Research

"Trying is the first step towards failure." - Homer Simpson

"Academic (adj.) \ˌa-kə-ˈde-mik\: …3. having no practical or useful significance" - Merriam-Webster Dictionary


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We are ecologists and we are conservation biologists.  We are interested in a variety of fundamental and applied ecological, behavioral, and evolutionary questions.  We use amphibians and reptiles as focal species to address many of those questions.  Our current research programs focus on (1) the impacts of nonnative species invasions, climate change and land use on amphibians and reptiles, (2) the influences of amphibians and reptiles on ecosystem processes, and (3) general research to support the conservation and management of amphibians and reptiles.  We are particularly focused on the use generation of ecological data and the development of population models to inform management decisions.  Our lab is a participant in the Coweeta LTER.


Coweeta LTER: Climate change and land use impacts on Appalachian biota and ecosystems

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The interaction between shifting patterns of land use and a changing climate are both a major emphasis of ecological research and a significant challenge for management.  Our lab is involved in a number of projects that address the impacts of climate change, and patterns of land use on the ecology of Appalachian salamanders.  This is the major focus of our role in the Coweeta LTER.

While salamanders represent only ~10% of global amphibian diversity, they represent >50% of amphibian species in North America and >70% of amphibian species in the eastern deciduous forests of North America.  Southern Appalachia a global hotspot for salamander diversity.  Salamanders are numerically more abundant than any other vertebrates in these forests, and are the only common vertebrates in forested headwater streams.  In this way, the presence of salamanders distinguishes North American deciduous forests and headwater streams from similiar ecosystems elsewhere in the world.

Nonnative Species Invasions

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Invasions by nonnative species are a major component of human-driven global change.  There is ample evidence that in specific cases, introduced predators, diseases, and competitors can have dramatic negative impacts on native fauna.  However, several recent reviews note that the treatment of invasive species as ‘otherworldly’ and the dissociation of invasion ecology from other ecological fields has limited progress in understanding and managing for invasions.  In the context of management, actions motivated strictly by the origin of a species could lead to undesirable outcomes without a clear understanding of how native and nonnative species are affecting an ecosystem. The processes that regulate nonnative species invasions and the impacts of invaders on recipient systems are the same processes that regulate ecosystems in other contexts (e.g. succession, taxon cycles), therefore, the focus of our research has been to transcend the species origin and to identify the mechanisms that lead to impacts by invaders.  We believe that this approach will allow the broader field of ecology to inform invasion ecology, will help identify when invasions lead to specific risks to recipient communities, and will ultimately lead to more informed management actions.

The Effects of Amphibians and Reptiles on Ecosystem Processes

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Vertebrates, particularly ectotherms, can have unique and influential effects on ecosystem processes.  Reptiles and amphibians can achieve remarkable densities and biomass and have high metabolic efficiencies.  As a result, reptiles and amphibians may be important in the uptake and retention of nutrients.  Species with complex life cycles may also be important vectors for nutrient fluxes between systems.  Because of their "low-energy life styles", reptiles and amphibians can also prey extensively on small invertebrates such as mites, springtails, and ants [species to small to be economical for endotherms].  Many of the invertebrates important in reptile and amphibian diets influence decomposition and the distribution and abundance of plant species.  We believe that understanding the ways that reptiles and amphibians affect ecosystem processes such as nutrient dynamics and biodiversity is important for modeling how systems will be affected by shifts in biodiversity, and is influential in affecting public interest in the conservation of species.

Conservation Ecology and Management

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An overarching philosophy of my lab is that all work that we do contributes directly or indirectly to the conservation and management of amphibians and reptiles.  We make a clear distinction between work that is applied ecology and work that is management focused, and we engage in a variety of projects along that spectrum.  Applied ecology is work that is fundamental or theoretical in nature, but has clear applications to understanding how issues affect the distributions or abundances of species.  The applied nature of our research is often related to the context of the study, such as studying species along a climate gradient or in habitats with and without invasive species present.  Our work on conservation management focuses much more directly at using applied knowledge to inform decision making and specific management actions.  Our management projects are often more local in nature and involve collaboration with various stakeholders including state agencies, local governing bodies, and NGOs such as the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and The Nature Conservancy.  Students working on our management projects are often interested in careers in wildlife conservation and management, or are participants in the ICON PhD Program.