The Kerkhoff laboratory at Kenyon will work with researchers from the University of Arizona and Wesleyan University to examine the distribution, ecology and evolutionary history of more than 100,000 plant species in North and South America. Kenyon’s portion of the $528,000 collaborative grant is $279,000.
Understanding how plants have responded to climatic variation in the past is a key to understanding their future response to climate change. “If we know where plants stand now, how and why they got here and how they have responded to climate change in the past, we can make a better prediction about what will happen,” Kerkhoff said. “The need to predict how ecosystems will respond to human-caused climate change has given this a new sense of urgency.”
Kerkhoff and a team of student researchers will analyze data compiled by the Botanical Information and Ecology Network, an international effort to compile the world’s largest botanical database. They will modify existing analytical methods and develop new statistical tools to determine how plants have colonized novel environments over evolutionary time. “These data were collected by thousands of scientists over hundreds of years,” Kerkhoff said. “Our job is to make sense of it all.”
Using a variety of computational methods, the researchers will test whether colonization is limited by niche evolution (how an organism interacts with its environment), and whether less physiologically challenging environments impose hard ecological limits on the number of plant species they can support.
Kerkhoff is a quantitative ecologist who applies computational and statistical tools to the field of ecology. He studies how the evolved traits of plants can be used to “scale up” to entire ecosystems, and he has worked to improve the quantitative and writing components of biology education.
The project includes the development of undergraduate curricula to train the next generation of researchers in skills necessary to work with large-scale data. “A big part of the grant for Kenyon was to get undergraduate students involved in this kind of research, which pairs intensive computation with ecological and evolutionary questions,” Kerkhoff said. “It’s rare for undergraduates to have those opportunities.”