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MSU biologist leads NSF grant to illuminate biodiversity with NEON

June 12, 2020

There is more to science than meets the eye.

Take an ordinary Michigan landscape—white pines, black-eyed susans, white-tailed deer and a few chickadees—just random points of nature to the casual observer.

But through the eyes of Michigan State University’s Phoebe Zarnetske, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Program, the natural world contains nearly infinite potential data points that, when aggregated over time and space, reveal predictable patterns of biodiversity.

Zarnetske's team will expand their biodiversity and geodiversity investigations from the smallest beetles to the nation’s largest land formations as lead investigator of a 5-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Macrosystems Biology and NEON-Enabled Science grant.

NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, is one of the largest standardized data collection networks in the world with 81 field sites located strategically in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems across the United States.

“NEON collects frequent data on a wide range of organisms, including beetles, fish and small mammals—species that play different roles in ecosystems,” said Zarnetske, who will orchestrate the nationwide, interdisciplinary group of scientists. “The geographic patterns of biodiversity within NEON are expected to be influenced by climate, but they have yet to be evaluated across diverse species lineages and with other drivers such as geodiversity, land use history and disturbance history.”

NEON sites are nested in 20 climate domains across the United States. Each domain has multiple sites and each site has multiple plots, giving the researchers three distinct spatial scales to aggregate the data—domain, site and plot.  Zarnetske and her team hypothesize that patterns of biodiversity will have different drivers at each distinct scale.

Diagram showing different species and drivers of biodiversity
Diagram showing the different species and drivers of biodiversity investigated in a 5-year NSF Macrosystems Biology grant led by MSU integrative biologist, Phoebe Zarnetske. Credit: Phoebe Zarnetske

“When NEON scientists go out and monitor organisms at numerous locations throughout the season,” Zarnetske explained, “we can quantify all the individuals and species that are co-occurring with each other in the same location at the same time and compute the different drivers at the different scales.”

For example, trait variation among species is one of the keys to understanding patterns of biodiversity, so by zooming in on NEON beetles, small mammals and fish, Zarnetske and her team can use body size as an indicator of one driver, competitive ability.

However, like those elusive magic eye pictures, if the observer gets too close, data end up looking like individual points. By slowly zooming out, the larger contours of geodiversity and climate begin to play their role in shaping the biodiversity picture.

To paint this larger, more complete picture, Zarnetske’s team will create a geospatial database on both land disturbance and land use history that better explains variation in biodiversity across organisms from local to continental scales, something NEON currently lacks.

Read more at NatSci and MSU Today.