Community and evolutionary ecology of insect herbivores

Date: 

2011

Summary: 

We are studying the patterns of attack by insect herbivores on plants in order to both more fully understand why some plants are vulnerable to herbivory and to use our understanding to manipulate such interactions in pest control. The work involves field biology, chemical ecology, genetics, and entomology. We study the interactions between plants and their pests and strongly believe in the synergy between basic and applied work.

Issue: 

In total, plants and insect herbivores comprise about one half of the earth's macroscopic biodiversity. Herbivory, or the consumption of plants by animals, accounts for major losses in agriculture. Given that herbivory is the conduit through which energy from plants (i.e., generated by sunlight, water, and CO2) is transmitted to the rest of the food chain, studies that focus on plant-herbivore interactions are valuable and have implications for agricultural management.

We essentially study why some plants are attacked by insects and ways that might reduce this attack. This work is needed to advance both our basic understanding of the ecology and evolution of species interactions and to develop novel ways to manipulate such interactions in pest control.

Response: 

We work in a variety of study systems, from tropical rainforests to local agro-ecosystems. Our basic research involves milkweed plants, nearly 120 species from North America and 20 from South America, all which grow in various habitats and are attacked by a specialized community of insects. We take a community and evolutionary approach to study 1) why invasive plant species are successful and 2) the impact of genetic diversity in plant communities on ecosystem stability.

We are also working on the insect and disease pests of potato, and attempting to develop novel means of pest control by manipulating the plants' own defense systems.

Our team has also developed massive experiments close to campus, including deer exclosure plots to study the impact of deer grazing on plant successional dynamics in the post agricultural landscapes that dominate New York. This project focuses on plant dynamics, especially the success of invasive species, but collaborators are also examining soil seed banks, nutrient cycling, and underground microbes.

The aquatic cousin of this project is an experiment, conducted at the Cornell experimental ponds, that investigates the impacts of geese grazing on the success of aquatic invasive plants.

In addition, we have initiated major experiments to study the community ecology of insect interactions on the two common, native milkweed species. This work is being funded by the BBI initiative, a National Science Foundation Career grant, and start-up funds.

Impact: 

Our lab group publishes 5-10 peer review papers per year in international journals. In addition, we are involved in outreach activities through the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers (CIBT), reaching K-12 teachers to improve science curriculum throughout New York State.

Submitted by: 

International focus: 

  • United States of America
  • The Bahamas
  • Bolivia
  • Mexico

United States focus: 

  • New York