Ongoing climate changes present new challenges and opportunities for improving our understanding of environmental processes across spatial, temporal, and biological scales. Future responses of ecosystems will depend on the resilience or the vulnerability of their ecological communities, encompassing population and functional responses. In my research, I seek to understand the factors that contribute to resistance or resilience of ecosystems facing environmental changes.
Faculty Research Area: Ecology
I am a plant systematist, plant community ecologist, biogeographer, and conservation biologist focused on the species and systems of the Southeastern United States. Students in my lab focus on the systematics and biogeography of the Southeastern United States, community classification developing the U.S. National Vegetation Classification, and land management, conservation planning, and environmental policy questions involving the conservation of Southeastern United States ecosystems and species. Prior to coming to UNC in 2002, I had an extensive career in applied conservation biology, working with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, The Nature Conservancy, and NatureServe (the Association for Biodiversity Information). My conservation interests and activities continue, with my service as Trustee of the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund (http://www.ncnhtf.org/) from 2008-2013 (which has provided $328 million through 518 grants to support the conservation of more than 298,000 acres of natural areas in North Carolina), Chair of the N.C. Plant Conservation Program’s Scientific Advisory Committee (http://www.ncagr.gov/plantindustry/plant/plantconserve/index.htm), and Chair of the N.C. Natural Heritage Program Advisory Committee (http://www.ncnhp.org/). I am the author of Flora of the Southern & Mid-Atlantic States (http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm), a taxonomic manual covering about 7000 vascular plant taxa, now the standard in use across much of the Southeastern United States. With J. Chris Ludwig and Johnny Townsend, I am co-author of the Flora of Virginia (http://www.floraofvirginia.org/), published in 2012 and awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award for Conservation, and am also an active author, editor, reviewer, and director of the Flora of North America project (http://fna.huh.harvard.edu/). I was a co-founder of the Carolina Vegetation Survey (http://cvs.bio.unc.edu/), and continue as one of its four organizers.
In the Hurlbert Lab we ask questions about the structure of ecological communities, and the processes that are responsible for determining the patterns of diversity, composition, turnover and relative abundance both within local assemblages and across the globe. Our work spans vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant communities, and we use a variety of approaches from manipulative experiments to modeling to working with global scale datasets. Current projects in the lab use
- large-scale citizen science datasets to quantify phenological mismatch between birds and caterpillars,
- simulation models to test hypotheses for the latitudinal diversity gradient, and
- eco-evolutionary experiments with Drosophila (with the Matute lab) to test ideas of thermal niche, competition, and niche conservatism.
“Ecological patterns, about which we construct theories, are only interesting if they are repeated. They may be repeated in space or in time, and they may be repeated from species to species. A pattern which has all of these kinds of repetition is of special interest because of its generality, and yet these very general events are only seen by ecologists with rather blurred vision. The very sharp-sighted always find discrepancies and are able to say that there is no generality, only a spectrum of special cases. This diversity of outlook has proved useful in every science, but it is nowhere more marked than in ecology.”
–Robert MacArthur, 1968
Our research group is based in the Department of Biology at the The University at North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research in our lab is focused on understanding and conserving the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems. We work in a variety of marine habitats including coral reefs, coastal wetland communities, oyster reefs and seagrass beds. Current projects include investigations of herbivory in the Galapagos Islands and Belize, the lionfish invasion of the Caribbean, patterns and dynamics of coral reef decline and recovery, the importance of predator biodiversity in estuarine food webs, salt marsh ecology and restoration, the effectiveness of tropical marine protected areas.
Make sure to visit our research blog, SeaMonster.
Reproductive decisions are basic to all organisms. For species with multiple offspring and parental care, the decisions can be complex, but they still revolve around the same fundamental questions: when, where, and with whom to reproduce and how to invest in offspring. These decisions invariably have important life-history implications on future reproduction, on the offspring themselves, and on fitness.
Using birds, the Sockman lab studies the causes and consequences of reproductive decisions. Birds are an excellent system for this topic, because their decisions are often easy to observe and apply across a broad range of taxa and habitats. Follow the links above to learn more about our program or, if you are a prospective student, to learn about joining the lab.
If you want to list me as a reference or need a letter of recommendation, please use this guide from the UNC Biology Department website and include in your e-mail to me a PDF file of this document filled out and signed by you. Please see my laboratory website for other information.
At a Glance
Environment-dependent behavior, hybridization, mating behavior evolution, sexual selection, speciation and species distributions.
The overarching goal of my research is to understand how behavior drives the origins and distribution of biodiversity. Because mate choice is a potent selective force that can be critical in the formation of novel phenotypes and new species, I focus on the evolution of mating behavior and its role in ecological and evolutionary processes. I work with natural populations and use a variety of approaches ranging from behavioral experiments to genetic analyses. For more details, including references, please go to my lab website.
I’m broadly interested in the interplay among evolution, ecology, and development. My current research focuses on three main topics.
First, I study the causes and consequences of a common feature of development: its tendency to be responsive to changes in the environment. Although biologists have long known that an individual organism’s appearance, behavior, and physiology can be modified by its environmental conditions, the implications of such developmental (or phenotypic) plasticity for ecology and evolution remain poorly understood. Moreover, the underlying genetic and developmental mechanisms that foster plasticity’s evolution are unclear. I seek to understand the impacts of plasticity on diversification and evolutionary innovation, as well as how and why plasticity arises in the first place.
