RESEARCH - Current projects
Effects of wildfire on spatial variation in animal foraging on lodgepole pine seeds and
potential implications for post-fire forest regeneration in the northern Rocky Mountains
Adviser: Dr. Monica Turner The larger Turner Lab research project
Committee members: Dr. John Orrock, Dr. Jon Pauli
The manuscript on this work has now been published!
Frock, C.F. & Turner, M.G. (2018). Microhabitat conditions and landscape pattern explain nocturnal rodent activity, but not seed removal, in burned and unburned lodgepole pine forests. Landscape Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-018-0717-x
1) Quantifying spatial patterns of foraging behavior of various granivores in Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
2) Examining how these patterns vary with the effect of recent fire, habitat edge, and potential seed supply
Each year, millions of visitors trek to one of America’s favorite National Parks to see Old Faithful, countless other geothermal features, and bison, grizzly bears, and other wildlife roaming the inspiring wilderness landscape. But common campground beggars---rodents---may be shaping Yellowstone’s forest ecosystems. How? That is the question under study by biologists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Not all tourists remember the 1988 wildfires that burned over 30% of the Park, but since then, professor Dr. Monica Turner and others have learned how and why fires change forests in Yellowstone. One remaining puzzle is why the returning vegetation is different between one stand of trees and the next.
Catherine Frock, one of Turner’s graduate students, is looking into one idea: do rodents eat enough tree seeds to change the number and pattern of trees that return after wildfires? Results from her study suggest yes. Within and around Yellowstone, animals may eat up to 99% of seeds, and less seeds in certain areas. To determine which animals are the culprits, Frock and Turner set out motion-triggered cameras to take photos in forests. They also measured habitat features
like vegetation that may affect animal behavior to figure out what (to the rodents) is special about these specific places.
Frock is still exploring her data, but if this behavior is common, rodents may affect the forests for years to come. Next, researchers want to see if the animals’ seed-eating matches up with vegetation patterns they see between different stands of trees.
Baby red squirrel captured by a motion-triggered wildlife camera
MOCK PRESS RELEASE
Could rodent behavior change the scenery in Yellowstone National Park?
Lodgepole pine seeds recovered from soil in a seed removal tray
This material is based upon work supported by funding by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. (DGE-1256259).
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has an area of 80,000 square kilometers and is centered on Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.
What is the goal of this research?
The goal of this research is to determine the effects of fire on the foraging behavior of various small mammal species, how those effects may vary spatially, and what it all may mean for regenerating forests in the Rocky Mountains affected by wildfires.
Why are you studying this (system/species)?
Post-fire forest succession has been well-studied in Yellowstone National Park (which is dominated by lodgepole pine forests) and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Researchers understand what drives landscape-level patterns of regenerating lodgepole forests in this region after fire, but there is variation at the smaller local scale that has not yet been explained. One potential factor that may help explain this variation is animals that eat seeds (e.g., small mammals). Understanding how forests regrow after fires is important because forests provide wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and other ecosystems services that are valuable to humans.
Why is this important to ecologists?
A central objective of ecology is to explore the link between ecological patterns and processes. Often, a consideration of spatial variation (i.e., heterogeneity) is necessary to explain this connection. Behavioral landscape ecology, which seeks to connect the behavior of organisms with spatial patterns in ecology, can provide insights on ecological pattern-process relationships by analyzing the causes and consequences of spatial variation in organismal behavior. However, connecting these causes and effects can be challenging, especially if behaviors involve multiple organisms (e.g., plant-consumer interactions). Two questions need to be answered: how does landscape heterogeneity create spatial patterns of behavior, and how do these spatial patterns of behavior affect ecological processes? I am addressing these topics by examining the potential effects of fire on the spatial variation in granivory (i.e., seed predation) by small mammals on lodgepole pine and the implications of that variation for post-fire succession in Rocky Mountain forests.
Why is this important to the public?
This study, primarily conducted in Yellowstone National Park, will determine the potential effects of foraging behavior of small mammals on seedling recruitment of a foundation tree species in the Rocky Mountains, possibly providing a link between the spatial patterns in animal foraging with the ecological process of tree regeneration---which has important implications for how forests grow back after wildfires. Given the increasing fire activity in the Northern Rockies that is predicted to continue with climate change, it is important to understand how mammals may respond to this widespread disturbance, as well as what the potential consequences of changes in mammal foraging behavior may mean for vegetation communities. Landscape-level conservation may be especially important for mammals, and applications of behavioral landscape ecology may help predict climate change’s effects on species; thus, this research has significant value to the current and future management of plants and animals.