Answers to big questions in small communities

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So that banana you ate this morning… or that cup of coffee you’re sipping on right now… where do you think they came from? If you’re like me and live in a cold place like Michigan, you won’t find any locally sourced bananas or coffee. These plants grow in tropical areas—like Costa Rica. Driving around the country on the OTS Grad Course, the imprint cash crops is really easy to see. Banana, coffee, pineapple, and pasture for cows seem to line every road.

A banana plantation in Costa Rica (planetware.com)

But wait… isn’t Costa Rica supposed to be a natural paradise? A model country for conservation? Monkeys and birds on every hill and valley? It’s true that Costa Rica has about 25% of its land dedicated to conservation, but nearly all the land between those natural preserves is agriculture and urban development. 25% is a lot of land… does it really matter that we’re using 75%?

So how can we figure out how these different human developments affect natural communities? This question is a big issue in my area of ecology. We need to do good experiments, ones that manipulate factors of interest, have controls, and lots and lots of replication. But this is really tough when you’re thinking big! I doubt a banana farmer would let me turn his field from bananas to pasture to forest every year.

Look sort-of like a pineapple? Pineapples are a species of bromeliad!

Look sort-of like a pineapple? Pineapples are a species of bromeliad!

And they're popular house plants, since they don't need a lot of water, are pretty hardy, and very beautiful

And they’re popular house plants, since they don’t need a lot of water, are pretty hardy, and very beautiful

I’m now trying to think small in order to answer these questions. Bromeliads are a family of plants that have these really tough leaves that grow super close together. They collect rainwater at the base of the leaves and all kinds of plants, insects, and other tiny animals live in these “tanks.” They’re like mini, self-contained ecosystems!

Bromeliads collect rainwater at the base of their leaves

Bromeliads collect rainwater at the base of their leaves

These tanks are a unique freshwater habitat in the rainforest, so a lot of cool stuff lives here!

These tanks are a unique freshwater habitat in the rainforest, so a lot of cool stuff lives here!

Mosquitos like to lay their eggs here. (Image source: wikimedia

Mosquitos like to lay their eggs here. (Image source: wikimedia)

I think this ostracod is pretty cute. (Image source: wikimedia)

I think this ostracod is pretty cute. (Image source: wikimedia)

Rotifers are an ancient phyla of animals, but they are quite happy to eat algae and bacteria in bromeliad tanks. (Image soure: wikimedia)

Rotifers are an ancient phyla of animals, but they are quite happy to eat algae and bacteria in bromeliad tanks. (Image soure: wikimedia)

I can transplant these plants all across the landscape and monitor how the communities change based on where they are. This way, I’ll be able to see, not only how fragmentation restricts movement, but also how fragmentation affects the structure and function of a whole community! I’m pretty excited about the possibilities this system presents and the kinds of knowledge we can learn from it.

Big landscape! Little system! w00t!

Big landscape! Little system! w00t!

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