Can evolution help us rebuild native habitats?

This post is by MSU graduate student Anna Groves.

If you look at the lyrics of two of the most iconic songs in American history, you’ll find that both reveal the composers’ fondness for the wide open spaces of our American landscape.

♪ Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam… and the skies are not cloudy all day. ♫
Home on the Range, 1870s

♪ Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain… ♫
America the Beautiful, 1893

The concepts are really quite similar. But now that I study prairies as a graduate student at Michigan State University, I can’t help but notice the clear difference between the earlier and later song. What was once fondness for natural prairies becomes fondness for something that sounds a lot like a wheat field. Of course, you could perhaps cite the origins of the composers (one a pioneer, one an easterner visiting the west) or probably numerous other reasons why the lyrics are different, but to me, this is a clear illustration of what was happening across America around that time—we plowed up our grasslands and planted crops, and without thinking twice, we kept on plowing until there was almost nothing left of the native ecosystem.

Historical North American tallgrass prairie range in dark green; estimated remaining range in red. Prairie species pictured: American bison (Bison bison), Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), Regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia), and Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus).

Humans have converted a quarter of Earth’s land area for our own use [1]. Some habitats and areas have been more affected than others— nearly half of temperate grasslands have been lost globally, and in some places in the U.S., this number approaches 99.9% [2]. That’s a near complete loss of ecosystems like our own North American tallgrass prairie.

Luckily, not all converted land is still in use, and there are lots of opportunities to restore native systems back into the landscape. Ecological restoration is the practice of rebuilding or rejuvenating native ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed by humans.

It’s easy to think about the ecology of native systems—especially restored systems— with some nearsightedness. If we re-plant a native prairie tomorrow, the goal is to make it work like a fully-functioning tallgrass prairie ASAP. There are businesses that will install a prairie on your property for you, and only the most patient and ecologically-savvy customers would accept “it’s mostly European weeds now, but give it 100 years, it’ll be great!” as a business model. Indeed, there is urgency from a conservation standpoint, too—at current rates of destruction, we need to start rebuilding for global stability of the next few decades, not centuries. There’s just no time to think about things like evolution—which happens over millions of years—is there?

Yours truly, pre-graduate school, on the edge of a remnant prairie somewhere in western Illinois. Photo by Randy Nyboer.

In reality, when we try to restore systems, we are likely not looking forward—or backward—far enough. Much of tallgrass prairie restoration is focused on the plant community, since the plants make up the structural habitat that all the other mammals, insects, and such live in. As it turns out, there’s a lot we can learn from thinking about the evolutionary histories of the plants we’re trying to restore.

This idea has been on my mind more than usual since last weekend, when I attended the Society for Ecological Restoration’s Midwest-Great Lakes annual chapter meeting. This group really knows their prairies, and are not only the best and brightest in their area, they are probably some of the best and brightest globally when it comes to restoring native grasslands. The keynote speaker [3] was Doug Ladd, the Missouri director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy. He has been a champion for tallgrass prairies for decades, and literally wrote the book on tallgrass prairie wildflowers (it’s called Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers).

Last weekend, Doug reminded us to remember the evolutionary history of our plants. To remember that the first grasses came into being 55 million years ago. Angiosperms (flowering plants) came after, and the first oaks (the quintessential prairie tree) appeared 35 million years ago. Although our plants are ancient, so much of the North American prairie landscape was covered with a giant glacial ice sheet until just 15,000 years ago. If you’re a 350-year-old oak tree, that’s less than 50 generations. And for nearly all of the time that’s passed since the glaciers melted, human beings lived in the Midwest as well—the Native Americans. Only very, very recently in evolutionary history did Europeans settle the U.S., finally bringing their plows and oxen [4] to replace the prairies with their beloved amber waves of grain.

So, what does this tell us about tallgrass prairie restoration? It can be discomforting to think about the possibility that none of our ancient North American species actually had time to adapt to the post-glacial Midwestern landscape—especially now that we’ve gone and torn it all up, altered the soil chemistry and structure, and introduced countless other species from other continents to the landscape. The tallgrass prairie must be doomed, right?

My (current) favorite prairie picture. “Stiff sunflowers (Helianthus pauciflorus) greeting the sunrise in sand prairie. TNC Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.” Prairie and photo by Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy. For everything prairie restoration (and more pretty pictures), check out his blog.

