Westarctica Finalist

Being selected as a finalist for the Westarctica Conservation Scholarship gave me the opportunity to consider how to communicate our work on lichen to a broader audience. Though I wasn’t ultimately selected to recieve the Westarctica Conservation Scholarship, I am excited for the new connections and opportunities for collaboration! The Westarctica Conservation Scholarship is funded through 2024, so consider applying next year!

Read my grant application below:

In 20 words or less, describe the research question you are addressing. How do microcommunities of cliff-dwelling plants and fungi respond to human-driven disturbance and climate change?

What is the broad problem this question is addressing? Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between an algal and a fungal species. Rock tripe lichen, the focus of my research, is a flat, foliose lichen that can grow up to 60 cm in diameter. Because they are so large, they act as a microhabitat for plants and other species of fungi to grow on. Lichen themselves are known to be an indicator for climate change, particularly their surface growth rates are incredibly sensitive to small changes in temperature and precipitation. Rock tripe lichen tend to occur on cliff faces that are popular with the recreational rock climbing community, meaning that they are not only vulnerable to climate change, but also to anthropogenic disturbance and damage from climbers. Studies have shown that rock tripe lichen themselves can survive low levels of rock climbing damage, but no study has looked at how the microcommunities living on their surfaces are impacted by disturbance or climate change. I will be assessing the sizes of rock tripes on climbed and unclimbed boulder faces in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York State and the community complexities of the microvegetation they support to identify the combined impacts of climate change and anthropogenic disturbance on the rock tripe lichen and the microcommunities on the surfaces. These microcommunities of vegetation provide food for a variety of cliff-dwelling species, including birds, insects, and reptiles. So a reduction in the community complexity or amount of vegetative cover can mean a significant reduction in the nutrition available for species at higher trophic levels, causing a cascade through the ecosystem. Better understanding how this system is impacted by climate change and recreational climbing will help us to manage the recreational access to the sites to preserve both access to the wildlands (a critical part of environmental advocacy) while preserving and protecting the ecosystem from the impacts of climate change.

Why should the public care about your question/the problem/your research? When we think about climate change, we tend to think about things on a big scale—global super storms, extinction of polar bears, the destruction of redwood forests—but climate change is also impacting microprocesses, nearly unnoticed phenomenon like the cycling of nutrients in the soil, the timing of insect emergence, and the composition of microcommunities on cliff faces. These microprocesses, however, are foundational to understanding the large-scale, global impacts of anthropogenic climate change because large-scale changes are often caused by a network of microchanges. Few research resources are dedicated to understanding the complex web of impacts climate change is having on these ecosystems and organisms. In my research, better understanding how climate change is affecting vegetation microcommunities helps us better predict changes at higher levels in the cliff ecosystem; like impacts on the cascade of animals that depend on these plants and fungi for food, including insects, birds, and mountain lions. Better understanding the wide-reaching impacts of small disturbance helps us better understand what types of actions we can take to mitigate climate change impacts—both large and small.

What possible solutions to climate-change might your work propose? One possible solution revealed by my work to mitigating the impacts of climate change may be to rotate which cliffs are allowed to be climbed during each season. This may be able to mitigate the combination of climate change and climbing impacts (impacts we suspect feed off of each other and are not simply additive). We also expect to find that the growth rates of the rock tripe lichen themselves are very sensitive to climate change (there is a historical dataset for the boulders we are sampling that provides the coverage and size of the rock trip lichen in 1956, 1975 and 2013). Rock tripe lichen are very well distributed throughout North America, and we suspect that they may be very good indicators of the impacts of climate change on cliff and high-altitude communities. If we are able to quantify these results, we hope to use them to compare the impacts of climate change on different high-altitude communities so that we can support localized advocacy against climate change with direct indicators of the severity of impacts facing both human and ecological communities. I also hope that this research underscores the need for investigations into the foundational processes that are disrupted by climate change. Understanding, projecting, and mitigating the effects of climate change require a strong understanding how the network of impacts can cause cascading crises and impacts and I hope my work highlights how we need to be aware of all of these potential problems.

Alexis Garretson
Alexis Garretson
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow

Improving data management and analytics in biological and environmental sciences