Overview

I'm interested in understanding how ecosystems and the biodiversity they support respond to human actions. I'm particularly interested in understanding how plants and animals utilize anthropogenic habitats and the properties of novel ecosystems. My MS  research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign focuses on the amphibian communities of constructed farm ponds in southern Iowa. For my undersgraduate research I tested a rapid assessment protocol to be used to identify vernal pools south-central Pennsylvania with high value to amphibian conservation .

 

Amphibians in Agricultural Ponds of Southern Iowa

 Clockwise, from top left: Timothy dipnet sampling a small farm pond in 2016 (photo by Scott Nelson).  A typical farm pond in Ringgold County, Iowa, with a small herd of cattle bathing in the pond. A gartsnake encountered at one of the farm ponds. A larger pond that was more easily traversed by kayak. 

Clockwise, from top left: Timothy dipnet sampling a small farm pond in 2016 (photo by Scott Nelson).  A typical farm pond in Ringgold County, Iowa, with a small herd of cattle bathing in the pond. A gartsnake encountered at one of the farm ponds. A larger pond that was more easily traversed by kayak. 

Farm ponds are a common feature of agricultural landscapes across the globe and are particularly abundant in the central United States. Recent estimates suggest that there may be as many as 3 million farm ponds in the Great Plains ecoregion alone. The majority of these ponds were constructed in the post-Dust Bowl era of the mid-20th century to provide water for cattle and aquaculture.

Today, however many of these ponds are now hotspots for aquatic biodiversity in landscapes historically lacking lentic water bodies. Despite their potential value for biodiversity conservation, these novel ecosystems continue to be understudied by scientists and ignored by government agencies.

My research on farm ponds in Southern Iowa has focused on understanding the habitat components that predict breeding occupancy of amphibians and how those components are linked to wetland sucession. I'm also working with Jaime Coon to understand how the attitudes of landowners impact their management of ponds located on private lands.

 


Vernal Pool Conservation in  Pennsylvania

 The images at right depict a vernal pool in early spring (top), an eastern  newt ( Notopthalmus viridescen,  bottom left) and a female wood frog ( Lithobates sylvatica , bottom right).

The images at right depict a vernal pool in early spring (top), an eastern  newt (Notopthalmus viridescen, bottom left) and a female wood frog (Lithobates sylvatica, bottom right).

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that undergo an annual cycle of desiccation and inundation. When snowmelt and rain fill the pools in the spring, amphibians migrate to the pools en masse to breed. By mid-summer, most of the amphibian larvae have metamorphosed into miniature versions of their parents and leave the pools to seek shelter and food in the surrounding uplands. At this time, the pools have dried, leaving only a sparsely vegetated depression in the forest floor.

For my undergraduate honors thesis, I tested a set of rapid assessment tools developed for predicting the richness, diversity and abundance of amphibians in vernal pools based on the pool's biotic and abiotic features including water chemistry, vegetation, and size. Our published paper can be found here.