As a general rule, if we find something to be interesting, we try to figure it out.
Research in the lab is centered around understanding the processes which regulate plant diversity, influence plant foraging decisions, and understanding the causes and consequences of species interactions. Our lab has maintained a particular interest in processes occurring belowground, though we try not to make fun of those who prefer to study stems and leaves.
We use local native grasslands for much of our field work, but many studies are also conducted in forested areas, mesocosms, growth rooms, and through data synthesis. Research questions are generally posed at a variety of levels, including evolutionary ecology, behavioural ecology, population biology, and community ecology. The goals of our work include enhancing fundamental knowledge as well as informing decision makers in the context of conservation and management of natural lands.
Plant social interactions and community assembly
There are those who look at a patch of vegetation, and see a competitive environment which should lead to species loss. Another point of view is that that patch of plants is simply a neighbourhood of individuals who happen to co-occur. At times, the social interactions of neighbours can be antagonistic, and at other times neighbours the interactions can enhance the quality of life (and fitness). Although classical and so-called modern theories of coexistence assume exclusion and species loss come from living with others, we prefer to devise the experiments and look at the data.
Many projects in the lab are focused on having a deep understanding of fundamental predictions from foundational works in ecology and evolution, and identifying important and widespread assumptions. From there, we devise critical tests which we conduct in the field and lab. Through this, it is increasingly clear that theorists and empiricists have very different understandings of how plants actually interact with each other, and what the consequences are for co-existence.
Although much of this work is directed towards fundamental understanding, there are conservation/application aspects which we explore. This include causes and consequences of invasive species, the role of plant-soil feedbacks in moderating future growth, and finding meaningful uses for plant traits in the delivery of ecosystem services.
Plant behavioural ecology
A classical view of plant biology is that of “plants as factories.” In this view, if we give plants certain things (resources, protection, etc.) then we can harvest other things. This view is the foundation of modern agriculture, permeates vegetation sciences and plant ecology, and is largely accurate. However, what this view often forgets is that each plant in the field is an individual organism with a complex set on sensory abilities, and profoundly effective ways of modifying physiology and development in response to local cues and stimuli. This is the realm of behavioural ecology, and is a major theme in the lab.
We recognize that animal behaviourists have developed a robust conceptual foundation for understanding the mechanisms of ultimate causation that underlie core behaviours. There is no a priori reason to assume these theories should apply only to animals, and thus we do not make that assumption. Instead, we test whether plant growth follows the expectations of animal behavioural models, leading to the development of the field of plant behavioural ecology. In this work we have demonstrated optimal root foraging, anticipatory behaviour, memory, and a diversity of other interesting phenomena.
Much of this work is focused on understanding what it means to be a plant, and to gain better understanding of the tools available for plants to live their lives. However, we are also applying this work through ongoing work in wheat and flax, as well as conservation efforts related to species invasion.
Grassland and community ecology
In the Anthropocene, there is no shortage of stressors that threaten biodiversity and may degrade ecosystems services. However, not all change is necessarily negative for all plants, nor for certain desired environmental outcomes and services. Through numerous studies, we work to look beyond the trends of the day, and instead conduct multi-year manipulative experiments in natural systems, allowing for a deeper understanding of what drivers do and do not matter for a given system.
They types of drivers we manipulate are diverse, and include temperature, precipitation, herbivory (including livestock), mycorrhizae, and countless others. Further, our response variables of interest are not limited to plant growth and diversity, but include pollination, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, and all those other critical things upon which human society depends.