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NSF-DEB #2016324, Collaborative Research: The Roles of Community Assembly and Consumer Impacts in Shaping Ecosystem Function

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This NSF grant, awarded to Dr. Holly Jones and me, studies how trait-based plant community assembly and grazing affect ecosystem function in tallgrass prairies. In 2021, we established a unique biodiversity-ecosystem function experiment in which realistic plant community plots vary in their functional traits, based on our long-term monitoring sites in the restored and remnant prairies at Nachusa Grasslands. We also simulate bison grazing in these plots using stable isotope-derived estimates of real bison feeding patterns and measure the outcomes for ecosystem functions like productivity, nutrient cycling, and litter decomposition.

The results from these plots will then contribute to models to predict community-ecosystem patterns at Nachusa, which we can test in the field. In this way, we can contribute to basic ecological knowledge while helping prairie managers predict the ecosystem consequences of these diverse grasslands.

This project has special education and outreach components. The experiment is established as part of the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability. We both teach conservation biology classes at our universities, so research-based grassland lab activities will be linked between the classes starting in Fall 2022. The grant also connects SDSU's and other universities' chapters of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in STEM to bring students on exchange and networking trips between the universities.

UPDATES

June 2022: The CAPER and PRISM teams joined forces for two days of intense sampling at Nachusa, continuing our amazingly consistent multi-year record of scheduling soil sampling on the hottest days of the year. But we worked efficiently and avoided the worst of the heat. Camille will use these samples to examine relationships between plant trait diversity and soil processes under the influence of grazing. Click here to see pictures.

May 2022: Five SDSU SACNAS members, plus Nick and SACNAS co-advisor Thelma Chavez, traveled to Illinois to meet researchers and students in the Chicago area. Along with NIU students, we visited Nachusa Grasslands and the CAPER experiment, and Northwestern University's SACNAS students hosted us at their downtown medical campus. This was a great opportunity for students to talk with peers, and SDSU students hope to help NIU students relaunch NIU's SACNAS chapter, which went inactive during the pandemic. Click here for pictures of the visit.

Summer 2021: Thanks to our hard-working student and technicians, and support from NIU, we set up experiment in June. We planted 156 prairie mesocosm plots, in which each plot contains 8 to 12 species to create both richness and functional diversity gradients.  Click here to see pictures of us establishing the experiment.

June 2022: Soil sampling from our long-term vegetation monitoring plots at Nachusa went well. We worked with members of the PRISM Project team to sample 190 points across restored and remnant prairie sites, and Camille worked with Meghan Midgley's lab to start soil analysis. Camille will be investigating how plant taxonomic and functional trait diversity influences soil carbon and nitrogen at these sites, and if plant diversity mediates management effects on important soil ecosystem processes. See pictures of our soil sampling here. As usual, we managed to choose the hottest days of the entire year.

August 2022: we collected aboveground vegetation from quadrats next to each of these sampling points and sorted all living biomass to species. This will give us high-resolution data about species-specific productivity in our plots to better understand how community assembly affects this particular ecosystem function. Hats off to the team for carrying out this challenging effort!

May 2023: Holly and four NIU students traveled to San Diego to visit the SDSU SACNAS Chapter and meet researchers at local ecological research institutions. We visited Dr. Stuart Sandin's lab at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the SDSU Coastal and Marine Institute Laboratory. It was a great chance for our NIU and SDSU students to reconnect from the 2022 trip.

June 2023: The NIU team, led by postdoc Dr. Katharine Hogan, carried our simulated bison grazing on half the plots in our CAPER experiment. They removed grass biomass (which bison prefer) and amounts of other non-grass forbs in proportions that matched our previous analysis of bison diet based on hair stable isotopes.

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