Wrong! The plants are adapted, and we have learned so much from looking to the past and considering the adaptations of our species. In fact, knowing which species are adapted to which types of sites (e.g. dry versus wet) is Restoration 101! And more and more, people are finding evidence that it’s important to use local ecotypes in restoration—which means collecting seeds from a plant population as close to the restoration as possible—so that plants are as adapted to local conditions as possible [5]. Finally, we know that prairies are incredibly fire-dependent systems, and adapted in a landscape full of bison and other large grazers, as well as Native Americans who lit fires in their hunts. Some of our absolute best restoration success stories have come from large restoration landscapes that have re-instated fire and grazing management—some even re-introducing bison— that reflects what a prairie would have experienced once upon a time.

Restoration ecology (the science behind restoration) is continually finding ways to utilize plant adaptations to improve how we restore. A popular line of research today is to use plant traits—qualities like deeper roots, bigger leaves, and height of plants—to match up species with the landscapes they are best adapted to. Another is to consider how the history of a particular site, in terms of which species established when, will influence which plants will persist at that site. These are just two of the many ways in which ecology is informed by what we know about plant adaptions from considering the evolutionary history of our species. We may not think about “evolution” in those terms, but thinking about species and their interactions in this way is critical for our success in restoring prairies to the landscape.

I can’t promise skies that are not cloudy all day, but it seems increasingly likely we’ll once again be able to sing, oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam… ♫ all thanks to what we know about evolution.
Follow me on Twitter: @annamgroves

[1] Hoekstra et al. 2005 Ecology Letters 8:23-29.
[2] Sampson & Knopf 1994 Bioscience 44(6):418-421.
[3] You can listen to Doug Ladd’s SER-MWGL keynote speech.
[4] Oh, my goodness. Did you know that the ox isn’t a unique species? It’s just a regular cow—usually a castrated male—that’s been trained as a draft animal. This city girl learned that fun fact embarrassingly recently. Last Monday.
[5] McKay et al. 2005 Restoration Ecology 13(3):432-440.

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UI BEACON Director James Foster to Receive Highest Faculty Rank at the University of Idaho

This post is by UI IBEST Communications Coordinator Amberly Beckman.

University of Idaho Distinguished Professor James A. Foster

The University of Idaho recently named Prof. James A. Foster a University Distinguished Professor, the highest rank for faculty at the University. Foster is one of only fourteen faculty members to receive this honor, since its inception in 2011.

The University of Idaho established the rank of Distinguished Professor to acknowledge faculty who embody excellence in teaching, scholarship, outreach and service. The selected nominees are faculty who have been with the University for at least seven years, and received national or international recognition.

Foster is a professor of Biological Sciences with a background in evolutionary biology, computer sciences, and philosophy. His work with both the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, and the Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action has brought together interdisciplinary study of evolution across campus and the country.

He founded the IBEST Computational Resources Core, co-founded the Bioinformatics and Computation Biology program at IBEST (with Prof. Paul Joyce), and co-founded IBEST itself (with Prof. Holly Wichman).  In addition, he is the director of the BEACON project at University of Idaho.

The University Awards for Excellence are held annually and recognize excellence at many academic levels. The ceremony is scheduled for 6:00pm on Tuesday, April 16 at the Bruce M. Pitman Center’s International Ballroom.

Also receiving the rank of University Distinguished Professors are Paul Joyce, and Nilsa Bosque-Perez. Past IBEST awardees include Holly Wichman, Larry Forney, and Lizette Waits.

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BEACON in the News: (How) does a bear walk in the woods?

Researcher Katie Shine sets up equipment for a study of black bear locomotion at the Oregon Zoo. (Photo by Michael Durham, courtesy of the Oregon Zoo)

This week BEACON grad student Katie Shine and her PhD advisor Craig McGowan at the University of Idaho are getting a lot of news coverage for their research investigating bear locomotion using live bears from Washington State University (grizzlies) and the Oregon Zoo (black bears)!

