Workshop for Undergraduate Students: Leaf Cutter Ants and Ecosystem Processes

We are seeking excellent and motivated undergraduate students interested in ecosystem ecology, tropical biology, leaf cutter ants, biogeochemistry, microbial ecology, and related disciplines to participate in a FREE workshop "Leaf Cutter Ants and Ecosystem Processes" to take place at La Selva Biological Research Station, Costa Rica July 14-20.

The workshop will be divided into 3 modules: Part I will review the field of microbial ecology through the application of field and laboratory methods. Part II will focus on the technical aspects of measuring mycorrhizae and fungal methods. Part III will review the techniques to measure soil carbon fluxes and pools. Together, this workshop will bring together focused seminars and hands-on activities in the lab and field to answer ecological questions. Students will have a chance to develop small independent projects and conduct field work at La Selva Biological Research Station.

If interested, please email CV, letter of interest highlighting reasons you would like to participate in this workshop to by May 31, 2015. A limited number of full scholarships will be awarded to undergraduate students from US institutions. No academic credit will be given for this workshop.

Staying up all night, all in the name of soil science

The lab is very quiet at 5am, even with the vacuum pump humming along, EggBert the trustie old centrifuge rocking and rolling with our soil samples, and crickets screaming outside the lab windows. Things get a little fuzzy as the 24th straight hour of work creeps up, but for some reason, I am very awake and moving faster than I was 8 hours ago. We are making a big push here at La Selva. The goal was to collect soils from Atta cephalotes leaf cutter ant nests and non-nest controls (across a soil depth profile) from each site and get everything from the same site processed and extracted for soil nutrients in the same day. That means each soil sample undergoes rigorous prodding, getting weighed out for soil extractions, a year long soil incubation, and for future DNA, enzyme, and PLFA analyses. And everything is done in triplicate to cover our bases as these tropical soils are notoriously variable. No two places on the forest floor are the same. Hence the 5am lab work. I am in no way alone here - Nicole Trahan and Diego Dierick, postdocs on the Atta project, are here in various states of exhausted. Amanda Swanson and Soren Weber are graduate students in Mike Allen's lab and they are here to help as well as learn biogeochemistry techniques. Its a full lab and everyone is working very hard.  After a week of this grueling schedule with very little sleep, everyone is a little delirious. Soren has been singing non-stop for days. Nicole is laughing at her own jokes. Diego's hair is standing up straight (more than usual). Amanda remains calm and collected, an amazing feat considering the situation. I teeter between resolute single-mindedness to get things done and take on more work to lessen the load for everyone else and exhaustion as I also have the flu. In the end, everyone else takes on more work so I can get more sleep. But I think overall, its going well and in the end, we will have beautiful data. So its all worth in, in the name of science.

PNAS paper published and other exciting news!

A couple of weeks ago, we published the results from an 8-yr long field climate change experiment in PNAS. The paper describes the effects of elevated CO2, warming, and their interaction on plant community composition and production stability in a mixed-grass prairie and we show that under elevated CO2 conditions, both community composition and production are stabilized across wet and dry years. This stabilization is largely driven by a shift in community dominance patterns, a decrease in the biomass of the two dominant grasses and an increase in the biomass of subdominant species. The practical implications of these findings range from providing ranchers and land managers with information about how this mixed-grass prairie community is going to fare under future climate conditions so they can plan their grazing activities to helping understand long term carbon storage in these grasslands to refining ecosystem models of future carbon dynamics. 

In other news, I will be mentoring two REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students next summer at La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica. I am looking for excellent candidates who are interested in biogeochemistry, leaf cutter ants, and tropical forest ecology. Follow this link to the program description and instructions for how to apply. 

6 days, 7 bullet ant stings, 13 missing equipment boxes, 1 bad LiCor fuse, 2 non-functional keys, blisters and spliters

"As disasters go, its relatively minimal", Nicole Trahan said as we discussed all the mishaps that have occurred in the first week of setting up our new project at La Selva, Costa Rica. Turns out, getting an NSF research proposal funded in the current funding climate is a challenge, but getting this huge project off the ground can be downright treacherous. 

7 bullet ant stings, 2 stung researchers, 13 equipment boxes held hostage in customs, 1 equipment box that arrived with the wrong equipment, 1 LiCOR gas analyzer with a bad fuse that decided to blow after it had been hauled out to the field site, 2 dead drill bits, 

Starting an amazing project that will help us understand the world better = Priceless

Bringing together 9 scientists and 4 students in one place for 4 days start this amazing project = Priceless^2

Tropical Adventure, take 2

In less than 2 days, the OTS graduate course in tropical biology will begin. I will spend the next six weeks with a group of very motivated grad students and an impressive group of invited faculty, traveling all over Costa Rica to teach this course. We will learn statistics, research design, R, video and audio production, natural history, and we will do field research projects that address cool questions about how these tropical ecosystems work. We will work with bats, frogs, plants, microbes, ants, caterpillars, just to name a few organisms. We will use ecological niche modeling approaches to understand the drivers of salamander declines in high elevation forests and using those same approaches, come up with some predictions for future salamander distributions. We will dig into the past to see how these forests have changed, using meta-analysis approaches and harnessing >40 years of OTS graduate course books and countless OTS students' projects. All this work will also be very fun and exciting and in the end, I have yet to meet a student who isn't transformed and invigorated by the experience of the OTS grad course. So thrilling to be a part of this experience and to share in it with the students. Less than 2 days!

Fantastic News

2.18.14 – Just got fantastic news last week that our NSF proposal to figure out how leaf cutter ants are influencing ecosystem-level processes, including biogeochemistry, is recommended for funding!!! Way to go collaborative team: Michael Allen (UC Riverside), Tom Harmon (UC Merced), Steve Oberbauer (Florida International), Phil Rundel (UCLA), Nicole Trahan (U of Arizona), Adrian Pinto-Tomas (U of Costa Rica), Luitgard Schwendenmann (University of Aukland), Diego Dierick (Florida International), and Paulo Olivas (Florida International).