The Living Earth Collaborative put out its first call for grants in Spring 2018. Below are the nine projects that received seed grants. The next call for proposals will be late 2018 or early 2019. 

 A Multidisciplinary Approach to Investigating Ecuadorian Species and Habitats

Lauren Augustine, Saint Louis Zoo
Mark Wanner, Saint Louis Zoo
Luis Coloma, Director, Centro Jambatu
Carmen Ulloa, Missouri Botanical Garden
Nora Oleas, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica

Considered a biodiversity hotspot, Ecuador has the second highest deforestation rate in South America. With such rampant deforestation in addition to several other threats, species are being lost at an alarming rate, even species that are still unknown to science. Experts speculate there are still hundreds of species of amphibians and plants awaiting discovery. This proposal funds  a workshop to be held at the Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica in Ecuador to bring together biologists from the Saint Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, Centro Jambatu, Universidad Tecnologica Indoamerica, the Andean Bear Alliance and Washington University to develop new approaches to document and conserve Ecuadorian biodiversity, as well as to prioritize areas for research based on current knowledge of species diversity and threats.

Developing the Bluntnose Minnow (Pimephales notatus) as a Model for Studying Genomic Responses of Freshwater Species to Urban Environments

co-funded by Saint Louis University

Dr. Jason Knouft, Saint Louis University
Dr. Wesley Warren, Washington University (McDonnell Genome Institute, Washington University School of Medicine)

Freshwater ecosystems provide fundamentally important resources for society.  Nevertheless, these systems are experiencing multiple impacts from human activities, including effects from land use alterations and climate change. Urban areas represent a nexus of these stressors where urbanization and increasing air temperatures are negatively impacting water quality and decreasing suitable habitat for freshwater biodiversity. While the conservation of biodiversity in urban areas is critical, species in urban systems can also serve as models for understanding ecological and evolutionary responses to rapid environmental change.  The bluntnose minnow (Pimephales notatus) is a fish species which occurs across the central United States and is common in St. Louis rivers and streams.  For this project, we will develop genetic resources that will allow us to use the bluntnose minnow as a model to study responses of freshwater biodiversity to recent environmental changes. Using these resources, we will also generate preliminary data to determine whether bluntnose minnows from urban areas respond differently to elevated temperature and chloride compared to populations from more rural areas.

Quantifying Effects of Parasites on Ecosystem Nutrient Cycling

The African buffalo is one species of herbivorous ungulate whose activity may influence ecosystem nutrient cycling. Shown here is a herd from South Africa. Photo credit: Robert Spaan

Amanda, Koltz, Washington University (Biology)
Sharon L. Deem, Saint Louis Zoo
Vanessa O. Ezenwa, University of Georgia
Rachel Penczykowski, Washington University (Biology)

Parasites are infamous for their direct negative effects on host individuals and populations. However, parasite effects on host behavior, physiology, and demography could also have far-reaching effects on ecosystem-level processes such as carbon and nitrogen cycling. For example, parasites may indirectly alter the flow of energy and nutrients through ecosystems by reducing host densities (i.e., by killing hosts or reducing their rates of reproduction), altering host traits (e.g., foraging behavior and landscape use), and modifying the ways in which hosts process nutrients. A framework for quantifying such effects is critical as changing environmental conditions affect the abundance and diversity of parasitic species across the globe (up to 1/3 of global parasite diversity is projected to go extinct within the next 50 years).

Our interdisciplinary working group of disease ecologists, animal health specialists, community and ecosystem ecologists, and theoreticians will develop such a framework to address how parasites affect ecosystem nutrient cycling by using ungulates (hoofed mammals) and their diverse parasites as a model. Ungulates are a globally distributed group of mammals that occur in almost every biome. They occupy central positions in food webs as key primary consumers and prey for secondary consumers. Many have large impacts on ecosystems via herbivory, as well as through nutrient deposition from waste products and carcasses. Together, these traits make ungulates an excellent starting point for exploring how individual- and population-level effects of diverse parasites translate to the ecosystem level.

