Fern and Insect Communities

Recently a fern, Pteris Vittata, was discovered to hyperaccumulate arsenic into its fronds.  This characteristic has garnered considerable  interest to use it as a phytoremediater of contaminated sites in the US and around the world.  I approach this method from two main avenues: applied, and theoretical.  The applied aspects tests the ecological consequences of hyperaccumulation and the potential effects of  making arsenic biologically active.  In treatment areas, P. vittata is planted in large quantities exposing a wide array of herbivores to arsenic.  If these herbivores eat the plants, and sequester the arsenic, there exists the potential for arsenic to both bioaccumulate across trophic levels and spread from the locus.  Expanding from this hypothesis I am developing a model to predict amount and distance arsenic can travel based on geographic location and species specific characteristics.  My more conceptual/theoretical interests test the “elemental defense hypothesis” of hyperaccumulation.  Briefly, this hypothesis proposes that P. vittata hyperaccumlates arsenic as a defense mechanism against herbivory.  The work surrounding this hypothesis, and in particular the gaps, drive the crux of my current research.  If we are to accurately test this hypothesis, I work with native populations, in native (and naturalized) areas.  By limiting the variables that could affect plant-insect interactions, I get a more complete and accurate test of the hypothesis.

These questions bring up several interesting research avenues that are  in my future research plans.  First, we need to understand the impact the plants have on the community when we introduce them novel areas. Along these same lines, are there herbivores that co-evolved with these ferns, and how do they cope with increased arsenic? My research is focused on herbivore community dynamics and in particular, their behavioral and physiological response to introduced species.

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