Get to Know Our Fellows

While we are getting ready to say goodbye to our 2016 and Summer 2017 Fellows, we are eager to welcome onboard our new crew of 2017 Fall Fellows. These past summer months were a busy time as our Fellows were out in the field, gathering data for their research. The areas of research are as varied as are our Fellows themselves.

Fall 2016                                 Summer 2017                         Fall 2017

Xavier Haro-Carrion               Ana Carolina Fiorini               Laura Brenskelle

Joan Meiners                         Patrick Milligan                       Farah Carrasco-Rueda

John Park                                                                             Sergio Marconi

Rebecca Stubbs                                                                  


Fall 2016 Fellows:

Xavier Haro-Carrión, Ph.D. Student

School of Natural Resources and Environment

“I was selected as a University of Florida Biodiversity Institute Fellow for the 2016-17 academic year. My project, entitled “Land-cover change and forest fragmentation impacts on biodiversity in a fragmented landscape in coastal Ecuador” focused on analyzing biodiversity conservation in a highly fragmented landscape of coastal Ecuador. High deforestation rates and associated forest fragmentation worldwide highlight the importance of understanding biodiversity conservation in mosaics of land-cover types. This is particularly relevant in areas already highly fragmented yet critical for biodiversity conservation, such as in biodiversity hotspots.

I wanted to test the hypothesis that Land-cover change (1990-2015) and fragmentation have differential impacts on dimensions of tree diversity – e.g. certain functional groups, endemics, endangered species, etc., using as a case study a fragmented landscape of 14,900-ha in coastal Ecuador.

Results to date indicate that, as expected, land-cover plays a critical role in determining taxonomic tree species diversity. Old-growth forests are more species-rich than secondary forests. Likewise, secondary forests are richer than more human-impacted land-cover types such as pastureland and plantation. However, results to date also indicate that having plantations in close proximity to surveyed forests will result in lower diversity. Plantations account for less than 5% of the landscape, so it is not very likely that they are significantly altering landscape configuration or patch characteristics. Plantations are land-cover types heavily managed by people, so they likely highlight individual landowner decisions in regards to forest management. People that own plantations in the area tend to be wealthier and less concerned about environmental issues, so it is possible that plantation occurrence is a proxy for how individual landowners manage their land, including their forests.

I also explored how landscape, patch, and species characteristics help explain the occurrence of 17 endemic tree species identified in the study area. Species traits (i.e. wood density) are the most important variables that determine whether or not endemic species are present in a site. Distance to road and land-cover (i.e. old-growth or secondary forest) are also important, but they affect species differently. For instance, most endemic species are less likely to be found in secondary forest, but some flourished in them.

This project will continue beyond the appointed time. Thanks to the University of Florida Biodiversity Institute (UFBI) we established collaboration with the University of Michigan to include phylogenetic diversity as another dimension of biodiversity in our assessments. This research was presented this past summer 2017 at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Merida, Mexico.

Being part of the first group of UFBI fellows was an amazing experience. Not only did the UFBI help financially, but the academic interactions and the experience gained significantly enhanced my project outcomes and guided future directions.”


Joan Meiners, Ph.D. Student in Interdisciplinary Ecology

School of Natural Resources and Environment

“The crowning achievement of my year as a University of Florida Biodiversity Institute Graduate Student Fellow was submitting and having my first lead-author paper accepted for publication. I worked with my current advisor, Dr. Morgan Ernest, our lab postdoc, Dr. David Harris, and my M.S. adviser, Dr. Terry Griswold, to analyze data on my discovery that native bees use honeydew sugars when nectar is low, and shape our findings into a story. Our paper, “Bees without Flowers: Before Peak Bloom, Diverse Native Bees Find Insect-produced Honeydew Sugars” will be published in the August 2017 print issue of The American Naturalist, and is already available online at

In keeping with my science communication goals, I also wrote a blog post about this publication (at The blog describes the process behind our simple, but elegant, experiment to investigate our discovery of a diverse range of native (mostly solitary) bee species foraging on insect honeydew, and what cues they may be using to locate these unadvertised sugars early in the spring when floral nectar is limited. This behavior has been previously reported for some bumble bees, honey bees, and tropical stingless bees, but no one had observed or studied this foraging behavior among solitary bees, nor looked into how bees find honeydew in the absence of any of the standard floral cues that we think of as being essential to bee foraging strategies. We recorded 42 different native bee species exhibiting surprising non-floral-centric foraging behaviors; determined that they were able to find simple sugars without the aid of any visual, olfactory, or other known cues; and postulated that this may be evidence of an interspecific foraging network, or “interspecific eavesdropping”, among solitary bees attempting to survive in nectar-depauperate habitats. Due to threats such as habitat degradation, drought, and shifting bloom times, this may become a common scenario for bees, and I am excited to have contributed to our knowledge about how bees will respond.

During spring 2017 semester, I also made progress working with Dr. Rob Guralnick on analyses for a chapter of my PhD looking at bee community assembly and habitat requirements for target, representative bee species. We used my empirical vegetation data along with downloaded National Landcover Data (NLCD) to characterize the habitats used by bee species of various trait groups at different spatial scales. We are currently building and comparing best GLMM models and hope to use these results to broaden the discussion about what resources are important in determining bee species relative distribution across a landscape.

Finally, one of my goals as a graduate research fellow with the UFBI was to improve my ability to impact attitudes and popular science communication about conservation issues by writing and pitching a story about native bee biodiversity to a national magazine. Towards this end, I wrote many drafts of a piece on this topic, learned new skills in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to provide accompanying art, and worked with a freelance science journalist to edit and pitch the story to publishers. I am currently waiting to hear back, and plan to expand the story and this trajectory of my interests next year by taking the Environmental Journalism class at UF with writer-in-residence and published author Cynthia Barnett next fall. By pushing me to pursue these goals and giving me access to biodiversity researchers, other student fellows, and a productive working environment, the UFBI fellowship enabled me to have an especially productive and motivational year of research.”


John Parks, Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant

Department of Biology and Florida Museum of Natural History

[Also a Summer 2017 Fellow]

“My 2016-2017 UF Biodiversity Institute Graduate Student Fellowship has provided wonderful opportunites to build fundamentals in interdisciplinary field of remote sensing, image processing, and machine learning techniques to solve important knowledge gap regarding tropical forest biodiversity: In species-rich Tropical forest, diverse phenological strategies coexist, however not the pattern nor the cause of such variety is yet fully understood, due to limitation in monitoring methods.

To solve this gap, I use a year-long, bi-weekly high-resolution time series images that were   acquired by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), over 50-ha plot in Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. In estimating true phenology from the UAV dataset, expertise in overlapping fields of remote sensing, image processing, and machine learning is essential; e.g., in processing images, fundamental knowledge in theories and practice is required to extract relevant features from leaf, branch, and flower structures; in extracting crown-level information, proficiency in GIS software and programming languages is needed; in categorizing crowns to different levels of phenology phases, training and validating classification models is necessary.

During 2016-2017, I took the image processing and computer vision class (EEE 6521) from Electrical and Computer Engineering department, to develop a basis for image processing techniques. In addition, I developed a framework to fully utilize UF high performance computing (HPC) environment in generating and extracting textural features of individual trees in the UAV dataset, by employing relevant programming skills. The framework enables massive data processing to test multiple textural features of crown images, which could be used in estimating true phenology of tree crowns. I tested this framework on a subset of UAV datasets, whether extracted features correspond well with visual observations of leaf, branch, and flower cover of each crown (n=56); several features showed strong correlation to crown leaf cover (e.g. r=0.70, p<0.01).

The framework and techniques I have developed during UFBI fellowship will be combined with my previous work on automatically detecting leaf-on and leaf-off status of tree crowns (presented at Ecological Society of America, in 2016), to better estimate the individual-level phenology status of tree crowns. Accurate estimation of phenology status for thousands of individual trees for hundreds of species in the 50-ha plot in BCI will be a valuable information to study diverse phenological strategies in tropical forest.”