Oregon Zoo black bears help out with walking study
“The Oregon Zoo’s black bears Cubby and Takoda recently offered up their paws for the sake of science.”
The Oregonian/April 4/Laura Frazier

The Bear Necessities Of Walking
“Flat-foots are far less studied than their tiptoe counterparts, and scientists … recently traveled to the Oregon Zoo, where keepers helped them lead black bears Takoda and Cubby through the same walking trial.”
1190 KEX News Radio/March 30
This article was originally on Fox12Oregon KPTV and picked up by other Fox affiliates around the country, including Fox 5 Vegas; KITV (Honolulu); KBZK (Bozeman, MT); KRTV (Great Falls, MT); and KXLH (Helena, MT).


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Introducing BEACON’s New Science Outreach and Communication Postdocs

Alexa Warwick out in the field at night with her study organism, the Pine Barrens Treefrog.

This post is by MSU postdoc Alexa Warwick.

Alexa Warwick is the new Evolution Education and Outreach Postdoc at BEACON working with Dr. Louise Mead.

Alexa worked on her Ph.D. with Drs. Emily Lemmon and Joseph Travis at Florida State University focusing on the ecology, evolution, and conservation of the Pine Barrens Treefrog (Hyla andersonii; Fig. 1). At BEACON, she will be coordinating three established outreach programs that were previously run by Dr. Jory Weintraub. These annual programs include the Darwin Day Roadshow, Ecology and Evolution events at the National SACNAS Conference, and the Undergraduate Diversity Travel Award to attend the Evolution meetings (this year in Austin, TX; award applications due April 18th!). The programs are collectively sponsored by BEACON, the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists.

Fig 1. The Pine Barrens Treefrog has a unique species distribution across three isolated regions in the eastern United States.

In addition to these national outreach programs, Alexa will also be involved with developing and assessing other outreach/education projects. One of these projects is an efficacy study of Data Nuggets in high school biology classes. Data Nuggets are an exciting way to introduce K-16 students to real scientists and authentic research data, while also helping scientists increase their broader impacts. Alexa is passionate about effectively engaging students and the general public with science research, so feel free to contact her with other ideas for outreach/education collaborations!

She will also be continuing to do research on amphibians while at BEACON. For example, she is working with Dr. Elise Zipkin’s lab at MSU and SPARC-net, a regional group working to understand climate and land use change on salamander population dynamics. For this project salamander sampling plots will be established at the Kellogg Biological Station and the data collected there will be combined with similar plots across the northeastern United States.

A gladiator frog (Hypsiboas pugnax) that Alexa caught in the lowlands of Colombia.

Alexa’s other research interests include studying the evolutionary history of organisms using genomic data (phylogeography/phylogenetics) and the effects of behavioral interactions on the evolution of species (sexual selection). Her work on the Pine Barrens Treefrog has addressed the origin and maintenance of its unique distribution (Fig. 1), and she has recently started working with gladiator frogs (genus: Hypsiboas) in South America. This is a fascinating group of frogs with rather unusual behaviors; they actually get their common name from the male-male combats that occur using a spine on their ‘thumbs’. Check out Alexa’s website for more details about current research projects or send her an email at awarwick [at]

Also check out our other two previous New Science Outreach and Communication Postdocs posts by Wendy Smythe and Travis Hagey

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A Mighty Mouse and a Scientist in Training: A Story of Physiological and Personal Evolution

This post is by Okemos High School student Maddie Stover working in Dr. Ashlee Rowe’s lab in the Neuroscience Program & Department of Integrative Biology at MSU.

A particularly effective nervous system makes the four-inch grasshopper mouse quite a fearsome desert creature, especially if you are an arthropod. Not only do these rodents howl to defend their territory and stalk their prey like big cats, but they hunt venomous scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas. Yet these arthropod preys are not without a strong defense; their venom contains potent neurotoxins that are designed to both incapacitate and induce intense pain in their predators. In an evolutionary arms race, grasshopper mice (Onychomys​ spp.), when compared to house mice, exhibit reduced sensitivity to the pain caused by bark scorpion (Centruroides​ spp.) venom (1). Our lab is investigating the molecular and physiological adaptations to the nervous system of grasshopper mice that confer resistance to bark scorpion venom. Three species of grasshopper mice are distributed throughout the deserts and prairies of North America; I study the Chihuahuan desert species, Mearns’ grasshopper mouse (O​. arenicola)​. Specifically, I am interested in the adaptations underlying their resistance to the venom of the striped bark scorpion (C​. vittatus)​.

A grasshopper mouse attacking a bark scorpion. Photo by Dr. Matthew Rowe.

