in temperature and light. I predict that nonnative plants are able to invade old-field ecosystems, in part, because their life cycle events occur earlier in the year than native plants and are thus able to capture soil nutrients and light resources underutilized by native plants.

Research Advisor: Dr. Sara Kuebbing, Assistant Professor of Invasion Ecology, University of Pittsburgh Department of Biological Sciences

Current Fellows

Elisabeth Ward

Yale University (Connecticut)

Legacies of Co-Occuring Plant Invaders on Soil Nutrient Availability in Temperate Forests: Implications for Ecology and Management

As urban areas expand to accommodate the growing global population, natural areas will face increasing pressure from human settlement. One potential impact is the transport, introduction, and spread of plant species originating from different regions around the world. Once established, non-native invasive plants can outcompete native vegetation for resources such as light, water, and nutrients. In an effort to counter these impacts, land managers invest significant resources into the removal of invasive plants for restoration. However, invasive plants can alter soil processes through inputs from their roots and leaves, and these impacts may persist following their removal. My research examines whether current management practices that target aboveground vegetation, such as invasive plant removal, successfully restore belowground processes, or whether these management practices make ecosystems appear restored without actually regaining their functions. Ultimately, the goal of ecological restoration is to attain native-dominated plant communities. However, if invasive plants alter soil processes, these changes could persist in the soil and favor their re-establishment. Conservation budgets are limited, and the reinvasion of sites previously managed for invasive plants can waste precious time and resources. 

Research Advisor: Dr. Mark Bradford, Professor of Soils and Ecosystem Ecology, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Top photo © Paul g. Wiegman