If you’re designing an ambitious field experiment that involves more than 3,800 plants and 240 deer cages, ecologist John Parker has some words of wisdom for you: beware of the unexpected. Beware of meadow voles. Parker is a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater, Maryland. He studies the relationship between plants and the herbivores that eat them.
In a recent paper published in Ecology Letters, Parker chronicles the ups, downs and findings of a study investigating the links between genetic diversity in plants and herbivory. “Most people think about biodiversity in terms of species diversity, where you have a rich variety of plants and animals living in an ecosystem,” explains Parker. “I’m interested in exploring the importance of genetic diversity within a species.” Scientists have recently discovered that plants can benefit from growing in genetically-rich polycultures, where neighboring plants of the same species have different genotypes. Parker’s new research shows that these benefits include better protection against hungry herbivores like deer and voles.
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