Research Project Descriptions 2017

Click on mentor names to read more about their research programs.

Spotted skunk ecology (1 student): Once relatively common, populations of eastern spotted skunks (Spilogale putorius) have declined by more than 90% over the last 60 years. The ecology and the causes of the decline of this cryptic species are poorly understood. Camera trapping has emerged as a noninvasive and relatively inexpensive monitoring method for skunks, and other mammals. The student intern will work closely with a faculty member to set up and monitor camera trap transects in natural and mined areas of eastern Kentucky. The intern will also work to develop mark-recapture models for skunks. Students should have an interest in mammalogy and mark-recapture methods. Mentor: Dr. Luke Dodd

Pollinator restoration (1-2 students): Native arthropod pollinators face many threats including from pesticide use, land use change and disturbance, climate change and invasive species. Loss of pollinators puts entire ecosystems at risk of losing critical functions. Disturbance caused by coal mining and reclamation processes may reduce biodiversity, including of native pollinators, and increases the prevalence of invasive species. Restoration approaches that promote native arthropod pollinators may be effective at fostering biodiversity across taxonomic groups, including benefits to plants and birds. Students will use field-based and GIS data to study how the amount of land cover under reclamation across the landscape affects plant-pollinator networks and pollination services. Sites will be located at schools that are within landscapes that vary in the proportion of land cover under reclamation. These sites will be compared to old-growth reference forests. Mentors: Dr. Valerie Peters, Dr. Jen Koslow

Old growth forest ecology (2-3 students): Students in this program will spend a large portion of the summer at Lilley Cornett Woods, a remote field station and old-growth forest. The forest has experienced minimal disturbance and serves as a regional reference site for forest composition and structure. The forest is a long-term ecological research site with 40 years of sampling. Student interns will participate in one or more projects including studying the spread of invasive species in the forest, contributing to a flora and quantitative survey of herbaceous plants, conducting phylogenetic community analysis, studying the dynamics of natural treefall gaps, GIS analysis of spatial patterns of diversity, and studying the role of topographic characteristics in structuring the plant community. Mentors: Dr. Brad Ruhfel, Dr. Jen Koslow, Dr. Ryan McEwan, Dr. Kelly Watson

Wetland Ecology (1-2 students): Wetlands serve many important functions, although many have been destroyed or degraded in eastern Kentucky. Wetlands are lost through the process of coal mining, but wetlands have also been created for remediation and as inadvertent by-products of reclamation. Student interns will participate in one or more projects including examining water quality, wetland condition, and biological communities of macroinvertebrates and amphibians in remediation wetlands; colonization and community composition of created wetlands across a time continuum; and comparison of natural reference wetlands to other disturbed wetland sites. Mentors: Drs. Amy Braccia and Stephen Richter.

Stream ecology (2-4 students): Kentucky has more miles of running water than any other state than Alaska. The headwater and low order streams of Appalachia have high biodiversity, affect downstream dynamics, and are vulnerable to disturbance. Student interns will work on one of several projects in this system. One project will focus on a recently described species of fish, the Buck Darter, in which interns will use field assessments of habitat, electroshocking surveys, and GIS to learn about its status and distribution relative to disturbance. Another research system with multiple projects will assess water quality (including manganese and metals) in mine-impacted streams compared to reference streams and relate this to biological communities, carbon and nutrient cycling (e.g., how impacts on amphibians and invertebrates affect leaf-litter decomposition), and adverse human health outcomes. Lab-based projects will determine if local manganese concentrations and manganese-spiked groundwater induce neurological impairment in invertebrate models. Mentors: Drs. Amy Braccia, Jimmy Fox, Sherry Harrel, Jason Marion, and Stephen Richter.

Bird communities of hemlock forests (1-2 students): Eastern Hemlocks are a foundational species to forests of Appalachia. An invasive insect, Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, is causing widespread and strong changes to the forests of Kentucky. Seven years ago, as the invasion was beginning, we sampled bird communities in hemlock forests across the Appalachian region of Kentucky. Since then hemlocks have declined, except in areas where active treatment with pesticides and biocontrol have protected hemlocks. Student interns will follow up that study to compare bird communities and the condition of the hemlock trees in treated and untreated sites. Mentor: Dr. David Brown

Bat management- human dimensions (1 student): White Nose Syndrome is devastating bat populations across North America. Efforts to control the effects of the disease include restrictions to human visitor access to caves. The primary research focus for the student intern will be to determine visitor perceptions of bats, caves, and white nose syndrome and management strategies designed to control the disease. The student intern will also gain experience working with bat ecologists conducting acoustic and live trapping of bats, and sampling invertebrates to assess prey availability in different landscape contexts. Mentors: Dr. Michael Bradley, Dr. Luke Dodd