Elizabeth Wolkovich

Exotic species may gain a competitive advantage over native ones by leafing or blooming earlier in the growing season

Contributed by Sarah Jones @sciencefighting & Elizabeth Wolkovich


Community ecology, Competition, Development, Ecology, Field, First generation, Forest, Global patterns, Interactions, North America, Observational, Physiological/organismal ecology, Physiology, Plants, Woman



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Wolkovich, Elizabeth. M. & Elsa E. Cleland. 2011. The phenology of plant invasions: A community ecology perspective. Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment 9(5): 287-294 link 



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Elizabeth Wolkovich is the principle investigator of the Temporal Ecology Lab at the University of British Columbia. Broadly, she studies how plant communities assemble and disassemble with global change. Much of her work to date has examined the causes and consequences of plant invasions and the effects of climate change on the temporal assembly of plant communities.


PB: Why did you become a biologist?

EW: You know how people say ‘I always loved… and thus I have my job now.’ That was not me.

Biology was something I liked enough when I got out of my UG and it was basically just the job that ended up working out. In my college years, I wanted to be a journalist, an interpreter at the UN or equivalent, or a biologist. They were all jobs that seemed fun. I didn’t get the one journalism job I applied to in the US and didn’t take the newspaper job in Moscow I could have taken (I know! I should have been more bold, but it was the best decision at the time) and I think I needed to be raised speaking multiple languages for my dream interpreter job. But a year out of college I got a position to work on a PhD in bio, so I did that.


PB: What is your favorite part about your job?

EW: Lots of things! I like that I have a fairly flexible schedule and for the most part choose what I do with my work days. I also love trying to solve problems and that solving them takes being outside, doing experiments, coding, stats, thinking and sometimes I enjoy the writing part too.


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

EW: The main one to me is that I had a rough time in grad school for both professional reasons (at the start) and personal reasons (later on).


PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?

EW: Don’t let others get you down! I feel academia attracts people who like to compare themselves to others and constantly say there are so busy. It’s easy to believe this career takes incredible smarts and a devotion to your job, but I think it more takes perseverance, failure management, time management, and — if you’re like me — finding a healthy way to ignore many of the messages others put out there. You can make yourself as busy as you want, but in many jobs in my field your schedule is up to you, and ditto for a lot of other things I hear. There’s a lot of flexibility if you can chart your own path and let the less-useful-to-you voices fade.


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

EW: Yes. Being a woman in science is till not as easy as it should be. I also was a first-generation college student (though my amazing Mum was in college the same time as me!) and only made it through college thanks to very generous financial aid.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of study

Exotic species may have a competitive edge over native species if they occupy an open ‘temporal niche’- that is, a time period during which native plants are not undergoing important life cycle events (and thus using high levels of resources). If an exotic plant species benefits from a temporally vacant (phenological) niche, it would tend to bloom and/or leaf earlier or later as compared with native plant species, thereby using temporally available resources (e.g. sunlight, pollinators, nutrients).


Study system

We study tree and winegrape phenology a lot these days. Photos of Fraxinus nigra (black ash, native species) budburst in the lab are shown. These great photos were taken by Tim Savas (on the right in the photo).


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

Figure 4a from Wolkovich and Cleland (2011) shows the timing of leafing for exotic (blue) and native (white) plant species in North Carolina. The x-axis shows the day of year that plants leaf out, and the y-axis shows the percent of plants that leafed out on that day. Arrows and values within the graph represent mean values for exotic (day 98) versus native species (day 103).  The native/exotic group represents common dandelions because their status (native versus exotic) in North Carolina is unclear. Data is from Project Budburst (a community science program). Exotic species leafed earlier in the year than native species on average.

Societal Relevance

Identifying how phenological gaps can promote invasions could help us predict which exotic species may become invasive, as well as provide information on the optimum timing of invasive species management techniques. E.g. If an invasive species is active earlier in the season than most native species, treatment with herbicides, controlled fire/grazing, etc. early in the season may be most desirable. Understanding how phenological differences between species promote invasions is especially important in light of climate change. Climate change could exacerbate phenological differences because invasive species may show greater phenological plasticity in response to changing environmental cues than native species.

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