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Student Researchers Study of the Spread of Plant Species

Figure showing three bryophyte diaspores, and below from left, the semipalmated sandpiper, American golden plover, and red phalarope. The maps show for each bird species their breeding, migratory, and wintering distributions, as well as rare sightings. (Bird photos by Cameron Rutt)

Figure showing three bryophyte diaspores, and below from left, the semipalmated sandpiper, American golden plover, and red phalarope. The maps show for each bird species their breeding, migratory, and wintering distributions, as well as rare sightings. (Bird photos by Cameron Rutt)

This time of year, many in the country are watching warily as pollen floats far and wide on the wind, enabling plants to reproduce but also causing sneezes and watery eyes.

But a new study by researchers in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in UConn’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences demonstrates for the first time how some plants travel not just across the backyard, but as far as from Northern to Southern hemispheres on the wings of migratory birds.

Emily Behling ’15 (CLAS), an undergraduate biology major who is a co-author of the study led by Ph.D. student Lily Lewis, says that this is the first time scientists have demonstrated what many have long suspected: that migratory birds can be responsible for the transfer of seeds from the Arctic Harbor to South America. Findings were published in the online journal PeerJ.

“Scientists have always assumed that birds might be responsible for dispersing the seeds,” says Behling. “But this [assumption] bugged Lily. She wanted to know what was really going on.”

Lewis’s study found 23 regenerative plant diaspores – plant seeds or spores – trapped in the feathers of migratory birds leaving the Arctic harbor, including locations in Alaska and Nunavut Territory in Canada, for South America. These findings are important to ecologists who study plant dispersal across long distances, and can give insights into the ecology and evolution of plants that are represented across both continents.

Many of the plant parts discovered belong to mosses that occur in both regions. Mosses, says Lewis, are especially hardy plants and often need only one dispersal event to establish in a new place. These findings can help ecologists understand the processes that shape biodiversity across the globe.

This summer, Behling’s research will extend Lewis’ study by examining the DNA of the plant particles found in the feathers to determine what kinds of plants are being dispersed by the migratory birds.

“[Behling] is now taking the lead in expanding the project,” says Lewis. “She has optimized methods for isolation of DNA from single diaspores so that she can use genetic markers to identify them.”

Not your usual laboratory manual

Emily Behling ’15 (CLAS), a biology major, looks for microscopic plant parts under a microscope in a lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. (Lily Lewis/UConn Photo)

Emily Behling ’15 (CLAS), a biology major, looks for microscopic plant parts under a microscope in a lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. (Lily Lewis/UConn Photo)

Behling has been involved in the study since its conception in the spring 2013, when she teamed up with Lewis to develop a microscopic screening protocol for assessing the plant particles found in the birds’ feathers.

“After beginning work on the feather screening project, Emily really took ownership of the research and has improved the methods significantly,” says Lewis.

Behling admits that as an undergraduate, before joining Lewis’ lab, she was intimidated by the experimental process.

“Coming from a rural high school, we almost never used microscopes in our lab classes,” says Behling of her high school in Lebanon, Connecticut. “So I was terrified when, in my freshman biology class, everyone was expected to know how to use microscope.”

Behling says she was ecstatic when Lewis offered her a position working in the laboratory of her Ph.D. advisor, Bernard Goffinet, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Working with Lewis helped Behling gain technical laboratory skills, but also opened her eyes to new career options.

“Working at a nursing home as a medical secretary, I always thought I would go into healthcare,” says Behling. “But now I realize that I like doing research and working in a lab.”

Lewis says that Behling has proved to be an integral member of the study through her careful execution of lab procedures and her ability to grasp the “big picture.” Lewis points out that even though she is still an undergraduate, Behling’s work will make a difference in the scientific community.

“She has an excellent eye for details, but at the same time is able to contextualize her work within the big picture,” says Lewis. “The processes that shape global biodiversity are diverse and her work is helping to solve a piece of the puzzle in understanding those processes.”

Taking research out on the road

Behling says that working with Lewis has encouraged her to start her own research project funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF). Under her SURF grant, Behling will travel to North Carolina this summer to present the results of this study at the national Evolution 2014 conference. She will also present in October at UConn’s annual Frontiers in Undergraduate Research poster symposium.

Presenting at conferences will not only help her to disseminate her work, she says, but will help her to hone her own communication skills.

“In big lecture hall it can be intimidating to ask questions,” says Behling. “But I don’t like to just take information at face value. I like to ask questions and find out the ‘why.’”

Looking forward to her senior year, Behling is planning on continuing working in Lewis’s lab and applying to graduate schools.

“I’ve learned through my classes and working with Lily that you just have to go out there and make it happen for yourself,” says Behling. “Like Lily tells me, ‘You have a zero percent chance if you don’t try.’”

by Sam Ruggiero ’14 (CLAS)


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