September 12, 2023

Metz secures continued support for research in tropical forests

Associate Professor of Biology Margaret Metz and her collaborators recently secured $600K in competitive research funding from the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) program. While Lewis & Clark is the lead institution, this project is a collaboration between Dr. Metz and longtime colleagues at University of Puerto Rico, Yale School of the Environment, Southern Illinois University, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador in Quito, and Columbia University. This collaborative grant, distributed as $300K each to Lewis & Clark and the University of Puerto Rico, will support the long-term studies of tropical plant reproduction and seedling establishment in forests in Ecuador and Puerto Rico, extending observations beyond a second and third decade, respectively. The goal of this long-term monitoring is to understand how tropical forests respond to climate variation so as to predict and understand the likely impacts of global warming and other human-caused environmental change. Their proposal noted the critical importance of tropical forests for biodiversity and carbon storage as these forests contain about 60% of flowering plant species and are responsible for over 25% of global carbon storage.

The datasets produced from this ongoing project, “Cyclic vs. anthropogenic causes of long-term variation in the regeneration of tropical forests with contrasting latitude and diversity”, are among the very few long-term, quantitative studies of tree reproduction and early regeneration in the world. Reviews for NSF highlighted the uniqueness of these efforts, noting,” There are no comparable data for any other tropical forests, making this study fundamental global scientific infrastructure that needs to be supported and continued.”

With this research, Dr. Metz and colleagues hope to identify how year-to-year variation in climate impacts tree flowering and fruiting, and how these impacts cascade through all stages of forest regeneration to affect forest diversity and dynamics. With these data, the collaborative group already has identified declines in flowering for some species over an 18-year period at Dr. Metz’s research site in Ecuador, and linked these declines to the increase in temperature and humidity that has occurred over the same period, a pattern that indicates the potential for climate change to significantly alter patterns of tropical forest regeneration. Further long-term data are needed to disentangle the effects of natural multi-year climate cycles, such as El Niño, from signals of anthropogenic global warming. This research provides a foundation for shorter-term independent student projects through a 2021 award to Dr. Metz and her collaborator at the Yale School of the Environment from NSF’s International Research Experiences for Students program. With this award, cohorts of students participate in a year-long mentoring program that includes a summer of independent research in Ecuador.

It is worth noting that this new LTREB award is Dr. Metz’s fifth competitive NSF grant since 2014, following earlier support for her research in Ecuador, as well as additional grants from NSF for her research in the old growth conifer forests of southwestern Washington and the coastal forests of central California. All of Dr. Metz’s external funding has enabled Lewis & Clark students to actively engage in field research and data analysis. More information about Dr. Metz’s research in environmental biology is available here.

September 2023