Projects

My research has been in many fields of with relevance to Conservation Biology: Landscape Genetics, Landscape Ecology, Road Ecology, Wildlife Biology, Phylogeography, Phylogenetics, Community Phylogenetics, and more. I’m interested in education, especially when it includes things like the outdoors, citizen science, environmental policy, and management.

Current and Past Projects

 Metabarcoding projects

I am working with several colleagues to run several ongoing projects as a part of  Genetics Lab courses at Southern Utah University. All of these projects include the use of metabarcoding to identify DNA of organisms in a sample: (1) Diatoms and other phytoplankton in local streams affected by the 2017 Brian Head Fire, (2) Diet analysis of desert tortoises to determine the role of invasive species in their diet, (3) Diet analysis of greater sage grouse to determine the relative importance of sage, other plants, and arthropods in their diet, (4) Pollen analysis of honey to understand whether honeybees may be competing with native bees for flowers. Our students extract DNA and perform PCR on samples, while our sequencing partner, Jonah Ventures, performs amplicon sequencing and bioinformatics support, providing data for our students to analyze.

Investigating how landscape affects roadkill hotspots

I am mentoring undergraduate students in examining how to predict where mule deer roadkill hotspots are, based on the presence of biological and physical factors. We are using roadkill data from the Utah Department of Transportation, remotely sensed data from LANDFIRE, and our own field data to build models that explain what drives mule deer roadkill. We are looking at how topographic roughness, fencing, vegetation, driver/mule deer visibility, and water sources combine to determine roadkill density on Highway 56 in southern Utah.

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Photo: Natalie Barlow

Genetic effects of roads on kangaroo rats

I’m interested in understanding how humans affect wildlife persistence and evolution. For my doctoral work, I looked at how roads affect genetic patterns in wildlife populations. Many species are genetically divided by roads, either by avoiding roads or by being killed on roadways. What we don’t know is what differences road avoidance and roadkill have on genetic diversity of wildlife populations. Many genetic studies have looked at the effect of roads as barriers to movement, but this is the first to attempt to distinguish the different mechanisms for that barrier effect. I studied desert kangaroo rats and Merriam’s kangaroo rats from sand dune habitats in the Sonoran desert of southwestern Arizona. Highways cut through kangaroo rat habitat, causing frequent roadkill. My study made use of landscape genetic methods to make inferences about the processes that lead to the patterns of genetic diversity we find in DKR.

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Community Phylogenetics of Arthropod Communities on Cottonwoods

I worked with members of NAU’s Cottonwood Ecology Group on a project that brought together arthropod phylogenetics with community ecology. We have known for a while that different variants of cottonwoods host different communities of arthropods, but we are now learning that pure parental trees (narrowleaf and Fremont cottonwood) host arthropod communities with fundamentally different phylogenetic patterns than communities found on hybrid cottonwoods. We found that arthropods from hybrid hosts are phylogenetically overdispersed, but that those on parental hosts are phylogenetically clustered. This could have implications for our understanding of the role of host types in community structure and the types of niches different host types support.

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Grylloblattid Phylogeography

My masters work in the Whiting Lab at BYU focused on a little known and rarely encountered insect order known as Grylloblattodea (ice crawlers), often found in sites with permanent ice. I collected grylloblattids from across the Pacific Northwest, and from several sites in Japan and Russia. I found that these remarkable creatures harbor excellent records of their history in their genes. The North American species most likely descended from Russian ancestors that crossed the ancient Bering land bridge. Later, as ice sheets covered much of North America during the Pleistocene, ice crawlers spread southward, and as the ice sheets retreated, ice crawlers were left on locally suitable habitats on mountaintops and in caves. I found that most species of this rare group of insects are impacted by climate change and human encroachment to a much greater degree than we had previously assumed.

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Photo: Gavin Svenson

Earwig Phylogeny

My first research experience was with Michael Whiting at Brigham Young University on a project on the phylogeny of earwigs, a group of insects that gets little love from most people. We collected specimens of this diverse insect family from a variety of locations, including the highlands of Papua New Guinea. We generated molecular data and collaborated with a morphologist, Fabian Haas, to develop a phylogeny of the earwigs to understand the relationships of earwig taxa and the evolution of parasitism.

work

Photo: Gavin Svenson

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