Second, I study the role of competition in generating and maintaining biodiversity. I’m particularly interested in unravelling whether and how competition promotes trait evolution and the impacts of any such evolution on the formation of new traits and new species.
Finally, I study a striking form of convergent evolution known as Batesian mimicry, which evolves when a palatable species co-opts a warning signal from a dangerous species and thereby deceives its potential predators. Such instances of “life imitating life” provide an ideal opportunity to assess natural selection’s efficacy in promoting adaptation.
For more details on my lab and research, please visit my lab page by clicking on the link above.
How do organisms respond and adapt to complex, variable, natural environments? Our research integrates environmental physiology, ecology and evolution to address this question, using a combination of laboratory, field and modeling approaches. Most of our research is with temperate insects and their interactions with plants and parasites, with an emphasis on butterflies and moths; we use Manduca sexta (Tobacco Hornworms) as a model system in many of our studies. One major theme in recent years is plastic and evolutionary responses to human-induced environmental changes—climate change, invasive species, agroecosystems—and their ecological consequences.
Prospective students: Near retirement, I am no longer taking students but explore Biology and the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program (including Geography Department faculty affiliated with this Program) websites for ecologists who may help you! Though retiring, I am always glad to give advice to prospective and current graduate students through email.
Peter White is a plant ecologist with interests in communities, floristics, biogeography, species richness, the distance decay of similarity and beta diversity, conservation biology, and disturbance and patch dynamics. In vegetation science he is interested in the composition and dynamics of plant communities, the relationship between vegetation and landscape, and role of disturbance, and the ecology of individual species in a dynamic setting. In conservation biology he is interested in the distribution and biology of rare species, the design and management of nature reserves, alien species invasions, and conservation ethics.
From 1986 to 2014, Peter White directed the University’s North Carolina Botanical Garden through a period of exciting changes and growth. In this role, he and the staff have sought to redefine the scope of botanical gardens to focus on conservation, sustainability, and gardens as the healing interface with and gateway to nature. The Garden became one of the first gardens to enact policies aimed at diminishing the risk of release of exotic pest organisms in 1998 and was presented with a Program Excellence Award in 2004 by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. In 2009, the Garden opened the Education Center, a 29,000 sq ft facility that became the first LEED Platinum building on any of the 17 University of North Carolina campuses.
My research activities are diverse and span aspects of vegetation science from plant interactions to global patterns. However, the four projects described below serve to illustrate my current primary research interests.
Community dynamics. Much of my early research at UNC focused on plant community dynamics, a topic that I have continued to investigate throughout my career. With students and collaborators I have made extensive use of permanent plots to address these kinds of questions. We recently completed an additional resurvey of forest demography plots (some dating back to 1934) and are using these data to address a broad range of questions including urban impact, evolving successional dynamics reflecting local and global change, and changes in productivity resulting from factors such as successional dynamics and changes in atmospheric CO2.
Ecoinformatics. Ecoinformatics arrived as a subdiscipline of ecology only around the start of the 21st century. I have been active during this period in developing the necessary cyber-infrastructure and addressing science questions in the area of ecoinformatics that draws on the increasing availability of data that document attributes of places, attributes of biological taxa (species), and records of co-occurrence of species in specific places. In the past, studies of ecological communities were largely local case studies and no one knew how generalizable they were; many simply reflected the idiosyncrasies of a particular combination of time and space. We are now in a position to analyze community patterns over very large scales and assess their generality and the impacts of local contingencies.
Vegetation Classification. Formal, widely-adopted vegetation classifications are important for many purposes ranging from inventory to mapping to management prescription to simply documenting the context within which research has been conducted. In 1994 I established a collaboration consisting of the Ecological Society of American, the Nature Conservancy, the USGS and the US Federal Geographic Data Committee (with the US Forest Service as lead agency) to develop an open and scientifically credible US National Vegetation Classification (USNVC). We proposed national standards and in 2008 the Federal Geographic Data Committee adopted the key components as the US national standard. My research group and collaborators built the USNVC data archive in the form of VegBank.org, developed a peer-review system, and have recently completed the first formal revision and documentation of a significant set of Associations for the National Vegetation Classification.
Vegetation of the Carolinas. I have always been fascinated by the patterns of vegetation and biodiversity across landscapes. The Carolinas are remarkably diverse and the factors responsible for the vegetation of the region are poorly understood. In 1988, I established a collaboration to systematically document the natural vegetation of the Carolinas. Subsequently we have acquired and databased over 10,000 vegetation plots covering most of the over 500 USNVC vegetation types of the Carolinas. The resulting data are summarized on our website (cvs.bio.unc.edu) for use by applied scientists and the general public. In addition, we provide digital tools for predicting the natural vegetation of sites to guide restoration efforts.
Professional Service. I have and continue to contribute to the scientific community in numerous ways. I have served the International Association for Vegetation Science as President (2007-2011) and Publications Officer (2011-2015), I co-founded the Journal of Vegetation Science and served as one of the original Co-Editors-in-Chief (1990-1995), I organized of the North American Section, and am active in efforts to establish international standards for vegetation data. I have served the Ecological Society of America as Secretary (1992-1995), Editor-in-Chief of Ecology and Ecological Monographs (1995-2000), and co-organizer of the Vegetation Section and the Southeastern Chapter, in addition to participating in numerous other roles.
Links to websites maintained by Prof. Peet and/or his research group: