We study landscape ecology – You might ask “What is Landscape ecology?” Well, ecology is the study of life and its interaction with the non-living environment. Landscape ecology does this, but considers both small scales (e.g., a single bird-flower interaction) and large scales (e.g., many patches of forest, each surrounded by agriculture).
Landscape ecologists often try to ask whether large-scale patterns (e.g., the size of forest patches) influence important processes such as how well animals survive, have young, pollinate and spread seeds around. If you like plants, animals and think about their conservation, being a landscape ecologist is a great job.
Why do we do it? People are continually changing the environment in which they live. We add roads, build houses, grow crops and harvest forests. All of these actions alter the landscape and often they result in the loss and/or fragmentation (breaking apart) of animals’ habitats. As you can imagine having fewer places to live or having to travel further to get the food you need each day could make life a lot harder. We try to find out how animals and plants are affect by the ways people change landscapes. By doing this we can find ways to limit the negative effects on animals and help direct conservation decisions.Research can be a great way to learn many new things, enjoy new places and hopefully make a difference.
Where do we do it? The majority of our current work is being done in the tropics. We chose to study tropical hummingbirds since they are important pollinators of many tropical plants and are some of the few pollinators that were large enough to track with radio tags when we began the project. We work in the mountains of southern Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a country located in Central America just north of Panama. There are over 50 species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica! We stay at the Las Cruces Biological station and work in the surrounding area.
Major research questions-
1. How does tropical deforestation affect hummingbird movements? – We are answering this question through a number of different methods.
We have followed the hummingbirds by tracking them with miniaturized radio tags and more recently using RFID tags and tag readers placed at flowers and feeders.
2. Do changes in hummingbird movements and behaviors affect pollination of tropical plants? –
We have looked at pollination success of a species of heliconia (Heliconia tortuosa – a plant with flowers that look like bright red lobster claws!) across a gradient in forest loss (forest patches ranging from small and isolated to large reserves).
We found that plants in large patches of forest produced more seeds than those in small patches of forest.
3. How do hummingbirds pollinate? – We have found that it is almost impossible to pollinate heliconias by hand. The hummingbirds can do it but we can’t. This remains an interesting mystery that we are working to solve.