Final Summary: Modeling Milkweed Population Dynamics

Since the summer research session is coming to an end and the first major phase to my project is almost “finished”, this seems like a good time to write my final post, wrapping up what I’ve been doing all summer, what has come from my work, and how this will transition into the next phases of the project. Just as a friendly reminder, this project is focussed on community ecology and population dynamics of the Common Milkweed, with the specific goal of modeling the size and demographic behavior of the population as a function of factors like herbivory and leaf chemistry. We use field-collected data and computational/statistical models in the R programming language to determine these relationships, that could inform management policies and conservation strategies.

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Field Work is neither all Work nor all Play

A large chunk of the work for my project in June was spent collecting data and doing field work. Often times this meant crouching in a literal field given our particular pant of study, but sometimes this involved more conventionally outdoorsy activities like crossing rivers, hiking dirt trails, and general bushwhacking. Studying and working in the disciplines of biology, environmental science, or other “macro-scale” natural sciences, you hear the term “field work” thrown around a lot… but what does this vague umbrella term actually mean? Now I’m sure this very well may vary considerably depending on what line of work you’re in and what questions you’re actually trying to answer, but I will give you my impressions from a general /plant ecology perspective.

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Abstract: Modelling the Effects of Density Dependence and Leaf Chemistry on Population Dynamics of Common Milkweed

The monarch butterfly has seen dramatic population declines in the past two decades (81% since 1999). A major contributing factor of this is the simultaneous decline in populations of common milkweed, on which the monarch is entirely dependent for much of its life cycle. As part of a plan to combat this decline, major replanting programs have begun in order to rejuvenate both species. However, while we know a great deal about the biology of monarchs, we know much less about the ecology of milkweed. This project aims to fill that gap by examining the role that leaf chemistry and plant density play in common milkweed population dynamics. To do this, I will collect demographic, spatial, and chemical data on milkweed in the field, and use that to expand a mathematical population model for milkweed.

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