Where have all the plant species gone? Using herbaria, iNaturalist, and Google Earth to track biodiversity loss in Western Pennsylvania

Plant biodiversity is crucial in maintaining stable interactions among all species ranging from insects to humans. As the base of the food chain, it is of paramount importance that plants maintain an appropriate level of biodiversity in the ecosystem surrounding the Pittsburgh region. However, as whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) populations and human development patterns continue to fluctuate and increase in the area, certain plant species are at risk of being completely eliminated. Plants that deer browse on, such as red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) and hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), are at a heightened risk of extirpation as the deer population continues to rise following the loss of apex predators and lack of proper game management. Urban development in areas that were once rural or forested habitats for native plants also threatens species diversity, as deforestation has the potential to exacerbate the already alarming issue of deer browsing. 

Should these plants be entirely removed from the region, the entire ecosystem could be altered due to food scarcity among herbivores or the rise of an exotic invasive species that the native plants would have competed against. Since we do not know how drastic the decline has been for red elderberry and hobblebush, I will be studying and testing the hypothesis that these plants have suffered severe population declines due to both human development and deer browsing. 

 I will be working with my research mentor Dr. Walter Carson to track plant population patterns over the past century. This will be done by going through online herbarium records that date back to the early 20th century and collecting all recorded samples from the 1900s to present day. I will then go through online materials such as iNaturalist and Google Earth and compare the herbarium records with these sources to see if the locations of recorded plants are still forested. Once we find locations that still have potential plant populations, I will go in person to see if these plants are still present. This will ultimately provide a current population size of these plants and how severe their declines have been. 

 This project is especially exciting for myself as I am majoring in Ecology and Evolution, minoring in Chemistry, and getting a certificate in Geographic Information Systems. I would like to continue to pursue a career in ecological research and get a doctorate in the future. CURF will help me achieve these goals because this project will improve my research skills and abilities as a scientist. Thanks to CURF, I will be able to work alongside other fellows as well as mentors in order to become a well-rounded researcher. Additionally, this project is also exciting as I will be learning how to adapt to changing environments due to the ongoing pandemic while continuing to study ecological processes. I am incredibly grateful and excited for this opportunity to work alongside everyone with diverse backgrounds and different research projects. 

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