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FSU researcher receives National Geographic grant

FSU Assistant Professor of Geography Stephanie Pau

Florida State University Assistant Professor of Geography Stephanie Pau has been awarded a National Geographic grant for her research on tropical forest phenology and climate change by the organization’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

Phenology, often referred to as “nature’s calendar,” is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events, such as the timing of plant bud bursts or bird migrations, and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors, such as elevation.

“Changes in plant phenology have provided some of the best examples of climate change impacts on species and ecosystems,” Pau said. “However, most of this evidence comes from temperate or high-latitude ecosystems. In the tropics, the year-round growing season and the diversity of species exhibiting distinct phenological strategies complicates our understanding of plant phenology.”

Pau’s project, “Tropical Forest Phenology in a Changing Climate,” seeks to identify the phenological diversity of plants in two contrasting tropical forest habitats on the island of Hawai‘i, part of a biodiversity hotspot. The proposed research will use monthly field collections of seeds and leaves that fall to the ground, known as litterfall, linked with state-of-the-art satellite observations, which provide repeat wall-to-wall coverage of the Earth’s changing surface.

The study hopes to answer three questions:

  1. What is the diversity of reproductive strategies in each habitat?
  2. Are species with particular strategies more or less sensitive to climatic variation?
  3. What is the relationship between leaf litterfall and climate, and do satellite measures of greenness capture changes in leaf litterfall?

The results are expected to provide insight into how the growth and reproduction of different species will respond to climate change with potential consequences for future shifts in species distributions and the persistence of biodiversity in tropical forests.

The $24,000 grant will help fund Pau’s ongoing research and comes with a special bonus.

“I sent the National Geographic Society a cold email when I was a freshman in college asking how I could work for them, but they never responded at the time, but 20 years later I get to work with them,” she said. “It’s cool to be a National Geographic Explorer!”