Category Archives: Enivronmental Sciences

Heliconia: plants with personality

Orange-hatted Dusty Gannon’ (my hummingbird name) visiting Heliconia tortuosa

In the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, first year graduate student Dusty Gannon is studying how Heliconia tortuosa, a tropical plant with long, tubular flowers and vividly-colored bracts (modified leaves that house the flowers), maintains its unique relationship with pollinating hummingbirds. Although hummingbirds universally love nectar, they have diverged into a few distinct functional groups that are characterized by behavior: traplining hummingbirds repeatedly and circuitously visit flowers, often traveling long distances, while territorial hummingbirds are aggressively possessive of flowers in a home range. It turns out that Heliconia tortuosa is picky about which of these groups contributes to its pollination, and preferentially accepts pollen from traplining hummingbirds, specifically those featuring a long, curved bill. Presumably, their bill shape facilitates maximal nectar extraction which is used as a cue by the plant to become receptive to pollen.  Many hummingbirds visit the Heliconia tortuosa flower, but few induce pollination because of the straight shape of their bill. The shape and size of the Heliconia tortuosa flower in relation to the shape and size of the beak of the pollinator hummingbird constitutes the emergence of a complex plant behavior.

Heliconia wagneriana

Heliconia wagneriana










Dusty’s research is focused on trying to understand how Heliconia tortuosa evolved the capacity to recognize and preferentially invest in pollination by certain pollinator hummingbirds. His work consists of testing for ‘pollinator recognition’ of pollinators across a select subset of species across the Heliconia genus, comprised of 200-250 species, and subsequently using molecular techniques to infer the presence or absence of pollinator recognition across
 the family. Among these several hundred different species of Heliconia, the flowers are morphologically distinct and vary in size from short to long,  straight to curved (even up to a 90-degree angle!). Dusty’s objective is to determine if pollinator recognition is a common trait among morphologically distinct Heliconia species, and uncover the evolutionary significance of this cryptic specialization. While conducting fieldwork at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, which featured a garden full of Heliconia, Dusty collected over 1,000 styles (the female reproductive organ in flowering plants) to assay pollen-tube growth rates across various treatments by epi-fluorescence microscopy back at OSU.

Tropical montane forest

Unraveling the tangled evolutionary biology of plants and pollinators is critical for understanding how the loss of certain pollinators might impact plant pollination. If a flower is visited by a variety of different pollinators, the loss of one pollinator might not seem like a big deal. However, if only a small number of the total number of pollinators visiting the flower are capable of inducing pollination, the loss of a true pollinator might be devastating for a plant’s ability to reproduce.

A sample of the morphological diversity in Heliconia flowers

As an undergrad at Colorado State University, Dusty studied Ecosystem Science, which consisted of learning about how nutrients and energy flow through an ecosystem. Dusty cites his high school AP Biology teacher as having a major influence on his desire to study science in college. During the first week of his freshman year, Dusty applied to work in a lab doing DNA barcoding; over the span of 4 years, he conducted over 10,000 PCR reactions! Following completion of his undergrad, Dusty planned to climb mountains in South America for a year, but unexpected circumstances expedited his enrollment in graduate school at OSU to pursue research related to pollinator recognition. Following completion of graduate school, Dusty would like to continue in academia as a professor, and possibly open a bread shop featuring a wood-fired oven, equipped with statistical models to ensure a perfect loaf of bread.

Join us on Sunday May 21st at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or stream live to hear more about Dusty’s pollinator recognition research and journey through graduate school.

Mosquito soup in the Brazilian rainforest

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Deforestation in Brazil due to cultivation of monoculture crops, such as soybean, has profoundly impacted wildlife populations. In the lab of Taal Levi in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, wildlife biologist Aimee Massey has adopted a quantitative approach to studying this impact. During her first and second year of graduate school, Aimee traveled to Brazil for fieldwork and data collection, collaborating with researchers from Brazil and the UK. During this trip, she collected 70,000 biting flies, including mosquitoes and sandflies, by engineering 200 fly traps constructed from 2-liter soda bottles, netting, and rotting beef. Aimee installed biting traps throughout 40 individual forest patches, which are regions delineated by their physical characteristics, ranging approximately in size from the OSU campus to the state of Rhode Island.