Integrating Stable Isotopes and DNA Metabarcoding of Cave Guano to Develop a Unique Paleoenvironmental Archive for the Humid Tropics 

Xinyi Liu, Washigton University (Anthropology)
Christy Edwards, Missouri Botanical Garden
Rachel Reid, Washington University (Anthropology)
J. Leighton Reid, Missouri Botanical Garden
Bronwen Konecky, Washington University (Earth and Planetary Sciences)

The goal of our project is to gain a better understanding of how vegetation coverage has changed over the last several thousand years in Costa Rica so that we can make more informed decisions about how to restore tropical forests and how to conserve biodiversity. We will do this by analyzing the contents and chemistry of modern and ancient bat guano, which preserves information about bat diet as well as the climate and environment the bats experienced. First, we will collect modern bat guano to characterize the diet of the insectivorous Parnell’s mustached bat (Pteronotus parnellii). We will examine DNA retained in the guano to identify the species of insects the bats consumed and isotope analyses to quantify the relative importance of those different species to bat diet. We will then collect samples from a vertical core taken from the guano layers accumulated over 3-5 thousand years and use our knowledge of modern bat diet to interpret ancient guano chemistry (carbon and nitrogen isotope values).

Genetic Diversity of Peter’s Angola Colobus Monkey Populations in Northern Tanzania and in Accredited American Zoos

Monica McDonald, Saint Louis Zoo
Emily Wroblewski, Washington University (Anthropology)
Pamela M. K. Cunneyworth, Colobus Conservation

The Angolan colobus monkey (Colobus angolensis) is a diverse species with seven recognized subspecies. Peter’s Angola colobus, C. a. palliatus, resides in isolated and highly fragmented areas of Kenya and Tanzania that are facing increasing human encroachment. There is debate whether Peter’s Angola colobus is actually a single subspecies or two distinct subspecies. Non-invasive fecal samples have been recently collected by the conservation organization Colobus Conservation from critical areas of Peter’s Angola colobus’ range. By combining the resources and expertise of the Saint Louis Zoo and Washington University in St. Louis, we will analyze DNA obtained from these samples. This work will resolve the subspecific status of Peter’s Angola colobus and identify wild populations with critical, vulnerable and unique diversity. This work will also enable better estimates of population size and more targeted approaches to conservation. We will further analyze samples from the United States captive population to resolve the wild origins of the founder animals and characterize how much of the diversity found within wild populations is represented in the United States captive population. This information can inform future management and breeding strategies for the captive population

Below-Ground Perspectives on Biodiversity: Root systems, Comparative Genomics, and Domestication of North American Grapevines

co-funded by Saint Louis University

Allison Miller, Saint Louis University
Ken Olsen, Washington University (Biology)
Alex Harkess, Danforth Plant Science Center
Laura Klein, Saint Louis University

Genetic diversity is the foundation of evolution in nature and in domesticated systems. Recent advances in genomic data generation and ways of looking at plant anatomy have advanced current understanding of adaptation to a range of environmental conditions. In plant species, the vast majority of work has focused on observable variation in above-ground parts of the plant. Less well-known is variation in the below-ground portions of the plant, the root system. Using native North American grapevines as a model, the proposed study will assess 1) variation among grapevine species in root structures; 2) genomic differences among species that have evolved to inhabit unique soil types; and 3) effects of human selection on root morphology and genomic variation. This project will generate germplasm resources, anatomical data, and whole genome data from three wild grapevine species and their hybrid derivatives. Proposed work will advance understanding of natural variation and evolution in the less well-known half of plant diversity, the root system. Moreover, the work will highlight the importance of native North American crop wild relatives, developing an expanded vision for conservation of crop wild relatives that incorporates below-ground, as well as above-ground, variation in native species relevant to agriculture.

