Problem solver: John Orrock

August 30, 2012

John Orrock has always had a fervor for figuring things out.

But it wasn’t until an ecology lab during his undergraduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University that he realized he could spend his career asking and answering questions.

“I found the whole problem-solving process incredibly interesting,” says Orrock. “If you look at all the textbooks we have, there’s still so much we don’t know. It occurred to me that it could be my job to help build on that body of knowledge.”

John Orrock

For Orrock, an outdoor enthusiast, ecology seemed like the perfect fit.

“Ecology is something that you experience every day,” says Orrock, an assistant professor of zoology. “When you walk outside, you’re going to hear birds, you’re going to see a squirrel, you’re going to walk by a tree, step on some grass, and probably kill a few insects. Like it or not, we live in a world with a lot of other organisms, and ecology is always there.”

While searching for a place to pursue his career as an “ecological detective,” Orrock made his way to UW-Madison in 2010.  Drawn by the opportunity to interact with countless talented ecologists, he looked forward to the interdisciplinary atmosphere.

“My hope in coming to Madison was that I’d be surrounded by so many good ecologists that the only limiting steps to the science I could do was the number of hours in the day and my own intellectual ability,” he says.

Since arriving, Orrock has spent those hours seeking to understand how plants and animals interact. Beyond that, he’s interested in plant-consumer interactions, or what happens when an animal starts eating and killing a plant.

“I think it’s creepily exciting when a plant is sitting there, minding its own business, and a large animal comes and tears off half its biomass,” he exclaims. “That has serious implications – it might affect a plant’s ability to reproduce and it might affect the persistence of a population.”

Orrock also studies seeds, species that eat seeds – including mice, ants and carabid beetles – and anti-predator behavior, or how animals behave and make choices to avoid predators. As an example, he finds the balance mice strike between finding food, reproducing and staying alive incredibly interesting.

“Some of the work we’re doing with invasive plants and plant communities is to understand how avoiding predators determines where animals choose to eat plants, a behavior that affects which plants you see in particular locations,” he explains.

Bringing these concepts together is new in ecology, providing an array of questions worth answering. For example, in the case of mice, is the rodent eating a plant because it grows in a safe place for the animal, or is it eating the plant because the plant lacks defense mechanisms?

Behind both of these questions is the notion that, in nature, space and proximity matter.

“If you’re going to eat it, mate with it, or give birth to it, all of that happens in a proximal way,” he says. “If you can only eat something if you’re close to it, then that means that anything that changes the distribution of animals also changes the force of plant and seed predation.”

Orrock and his team of student researchers are studying these concepts across the nation and globe.

In California and Missouri, for example, they’re examining invasive species in relation to changing animal populations; disease ecology and the increase of human disease risk from ticks; and, on islands off the California coast, the evolution of anti-predator behavior.

John Orrock photo
Orrock has found that island area, rainfall and
predator diversity can affect the prevalence of
human infectious diseases carried by rodents.

His lab is also part of a large collaboration that includes fellow UW-Madison zoologist Ellen Damschen, studying how animals affect plant restoration across several southeastern states.

“We’re trying to restore understory plant communities in long-leaf pine forests and understand if animal limitation of plant communities has a geographic signature,” Orrock explains, “meaning if you look at a map of the southeastern United States, can you predict where plants will be most limited by herbivores and where they will not?”

Orrock is also involved with the Nutrient Network, a worldwide study of grassland ecosystems that includes 60 research sites on every continent except Antarctica.

When not pursuing his never-ending queries about the natural world, Orrock devotes his time to mentoring students.

“A great perk in Madison is there’s a large, relatively diverse student body to interact with in terms of mentorship and teaching,” he says. He believes Wisconsin Ecology serves a valuable role in bringing students together and providing a network to share ideas and grow.

“Science is a human endeavor. The likelihood that you’re going to do effective science is directly related to the quality of individuals in your environment,” he continues. “You might succeed without a community, but you’ll do much better with a good community. That’s what is great about this place – that intersection of intellect, collegiality and passion.”

This is one of four features profiling a new cohort of ecological researchers at UW-Madison. View the full series »