Erin L. Kurten
erinkurten (at) gmail (dot) com
For more than 10 years, I have worked as a researcher and lecturer, with a focus on plant community ecology in tropical forest systems in the Neotropics and Southeast Asia. My research has focused on (1) the trait-mediated assembly processes that determine plant biodiversity and community composition, (2) how changes in plant functional composition affect ecosystem level properties and processes, and (3) how biodiversity can co-exist with the human species. My work brought together functional ecology, community ecology, and the ecology of species interactions to address these questions, utilizing both experimental and observational methodologies.
Mechanisms of animal-mediated impacts on plant diversity
Unsustainable hunting of vertebrates in tropical forests worldwide has been hypothesized to drive the loss of plant diversity via the disruption of critical plant-animal interactions. My work in central Panama utilized manipulative vertebrate exclosure experiments complemented by observational studies of defaunated forests to investigate the role vertebrates play in the maintenance of tropical plant diversity. By focusing on plant functional traits, I was able to tease apart the distinct influences that seed dispersers, seed predators, and herbivores have on the early stages of plant community assembly.
Consequences of plant community compositional change for ecosystem function
Often changes in plant species composition are accompanied by changes in functional trait composition, which can have broader impacts at the ecosystem level. I have investigated these effects in two contexts. In Hawaii, I have studied the effects of a lowland, invasive nitrogen fixing tree, Morella cerifera, on soil nitrogen content. In Panama, my work addressed how human impacts on animal diversity and plant composition may have unexpected consequences at the ecosystem level. For example, I found that the loss of seed-dispersers leads to increases in liana abundance and declines in the abundance of high-wood density species in the seedling layer of hunted forests. Both of these perturbations will likely cause declines in the carbon storage capacity of such forests, if they propagate from the seedling to adult community.
Comparative reproductive phenology of dipterocarp dominated forests
This work focused on dipterocarp-dominated forests in seasonally dry environments in Thailand as a lens through which to understand the evolution of reproductive phenology in Southeast Asian forests, and seasonally dry forests more generally. This work used observational data, model selection, and phylogenetic methods to assess the relationship between climate and phenology among species, and the role of phylogeny in determining phenological behavior.