Probing the Nexus of Natural and Agricultural Habitats
By Dorothy Wright
When Neal Williams observes the landscape, he sees a vast mosaic composed of agricultural areas, urban patches and remnants of natural habitats. He is keenly interested in the connections among these pieces.
Williams, who earned a doctoral degree in ecology and evolution at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, will join the College in January as assistant professor of biology, teaching ecology in a field-based component of a lab ecology course.
Williams’ past research includes the ecology and evolution of foraging and feeding specialization in solitary bees, as well as comparative studies of pollen dispersal by various insects and the effect of this dispersal on plant reproduction. “These interests have led to a current research focus exploring the effects of landscape change on communities of native bees and on their pollination of native plants, weeds and crops at the interface of natural and agricultural habitats,” he says.
Currently a D.H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow with The Nature Conservancy, Williams conducts research with collaborator and mentor Claire Kremen in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. “A primary focus of the Kremen lab is to study human impacts on biodiversity and ecological functioning at the landscape scale,” he explains.
Human populations affect the global landscape in many ways, including fragmentation of natural habitats. “One human activity that is dramatic in the scale of its impact is agriculture,” Williams says. “We create vast areas where fields and natural remnants come together, gigantic mosaics made up of remnant natural habitat within vast agricultural landscapes, as well as small plowed fields nestled in much larger areas of semi-natural or grazed areas. These are dominant landscapes across much of the world.”
A generation of conservationists and ecologists has been interested in understanding how biodiversity is affected by habitat loss and fragmentation. “More recently, there is growing interest in how ecological processes are affected by these changes,” Williams says. “For example, more than 70 percent of all the plants on earth rely on pollination to reproduce. I am examining how this ecological process is affected by landscape change.”
Pollination not only is a key process in natural systems, but also represents a potentially valuable service that is provided by natural systems to humanity, in this case in the form of crop pollination. Take California, where much of the pollination of crops relies on managed honeybees, whose populations have been decimated by disease. “This has led to shortfalls in the availability of honeybees for crop pollination,” Williams explains. “If some of that slack can be picked up by native bees, there would be an economic justification for restoration of natural habitat.”
Williams and collaborators have shown that native bees contribute significantly to crop pollination when there is sufficient natural habitat nearby. “Farmers in those situations already are reaping the benefits of natural habitat and populations of native bees,” he says. “It’s very gratifying to be able to do this work.”
Is Restoration Working?
Although it is advantageous for a conservationist to cite an economic justification for habitat restoration, The Nature Conservancy is interested in the answer to broader questions: Is habitat restoration really working and, if not, what must be done differently? “Often, restoration ecologists restore woody vegetation at a site, but they don’t address many of the other elements in the system; for example, they don’t plant tiny flowers and release bees and butterflies. The tacit assumption is that these sorts of species will return on the coattails of structural restoration,” Williams explains. “I’ve been examining whether or not that assumption is true.”
In particular, Williams is studying the importance of the interface between the habitats — that is, whether or not native pollinators rely on agricultural areas for some of their resources. “Understanding this connectivity is important for informing the design of management strategies,” Williams says. “People are beginning to ask the same kinds of questions around the world.”
A Role for Undergrads
Williams looks forward to involving Bryn Mawr undergraduates in various aspects of his research, including lab studies, fieldwork and computer analysis. “Working with plants and insects in the lab setting requires interested minds and able hands, but not great amounts of training, so it is approachable for undergrads within the timeframe of a summer or a semester,” he observes.
Inspired by the example of his father, Williams has been interested in pursuing a teaching career since he began college at the University of Wisconsin, where the elder Williams is a plant pathologist and professor. “My dad remains one of the most inspirational scientists and teachers that I know,” he reflects.
Williams is particularly excited about the opportunity to work with Bryn Mawr students. “Bryn Mawr is very special place, a really strong liberal arts college,” he says. “The women of Bryn Mawr are so bright and creative — they are as capable as any starting graduate student. They don’t know as much yet, but the intellect is there. Working with them requires that you be creative in the way you explain things; you just don’t want to hold them back. That’s why I sought this type of teaching position.”
Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.