Pain signals are transmitted to the central nervous system (CNS) by way of ion channels embedded in cell membranes. Sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+) ion channels play an important role in pain-signaling. As these channels are essential for many physiological processes they are very well conserved, such that a few amino acid substitutions can produce a significant change in the overall electrical activity of the channels. Bark scorpion venom contains low-molecular-weight proteins (toxins) that bind and manipulate ion channels, causing intense pain. Rowe et al. (2) previously showed that the Sonoran desert grasshopper mouse (O​. torridus)​ is resistant to the burning pain of its local prey, the Arizona bark scorpion (C​. sculpturatus)​, via amino acid changes to a pain-pathway Na+ channel (Nav1.8). Instead of inhibiting toxin binding to its target channel (Nav1.7), amino acid substitutions in O. torridus​ Nav1.8 enable the channel to bind a protein in C​. sculpturatus​ venom, ultimately blocking the pain signal the venom is trying to send to the CNS (2). However, O. arenicola a​ppear to be resistant to C. vittatus​ venom through an alternative mechanism. Since C. vittatus​ venom contains many K+ channel toxins, our lab is looking at the structure and function of O​. arenicola K​ + channels to determine whether changes in these ion channels confer reduced pain sensitivity to C. vittatus​ venom.

A potassium channel consisting of an alpha subunit (red) and a beta subunit (blue). Pongs, O. & Schwarz, J.R. (3).

In addition to providing an opportunity to study evolution at the molecular level, the grasshopper mouse model might also have interesting implications for chronic pain. Currently, opioids are the most common medication used to treat chronic pain. However, these drugs can have unpleasant side effects and become addictive. In order to develop better treatments for chronic pain, a more detailed understanding of the ion channels involved in pain-signaling is required. In the grasshopper mouse model we are able to study the physiological effects of structural variation in different types of potassium channels that regulate pain-signaling.

When I first came to the Rowe Lab I was interested in how the structure and function of K+ channels contributed to the grasshopper mouse’s decreased sensitivity to toxin-induced pain. As I continued reading about these channels I found that K+ channels (the main pore region of which is called the alpha subunit) assemble with various auxiliary subunits. Beta subunits (a type of auxiliary unit) are cytoplasmic proteins that help regulate the channel’s electrical activity (3). Beta subunits are also the targets of certain scorpion toxins. At the Rowe Lab, I am studying whether K+ channel beta subunits contribute to the grasshopper mouse’s resistance to scorpion toxins.

To investigate this question I sequenced two genes that encode K+ channel beta subunits from O. arenicola.​ I also cloned these genes so that we may coexpress K+ channel alpha and beta subunits in a heterologous system, and record the electrical activity of this channel complex. I found structural variation, when compared to house mouse orthologs, in both beta subunits I am studying. Currently, we are testing whether these structural changes have functional consequences for the K+ channel that contribute to grasshopper mouse venom resistance.

BEACON-Maddie workingI have had a great first experience with research at the Rowe Lab. All of our lab members have been important mentors to me and have taught me so much. My lab helped me transition from a high school setting to a professional one (their patience, god bless) where I could learn skills that will be helpful in any area of work. I have learned that problem solving really is as big of a deal as they make of it on college websites and to never be ashamed to ask for help. I have learned that you really do regret what you do not write down, that white boards are the most important piece of equipment, and that I can really freak my grad students out by talking about my birth year.

As previously stated beta subunits are small (the gene is around 2,000 base pairs long) when compared to alpha subunits (the gene is ~8,000 base pairs long). They are also quite new to molecular biology, as they were discovered in 1992. I suppose I am analogous to a beta subunit in that we are both relatively small and new to science.


  1. Rowe, A.H. & Rowe, M.P., 2008. Physiological resistance of grasshopper mice (Onychomys spp.) to Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides exilicauda) venom. T​ oxicon,​ 52(5), pp.597–605.
  2. Rowe, A.H. et al., 2013. Voltage-gated sodium channel in grasshopper mice defends against bark scorpion toxin. Science,​ 342(6157), pp.441–446.
  3. Pongs, O. & Schwarz, J.R., 2010. Ancillary Subunits Associated With Voltage–Dependent K+ Channels. P​ hysiological Reviews,​ 90, pp.755–764.
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