Diane Ebert-May

Alpine tundra plant communities can be surprisingly resistant to change

Contributed by Nate Emery @FoggyIdeas & Diane Ebert-May


Biodiversity, Community ecology, Ecology, Field, Fundamental research, Global patterns, Natural history, North America, Observational, Plants, Restoration, Species richness, Terrestrial, Woman



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Klara Scharnagl, David Johnson & Diane Ebert-May. 2019. Shrub expansion and alpine plant community change: 40-year record from Niwot Ridge, Colorado, Plant Ecology & Diversity, 12:5, 407-416, DOI: 0.1080/17550874.2019.1641757 link 



Slide 1: Researcher’s Background

Dr. Diane Ebert-May is a plant ecologist who has been studying vegetation change, biology education, and faculty professional development for decades. She got her PhD from the University of Colorado studying plant communities of Niwot Ridge, Colorado. In addition to her continued research on plant communities of alpine meadows, Dr. Ebert-May has studied how students learn biology and how we can best train faculty to teach biology and science to undergraduates.

The photo on the right shows Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST)- Postdocs become faculty who teach all students science as it practiced (scientific teaching)


PB: Why did you become a biologist?

DE-M: I began life and continue as obsessed by the outdoors and nature.  When I learned as an undergraduate at UW Madison that one could major in “plants” (Botany) my choice was made and when I fell in love with the alpine tundra as a graduate student, there was no coming down from this Rocky Mountain high.  Truthfully, when I went to the University of Colorado Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) I thought I wanted to conduct research in the subalpine spruce/fir forest. My prospective advisor, mentor, and lifelong friend said that was nice, but he only had funding to work in the alpine. He also reminded me that the sun always shines on the tundra – shadows from trees never block the sun or view. Done – I became the tundra princess of Niwot Ridge. In those days there were not that many women ascending mountain tops to work, but I did not even think about gender issues. My interests evolved and I began to pursue research on how students learn and how instructors teach biology to undergraduates and I was able to combine my love of biology with my passion for teaching and learning.  To me, humans were far more challenging to study than plants, although I have not abandoned my tundra plants – this summer will be year 50 since I began my long-term study of tundra plant communities.


PB: What is your favorite part about your job?

DE-M: Briefly, I love teaching, mentoring and interacting with people from all different backgrounds and places.  We come together exploring questions about biological systems and humans within those systems.  I am deeply committed to our educational systems in this country. I spent 10 years at Northern Arizona University working with K-12 teachers from the indigenous peoples’ reservations all over AZ – and we focused on science teaching.  I’ve changed universities many times, always to explore new opportunities and to live in a new part of our country. Until Covid, I traveled to universities and colleges around the country to work with instructors on scientific teaching and to give seminars in biology departments about our work in teaching and learning.  What a sheer joy.


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

DE-M: I had a wonderful graduate career at CU, and did not realize or experience the inequities in scientific professions until my partner and I moved from Colorado to Maine in the dead of winter.  I was an ABD, so my partner had the first job in our family and I sat around finishing my dissertation.  At that time, I realized that I did not have a name, rather, I was Terry’s wife.  Whoa — was that a rude awakening.  So I became proactive and got my own position, as there was no such thing as partner accommodation in those days. Neither were there day care options for our two children. Fortunately, together we worked it out – not easily, but we never gave up.  And here we are — 46 years later – and I have learned to telework.  Yay.


PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?

DE-M: Consider your professional life a mosaic.  Your rooted interest in biology (no pun intended) has to be real and worth all your time and effort – it must bring you joy and satisfaction.  As new opportunities come along, or you seek them, it is fine not to have a linear career — but if you do, that is OK too.  Consider teaching and learning as important as your scientific research.  As you learn to teach, think about teaching the same way you practice science – and seek professional teaching development with people who know how humans learn and that, in fact, all humans can learn if put in contexts and systems that enable them to use their talents.


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

D-EM: Yes. As a baby boomer, it is interesting to think about age.


Slide 2: Research Overview

Take home message of the paper:

Diane and authors observed an expansion of shrub cover, both within the shrub tundra and encroaching into moist and dry meadow communities. This shrub cover expansion coincides with increased litter and decreased species richness at the plot level. Overall, despite some shifts in functional group cover and species richness, plant community composition remained mostly intact across forty years.


Study system

Niwot Ridge is one of the oldest alpine ecological study locations in North America. It is a mid-latitude alpine tundra and plant communities are variable, partially due to micro-topographic features that determine snowmelt and wind exposure. Plant communities include: fellfield, dry meadow, snowbed, wet meadow, moist meadow, and shrub tundra.


Photo credit: Niwot Ridge LTER

Article Citation: Klara Scharnagl, David Johnson & Diane Ebert-May (2019) Shrub expansion and alpine plant community change: 40-year record from Niwot Ridge, Colorado, Plant Ecology & Diversity, 12:5, 407-416, DOI: 0.1080/17550874.2019.1641757


Slide 3: Key Research Points

Main figure

Figure 3a. Changes in cumulative percent cover across the six communities over time (years): (a) Field layer cover: deciduous shrubs (DSHRUB), evergreen shrubs (ESHRUB), forbs (FORB), graminoids (GRAMINOID). These plots were surveyed every decade and percent cover was estimated at each level of the canopy. Because different plant groups can overlap with one another in vertical space, cumulative cover can rise above 100 percent. 

While shrub cover has increased in the shrub tundra and slightly in the moist meadow (bottom left panel), plant communities have remained relatively unchanged. This is consistent with other long-term data sets of vegetation change in alpine regions. Global climate change will inevitably have an effect on these plant communities, but it is encouraging to see possible resilience in these remote, relatively pristine ecosystems.


Societal relevance

Preserving diverse plant communities across the world has tremendous importance for ecosystem health and services provided to humans. This includes, but it not limited to pollination services, water conservation, and fire management. This study found that despite a changing climate, the alpine tundra plant community in Colorado is surprisingly resistant to change, giving hope to future conservation efforts.

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