Research in a Davidson College biology lab connects directly to the stewardship and monitoring work being done by Davidson Lands Conservancy to assess the current ecological needs of lands we preserve and manage.

Associate Professor Kevin Smith and more than 15 students have been working on an ecological experiment to improve the prediction of extinction events as a result of major environmental disruptions. Erin Scott, Class of 2019, has now spent three summers on this project as a lab tech, working with current students to maintain and monitor 50 soil bags—miniature forests—each one meter in diameter, composed of artificial communities of North Carolina native-plant species in different densities. Species include milkweed, echinacea, prickly pear, and goldenrod. Common colonizers of these plant communities include monarch butterfly larvae, jumping spiders, ladybugs, and aphids.

Each summer, controlled mass extinctions of plant species are carried out by the team, replicating drought, habitat destruction, or biodiversity reduction resulting from invasive species.

Scott explains, “Destruction events like this are happening more and more frequently on a large scale due to urbanization, climate change, and other factors. To conserve the remaining habitat and to know where to focus our conservation efforts, it is important to get an idea of how species living in that remaining habitat react to the disturbance. Our experimental design allows to answer questions like: Do rare or common species go extinct following a disturbance? Is a more homogenous or more heterogeneous forest more resistant to disturbance?”

Knowing what traits or other factors might make a species vulnerable to local or more widespread extinction can inform our choices of how to protect and propagate species for climate change resiliency. Studies such as this one can guide management strategies to strengthen the resiliency of delicate ecosystems facing potential threats—and preserve our natural lands.