The Taxonomist, the Conservationist, the Agriculturalist, and the Historian
In 2001, Kula began a large-scale sampling of braconids at Konza Prairie in Kansas. Results from previous sampling had identified only 86 braconid species, which seemed too low for a family as species-rich as the braconids. To remedy this undersampling, from 2001-2006 Kula and his colleagues collected at sites that represented a variety of land management practices (grazing, no grazing, controlled burning, etc.) (Kula & Marsh, 2011). Kula and his research group have found that braconid diversity is reflective of management strategy, with most similarity occurring between sites managed in similar ways. Thus, adjacent sites managed very differently had different profiles of braconids. Based on these initial results, Kula estimates a whopping 234 braconid wasp species will ultimately be sampled at Konza Prairie, including many undescribed species. The results demonstrate the importance of considering how grassland management affects insects that provide services critical to ecosystem function, such as parasitoid wasps. Questions that must be addressed more frequently in conservation and restoration include the following: How do we maximize biodiversity in highly fragmented ecosystems? Can small parcels of land targeted for conservation or restoration provide sufficient resources to support organisms? To what extent do parasitic wasps such as braconids move from natural habitats into agricultural fields? Kula argues that such questions are best addressed through multidisciplinary collaboration conducted in conjunction with biodiversity research programs.
With chestnut tree revival on the horizon, Dr. Kula and his collaborators began to ask several questions, including “how did the functional extinction of the American chestnut impact its community of associated insects”, and “do herbivores on hybrid chestnut experience enemy-free space (release of pressure from natural enemies) from parasitic wasps”. This led Kula and his collaborators to develop a project on American chestnut and its associated insect fauna both pre- and post-blight. Uncovering pre-blight fauna is done by consulting literature from that period, as well as historical insect records in the Hopkins Notes and Record System, maintained in the Department of Entomology at the NMNH. This extensive recording system used by the USDA from 1899 until the 1980s contains detailed notes about insects of U.S. forests, including herbivores on American chestnut and their natural enemies. A comprehensive literature review indicated that most reports of insects associated with endemic or exotic chestnut in the U.S. are from five species: two putatively extinct micromoths, gypsy moth, chestnut gall wasp, and small chestnut weevil. Other researchers have considered four moth species extinct due to loss of America chestnut from the forest canopy. Kula and his collaborators are assessing pre- and post-blight trophic associations to understand herbivore-natural enemy interactions in the context of chestnut restoration
Dr. Kula’s research nicely demonstrates how taxonomy and natural history collections can be used to simultaneously address an array of questions in different, yet interdependent, areas of biology.
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Hebard, Fred V. "The backcross breeding program of the American chestnut foundation."
Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation 19 (2006): 55-77.
Hepting, George H. "Death of the American chestnut." Journal of Forest History 18.3
Kula, R. R., & Marsh, P. M. (2011). Doryctinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) of Konza
Prairie excluding species of Heterospilus Haliday. Proceedings of the
Entomological Society of Washington, 113(4), 451-491.
Lisa Kuder is a PhD student in Dennis vanEngelsdorp’s lab. Broadly, her research focuses on pollinator habitat along highway rights-of-way. More specifically, she is looking at the effects of de-icing salt on the floral resources of roadside wildflowers and ramifications for foraging insects.
Gussie Maccracken is a PhD student in Dr. Charlie Mitter’s Lab. Her research focuses on deep-time plant-insect associations. She is currently studying 75 million year old insect damaged leaves from western North America.