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Buffalo State Experts: Warren Digs into Complexity of Plant Distribution

Buffalo State Experts: Warren Digs into Complexity of Plant Distribution

Posted: March 14, 2016

Robert Warren, assistant professor of biology, focuses his research on species interactions in a changing climate. His work explores the complex relationship between plants, the insects and animals that disperse their seeds, and the effect climate change has on any aspect of that relationship.

“I like mystery,” Warren said. “I see any ecological landscape as a detective novel. I want to get past the cover.”

To determine the distribution of individual plant species, Warren investigates not only the effect of habitat on the species in question but also how habitat affects the interactions between species within and across these distributions. His endeavors include niche theory, dispersal, community ecology, climate change, and inferential statistics.

His current research includes include how humans facilitate exotic invasive plants; how Native Americans dispersed trees; how habitat facilitates plant pathogens; how ants and termites interact and impact forest decomposition; and how the mutualism between plants and seed-dispersing ants changes with climate.

For example, Warren studied the impact of climate change on longstanding interactions between two species. In one study, an early wildflower depends on a particular species of ants to disperse its seeds. However, as climate change affected when the ant species broke dormancy, the mutualism between the two species was disrupted: the plant lost its synchrony with its primary seed disperser.

In general, Warren questions the common assumption that plants thrive in habitats that simply meet the plants’ light, moisture, temperature, and soil requirements. “The living organisms that disperse plant seeds have their own habitat requirements,” said Warren. “To the extent that the plant depends on insects or wildlife, the needs of the animals must be met first.” As climate change affects any aspect of the needs of the plant’s mutualistic partner, the plant’s distribution may be disrupted. Warren also notes that anthropogenic activities both modern and ancient also drive plant species distribution.

His focus on how habitat requirements, mutualism, and climate change combine to affect the distribution of species enables Warren to provide a multifaceted perspective on plant populations.

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