There are several opportunities for research students to do ecological projects in my lab. For sophomores or juniors, there are 1 semester projects that can earn you credit (BI 293 or BI 393) and help you decide on your senior research project. These courses are also excellent preparation for graduate school. Rising seniors should meet with me at least by the spring semester in their junior year at the latest to discuss possible 470/472 research projects. You should also visit the Biology Directed Research page for timelines, forms, and additional advice. Some possible projects are featured below. Please contact me for more details.
Left: Benjamin Hunt checks a trap that attracts live insects using a light and CO2. Right: Data comparing the number of all mosquitoes collected in traps on our urban campus (BSC), at an intermediate site (RMNP), and a rural site (TCNP).
You would imagine that the number of mosquitoes that bite humans are more common in rural locations than in the city. However, Benjamin Hunt and Austin Mills both found that this wasn’t the case. Across two seasons (summer and fall), they both found that several biting species (including Culex quinquefasciatus, Culex restuans, Aedes albopictus, and Aedes japonicus) were up to 20 times more abundant in an urban environment (the BSC Ecoscape forest), compared to either Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve or Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Given that these species are vectors for diseases like Zika virus and West Nile virus, you should probably make sure to apply the mosquito repellent when you’re in the city, and not just out in the country. Current students are looking into whether urban populations of mosquitoes are more likely to have evolved insecticide resistance than their rural counterparts.
Left: Blake, Henry, and Cameron using the collection at the Mississippi Entomological Museum to identify moth samples. Right: Cameron and Blake collecting moths from traps.
The Lepidoptera (which are overwhelmingly made up of moths) are incredibly common and diverse. They play crucial roles in ecosystems as herbivores, prey, pollinators, and detritivores. They are also strongly influenced by several environmental variables, such as habitat quality and size, the nature of the surrounding habitat, and temperature. Students and I have sampled the diversity of moths from different habitats in Jefferson and Bibb Counties, and we are currently working on determining whether the heat island created by the Birmingham metro area has an influence on the phenology of moths. If such an effect exists, it could have an influence on breeding bird populations.
Moths as potential pollinators
Left: Specimen of peachtree borer (Synanthedon exitiosa) prepared for examination for pollen. Right: Pollen sample (plus moth scales) taken from geometrid moth (Digrammia continuata).
While moths are incredibly abundant and diverse, little is known about their potential for pollinating plants. Most people think of moths as pollinators, but the truth is that this is based mostly off observations from a few species groups. In collaboration with Wayne Shew, we have been examining moths from BSC’s collection to see if they have pollen on them, which would suggest that they might perform some pollination services. See Kate LeCroy’s senior research paper here for more information.
Convict caterpillars and Cahaba lilies
Left: Spanish moth (Xanthopastis timais) caterpillars feeding on Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria) in Bibb Co., AL. Right: Convict caterpillar eating the seed of a Cahaba lily.
Colleagues and I have followed convict caterpillars and their damage to Cahaba lilies for the past several years. We are still learning more about their strange natural history – for example, these caterpillars can float downstream to find new food or pupation sites. See our paper on convicts here. We can assume that these caterpillars are sequestering alkaloids from their host plants, because they are rejected in feeding trials using fish and chickens. However, their chemical ecology is unknown. Students could use gas chromatography to estimate alkaloid profiles and concentrations in Cahaba lilies and in both the convict caterpillar and adult, known as the Spanish moth.
Glade invasion by cedars
Photo: Will taking data on cedar encroachment in a Bibb Co. glade.
Glades are rocky openings in otherwise forested landscapes and are common in the S.E. US, especially in Alabama and Tennessee. These open areas are maintained in a treeless state because of several abiotic and biotic factors, including the lack of productive soil and harsh growing conditions due to high levels of magnesium in the soil. We have found that these cedars are slowly closing in on these glade openings, and that cedar growth in and among glades is very predictable. Future projects could sample larger numbers of glades at different locations to see whether this pattern can be generalized beyond one location.