The Publication Power of Collaboration in Ecology

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

More than 10 years ago, a group of researchers launched an international collaboration that is now known as the Nutrient Network (NutNet). Their intent was to explore the relationship between productivity and diversity in grasslands—how much plant matter there is in an area, and how many species it contains. NutNet researchers would each carry out the same simple measurements and then pool their data. By combining information from many more sites than one researcher could realistically study, the collaborative could rigorously examine the effects of climate, soils and human land use on the productivity-diversity relationship. Researchers also agreed on an experimental design—manipulating soil nutrients and herbivory—to impose on sites. Sharing data from these experiments would provide a strong ability to distinguish the impacts of these factors on productivity and diversity.

NutNet sites around the world. Jon supports his own site on Whidbey Island in part through funding from the The David R.M. Scott Professorship.

From its earliest conversations, NutNet has since grown into a global collaborative comprised of almost 100 sites. It’s open to any researcher willing to support his or her own site, share data freely, and follow the same basic protocols. These protocols govern details like the size of plots, how to measure plant abundance, and how fertilizer and herbivory treatments are applied. Yet while these steps are consistent across the world—and the sites themselves are all grasslands—the study areas differ strongly in terms of the environments in which they occur, and in their response to treatments.

Professor Jon Bakker joined NutNet soon after it began and has collected data annually since 2007. Together with Professor Janneke Hille Ris Lambers from the UW Department of Biology, he measured the productivity and diversity of three grassland sites in western Washington (Janneke was a key participant for the first few years but is no longer actively involved). They decided to conduct the NutNet experiment at one site, Smith Prairie, located near Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Wash., on land owned by the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship. “This site is a low-elevation grassland, and it’s dominated by European invasive species,” he says. “There are other sites that are alpine, high-elevation grasslands; my site is cool, others are hot and humid.”

The experimental area at Smith Prairie is divided into plots, some of which are fenced to keep herbivores like rabbits and deer out, and all of which receive varying fertilizer treatments. “What we’re doing at Smith Prairie is a small experiment,” he says, “but the power comes when you have that same experiment repeated at multiple sites around the world—and you can start to look for global patterns.”

Two fenced plots at Jon’s site, Smith Prairie. Both are fenced to keep large mammals out; the only difference is that the plot on the right is fertilized with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, while the plot on the left is unfertilized.

With these ever-growing data sets, and with its open collaborative mission, NutNet has spurred a large number of publications. To date, 30 NutNet-related papers have been published in the peer-reviewed literature, and Jon has co-authored about half of these, including four in 2016.

Those 2016 papers appeared in several high-impact journals. In February, James Grace led a paper in Nature, “Integrative modelling reveals mechanisms linking productivity and plant species richness.” In May, Andrew Tredennick led a “Technical Comment” in Science, “Comment on “Worldwide evidence of a unimodal relationship between productivity and plant species richness.”” That same month, Habacuc Flores-Moreno led a paper in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, “Climate modifies response of non-native and native species richness to nutrient enrichment.” Finally, in September, Stanley Harpole led another paper in Nature, “Addition of multiple limiting resources reduces grassland diversity.” (Each of these papers has involved a large group of authors, whose roles in the paper are identified in a table that accompanies the publication.)

Other papers are in preparation, including one that Jon is leading. In addition, new sites are being added to NutNet continually, and the sheer volume of plots worldwide enables researchers to explore countless angles and collaborations. Jon recently joined ecologists and computer scientists from Australia, for example, on a project testing the effectiveness of automated estimates of ground cover.

Jon sees great potential to revisit earlier analyses, and to continue drawing new collaborators from other areas of the world. After all, each new site, along with each new data set, adds nuance and breadth to the global experiment—and helps all of the researchers bring greater clarity to the questions driving NutNet.

Photos © Jon Bakker.

Each summer, NutNet hosts a workshop at the University of Minnesota, where Professors Elizabeth Borer and Eric Seabloom anchor the program with funding for a postdoc to manage the data and for travel by researchers who do not have their own travel support. “The workshops are invigorating in part because of the international mix of perspectives, and they are where a lot of ideas are generated that translate into papers,” says Jon, who has attended multiple workshops. Above (second row, far left), Jon at a NutNet workshop in 2016.


