Research interests

Scientific research has been an important part of my life since I was a child. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have worked as a research assistant or principle investigator in places as remote as Antarctica and Uganda. In this section, I summarize the areas of ecological and conservation science where I have invested most of my efforts thus far. My undergraduate research students have worked with me on all the Alabama projects. Many of them are featured in this slide show.

Tropical Forest Restoration

Map of Kibale Forest National Park

I began my career studying tropical forest ecosystems and how they can be restored. The loss of tropical forests is threatening the well-being of billions of humans, and is a primary driver of extinctions and climate change in the modern era. In many deforested areas, lands are used for agriculture briefly and then abandoned as soil nutrients are depleted. Restoring forests on these lands must be a part of humanity’s efforts to achieve environmental security and sustainability. For a ten years I studied ways to initiate and enhance the process of tropical forest regrowth in the Kibale National Forest, Uganda under the guidance of Dr. Colin Chapman during his time at the University of Florida. Primarily I focused on the role that animals play in dispersing seeds from mature forest into deforested areas, and the survivorship of trees that establish in those areas.

Fire in the Ketona Dolomite Glades

A scenic view of the Dolomite Glades

One of my first big projects in Alabama was to study the role that fire plays in the maintenance of an extremely rare ecosystem known as the Ketona Dolomite Glades. Glades are natural communities where trees are absent in an otherwise forested landscape – there are about half a dozen types of glades in Alabama. Dozens of very rare herbaceous species (e.g., grasses, wildflowers) are associated with glades – some are endemic to just a few small locations. Many appear to be relictual populations from the Pleistocene where forests were not the dominant ecosystem in the landscape as they are today. Soil factors are always a major reason why glades exist, but in the Ketona Dolomite Glades we found that fire helps prevent the encroachment of trees, and glade plants seem to tolerate fire just fine.

Montane Longleaf Pine Ecology

Longleaf Pine

I also study longleaf pine ecosystems in the mountains of Alabama. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) woodlands were once the most common ecosystem in the Southeast, but now occupy a sliver of their former range. They sustain high levels of plant and animal diversity, including hundreds of regional endemics. Frequent wildfires would kill invading broadleaf trees and shrubs, thereby maintaining the woodland’s open structure. Due to humans, fires are now rare or absent, and many longleaf woodlands are transitioning to broadleaf forests. Relative to Coastal Plain longleaf, the montane ecosystems have not received as much study. At Oak Mountain State Park (Alabama), my students and I, plus collaborator Dr. Malia Fincher (Samford University), are studying how geology influences the rate of succession to broadleaf forest, and strategies for longleaf restoration. Please visit Trek Birmingham to learn more about this fascinating ecosystem.

Watercress and Vermilion Darters

Watercress Darters. Thanks to Dr. Bernie Kuhajda

Alabama is home to more aquatic species than any other state in the US, and is a freshwater biodiversity hotspot of global significance. Right in the midst of Birmingham are two species of darters (small, colorful, bottom-dwelling fishes) found nowhere else in the world. The Watercress Darter (Etheostoma nuchale) resides in just five springs in the city, and the Vermilion Darter (E. chermockii) is found in just one small section of a single stream. Both are highly endangered species, and I work with other scientists and agencies to ensure these species do not go extinct. Most of my research has been with the Watercress Darter. My students and I have been studying the ecology of its favorite plant habitats, and also the threat posed by a competitor and predator – the invasive Northern Crayfish (Orconectes virilis). Head to Trek Birmingham to learn more about the Watercress Darter and how it is being preserved, or to read about the Vermilion Darter and its story.