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June 16, 2020

MSU integrative biologist utilizes NEON to illuminate biodiversity

There is more to science than meets the eye.

Take an ordinary Michigan landscape — white pines, black-eyed susans, white-tailed deer and a few chickadees — just random points of nature to the casual observer.

But through the eyes of Michigan State University’s Phoebe Zarnetske, assistant professor in the College of Natural Science’s Department of Integrative Biology, the natural world contains nearly infinite potential data points that, when aggregated over time and space, reveal predictable patterns of biodiversity.

Zarnetske's team will expand their biodiversity and geodiversity investigations from the smallest beetles to the nation’s largest land formations as lead investigator of a 5-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation, or NSF, Macrosystems Biology and NEON-Enabled Science grant.

NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, is one of the largest standardized data collection networks in the world with 81 field sites located strategically in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems across the United States.

“NEON collects frequent data on a wide range of organisms, including beetles, fish and small mammals — species that play different roles in ecosystems,” said Zarnetske, who will orchestrate the nationwide, interdisciplinary group of scientists. “The geographic patterns of biodiversity within NEON are expected to be influenced by climate, but they have yet to be evaluated across diverse species lineages and with other drivers such as geodiversity, land use history and disturbance history.”

NEON sites are nested in 20 climate domains across the United States. Each domain has multiple sites and each site has multiple plots, giving the researchers three distinct spatial scales to aggregate the data —domain, site and plot. Zarnetske and her team hypothesize that patterns of biodiversity will have different drivers at each distinct scale.

“When NEON scientists go out and monitor organisms at numerous locations throughout the season,” said Zarnetske, “we can quantify all the individuals and species that are co-occurring with each other in the same location at the same time and compute the different drivers at the different scales.”

For example, trait variation among species is one of the keys to understanding patterns of biodiversity, so by zooming in on NEON beetles, small mammals and fish, Zarnetske and her team can use body size as an indicator of one driver, competitive ability.

However, like those elusive magic eye pictures, if the observer gets too close, data end up looking like individual points. By slowly zooming out, the larger contours of geodiversity and climate begin to play their role in shaping the biodiversity picture.

To paint this larger, more complete picture, Zarnetske’s team will create a geospatial database on both land disturbance and land use history that better explains variation in biodiversity across organisms from local to continental scales, something NEON currently lacks.

“Land use history involves going back through archives and old records and coming up with a spatially explicit georeferenced map of every NEON site that shows where an old building was, where an area was logged in 1940 and so on,” explained Zarnetske.

Land disturbance history is essentially unknown, so the grant will support two new postdocs in Zarnetske’s Lab, Jasper Van doninck from the University of Turku, Finland, who specializes in satellite remote sensing, and Jonathan Knott, a large-scale ecologist from Purdue University.

Van doninck and Knott will build disturbance maps pixel by pixel from 30 years of historical imagery and geodiversity layers, both provided by NASA satellite remote sensing data and NEON imagery. The resulting open software packages and data products will be highly desirable to scientists and practitioners across the country.

As Zarnetske’s team of scientists and students sift and aggregate NEON data at different scales, the ability to zoom in and out of landscapes across the United States will become more nimble, precise and complete, giving scientists the ability to diagnose the state of the country’s biodiversity, understand the human role in geodiversity, and quantify the influences of natural and human drivers to improve predictions of future life on Earth.

“NEON is a publicly funded project providing data that no one scientist can do on their own — it is science writ large,” Zarnetske said. “Big ecological networks like this are helping us track changes in the landscape and predict what will happen to plants and animals as the climate changes — they help us measure the pulse of the Earth.”

Co-PIs include: Benjamin Baiser, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida; Sydne Record, assistant professor of biology at Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research Site; Angela Strecker, associate professor of environmental sciences at Western Washington University. Collaborators include: Kate Thibault, NEON Science Lead; and Quentin Read and Annie Smith, two former MSU SpaCE Lab postdocs.

For more information about NSF’s NEON sites and the project summary for this NSF grant, please visit:

By: Val Osowski

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