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Plant and insect invasions and novel host use.

The success of plant and insect invasions largely depends on the outcomes of plant-insect interactions in which plants that escape herbivores may be more successful invaders, and herbivores that find adequate hosts have the opportunity to establish. This project will explore the dynamics of introduced plant or insect populations, or explore the determinants of their novel interactions.

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Project Hypothesis or Objectives:

Invasive plants are a major threat to numerous ecosystems, and invasive insect herbivores such as emerald ash borer have been among the most economically and ecologically destructive invaders. Escape from specialist herbivores and pathogens is one of the top hypotheses explaining the dominance of invasive plant species, and biological control in which specialist herbivores are introduced to the novel range of the plant is one of the top means of control of invasive plant species. Meanwhile, the ability of a potentially invasive herbivore to find an adequate host plant is critical to its establishment. Researchers at the USGS are exploring the consequences and determinants of plant and insect invasions in order to 1) better predict problematic invaders, 2) better control existing invaders, and 3) better manage invaded ecosystems. Our proposed project is to incorporate plant and insect interactions into these management goals by exploring the determinants of host use by herbivorous insects and the mechanistic and geospatial processes of invasion by plants and insects. Our USGS group has used modeling approaches with large plant-insect food webs, observational studies of plant and insect interactions and distributions, and experimental analysis of particularly important plant and herbivore systems to anticipate the role of host use in invasions. This work provides valuable input to other DOI agencies such as FWS and NPS that require information about novel interactions and host use of herbivores. The student will work with USGS researchers to explore questions of host use and plant/insect invasions that are pertinent to current management challenges faced by DOI and non-DOI partners.

Duration: Up to 12 months

Internship Location: Fort Collins, CO

Field(s) of Study: Biology

Applicable NSF Division: DEB Environmental Biology

Intern Type Preference: Graduate Research Intern Program (GRIP)

Keywords: plant-insect interactions, invasive species, ecology, environmental science, biology, biocontrol, host use, evolutionary ecology

Expected Outcome:

This project will yield experimental or modelled data that will lead to a better understanding of plant or insect invasions, or the process of novel host use. The student will gain expertise applying basic ecological principles of plant-insect interactions to current management and conservation challenges. Ideally, the student will directly interact with agencies and entities responsible for the implementation of management of plant and insect invasions and their consequences. Opportunities exist for long term collaborations between the Intern and USGS researchers. USGS will benefit from this collaboration because it is in line with our mission of conducting research to address management questions of partner agencies.

Special skills/training Required:

Seeking an applicant with a strong background in ecology, plant biology, and/or entomology. The applicant must have strong quantitative skills, including the ability to conduct basic statistical analyses, manipulate and analyze data in spreadsheets, and compute quantitative models. The fellow must have good communication skills and the ability to work independently or as part of a group on complex projects. The applicant should have the demonstrated ability to conduct field, lab, and greenhouse studies independently.


This opportunity will provide professional development to a NSF Graduate Research Fellow by enabling interaction ecologists, invasion biologists, and modelers at the Fort Collins Science Center. The fellow will assemble data, analyze data sets, and conduct additional experiments needed to address the project. The fellow will learn the latest in techniques involved in studies of plant-insect interactions and ecological modeling.