UF/IFAS researchers awarded National Science Foundation grants to study animals in their environment

NEON

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Knowing where animals choose to spend their time and why they may have chosen those areas is fundamental to conserving our nation’s wildlife. Two researchers from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are among 28 scientists who will share nearly $4.8 million in funding from The National Science Foundation in grants and will observe insects, plants and animals to see how they interact with their environments throughout North America.

The funds are paying for 19 projects to enable innovative biological research and foster collaborations using data from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a groundbreaking, continent-wide observatory that allows scientists to systematically study the Earth’s biosphere.

Benjamin Baiser, a community ecologist with UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, is studying how trait differences within species are related to biodiversity patterns throughout the North American continent. Meanwhile, Robert McCleery, an associate professor in the WEC department, is studying how the NEON sites can be used as a platform for transformative wildlife research.

The grant awards involve scientists and engineers from nearly 30 institutions throughout the United States. The high-quality, standardized data collected by NEON can be used to generate comparisons of ecosystem health on regional and continental scales.

The researchers plan to share information and develop educational tools, such as web sites showing insect and animal movements, videos of simulated paths, and classroom presentations of tools and techniques for use in public school systems via local science education initiatives.

“These awards will encourage the community to think creatively about how to use the early science capabilities of NEON, and leverage NEON data more broadly,” said James Olds, assistant director of NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate, which funds the NEON project.

More than 30 NEON sites are complete now, and provisional data from those sites is available via the NEON Data Portal. NEON-collected specimens and samples are also available. The observatory is expected to be fully constructed by the end of 2017.

“This is an amazing opportunity because NEON provides such detailed information about species and communities that is collected with the same protocol at locations across the North America,” said Baiser, whose team will receive $300,000 to study ground beetles, small mammals and plants. “It’s an opportunity to work with other great scientists to answer questions at the continental scale.”

McCleery is collaborating with Larry Conner from Ichauway, Inc., an environmental consulting business.

“Using the latest technology, we will be able to answer questions about animal movements and their interactions with the environment that were not possible even a year ago,” McCleery said. “The new technologies in this project will revolutionize the study of wild animals.”

Scientists expect to have initial results as early as August 2016.

By Kimberly Moore Wilmoth, 352-294-3302, k.moore.wilmoth@ufl.edu

Sources: Benjamin Baiser, 352- 392-1947, bbaiser@ufl.edu

Robert McCleery, 352-846-0566, ramccleery@ufl.edu

-30-