Suding lab in the media

Our very own Erica Spotswood and Liana Nicols are currently featured on the cover of California Agriculture Magazine. Follow the link to check it out:

The dynamic duo is also currently featured in the Sacramento Airport. These photos show them, quadrats in hand, monitoring plant responses to weed threshold treatments installed at the UC Sierra Foothills Research and extension center. If you’re stoping through Sacramento for the Ecological Society of America conference this August, keep an eye out!

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NROC Land Management Web Tool Launches!

Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, CA

Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach, CA

After three years of collaborative efforts between the Suding laboratory and land management practitioners of The Nature Reserve of Orange County (NROC), a new web-based land management tool is now available to the stakeholders of NROC. One of the first of its kind, this tool gives land managers streamlined access to environmental geospatial data, a historic NROC restoration data base and supportive literature to aid them in planning future restoration actions. With constant involvement of all stakeholders throughout development, we created a dynamic tool relevant to land manager needs that has the ability to evolve as these needs change. The release of the tool has fueled interest in expanding access to this technology both regionally and globally. We are excited to see how the tool will be used in its current format, whether it alleviates restoration limitations faced by land managers and how it will evolve to meet the needs of potential future tool users.

Thank you to all who have supported this work from funding (UDSA) to intellectual participation.

–Post by Dr. Sara Jo Dickens

Congratulations to Yvette Gault

Congratulations to Suding Lab undergraduate member Yvette Gault for receiving a UC Berkeley Education Abroad Program Scholarship this year. Yvette is currently working for the California Environmental Protection Agency in the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Suding Lab @ SER 2013

SER 2013

Lauren, Sara Jo, Dylan, Katie & Fernando (left to right) at SER 2013 in Madison, WI

We had a great showing at the SER 2013 World Conference in Madison, WI this past week! We had the opportunity to present on some great work from lab ranging from reference systems in restoration (Lauren),  improving the likelihood of restoration success (Sara Jo), wetland restoration (Dylan), managing for resilience (Katie, Lauren) and tropical forest restoration (Fernando)!

Spring Field Season in Full Swing


The Suding Lab field season is in full swing, with lab members pursuing a range of projects in California’s grasslands and Colorado’s alpine habitats. Recently, the lab and a handfull of colleagues spent a week at the Sierra Foothills Research Extension Center near Marysville, CA to collect data on invasion thresholds, competition in annual species and native grass restoration. Stay tuned for more specific updates from our researchers!


We’re excited to report some great news from the Suding Lab this week!

First, big congratulations to Suding Lab member Loralee Larios who was selected for the National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology!

Loralee will be using the fellowship to study small mammal granivory and herbivory in relation to grassland plant community assembly. In particular, she will test whether the traits that increase a plant’s susceptibility to granivory and herbivory also influence the outcome of resource competition between plants, and how these interactions shape community composition across resource gradients.


Further congratulations are due to Suding lab member Lauren Hallett, who was selected as one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant!
Lauren was also selected for the Decagon Devices GA Harris Research Instrumentation Fellowship.
This support will be used for Lauren’s investigation of compensatory dynamics in California grassland plant communities.


Last but not least, Suding lab member Dylan Chapple was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Dylan will be studying the impacts of landscape and local factors on seed dispersal and plant community structure in tidal marsh communities in the San Francisco Bay.

Fieldwork on a foggy November morning

by Erica N. Spotswood

Mistle toe on a blue oak at Sierra Foothills REC. Photo Credit: Erica N. Spotswood

The weed thresholds team just returned from a visit to SFREC to check on our plots. In October, we established 360 plots to which we added seeds of four species. On our last trip, everything was dry and the weather was hot! What was most remarkable on this trip is how quickly the landscape was transformed. Just a month later, last year’s grass has nearly disappeared, and new grass and forbs are germinating everywhere! The seed addition worked, and we found establishing seedlings in many of our plots. The weather was wet and foggy, following a big storm that dumped four inches in 24 hours. The next few months of cool wet weather should give a good start to the winter annual species characteristic of California grasslands. I can’t wait to see how much recruitment we will see next spring!

Liana and Vish hiking out to our field sites. Photo Credit: Erica N. Spotswood


Sense-able solutions for ecology questions

by Joanna Hsu

November 7, 2012

Iryna Dronova, a graduating PhD student in Peng Gong’s group, dazzled us at Friday’s lab meeting about how remote sensing might be useful in ecology and restoration. A fly-by review of her presentation:

1. The problem: field work takes time, money, and often painful logistics. Furthermore, measurements in the field may not be accurate or scale up to relevant scales.

For example, I have spent a good deal of time squinting at plots to estimate percent of vegetation cover. It is one of the places in life I second guess myself and others the most. I have no doubt that you can identify grasses to the subspecies based on a fragment of last year’s flowering stalk, but can you also get the percent cover in this plot right? (And by “right”, I mean “the same answer as me”?)


2. Enter remote sensing and image classification, which can extract useful information from satellite images because different land and vegetation covers have different spectral signatures.


3. However, classifying blindly based on the spectral signatures of pixels alone often hides meaningful entities.


4. Adding scale-dependent, object-based image analysis helps considerably. This image segmentation allows us to more easily separate interesting entities from similar-colored background.


