NSF grant propels RU team into Texas coastal tallgrass prairie


From left, RU students Marisa Dameron and Ashley Sheretz join Assistant Professor of Biology Chelse Prather for field work on a micronutirent research project in coastal East Texas.

With the ink on the paperwork on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant scarcely dry, Assistant Professor of Biology Chelse Prather and two Radford University students hit the road right after graduation bound for coastal East Texas.

In conjunction with colleagues from the University of Houston, Prather and RU students Marisa Dameron and Ashley Sheretz will be determining how insect herbivore communities are affected by micronutrients, or the concentrations of certain essential but less abundant chemicals in the environment, such as calcium, potassium and sodium. The study will investigate the role these chemicals play in structuring plant and herbivore communities.

"This research will test the hypothesis that some of these micronutrients help to determine herbivore densities and species composition. It will transform our understanding and future research by suggesting novel explanations for what controls herbivore abundance and species composition," said Prather, primary investigator of the three-year project that is being underwritten by the NSF for more than $500,000.

The research objective is to demonstrate the role played by micronutrients in the unique ecosystem, the coastal tall grass prairie. This diverse ecosystem rich in plants and insects is vital to rangeland health as grazing cattle feed on the plants. Most of this prairie has been converted rangelands where insects like grasshoppers can compete with cattle for plants to eat.

Although only a few species of the thousands that live in these prairies pose problems for cattle, insects are often managed with pesticides, which kill all insect species indiscriminately.

Prather and her colleagues hope that their research may help to find a way to manage an insect community that is compatible with cattle, an industry central to the Texas economy and identity without spraying pesticides.

Prather said that the project’s scientific aspect is complemented by the opportunity to engage young scientists in the process of fieldwork.

"One of my favorite parts of being an ecology faculty is doing research with students out in the field. The students will see a unique environment, an ecosystem that is severely endangered, of which only one tenth of one percent of the original remains," said Prather. "In the process, they will gain valuable experience."

The team will set up very large fertilization plots and collect soil, plant and insect samples that will serve as pre-treatment data.

"I am excited to apply what I already know about research methods and plant/insect interactions," said Dameron, a junior biology major from Roanoke. "We have to be ready for the physical challenge of doing the ‘grunt work’ and laying out the plots in the field. Weather can be variable, so I am mentally preparing myself for long days in the heat."

Said Sheretz, a junior biology major from Roanoke, "This is a new adventure - learning about how the different species of plants and animals live together in the costal tall grass prairies as a whole, and how we, as new researchers, can help protect and restore their habitat."

Jun 9, 2015