Taylor’s Checkerspot: An Endangered Butterfly with an Interesting Diet

Coming up on Monday, September 12, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., the UW Botanic Gardens is hosting a talk with one of our doctoral candidates, Nate Haan: “Taylor’s Checkerspot: An Endangered Butterfly with an Interesting Diet.”

2016_08_Nate HaanA member of Professor Jon Bakker’s lab, Nate studies interactions between plants and insects, and his dissertation focuses on the relationship between Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and its larval host plants. Before beginning his doctoral research, Nate completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Calvin College, and a master’s in natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan.

His talk will be held in the Douglas Classroom at the Center for Urban Horticulture. It’s free and open to the public, and you can RSVP in advance online, by phone (206.685.8033) or by email (you are also welcome to give a $5 donation at the door to help support educational programs at the UW Botanic Gardens).

About the Talk
Taylor’s checkerspot is an endangered butterfly that occurs only in prairies of the Pacific Northwest. Several agencies and nonprofits are involved in recovery efforts, which include habitat restoration and a captive rearing and release program.

There are several gaps in our knowledge of Taylor’s checkerspot that make recovery efforts difficult; we know especially little about how its caterpillars interact with the various host plants they eat. One of these hosts is a common native paintbrush, another is the federally threatened golden paintbrush, and the third is an invasive exotic weed!

Nate will share photographs and natural history of Taylor’s checkerspot and its host plants, and give an overview of his research projects and findings so far.

Hope you can make it!

2016 McIntire-Stennis Research Grant Winners

This fall, the SEFS Research Committee awarded five Graduate Research Augmentation Grants through the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research program, totaling $72,209 in funding.

This special round of grants was designed to support graduate student research, with awards targeted for Spring 2016 or Summer 2016 (and with all funding to be spent in full by September 30, 2016). Read more about the funded projects below!

Awarded Projects

1. Nisqually Garry Oak Habitat: Cultural and Ecological Considerations for Successful Restoration in the Nisqually Tribal Reservation

PI: Professor Ernesto Alvarado, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Steve Harrell, SEFS

Garry oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems are a designated Priority Habitat for management in Washington State (Larsen and Morgan 1998). Although there are many research projects that examine how to restore Garry oak ecosystems for the purposes of establishing more habitat for endangered and threatened species like the golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) and Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys mazama), respectively (Larsen and Morgan 1998), there are few studies that look at restoration for the objective of developing an environment for the purpose of cultural restoration, specifically agroforestry. We intend to evaluate whether Garry oak ecosystem restoration for the intended purpose of cultural activities (traditional medicinal and edible plant harvests, inter-generational education) will greatly change the components of the restoration and management plan of the Garry oak ecosystem.

Award total: $13,232

2. How Do Conclusions About the Effectiveness of Fuels-reduction Treatments Vary with the Spatial Scale of Observation?

PI: Professor Jon Bakker, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Charles Halpern, SEFS

Restoration of dry-forest ecosystems has become a prominent and very pressing natural resource issue in the western U.S. Although mechanical thinning and prescribed burning can effectively reduce fuel loads in these forests, scientists and managers remain uncertain about the ecological outcomes of these treatments. This uncertainty reflects the short time spans of most restoration studies and a limited consideration of how ecological responses vary with the spatial scale of observation. This funding will support graduate student research that explores how ecological responses to fuels-reduction treatments vary with the spatial scale of observation, and will complement ongoing research on the temporal variability of responses.

Award total: $15,114

3. Growth and Physiological Response of Native Washington Tree Species to Light and Drought: Informing Sustainable Timber Production

PI: Professor Greg Ettl, SEFS
Co-PIs: Matthew Aghai, third-year Ph.D. student at SEFS; Rolf Gersonde, affiliate assistant professor with SEFS and Seattle Public Utilities Silviculture; and Professor Sally Brown, SEFS

Intensive management of the conifer-dominated forests of the Pacific Northwest has resulted in millions of acres of largely mono-specific second- and third-growth forests. These forests have simple vertical structure and low biodiversity, and consequently much lower value of non-timber forest products. Research on establishment of underplanted trees in partial light is needed to increase structural and compositional diversification of Douglas-fir plantations undergoing conversion to multispecies stands. However, the ecology of seedling establishment under existing canopies is poorly understood. The general aim of our research is to address the need for improved structural diversity in managed forest systems through a better understanding of species-specific performance potential of underplanted seedlings. This proposal extends ongoing research; in this phase we will document physiological differences in seedling performance.

