What is Residential Landscape Ecology?
Recently, I watched what I believe to be a red-shouldered hawk dive into a tree, catch a squirrel, and fly away with another hawk to enjoy their meal. Witnessing this event was amazing. We see these events on nature shows about far off wild places. However, this event happened in my front yard in Gainesville, FL. I have also observed snakes in my yard, including a black racer and a rat snake whose attempts to catch birds while dangling 25 feet up in a tree was a true delight to watch. Finally, barred owls live in my neighborhood, as do many plant species, some native, some exotic, some invasive, some purposefully planted, and some established by chance. These experiences and observations make me think about how little we (myself included) really know about the ecology of where we live. We now live in a time where, thanks to easy media access, people can identify species from far off places more easily than those living in their own yards. This seems tragic.
Similar but Still Great Ecological Diversity
Urban ecosystems can be quite similar when compared across large distances. For instance, hydrology in Phoenix Arizona and Miami Florida are more similar to each other than to nearby ecosystems. This similarity is shocking considering that one city is in a desert and the other a tropical climate. Nevertheless, one only needs to walk around a given neighborhood or visit different neighborhoods to see great ecological variability. For instance, people manage the plants that occur intentionally or unintentionally in their yards quite differently. Variation in yard management is but one factor that causes the ecology of residential landscapes to vary from place to place. This “spatial heterogeneity” is understudied and underappreciated. This lack of understanding about the ecology in residential landscapes and the degree to which it differs from place to place motivates my lab’s work.
Goals and Aims of the Residential Landscape Ecology Lab
My lab is named “the Residential Landscape Ecology (RLE) Lab”. The overarching goal of my lab is to quantify spatial ecological patterns and their causes within and around residential landscapes, and determine how these patters affect ecological processes and ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are defined as the direct benefits that humans receive from nature. Some examples include, cooling from shade, decreases in arthropod pests, and improvements to soil fertility or water quality. This understanding is critical considering that residential landscapes are the most rapidly expanding land cover type in the USA. Furthermore, we are just beginning to realize the high levels of biodiversity that urban ecosystems can support and the potential utility of urban ecosystems for regional conservation efforts. With these considerations in mind, the two main aims the RLE lab are:
Aim 1: Increase the understanding of the ecology found within residential landscapes and about the ecosystem services that these landscapes provide
Aim 2: Contribute to the design, construction, and management of residential landscapes that exhibit greater ecological functionality and provide greater levels of ecosystem services
Currently my lab is working on the ecology of designer and engineered ecosystems, specifically ornamental gardens and stormwater ponds. We are investigating: (a) how structural complexity, biodiversity, and landscape context of ornamental gardens affect their resistance to arthropod pests, (b) the effects of stormwater ponds on the plant communities of nearby isolated wetlands and species movement, and (c) the effects of ornamental plantings in stormwater ponds on nutrient removal from stormwater runoff. We are also interested in the effects of landscaping plant species choice on the spread of invasive plants and how causes of ecological variability change across spatial scales.
Please contact my lab if these topics interests you. We are also interested in learning about your own work on the ecology of residential and urban landscapes. Finally, we would love to hear stories about the exciting nature encounters that you experience in your neighborhoods. I hope this post makes people reflect upon and appreciate the diversity of life that surrounds them every day within their own yards and neighborhoods.