I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Entomology department at the University of Illinois, currently focusing on insect biodiversity in multifunctional woody polycultures. Previously, I finished a PhD at the University of Oklahoma where I asked questions about nutrients, traits, and communities using invertebrates.
Applied Ecology in Polycultures
Annual row crops like corn and soybean dominate agroecosystems throughout the midwestern United States. These corn-soybean rotation systems (CSR), despite being productive, lack ecological diversity, are prone to pest outbreaks, and fail to utilize the plethora of ecosystem services that native biodiversity can provide. To combat this, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in 1985 to allow farmers to stop production on environmentally sensitive land and instead plant species that improve ecosystem health. Initiatives have focused on developing habitat for birds and pollinators while concurrently reducing soil erosion and improving water quality. Yet enrollment in CRP land is declining as 10- and 15-year contracts are ending when commodities are valuable. As increasingly more CRP habitat is placed back into crop production, new ideas to conserve wildlife that additionally provides economic opportunities for farmers must be developed and tested in order to promote robust and resilient ecosystems.
One alternative cropping system that bridges the production of CSR with the environmental benefits of CRP, we think could be a diverse polyculture of perennial food producing plants: a multifunctional woody polyculture (MWPs). Imagine an assortment of trees and shrubs producing fruit and nuts while simultaneously promoting habitat for wildlife, soil stabilization, and carbon sequestration. MWP system allow farmers to enroll marginal land that was previously CRP into a sustainable, perennial system that is more financially stable during fluctuating markets while still conserving habitat for wildlife. We will be testing how MWPs affect insect biodiversity and their ecosystem services in the summer of 2019 on permanent research plots at the University of Illinois and then working on-farms starting in 2020.
The act of searching for and acquiring food is one of the most quintessential behaviors that animals partake in to acquire the necessary nutrients that fuel their survival, growth, and reproduction. Foraging, however, often involves exploring spatially and temporally patchy environments where critical choices must be consistently made in order to maximize fitness while minimizing risk—a task that can be both energetically costly and potentially dangerous.
I have started to dive into the behavioral ecology realm to link my interests in foraging with nutrition. Much of this work is in its infancy so please check back soon, but we are already testing hypotheses on (1) how colony size modulates foraging behavior in invasive fire ants and (2) how environmental conditions mediate collective decisions in harvester ants. I hope to expand these ideas to bees and other native pollinators in 2020.
Ant Ecology: Traits and Nutrition
A key question in ecology remains the origin and maintenance of trait diversity. For much of my dissertation, I worked on disentangling how traits like body size, diet breadth, and thermal tolerance vary across species and in turn shape where those species can live. While much of this work was done at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, I also focused on macroecological patterns that may be useful in understanding how and why traits vary across geographically diverse areas. Look for upcoming publications from our NEONants based project that took place across 33 sites in North America!