Award total: $17,004

4. A Novel Reactor for Fast Pyrolysis of Beetle-Killed Trees

PI: Professor Fernando Resende, SEFS

In this project, we will optimize the production of pyrolysis bio-oil from beetle-killed lodgepole pine using a technique called ablative pyrolysis. We developed a novel and unique system for pyrolysis of wood that has the capability of converting entire wood chips into bio-oil. This characteristic is important for mobile pyrolysis units, because it eliminates the need of grinding wood chips prior to pyrolysis.

Award total: $15,887

5. Modeling the Effects of Forest Management on Snowshoe Hare Population Dynamics in Washington at the Landscape Scale

PI: Professor Aaron Wirsing, SEFS

The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is already listed as Threatened in Washington and, following an ongoing status review, likely to be designated as Endangered because much of its habitat has been lost to a series of large wildfires since 2006. Lynx subsist on snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus), and it is widely acknowledged that habitat quality for lynx is tied to the availability of this prey species, so forest management with the goal of promoting lynx conservation requires an understanding of the relationship between silvicultural practices and hare abundance. Accordingly, we are requesting summer 2016 funds to complete the third and final phase of a graduate research project whose objective is to assess the impacts of forest management on hare numbers across a large landscape in north-central Washington. By sampling a network of snowshoe hare fecal pellet transects spanning protected and harvested portions of the Loomis State Forest for a third consecutive summer, we will produce a model of hare relative abundance that will enable managing agencies to tailor their harvest plans such that they promote snowshoe hare availability and, as a result, lynx population persistence.

Award total: $10,972

Two SEFS Researchers Awarded Wilburforce Fellowships

This January, Wilburforce Foundation and COMPASS announced the first group of 20 scientists awarded the newly established Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science, and two SEFS researchers—Professor Jon Bakker and postdoc Lauren Urgenson—were among the honorees!

Jon Bakker and Lauren UrgensonThe year-long fellowship program provides skills development and sustained mentorship in science communication and leadership, and each Wilburforce Fellow will set a goal for individual or collective engagement on a specific conservation issue. Professor Bakker, for instance, plans to explore how to better link land managers with scientific research. He’s thinking particularly about how to share scientific findings with land managers, and how to encourage them to experimentally evaluate their actions and adapt their activities as appropriate. His research could also include other angles, such as how to enable land managers to communicate their research questions to the scientists who might be able to address them.

The 20 fellows will begin their initial training this April and then work throughout the year with a range of trainers, including a team from COMPASS that specializes in science communication, as well as a number of science and environmental journalists.

Congratulations, Jon and Lauren, and good luck!

SEFS Seminar Series: Winter 2015 Schedule

After several weeks of ghostly quiet in Anderson 223, it’s high time for the return of the SEFS Seminar Series (SEFS 529b) this Wednesday, January 7, starting with Professor Susan Bolton and her talk, “Greening deserts for health and well-being: An interdisciplinary design program.”

SEFS Seminar Poster_Winter 2015We’ll continue from there with a wonderfully varied line-up of speakers, ranging from other SEFS and visiting faculty, to potential future faculty members, to professors in other departments on campus. We’ll be exploring everything from mountain pine beetles to environmental restoration, biofuels and green building, and it’s a terrific opportunity to support your colleagues and learn about incredible research going on in our school.

Like last quarter, the seminars will be held on Wednesdays from 3:30-4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223. We’ll also have a casual reception in the Forest Club Room after three of the talks—January 7, February 4 and March 11—so mark your calendars for the talks below and come out as often as you can!

