Dealing with change: Ellen Damschen

August 30, 2012

According to Ellen Damschen, if you understand the problem, you also understand the solution.

An assistant professor in the Zoology Department, Damschen says climate change and global diversity are at the forefront of her research. She studies the factors behind how communities are composed and how human impacts alter ecosystems.

Ellen Damschen

But instead of focusing on what’s already happened and can’t be changed, she works to provide scientific, practical solutions for the future.

“We are looking for the conservation tools and ecological solutions that can lead to the recovery of species, ecosystems and communities,” Damschen says. 

Damschen leads a variety of projects scattered across the country, from the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon to the Ozark Glades in Missouri to her lab’s home state of Wisconsin.

“Local studies are really important, but if you want to know if you can generalize your results and if they have predictive powers, you have to compare different locations and look at things more broadly,” she explains.

A quest for a specific historical data set led Damschen to her current research project in southwest Oregon. The Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains cover a precipitation gradient, contain several soil types, and scientists have historically gathered detailed vegetation records, satisfying all of Damschen’s criteria.

“The project examines multiple soil substrates, including a very unique soil called serpentine. It has a lot of very rare plants on it and very high biodiversity,” says Damschen.

To determine how plant communities on this unique soil type might respond to global changes in climate and other factors, her lab is resampling the area and comparing their findings to data gathered in the same location in the 1950s. They’re also examining what factors impact species diversity in areas with low and high precipitation.

Back in Wisconsin, Damschen and her Ph.D. student, Amy Alstad, are working with Don Waller and other colleagues to revisit another historic data set: UW-Madison botanist John Curtis' broad and detailed survey of the state's landscapes and vegetation in the 1940s and 50s. The first resampling and pioneering analysis of change was published by UW-Madison researchers Mark Leach and Tom Givnish in the 1990s. Today's resurvey will mark the third time-point and offer a 60-year window into how the state is changing.

The lab is also focused on helping those on the front lines of conservation make informed management decisions.

Working with fellow UW-Madison Assistant Professor of Zoology, John Orrock, Damschen is evaluating the effectiveness of habitat corridors, which require a lot of time and money to construct, in promoting species diversity, population size and the movement of species between otherwise disconnected areas.

Wildlife corridor research
Near Aiken, S.C., Damschen is studying the effects
of habitat corridors and patch shape on the
movement of species and community diversity.

The pair is also examining diversity within long-leaf pine forest understories throughout the southeastern United States – one of the most diverse habitats outside of the tropics. Long-leaf pines once spread from Virginia to Texas, but less than three percent of the original forest remains. Although much of the region has been replanted with overstory pine trees, the understory beneath the forest canopy has yet to catch up.

“From a restoration perspective, the big question is, How can you restore these understories?” says Damschen. “From a basic ecology perspective, it’s what we call ‘community assembly’ – what affects the order of species arriving, their likelihood of establishment and the diversity in a community.”

As the lab continues to study mitigation techniques in response to future climates, Damschen relies on her ecological grounding.

“A lot of the questions we’re dealing with are connected to a conservation issue or an applied question,” says Damschen. “People are asking, How generalizable is the research and does it have predictive power? Putting more focus on experiments or studies at multiple places can give answers to those questions; it can help us predict what happens in the future.”

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