Understanding the biodiversity of tallgrass prairies

  • Testing the effects of phylogenetic diversity on restoration outcomes in tallgrass prairie — NSF-DEB Award #1354551, 2014-2021
  • “RoL: Impacts of plants and communities on soil microbial composition and function across phylogenetic scales” — NSF-DEB Award #1935074, 2020-2024
Ware Field Experimental prairie, est. 2016

Ecological restoration is a critical component of conservation. Unfortunately, restored sites often fall short of ecological goals. The goal of this project is to test whether considering a dimension of biodiversity rarely addressed in restoration–phylogenetic diversity (PD)–can advance the ability to restore diverse, highly functional, resilient communities. Answering this applied question will involve investigating fundamental areas of scientific uncertainty regarding the appropriate role of phylogenetics in community ecology. The experimental system for this collaborative project between Chicago Botanic Garden (lead institution) and The Morton Arboretum (collaborating institution) is eastern tallgrass prairie, an imperiled ecosystem for which restoration is an indispensable conservation tool. The research plan integrates long-term observational data from remnant and restored prairies; experimental manipulations of PD in field and greenhouse settings; and decision analysis for aiding restoration practitioners in solving complex, multi-objective problems.

This project will integrate elements from evolutionary biology and community ecology to advance the science of restoration ecology. The challenge for contemporary restoration science is to guide the development of diverse, resilient systems that provide the functions associated with reference habitats. Incorporating PD into restoration is an underexplored, potentially powerful tool to help meet this challenge. However, the merit of PD as a restoration guide depends on elements of phylogenetic ecology that have empirical gaps. Questions important to both basic and applied community ecology will be addressed through observational and experimental approaches that test PD as a heuristic for restoration. Decision analysis will be used to determine how restoration managers can incorporate phylogenetic considerations into multi-objective restoration efforts under ecological and cost constraints. It is predicted that restored prairies will have lower PD than remnant prairies and that restored prairies’ PD will be influenced by their management history. Greater PD is expected to be associated with greater functional-trait, plant-species, and soil-microbial diversity; higher primary productivity; and increased resilience to disturbance. Closer relatives are expected to respond more similarly to disturbance and compete more strongly with each other. It is hypothesized that the effects of PD on restoration outcomes and species interactions will be partly but not fully explained by effects on measured traits. Finally, restoration strategies that incorporate phylogenetic diversity are predicted to yield greater community-level functional trait diversity than business-as-usual strategies.

This project will contribute to the science and practice of ecological restoration, an essential means for conserving biodiversity and ecosystem services. The project team will broadly disseminate findings to scientists and land managers and will translate project outcomes into practical tools for restoration, including development of web-based tools for analyzing community data and supporting management decisions. The project will contribute to scientific engagement and outreach across the educational spectrum. High school students and teachers will be involved through the development of educational modules that integrate evolutionary biology, ecology, and land management through the use of classroom exercises, computer simulations, and field and laboratory investigations. Undergraduate researchers will be engaged through research internship programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) and the Morton Arboretum (MOR). College and high school students from underrepresented groups will gain research experience through this project; they will be recruited through existing internship programs and CBG’s College First program, which provides scientific training to underrepresented high school students from the city of Chicago. A female doctoral student will benefit from her close involvement in the project. One female, early-career scientist serves as a co-PI and would receive comprehensive postdoctoral mentoring, another would make key intellectual contributions as Senior Personnel. The project team will work with educational, visitor-services, and communications colleagues to educate their institutions’ large communities of members and visitors about this project and related scientific and environmental issues. This will include use of print media and educational videos and interpretive features located at a visitor-accessible field experimental system.