5. A cool example from Iryna’s research: wetlands research at Poyang Lake, China. Swaths of land dominated by different plant functional types – C3 grasses, C3 forbs, C4 tall grasses, C4 short grasses – can largely be separated based on their spectral signatures if object-based image analysis is applied at the right scale (figure below from Dronova et al. 2012).

A species’ “functional type” or “functional group” refers to its role and function in an ecosystem, as opposed to its taxonomy. Ecologists often group species based on their contributions and responses to their ecosystems – it may be more ecologically meaningful that a species is a perennial shrub than that it belongs to the Ericaceae family, subfamily Diapensiaceae.


6. As for the hard-to-classify land areas, a field visit can clarify the ambiguity. Sometimes these areas are the most biodiverse, composed of several plant functional types. Or, we could also improve our classification success rate by defining new optically distinguishable plant functional types, as these authors suggest. (Thought: then does the term “functional” become more about being functional for ecologists as opposed to functional for ecosystems?)


7. There are lots of ways questions in ecology and restoration could be addressed using remotely sensed data.  Iryna’s list is below:


Dark view from the seed bank

Sara Jo will be giving a talk about seed bank limitation and management at the 21st Annual California Invasive Plant Council symposium, which is being held in October in Sonoma County. She will present results from a study of 131 restoration sites in Orange County, California.

Memorable quotes:

“You don’t just go from artichoke thistle to coastal sage scrub.” -Sara Jo Dickens, talking about undesired restoration trajectories


Dark view from the seed bank

by Joanna Hsu

Prior to assuming the role of graduate student, I had the more glorious (and well-paid) job of being a champion weed fighter at Crystal Cove State Park in southern California. “Environmental services intern” was my real title, but in my mind I was so much more than that. I brought death to the artichoke thistle and stoked fear in the heart of invasive mustards. Exotic annual grasses didn’t stand a chance against me. In my more enthusiastic moments – when my passion for native ecosystems really flared – even non-invasive exotics were not spared. In my arsenal were chainsaws, weed whips, and gallons of Roundup.

On days I wasn’t battling weeds, I was working on a restoration project at an old sewage leach field site. I sowed native seeds by the fistful and put hundreds of sagebrush, buckwheat, orange monkeyflower, and other coastal sage scrub seedlings in the ground. I diligently hand-watered transplants, regularly removed weeds and things aspiring to be weeds, and rubbed the leaves of the few adult native shrubs on the site for good luck.

But as I worked, I wondered – was this enough? Do our weed killing projects and expensive, labor-intensive restoration efforts achieve their goals? What really makes an ecological restoration successful? Would I return to the leach field after my journey to the far-off land of grad school to find a thriving native coastal sage scrub community?


Sara Jo taking a seedbank sample

Well, it is now several years later and Sara Jo Dickens, a post-doc in my lab, is working on exactly these questions. She has evaluated outcomes from 131 restoration sites in Orange County, including Crystal Cove State Park. I got a preview of her results at our lab meeting this week. The take-home point was this: restoration needs to account for soil seed banks. Seeds can sit in the ground for months or years before germinating or dying, and this seed bank is important because it is a source of new vegetation at restoration sites. At restoration sites without planting or sowing, it is the main source of new individuals — so what’s in the seed bank matters.

Well, it turns out that Orange County seed banks are rich in exotic species but poor in native ones. By germinating seeds from soil samples at each site, Sara Jo found that on average, less than 1 out of every 100 seeds is from a native local species. Equally troublesome is the fact that less than half of native species are represented in the seed bank. These findings imply that removing invasive vegetation alone is not enough to restore native ecosystems. In the soil, weeds are still present en masse, waiting for the first winter rains to germinate. But this potential for natives is limited at many locations by depleted seedbanks. The lottery is strongly, strongly in favor of the weeds.

We don’t yet know why seed banks in Orange County are so depauperate in natives. Is it a reflection of the long history of exotic annual dominance in these ecosystems? Are native seeds preferentially munched on by animals? Are no seeds arriving from nearby sites with natives? These are all questions that need to be answered. But in the meantime, restoration plans need to account for the fact that our restoration sites are full of seeds that we never want to see grow into adults. Management of the seed bank will be an important strategy going forward. And not all restoration seeding techniques are equal. Sara Jo found that broadcasting and hydro-seeding are effective for herbaceous and woody native species. Native grasses, however, have higher probabilities of establishment with imprint seeding, which involves rolling over seeds with a large machine or tamping of soils post-seeding.

My weed-wacking days at Crystal Cove are over, but the interest in restoration success in Orange County continues. Orange County has lost nearly all native grasslands and a significant portion of the coastal sage scrub community to development and exotic plant invasion. Artichoke thistle alone had covered over 4000 acres of the Nature Reserve of Orange County before management efforts began in the early 1990’s. Sara Jo’s research will directly help land managers in southern California (and future generations of environmental services interns) achieve better restoration outcomes. In addition to looking at seed banks, Sara Jo also studied how other site-specific factors such as soil type, land use history, and management practices influenced restoration success. To learn more, come listen to Sara Jo give a talk at the Cal-IPC Symposium in Sonoma County later this week or read her paper when it comes out.