Rebecca Stubbs, Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant

Department of Biology and Florida Museum of Natural History

“In the summer of 2016, the Flower Finder Citizen Science Project was developed and implemented as an outreach project in Denali National Park and Preserve to engage the public in research at their national park. The project entailed encouraging park visitors to find six target plant species and upload their photos with GPS coordinates to iNaturalist (an online repository for observations of biodiversity). The main objectives of this project were 1) to engage the public to look at plants—a surprisingly difficult task—while participating in scientific research; 2) to document plant occurrences at Denali National Park; and 3) use public-generated data for ecological niche models (ENMs). These goals were accomplished through multiple outreach events including public lectures, flower walks, talking with visitors and staff about the project, and analysis of the results with help from the University of Florida Biodiversity Institute.

There were two major outcomes from this project: 1) visitors to Denali National Park participated in the project; and 2) analysis of data points validated the use of citizen-generated data for ecological niche modeling. The Flower Finder Project at Denali National Park generated 157 new data points for six target plant species. These points were used in comparison to georeferenced museum specimens. Niche models estimate habitat suitability across a geographic area and are generated by inferring the ecological and climatic preferences of a species from locality data gathered from occurrence records. Once the model has been trained from occurrence records, these preferences can be projected onto a geographical area. To date, hundreds of studies have used niche models to assess habitat suitability across both varying landscapes and time. A notable result from using the data generated by the Flower Finder project is that analysis suggests the citizen-generated data more accurately trained the ecological niche models. These results were rather remarkable so this finding is being tested on much larger datasets with many focal taxa. Investigation of this finding would not have been possible with support from the University of Florida Biodiversity Institute, and we plan to disseminate these results in a publication in the next year.”


Summer 2017 Fellows:

Ana Carolina Fiorini, Ph.D. Candidate

School of Natural Resources and Environment

“Having the support from the University of Florida Biodiversity Institute, my hope is that my research will inform efforts to conserve biodiversity in one of the most beleaguered ecosystems in the world, the Atlantic Forests of Brazil. I am evaluating a biodiversity conservation intervention in terms of its effectiveness (i.e., what did they actually conserve?), efficiency (i.e., how cost-effective was the intervention?), and equity (i.e., how were their welfare effects distributed?). The interventions are designed to support the Brazilian Forest Code, the main legal instrument used to protect and recover native vegetation on private land.

For the Atlantic Forest region, the Forest Code (FC) requires landowners to maintain ‘permanent protected areas’ (i.e. buffers zones around springs and rivers, sleep slopes, and hilltops), as well as 20% of their property as natural vegetation. Although the FC law could be a powerful conservation tool, low compliance reduces its impacts on forest conservation. To promote compliance, the FC uses both disincentives (e.g. law enforcement with fines) and incentives (e.g., payment for environment services). While economic incentives can promote conservation and forest restoration, law enforcement may be more effective and efficient under certain conditions. In recognition of Brazil’s size and diversity, I will use the Rio Claro municipality in Rio de Janeiro State as a case study. Rio Claro is especially suitable for my purposes because there are plans to extend its payment for environment services project to the entire state despite the absence of a rigorous evaluation. I plan to increase likelihood of my evaluation research helping to improve the design of its greatly extended version by collaborating with the responsible government agency.

My research will contribute to the biodiversity conservation literature by focusing on the restoration elements of the law. This aspect is normally neglected in consequence of the difficulty in using remote sensing to detect small and slow changes in vegetation structure in areas that are regenerating. For this purpose, I am using open sources software and freely available imagery to model vegetation changes. This approach has the potential to substantially reduce the cost of enforcement. Basically, I am mapping and monitoring forest regrowth by linking the temporally and spatially-extensive Landsat record with high resolution air photo image publicly available for the study area. I create models that predict forest regrowth with variables already available on-line as a first step to understand how socio-economic processes influence restoration and to explore how the ecological dynamics of forest regrowth relate to property boundaries. I will use my study site to: (1) validate the vegetation regrowth model; and (2) conduct interviews to understand compliance and voluntary participation in a payment for environment services project. The data I collect in the field will be combined with the remote sensing data to create control groups for evaluation of the impact of the payment for environment services. My findings should reveal whether the payment for environment services has a causal relationship with forest cover change. The results will allow me to explore which characteristics of the properties and property owners were associated with the projects’ outcomes and to understand where, when, why and for whom the PES intervention worked. I will address the effectiveness of the intervention using implementation cost data in combination with land-cover change outcomes. I will then compare these costs with a hypothetical high enforcement scenario.

