My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of species interactions in biological communities. The interactions among species are central to determining the abundances and dynamics of organisms in communities. In turn, these abundances and dynamics determine several of the services we receive from ecosystems such as food, nutrient cycling, and the control of climate and diseases. I hope that my research on species interactions will help us to understand how ecological systems function and how we can conserve and protect them.
Individual Foraging Behavior and Intraspecific Variation.
All species interactions happen at the level of the individual. Thus, for ecologists to understand the influence of species interactions at the community level, we must have knowledge of what determines the interactions among species at the individual level and how we can scale that knowledge to the level of interactions among populations. The bulk of my dissertation research centered on the exploration of individual foraging behavior, how individual behavior can lead to intraspecific variation in diet preferences, and the consequences of this individual variation for community dynamics. To investigate these relationships I use statistical models, mathematical models, and lab and field experiments. My empirical research was based in the rocky intertidal of Oregon examining the dog whelk, Nucella ostrina, as a model generalist predator feeding on its invertebrate prey: primarily the mussel, Mytilus trossulus, and the acorn barnacle, Balanus glandula.
Predator Functional Responses.
Predator functional responses describe predator feeding rates and thus lie at the heart of predator-prey theory. Although the idea of predator functional responses has been around for over half a century and you may have learned about the canonical 'Types' of functional responses often covered in general ecology classes, there is still a lot we don't know about these really important functions. My research attempts understand not just how prey densities influence predator feeding rates (as in most classic functional responses), but to understand how both biotic and abiotic factors together shape functional responses. I work on mathematical theory examining how adding complexity to functional responses alters population dynamics and coexistence among prey, develop methods for estimating predator functional responses, and examine how a variety of factors come together to shape functional responses under field conditions.
Ecological and Evolutionary Feedbacks.
Since beginning my postdoc, I've begun researching how ecological and evolutionary processes interact with one another to shape species interactions. To do so, I use both lab experiments and the development of eco-evolutionary theory. My current empirical research uses evolved lines of paramecium that have spent hundreds of generations at high and low temperatures to understand how prior temperature adaptation influences species interactions and population dynamics. My theoretical work takes advantage of Gillespie Eco-evolutionary Models (GEMs) which provide a computational analogue of evolution that naturally incorporate important biological processes like demographic stochasticity, trait variation, and extinction. One project I am currently really excited about uses GEMs to understand how ecological stability and feasibility boundaries might constrain the evolutionary trajectories of species and ultimately the trait spaces that species are able to occupy.