Research Interests

I am an evolutionary ecologist with interests in plant-insect interactions and spatial statistics. My research focuses on understanding how the spatial location of plants and plant traits influences their interactions with other organisms and, in turn, how these interactions generate plant spatial patterns and affect trait evolution. My research combines observational studies (using GIS technology) with field experiments and computer models to 1) document the natural patterns of plant distributions and herbivory damage, 2) empirically test factors that may drive these patterns, and 3) predict future damage, trait selection, or plant population growth and spatial spread. Undergraduate students working in my lab are encouraged to design and conduct projects in a variety of topics and systems (described below).

Associational Resistance: Sometimes whether or not a plant is damaged by insects depends on its physical or chemical (i.e. resistance) traits. But sometimes damage has little to do with a plant’s own characteristics and more to do with the characteristics of its neighborhood. This is called associational resistance or associational susceptibility. For example, an otherwise vulnerable plant may avoid insect damage if it is hidden or protected by plants that surround it. Alternatively, being in a large patch of other tasty plants (or being out in the open) may be an unfortunate advertisement to herbivores that can more easily find and eat their host. My lab is currently studying associational resistance in the federally threatened dune thistle, Cirsium pitcheri, along Lake Michigan dune habitats. In collaboration with botanists at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, State Parks, DNR, and other institutions, we are examining the extent to which an introduced weevil is exacerbating the rapid decline of this native plant. My lab is specifically addressing how dune elevation, thistle aggregation, and distance to both a native grass and weedy thistle influences weevil foraging and host selection. Did I mention our study sites along the Door County beaches are beautiful?

Unlike the above example of biocontrol-gone-wrong, I am also planning to study how plant spatial patterns influence insect foraging in a biocontrol-success story; the invasive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). In many populations, beetles released to control purple loosestrife have been successful, but in other populations it has not been so effective. I am interested in whether the size or distribution of the population of purple loosestrife influences beetle herbivory and whether spatial information can be incorporated into models of biocontrol to more accurately predict its success.

Plant Resistance and Tolerance to Herbivory: I am interested in understanding why plants evolve many different traits to resist or tolerate insect damage, rather than one optimal trait. Do plant traits vary over space and time, and are they influenced by environmental variables? As the environment changes, do plants respond to these changes in their trait levels? I have been studying these questions in goldenrod (Solidago altissima), a cosmopolitan old-field perennial.

Clonal growth strategies: I also maintain an interest in studying how insects influence the clonal growth and resulting spatial patterns and clonal diversity of plant populations. More info to come.