The Philpott Lab


Research Interests

Agriculture covers an overwhelming amount of land area, and understanding ecological processes within agricultural habitats is necessary for developing successful conservation agendas and sustainable food systems. Although many conservation biologists choose to work primarily or only in natural systems, incorporating both the relevance of the agricultural matrix and the economic, social, and cultural needs of communities living in agricultural landscapes, including at the edges of protected areas, are critical for promoting sustainability. Research in the lab spans broad areas of both theoretical and applied ecology with a common goal of understanding fundamental ecological processes and protecting biodiversity and natural resources while contributing to sustainable communities. Our current rand future research focuses on four areas all related to agroecology: 1) insect community ecology, 2) ecosystem services, 3) urban ecology, and 4) interactions between agriculture, conservation, and livelihoods. Our research activities include strong field components in tropical and temperate agroecosystems and natural systems as they pertain to landscape-level questions.

1) Insect community ecology.

Our research in basic community ecology focuses on understanding community assembly and food webs in agroecosystems. We are interested in learning how diverse tropical communities arise and are maintained, and how land-use change will impact assembly processes. One of our major interests is examining food web interactions involving ants, their competitors, predators, parasites, and prey across a range of coffee management systems. Our current research includes studying ant-parasite interactions and the importance of ants in controlling pests. We currently have NSF funding to examine multiple hypotheses of community assembly for arboreal ants. The main objectives are to 1) examine evidence for multiple drivers of community assembly derived from observations and manipulative experiments and 2) to examine influences of land-use change (e.g. a large-scale disturbance) on community assembly processes. We are examining life-history trade-offs, and influences of competition, resource use, habitat preferences, disturbance from a canopy ant, dispersal, and recruitment limitation. Although this part of our research program is quite theoretical, by design the work contributes to management recommendations for coffee farmers and conservation practitioners. Ants are important biological control agents in coffee agroecosystems and elucidating factors contributing to ant assembly will inform sustainable and organic agricultural production, and integrated pest management techniques.

2) Ecosystem services.

We are very interested in how ecosystem services, such as pest control, pollination, and climate change adaptation and mitigation, are affected by changes in biodiversity and habitat complexity. Research in our lab examines the impact of agricultural intensification on predator diversity, and relationships between landscape and habitat complexity, predator behavior, species richness, and functional diversity as factors mitigating the top-down effects of predators. We have conducted lab experiments to examine how adding vertical diversity (additional trophic levels) affect multi-predator effects on important pests. We have led two recent meta-analyses to quantify impacts of land use change on bird, ant, and tree diversity, and subsequent effects on ecosystem services provided specifically by birds. We also examined correlations between pollinator diversity and coffee fruit set and fruit weights. Finally, we have examined the role of shade complexity in coffee agroecosystems in mitigating the effects of hurricanes. This project involved using satellite imagery and GIS, farmer surveys, and vegetation sampling to investigate relationships between agricultural land use, forest fragments, landslides, and coffee yields. We thus have used experimental, spatial, and meta-analytical approaches to elucidate relationships between diversity, habitat complexity and ecosystem services. We continue to work to study the importance of ants, other arthropods, birds and bats as predators in tropical, temperate, and urban agroecosystems and are very interested in finding collaborators to begin economic valuation of pest control services in tropical agroecosystems. We are also interested in examining more broadly how local and landscape effects differentially affect suites of ecosystem services both in urban and tropical agricultural landscapes.

3) Urban ecology.

With a team of undergraduates, we have examined arthropod communities and diversity in urban green spaces in Toledo, Ohio and in the Central Coast of California including community gardens, vacant lots, and forested parks. This work also involved a parallel project in Detroit. Projects to date have included documenting ground foraging and soil arthropod diversity for spiders, beetles, and ants, relative abundance of native vs. invasive species, and ant nesting ecology. Results from these projects indicate that gardens have far fewer arthropod species than do forests and vacant lots. Furthermore, these areas are highly dominated by invasive species that potentially influence species interactions. Follow up studies planned include assessment of the impact of the invasive pavement ant on pest control and pollination services, and evaluation of the economic and social value of urban gardens. Another student has determined that presence of native NW Ohio plants in backyard gardens dramatically affects pollinator composition, and that bee abundance is higher with native plants, with potentially important implications for urban ecosystem services. As part of this research, we have been building links with managers of urban garden programs, high school teachers, and researchers interested in promoting local farmers markets as sources of income for poor families in the region. Currently, we are working to understand predation services in urban gardens in the California Central Coast.

4) Interactions between agriculture, conservation, and livelihoods.

Most broadly, we work towards understanding potential trade-offs between ecological function, biodiversity conservation, and producer livelihoods. Research that Stacy completed as a postdoc followed an interdisciplinary approach in investigating the potential of different coffee certification programs and secure land tenure to conserve biodiversity while providing economic sustainability to farmers. With farmer surveys she examined ecological and economic impacts of low coffee prices and using ecological field studies, she investigated ecological value of farms using vegetation analyses and studies of birds and ants. In the future, we hope to work with ecologist and anthropologist collaborators in Chiapas, Mexico to investigate how corn milpas, coffee, pastures, tree plantations, and native forests compare in terms of biodiversity protection, agrobiodiversity, pest control, carbon sequestration capacity, and socio-economic and cultural indicators (yield, farm outputs, labor, economic gains, traditional knowledge, and cultural land uses).

We will continue to learn about ecological communities and processes in primarily agricultural and urban landscapes. We will most strongly focus on interactions across and within trophic levels at multiple spatial scales, and will investigate the role of diversity and land use in species interactions and ecological function. We plan to continue our focus on insects, birds, and bats as ecological indicators of land use and climate change, and as model organisms for studying ecological processes. We will continue to examine pest control and pollination services in agroecological landscapes, and to investigate those management practices and landscape-scale decisions that will help promote continued and increased services. We will continue to examine how urban habitats can protect biodiversity and build communities. We will continually strive to extend our ecological work to move towards conservation, sustainable agriculture, sustainable food systems, climate mitigation, and community sustainability.