James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies
My research program addresses questions in the ecology and evolution of interactions between plants and animals. In particular, I focus on the generally antagonistic interactions between plants and insect herbivores and ultimately seek to understand the complexity of community-wide interactions. What ecological factors allow the coexistence of similar species? What evolutionary factors led to the diversification of species? In total, plants and insect herbivores comprise about one half of earth's macroscopic biodiversity and herbivory accounts for major losses in agriculture. Given that herbivory is the conduit through which most of plants' autotrophic energy is transmitted to the rest of the food web, the focus on plant-herbivore interactions is justifiably important. My approach to science in general involves 1) rigorous, manipulative field experiments to test for the importance of conceptually or theoretically developed interactions, 2) the search for novel interactions which may be pervasive in nature but have escaped our attention, and 3) a keen interest in teaching and mentoring students at all levels of education. My research is mostly conducted in New York field communities, although when appropriate I travel to other field sites (Costa Rica, Bahamas, Finland). During the colder months, my lab conducts more mechanistic experiments in glasshouses and growth chambers. We are currently focused on three major projects: 1) the community and evolutionary ecology of plant-herbivore relationships, 2) factors that make non-native plants successful invaders, and 3) novel opportunities for pest management of potatoes.I teach a wide range of courses including: Field Ecology (BioEE 263) Chemical Ecology (BioEE 369) Community Ecology (BioEE 458) Plant-Insect Interactions seminar (BioEE 764).
Our lab studies the ecology and evolution of plant-insect interactions, including aspects of herbivory, community ecology, phenotypic plasticity, chemical ecology, coevolution, and phylogenetics. Research projects include work on local biodiversity, ecology of invasive plants, the biology and conservation of Monarch butterflies, and the evolution of plant defense strategies. We are currently focused on six major projects: 1) the community and evolutionary ecology of plant-herbivore relationships, including several native plant systems (milkweeds, evening primroses, hog peanut, and Eupatorium), 2) chemically mediated interactions between plants and their specialized sequestering insects, including the behavioral ecology of butterflies and bees, 3) conservation ecology of monarch butterflies, 4) merging comparative and experimental ecology to study adaptive radiations, 5) genetic modification of milkweeds to study jasmonic acid mediated interactions between insect herbivores, and 6) novel opportunities for pest management of agricultural crops.
Please see a current list of publications here.