The Forest Code is a potentially powerful tool to promote conservation of Atlantic Forest biodiversity but to capture these benefits and to avoid weakening of the regulations, policy-makers need to know what aspects of it works for whom and under what conditions.”


Patrick Milligan, Ph.D. Candidate

The Palmer Lab

“I am investigating how the community of plants and animals in a Kenyan savanna is affected by an invasive ant species from Ethiopia. The impact of invasive species is often measured by the decline in native species diversity (i.e., how many species are found in a community, and how evenly those species are distributed). However, we do not clearly understand how species diversity is linked to important properties of the environment, such as the breakdown of dead material or the pollination of native flowers.

[My assistant and I using portable photosynthesis meter in the savanna at Mpala Research Centre.]

I’m trying to understand how species diversity influences environmental characteristics, to contribute to modern academic theories about those topics, and also to help Kenyan conservationists to understand the consequences of biological invasion. Over the next year, I will closely monitor changes to both species diversity and various environmental characteristics as the ant invasion spreads across two conservancies in Kenya for the next year. The tools that I use for my work are varied: portable electronics to measure the physiology of important savanna plant species; long-term field installations to measure termite activity; and various collection techniques to survey the native insect populations.

To learn more about my research, you can visit, where I have posted multiple blogs, and also maintain a podcast series about research and conservation by myself and others in the region.”


Fall 2017 Fellows:

Laura Brenskelle , Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant

Department of Biology and Florida Museum of Natural History

“As a 2017-2018 UF Biodiversity Institute Fellow, I will be integrating zooarchaeological data and paleoclimate reconstructions from the Maya Lowland areas of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Using data and spatiotemporal modeling tools, I will investigate how the local and regional biota were affected by direct human exploitation, habitat modification, short-term climate changes such as droughts, and shifts of cultural complexity through time. My research aims to improve our understanding of the complex interplay between humans, climate, and biodiversity.”


Farah Carrasco Rueda, Ph.D. Candidate in Interdisciplinary Ecology

School of Natural Resources and Environment

“During the upcoming year, I will focus on analyzing the data that I have collected over two field seasons in Madre de Dios, Peru. I will be investigating large-scale factors that might be involved in the mechanism behind the observed patterns of bat diversity. Also, I will work in developing new automated ways to analyze acoustic data, and preparing educational material with the results of my study which will be provided to rural communities where I worked.”



 Sergio Marconi, Ph.D. Student in Interdisciplinary Ecology

School of Natural Resources and Environment

“My research focuses on forecasting how forests may change in their structure and functionality in a rapidly changing world. In the 2017/18 academic year, I will work on predicting how plant traits vary within and across landscapes, in different forests across the U.S. To do so, I will use a combination of field, LiDAR, and hyperspectral data collected by the National Ecological Observatory Network.

Once I have estimated trait information for each individual tree in the designated area, I will use that information to understand how functional diversity changes in relation to the environment, and which coexistence processes and assembly rules are driving functional evenness, richness, and divergence.

Among the “side” projects, I will help to organize a data science competition with big data in ecology, and finally, give my qualifying exams!”


Jonathan Spoelhof, Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant

Department of Biology and Florida Museum of Natural History

“I am a Biology PhD student in the Soltis Lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History. My research will utilize big data to explore the relationship between polyploidy and niche adaptation in plants on a global scale. This project will test common assumptions about polyploidy in plants while generating new hypotheses and resources for future research.”