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Subsequent DNA analysis on biting flies provides a relatively unbiased source of wildlife tracking, since mosquitoes serve as a repository of DNA for the wildlife they have feasted upon. DNA analysis also provides information regarding diseases that may be present in a particular patch, based on the bacterial and viral profile. For example, sandflies are carriers of protozoa such as leishmania, which cause the disease leishmaniasis. To analyze DNA, Aimee uses bioinformatics and metabarcoding, which is a technique for assessing biodiversity from an environmental sample containing DNA. Different species of animals possess characteristic DNA sequences that can be compared to a known sequence in an online database. By elucidating the source of the DNA, it is possible to determine the type of wildlife that predominates in a specific patch, and whether that animal may be found preferentially in patches featuring deforestation or pristine, primary rain forest.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Aimee completed her undergraduate studies at University of Maine, where she quickly discovered she wanted to study biology and chemistry in greater depth. She planned to attend med school, and was even accepted to a school in her junior year; however, an introductory fieldwork course in Panama spent exploring, doing fieldwork, and trekking made a deep impression on her, so she decided to apply to graduate school instead. Aimee completed a Masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Michigan, during which time she spent 4 months at the Mpala Research Centre in the middle of the Kenyan plateau, just north of the Masai Mara. Following completion of her Masters degree, Aimee spent a year as a research assistant at the University of New Hampshire working with small mammals. Before beginning her PhD studies at OSU, Aimee spent two months in Haines, Alaska doing fieldwork with her future PI, Taal Levi. After she finishes her PhD, Aimee plans to focus on conservation work in New England where she is originally from.

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Tune in on October 23rd, 2016 at 7PM on the radio at 88.7FM KBVR, or stream live, to hear more about Aimee’s adventures in Brazil, and why her graduate work is shaping our understanding of how deforestation impacts biodiversity.


Heavy Digging


Mine Algae!!!

When I think of mining, the first thing that comes to mind is the classic gold rush miners from the mid-1800s. Someone that looks a lot like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. I don’t mean to imply that this is, or isn’t, what a miner looks like. However, this does say something about the general lack of thought about mining practices. The EPA certainly isn’t as ignorant about mines as I am; in fact, as of 2014, they had designated over 1,300 sites around the country as superfund sites requiring extensive cleanup efforts. Tullia Upton is also thinking about mines much more deeply than the average person, and she is uncovering some alarming information.

During a road trip through southern Oregon, Tullia was bummed when she was told it was unsafe to swim in a local river, so she decided to dive a bit deeper, figuratively of course. She learned that this area has become dangerously polluted due to waste products of the Formosa mine.


The Formosa mine near Riddle, OR

Mining practices involve extensive digging and extracting of heavy metals which are normally buried in a reducing environment deep down within the earth’s sediment. The process of digging up these heavy metals leaves behind a staggering amount of unused material, known as tailings. Mining also exposes the metals to oxygen and allows them to leach into soils and the watershed. Due to runoff from the tailings and other waste at the Formosa mine, there is now an estimated 18 mile dead zone where no organism can live. The full extent of the damage being done to the local watershed has not been thoroughly mapped though.


Tullia analyzing samples in the lab

As she learned more about the dangerous metals coming from the mine, Tullia immediately got involved as a volunteer and secured research funding to study the pollution occurring at the Formosa mine. Tullia hopes to map the full extent of runoff from the Formosa mine and provide a better picture of the mess for the EPA, and other scientists, working on the cleanup process. When she finishes her Ph.D. here in Environmental Sciences, Tullia hopes to move on to a post-doc and eventually run her own research lab.

Tune in this Sunday, October 9th at 7pm PST to hear more about mine pollution and Tullia’s unique journey to grad school at OSU.