Biological Inventory and Conservation of Arevik National Park and Zangezur Sanctuary, Armenia

Photo copyright Saint Louis Zoo

Jim Miller, Missouri Botanical Garden

Mark Wanner, Saint Louis Zoo

The Caucasus Region is home to exceptional biological diversity that is surprisingly rich for a region outside of the wet tropics. The Missouri Botanical Garden has a long history of working in the Republic of Georgia, whereas the Center for the Conservation in Western Asia, part of the Saint Louis Zoo’s Wildcare Institute, has worked extensively in Armenia. The Center’s effort, focusing on protecting declining populations of Armenian mountain vipers, have been instrumental in establishing two protected areas, Arevik National Park established in 2010 and Zengezur Sanctuary established in 2009. Through the Center’s efforts, the reptiles of the region are well known, but not the plants. The purpose of this proposal is to initiate a collaborative program involving the Wildcare Institute, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Armenian Academy of Science with the goal of completing a baseline inventory of plants, identifying those that are threatened, and using this information to inform management and conservation efforts in the two protected areas.  This consortium will also aim to provide internships to learn basic plant collecting and identification methods for Washington University students.  The project will also provide information on preferred habitat for Armenian vipers, a species of concern that has been the focus of Wildcare Institute conservation efforts

Conserving Rare Plant Species through Ecological Restoration in Missouri Woodlands

Southern blue monkshood (Aconitum unciatum) by Tom Pottersfield (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0). This is an example of a rare, native plant that has not naturally colonized restored woodlands at Shaw Nature Reserve

J. Leighton Reid, Missouri Botanical Garden
Scott Mangan, Washington University (Biology)
Claudia Stein, Washington University (Tyson Research Center)
Mathew Albrecht, Missouri Botanical Garden
Quinn Long, Shaw Nature Preserve

Ecological restoration is a vital tool for conserving plant biodiversity. Restoring Missouri’s diverse woodlands often involves removing invasive species and periodically conducting controlled burns. However, these important practices are generally insufficient for fostering the recovery of rare, sensitive plant species. This collaborative experiment at Shaw Nature Reserve will test competing hypotheses about the processes that limit rare plant recolonization of restored woodlands. Specifically, we will test how soil microbes and competition with other plants influence rare plant establishment. By doing so, we aim to develop best practice guidelines for advanced woodland restoration in Missouri and reverse the trend of biotic homogenization.



A Synthesis of Patterns and Mechanisms of Diversity and Forest Change in the Andes: A Global Biodiversity Hotspot

A Bolivian undergraduate student, measuring the diameter growth of a tree in the Andean forests of northern Bolivia.

J. Sebastian Tello, Missouri Botanical Garden
Jonathan A. Myers, Washington University
Selene Baez, Escuela Politécnica Nacional del Ecuador

The Andean mountains of South America are the most species-rich global biodiversity hotspot. In only 1% of the planet’s land surface, the tropical Andes contain 15% of the World’s plant species (>45,000 species). In addition to harboring extreme levels biodiversity, the Andes also provide ecosystem services, such as food production, hydropower, irrigation and water purification, to more than 50 million people across the region. However, global environmental change—including, deforestation, human population growth and climate change—is endangering Andean biodiversity and ecosystem services. Two key knowledge gaps limit our ability to understand and predict effects of environmental change across the Andes. First, geographic variation in the basic ecology of Andean forests is poorly understood, which complicates the development and implementation of conservation plans across the region. Second, few collaborative research efforts exist for the study of Andean biodiversity. To bridge these gaps, our working group will bring together leading experts in forest ecology from around the world to synthesize existing knowledge, analyze biodiversity data from across the Andes, and develop new research collaborations. We will also bridge key knowledge gaps by synthesizing existing research on forest biodiversity and addressing new research questions using forest datasets from across the region. By bringing together researchers working across the Andes, our working group will tackle key unanswered questions about Andean forest diversity and dynamics at the large spatial and temporal scales most germane to regional conservation.