Our lab uses physiology to understand how animals respond to environmental change. Our research blends experimental biology with simulation-based computer models to identify the physiological processes driving species’ distributions, extinction, and adaptation. The approach requires insight from behavior, physiology, and physics, providing an integrative perspective into organismal biology. Through the synthesis of these disciplines, we provide a comprehensive understanding of organisms, from genes to geographic ranges, while improving our capacity to predict the impact of climate change.
Faculty Research Area: Ecology
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.
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.