Week 1: January 7
“Greening deserts for health and well-being: An interdisciplinary design program.”
Professor Susan Bolton

Week 2: January 14
“Restoration resources in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences”
Professor Kern Ewing

Week 3: January 21
“Synergies, feedbacks and tipping points: Mountain pine beetle’s rapid range expansion threatens invasion of North American boreal pine forests”
Professor Allan Carroll
Director, Forest Sciences Program
Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences
University of British Columbia

Week 4: January 28
“Novel feedstocks for fuels and chemicals production: Technology, economics and environmental sustainability”
Professor Renata Bura

Week 5: February 4
“Interaction Pattern Design for urban sustainability”
Professor Peter Kahn

Week 6: February 11
“Understanding species interactions to improve wildlife conservation and management”
Laura Prugh

Week 7: February 18
“Moving beyond just population size: advances in abundance and occurrence modeling of wildlife populations”
Beth Gardner

Week 8: February 25
“Adaptive restoration of Western Washington prairies”
Professor Jon Bakker

Week 9: March 4
Talk TBD
Rahel Sollmann
North Carolina State University

Week 10: March 11
Talk TBD
Chris Sutherland
Cornell University

Dissertation Defense: Eric Delvin!

Eric DelvinAs part of a tripleheader coming up tomorrow on Thursday, May 30, Eric Delvin will be defending his dissertation at 2 p.m.: “Restoring Abandoned Agricultural Lands in Puget Lowland Prairies: A New Approach.”

In his official public defense, Delvin will discuss his five years of research, share results of seeding and companion planting experiments of Castillej levisecta, and highlight a research design feature of the project called Staged-Scale Restoration.

Delvin’s committee chair is Professor Jon Bakker, and other members include SEFS Professor Kern Ewing along with Peter Dunwiddie, Sarah Hamman and Janneke Hille Ris Lambers.

You can catch his talk at the Center for Urban Horticulture (Isaacson Classroom), so mark it down for 2 p.m.!

Photo © Eric Delvin.

Dissertation Defense: Rachel Mitchell!

Rachel Mitchell
Rachel Mitchell at an experimental grassland at Glacial Heritage Preserve, Wash.

Thesis season is in high gear, and we have another great dissertation defense coming up this Monday, May 13, with Rachel Mitchell: “The Extent, Drivers and Consequences of Intraspecific Variation in Plant Functional Traits.”

Although plant functional traits are increasingly used to explore and understand plant ecology, most studies assume that intraspecific variation in functional traits is negligible. Recent research, however, indicates that this is not the case, and that intraspecific trait variation may play an important role in plant communities and ecosystem function. Mitchell’s defense focuses on the extent, drivers and consequences of intraspecific trait variation in grassland species and communities.

Mitchell’s committee chair is Professor Jon Bakker, and her other committee members include SEFS Professors Sarah Reichard and Soo-Hyung Kim, along with Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, Martha Groom and Regina Rochefort.

Mark your calendars and clear some space to come see Mitchell’s talk this coming Monday morning at 9 a.m. in Anderson 22!

Photo © Rachel Mitchell.

Korena Mafune Receives Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Innovation

Korena Mafune
Korena Mafune collecting canopy soil samples last spring along the Queets River.

On December 18, 2012, Korena Mafune was officially named the very first recipient of the Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Innovation. Selected by the University of Washington College of the Environment Scholarship Committee, Mafune will receive $1,000 for research materials and supplies, and a $1,500 scholarship for tuition and fees, for a $2,500 total award.

Mafune, a senior Environmental Science and Resource Management major in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), says the award will allow her to continue exploring her growing fascination with soil and plant ecology.

“While collecting and analyzing samples and data on my current capstone project—analyzing microbial communities in prairie restoration plots—I developed a strong interest for fungal associations, specifically mycorrhizal associations,” she says. “Thanks to the great opportunity provided by the Dean’s award, I will now be able to further my interests and expand the scope of my capstone project. It is an honor to be granted the award. Not only will it allow me to enhance my knowledge in the field, but it will allow us to become familiar with the (mostly) unknown mycorrhizal fungal communities on the prairie restoration plots.”

The Dean’s Award for Undergraduate Innovation funds are competitively awarded to support College of the Environment undergraduates engaged in research, as well as community-based projects or experiential learning, combining academic content and skillset learning with innovative applications to particular issues or problems within an environmental context. These funds are designed to support students not just in completing the level of projects they might already be required to complete for their degree programs, but also in taking their projects to a higher level, significantly adding to the depth, quality, creativity and impact of their work.

The research funding, to be administered by Professor John Bakker, Mafune’s faculty advisor at SEFS, will be dispersed in Winter Quarter 2013.

Congratulations, Korena, on this terrific achievement!

Photo © Korena Mafune.