Romantic ideas of an untrammeled nature are becoming ever-more unrealistic. Direct and indirect human impacts on plant diversity are ubiquitous, threatening the vitality of ecosystems globally. To address these challenges, I use interdisciplinary collaborations with evolutionary biologists, physicists, political ecologists, and botanical educators to understand how plants respond to environmental change. I am developing evolutionary frameworks to predict these plant responses, and I have integrated sociocultural information into our understanding of ecosystem dynamics.
Three recent and ongoing projects highlight these approaches. First, in collaboration with political ecologists, local government officials, and natural scientists, I have developed a framework for classifying how human sociocultural practices can mediate the effects of globalization on biodiversity across ecosystem boundaries (Sistla et al. 2016; Kramer et al. 2017; Williams et al. 2022). This approach would have been possible only through committed interdisciplinary collaboration, rich place-based knowledge, and coupled qualitative and quantitative data. This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.
Second, one of the major threats of climate change is sea level rise, which will affect coastal communities globally. In the tropics, mangrove forests provide numerous ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, storm surge protection, and animal habitat. Despite being extremophiles and living constantly immersed in water, mangrove plants have suffered widespread mortality due to extended saltwater inundation and drought. Understanding the physiological tolerances of mangroves to salinity and drought will provide valuable information needed to predict mangrove migration inland and their tolerances to ever-changing coastal conditions. Our work on mangroves has broadened our understanding of the tissue-level adaptations that allow mangroves to tolerate constant saltwater inundation and osmotic stress (Jiang et al. 2022a), as well as their surprising vulnerability to drought (Jiang et al. 2021; 2022b). Using experimental approaches, we are determining how plastic mangrove physiology is to salinity, which will aid in predictions about mangrove encroachment with saltwater intrusion.
Third, assessments of plant and ecosystem health are increasingly relying on remote sensing and spectral imaging, yet these approaches are only just now beginning to be linked to plant traits, though still with limited physiological information. Broad surveys of plant traits provide a powerful tool for gathering functional data that can then be used in remote sensing of landscape scale processes. Integrating detailed knowledge of leaf-level biophysical limits and physiological processes into remote sensing methods will empower high resolution monitoring of ecosystem health and biodiversity surveys.
Sistla et al. 2016. Agroforestry Practices Promote Biodiversity and Natural Resource Diversity in Atlantic Nicaragua PLoS One
Kramer et al. 2017. Coastal livelihood transitions under globalization with implications for trans-ecosystem interactions PLoS One
Williams et al. 2022. Resource users as land-sea links in coastal and marine socioecological systems Conservation Biology
Jiang et al. 2022a. Coordination of hydraulic thresholds across roots, stems, and leaves of two co-occurring mangrove species Annals of Botany
Jiang et al. 2022b. Diverse mangroves deviate from other angiosperms in their genome size, leaf cell size and cell packing density relationships Plant Physiology