Biology

Alaska EPSCoR’s Phase III biology researchers studied the patterns and processes that shift the home territories of Alaska flora and fauna, concentrating on subsistence species. The goal of the component was to gather scientific data regarding controls over biodiversity and species distributions at high latitudes to increase understanding of how Alaskan ecosystems are responding to current and future environmental changes.

Within this broad scope, the biology component was split into more specific concentrations: a Plant-Microbe Interactions group, which studied the relationships between these interactions and both gradual and rapid environmental change; and a Landscape Genetics group, which examined the influence of geography, geology, and climate on species population structure and migration patterns.

The component sponsored research that was, literally, all over the Alaskan geographic and taxonomic map. Just a cursory look at the projects of Phase III biology students and faculty reveals studies on blackfish; hoary marmots; caribou; coastrange sculpin; starry flounder; ground squirrels; locoweeds; shrews, mice and voles; smelts, ciscoes and whitefish; beetles; song sparrows; spruce trees; threespine stickleback; parsley ferns; invasive white sweetclover; torrent ducks; boreal toads; Northern saw-whet owls; whales, black bears, moose, wolves, and blueberries.

While individual projects ranged widely, a few efforts stand out. Species migrations, especially caribou and salmon, were a regular focus of biology researchers. This research has led to a greater understanding of how the genetic makeup of groups and species relate to their environment, enabling better predictions of future genetic alteration as a result of climate change. An additional focus has been entomology, especially experiments carried out by the lab of UAF Associate professor Derek Sikes, who conducted a fortuitous insect survey of the volcanic Aleutian island of Kasatochi shortly before it erupted and seemingly decimated all life on the island. Sikes and his students have since conducted multiple groundbreaking studies of the island’s re-emerging population genetics and food web dynamics.

The landscape genetics focus was augmented in 2009-10 by a one-time offering of competitive landscape genetics grants to researchers in the field; seven faculty and eight student grants of up to $10,000 were awarded. Alaska EPSCOR also supported landscape genetics studies through salary support for a DNA technician and a plant symbiosis lab technician.

Biology investigations were augmented in 2010-12 through the inclusion of the interdisciplinary “Ecosystem Services and Livelihoods” theme, which focused on the benefits provided by ecosystems and their relationship to communities’ resilience and vulnerability.

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