Why Does Plant Diversity Matter? Help Us Figure It Out!

How important is plant diversity in restored prairies?

Are diverse prairies more resistant to drought and invasive species than less diverse prairies?

How does plant diversity influence invertebrate communities and their ecological functions?

These kinds of questions have been the focus of multiple research projects in our Platte River Prairies over the last decade or so.  We have numerous restored (reseeded) and remnant (unplowed) prairies that provide excellent field sites, and have also established two sets of experimental research plots to help focus specifically on questions related to plant diversity.  Those plots are 3/4 acre (1/3 ha) in size and represent varying levels of plant diversity, allowing us to investigate the functional differences between them.  Researchers from the University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, the University of Illinois, and Simpson College have been involved in data collection efforts so far.

2013 photos from
2013 photos from our experimental research plots.  The plots from left to right were planted to a monoculture (big bluestem), a low diversity mixture (mostly grasses and a few late season wildflowers) and a high diversity mixture (100 plant species).  We are investigating functional differences between these kinds of plant communities.

Craig Allen, Leader of the Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit, and I are hoping to take the next step in these efforts by bringing on either a PhD or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  We have data to build upon, including some intriguing results regarding invasive species and insect herbivory rates at varying levels of plant diversity, but want to greatly expand upon those data.  If you or someone you know is interested in these kinds of questions, please read below and contact Craig or me with questions.

Here is the official description of the position:

Ph.D. or Post-Doctoral Research Opportunity:  Grassland diversity, restoration and resilience

Ph.D. graduate research assistantship or Post-Doctoral Research Associate.  Available starting in May 2015, to investigate the relationship between grassland restorations and ecosystem services and resilience.  The assistantship (or Post-Doc) is with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, working closely with the Nature Conservancy scientists and resource managers.   The research project will include a synthesis of literature to identify prominent knowledge gaps related to the restoration of grasslands and resilience.  In addition to synthesis, field work will occur on a suite of restorations in central Nebraska.  Some questions of interest are listed below, but ultimately, successful candidates will be expected to develop a specific research project(s).  The candidate could approach this project from a broadly ecological, or botanical, or entomological frame.

The successful applicants will be highly motivated, with a strong work ethic, strong and demonstrated writing skills, a passion for field work, and the ability to work in collaboration.  Experience in restoration ecology is helpful, but not required.  Ph.D. applicants should possess a M.S. in Wildlife, Biology, Zoology, Botany, or Entomology, or a related field and have a valid driver’s license.  Post-doctoral applicants should possess a Ph.D.

Interested applicants should send a cover letter, names and emails of 3 references, GPA and GRE scores, and an updated CV as an electronic PDF or Word document to Craig Allen, allencr@unl.edu

Review of applications will begin March 15 and continue until a qualified candidate is identified.  For more information on the Nebraska Coop. Unit and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln please visit us at:

http://snr.unl.edu/necoopunit/default.asp

Applicants should also review:

https://prairieecologist.com/

Specific projects could include all or part of the following:

Relationship between restoration diversity and ecosystem services, such as invasion resistance and herbivory; interactive effects that might mediate some resilience properties; responses to multiple disturbances; how invasions might weaken the ability to cope with disturbance; microbial diversity and ecosystem function and services; response to pulse and press disturbances and mechanisms driving responses; functional trait diversity and redundancy and resilience.

7 thoughts on “Why Does Plant Diversity Matter? Help Us Figure It Out!

  1. marilyn February 16, 2015 / 10:21 am

    Just wondering how many different species would be considered a high count in a transect field survey using a 1 meter grid at a prairie site known to be undisturbed? Good Luck on your search for the perfect candidate in the posted position.

  2. Robert Fleming February 16, 2015 / 12:45 pm

    Chris,

    Could you tell me, please, who at Simpson has been participating in the research mentioned in today’s post? I’m restoring a hundred acres of prairie/savanna nearby as a private landowner and would love to offer the project as as research venue.

    Best,

    Rob Fleming

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Paul Gibson-Roy February 16, 2015 / 3:53 pm

    Dear Chris. A very interesting subject. This is something I have been interested in since beginning my journey in grassland restoration. I was always slightly uncomfortable with the subjectivity of human choice when it came to picking winners for restoration species mixes. This drove me to test this experimentally during my PhD many years ago (see attached – it may be of interest to the researchers you mention). I’m convinced that enhancing species diversity in remnant grasslands, or establishing high diversity in restored ones adds to their resilience and potential as habitat for other tropic levels. Over the past several years I have also become very interested in the benefits of increasing biodiversity per se, that is regardless of whether species are native or not. While I remain wedded to trying to increase the range of depleted native grasslands her in Australia (less than 1% left), I am not in the very large group of ecologists that seem to see native as good and exotic as bad. In fact I’m just about to publish a short paper on a related topic entitled In Defence of Weeds and Ferals – I’ll forward it on if you are interested. There is no grassland left in Australia that is total free of exotic species, and in some of the very best remaining remnants, sub-dominant exotics reside and play and important functional role. I am convince we should be cognisant of function and see biodiversity in a broader sense if we are to make ecological progress in this complex and re-configured world humans have created.

    Regards

    Paul GR

    • Chris Helzer February 16, 2015 / 4:07 pm

      Thanks Paul. It’s an intriguing topic, to be sure. I have become much less of a purist than I used to be – and wrote about that a few years ago: https://prairieecologist.com/2011/09/13/purist-or-pragmatist-identifying-and-addressing-non-native-vs-invasive-species-in-prairies/
      At the same time, I also think it’s risky to assume all species should be welcomed or to embrace “novel ecosystems” as a given and inevitable future. The trick is trying to figure out which species (native or non-native) are additive to biodiversity and/or ecological resilience/function and then trying to further figure out if it’s feasible to regulate those species, and how. Very complicated, but worth the effort, I think (hope). The perspective you’ve taken sounds reasonable to me, but of course, I’m speaking in generalities from a world away and basing that on the short explanation you provided… I don’t think we can afford to be purists, especially when pure ecosystems don’t really exist anymore anyway.

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