My research interests center on two main questions: How are species organized into communities, and how do communities recover from disturbance? Understanding the ecological, environmental and evolutionary processes that organize species into distinct communities and ecosystems is of growing importance, particularly in the face of increasing human-induced environmental disturbance. Communities experience many forms of disturbance, including abiotic (non-living) disturbances such as temperature and mechanical forces (environment) and biotic disturbance from organisms such as consumers eating community members (herbivory). I am exploring community responses to disturbances in intertidal seaweed communities on Tatoosh Island, WA in the Northeast Pacific Ocean to understand how communities are assembled in nature, and how they are maintained in the face of disturbance. The intertidal zone is a natural laboratory, where the tidal cycle creates strong temperature, desiccation, herbivore and wave force gradients over a scale of only meters. For example, the higher up in the intertidal, the more extreme the temperature changes and the harder it is for seaweed species to survive.
You might be thinking – of all things to study, why seaweed? They are actually quite beautiful and come in many shapes and colors! Their differing ability to survive harsh environments that change on a very small geographical scale allows me to study what functional traits are important to survival and coexistence. Also, in one little square foot of rock in the intertidal, there are seaweeds coexisting that are close cousins – their lineages diverged only a million years ago – and seaweeds whose most recent common ancestor lived nearly 1 billion years ago! This allows me to study how evolutionary relatedness influences community patterns.
Connect with Courtney Stepien (alumnus).