Sharon Strauss

Plant and animals may evolve to be cryptic in barren habitats

Contributed by Aaron Slater and Sharon Strauss @SharonStrauss1


Animals, Community ecology, Conservation, Consumption, Ecology, Evolution, Experimental, Field, Fundamental research, Interactions, Natural history, Natural selection, North America, Plants, Terrestrial, Woman



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Sharon Y. Strauss and N. Ivalú Cacho. 2013. Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide: The Importance of Enemies and Apparency in Adaptation to Harsh Soil Environments. The American Naturalist 182: E1-E14. link



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Sharon Y. Strauss is a plant biologist at UC Davis with research interests in evolutionary ecology of plants and their interactions with other species. 


PB: Why did you become a biologist?

SS: I have always loved animals and nature.


PB: What is your favorite part about your job?

SS: I love mentoring graduate students and doing great science together as a team.


PB: What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?

SS: Getting to a place where both my partner and I had jobs in academia took 5 years longer than the ‘regular’ time trajectory. Being a woman in science has subtle and not subtle challenges. The more subtle ones are associated with networks, invitations to participate in groups- even whom you hang out with at meetings. The less subtle ones are not being taken seriously or not being called on during Q and A.


PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?

SS: My job in academia is so much fun, it is so flexible for work-life balance and family, and so satisfying intellectually. I have never understood the ‘I don’t want your life’ attitude. My life is great. I hardly ever worked on weekends, nor before my kids went to bed. I religiously stick to “no email Saturdays”. It is a great job, and can be very family friendly .


PB: Do you feel that any dimension of your identity is invisible or under-represented/marginalized in STEM?

SS: Maybe


PB: Can you elaborate on your answer above?

SS: We are all multidimensional. Our science is unmistakably a product of that dimensionality. Are there aspects of my personal dimensionality that are not ‘represented in STEM’.  Yes, but they are indirectly represented through my interests, the questions I ask and how I choose to answer them. That said, there are many areas in which STEM could use more diversity.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of study

The 2013 study by Sharon Strauss and Ivalu Cacho found that plants and animals surviving in bare, unvegetated outcrop habitats experienced greater herbivory pressures than those found in areas with more vegetation. However, organisms in bare soil habitats compensate for a loss of protection by blending in with the surrounding substrate (e.g., leaf-substrate matching, height deviations, and cryptic coloration).


Study system

These photos (from Figure 1) show examples of cryptic plants (plants that blend in or are hard to distinguish from the substrate they grow in) growing in Sharon and Ivalu’s fieldsite in northern California. These plants are found on serpentine outcrops that are characterized by high nickel concentrations and low calcium : magnesium ratios. The plant species shown are A) Caulanthus amplexicaulis amplexicaulis, (B) Streptanthus breweri, (C) Streptanthus barbiger (three plants), and D) Streptanthus hesperidis.


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

Figure 3 from Strauss and Cacho’s paper show that the plants Streptanthus breweri and Streptanthus hesperidis growing on serpentine outcrops (positions 1-3 on the x-axis) experienced higher amounts of herbivory (y-axis) when the amount of nearby vegetation was experimentally removed (“neighbor removal” black squares). 

In contrast, plants which did not have vegetation removed (“control” open squares) experienced lower amounts of herbivory, likely due to lower apparancy to herbivores. 

These differences in herbivory were not found in non-serpentine areas (“off outcrops”, positions 4-5 on the x-axis), which typically have higher levels of vegetation than serpentine areas. 


Societal Relevance

This study adds to our fundamental knowledge of plant morphology, evolution, and plant-animal interactions. The knowledge we can take from this will help further research in animals and plant cryptic coloration, plant defense mechanisms towards stress, and herbivore foraging patterns, which can ultimately help inform sustainable agricultural practices and maintain biodiversity.

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