by Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
For the undertakers of the insect world, death must precede the arrival of a new generation. Burying beetles of the genus Nicrophorus need a carcass on which to lay their eggs and feed their larvae. The hitch in this plan: the fact that dead bodies tend to be few and far between.
“Carrion is usually an ephemeral resource. Because of its high quality, a lot of things want it, and it’s not going to be available for very long,” says UC Davis graduate student Tracie Hayes.
Interest in the use of ephemeral resource patches—any resource that is high quality, but also rare in space and time—has grown among ecologists in recent years. Less is understood about how variation in these resources affects the consumers who rely on them. With support from a 2022–23 Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant, Hayes will deepen the field by examining how scavengers like burying beetles cope with the fleeting and patchy availability of carcasses.
Hayes is one of 13 University of California graduate students from seven different UC campuses who received 2022–23 Mathias Grants. Each will receive up to $3,000 for transportation, research equipment, and accommodation costs at one or more of the NRS’s 41 reserves.
The fleeting nature of remains
Hayes will use her Mathias Grant to examine how climate change affects the ability of burying beetles to utilize carcasses. As California warms and dries, coastal fog has become rarer. Without fog moisture, carcasses desiccate faster, making beetle breeding resources even more ephemeral.
Hayes will enclose pairs of beetles at the NRS’s Bodega Marine Reserve in their own outdoor chamber, and supply each with a dead rodent. “I’m planning to expose these beetles to different fog regimes, manipulating the moisture that’s available and measuring how that affects their reproduction,” Hayes says.
She plans to use her Mathias funding to cover housing at the reserve, supplies such as frozen mice, and possibly even wages for an undergraduate research assistant. The work continues a Mathias-funded study she conducted this past year, when she found burying beetles were largely unable to utilize dried-out carcasses to reproduce.
From microbes and oaks to climate change
This year’s Mathias Grant recipients will investigate an impressive range of topics focused on ecology. Several will examine the hidden role of microbes in the environment. For example, Emily Dewald-Wang of UC Berkeley will investigate how exposure to fog and fire affect the makeup of bacterial and fungal communities in coast redwoods at Angelo Coast Range and Landels-Hill Big Creek reserves. Joshua Dominguez of UC Berkeley will study how the community diversity of hosts affects microbial communities in alpine lakes while based at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. Sydney Salley of UC Davis will survey genomic sequences of the mat-forming microbes that digest methane in the waters off the coast of Coal Oil Point Reserve, and Jennifer Schlauch of UC Irvine will study the function of the microbiomes of solitary bees living in the coastal wetlands of six NRS reserves: Bodega Marine, Carpinteria Salt Marsh, Dawson Los Monos Canyon, Younger Lagoon, Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh, and San Joaquin Marsh.
Other topics of study include the oak savannas that cover large swaths of coastal and foothill California. Nidhi Vinod of UC Los Angeles will look into how topography and microclimate affect the water status and ecosystem function of Sedgwick Reserve oaks, while at McLaughlin Natural Reserve further north, Brooke Wainwright of UC Davis will investigate the role of fire in restoring the plant understory growing beneath oaks.
Climate change and its impacts on ecosystems are never far from the thoughts of today’s field researchers, and this year’s Mathias Grant recipients are no exception. For example, Paul Siebert of UC Berkeley will investigate how grasslands at Point Reyes Field Station are partitioning their water in response to soil warming from climate change. And at Lassen Field Station and Quail Ridge Reserve, Julianne Pekny of UC Davis will delve into how waters warming due to climate change affect the physiology and behavior of breeding Pacific tree frogs.
Advantages of working with the NRS
The Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant program gives students valuable experience as professional scientists. Students get the opportunity to apply for and manage a research grant, and report on their progress to a funder. The program also encourages students to consider basing their studies at reserves.
Hayes chose to locate her experiment at an NRS reserve for several reasons. Bodega staff were warm and helpful, and burying beetles were plentiful in the reserve’s coastal prairie. But the NRS principle of management to support research was equally important, as this gave Hayes flexibility to evolve her project. “You have the freedom to do a lot of experimentation and figure things out at the NRS. I wouldn’t have that at parks, where I have to get a permit and have a very specific project already planned out,” Hayes says.
Encouraging science independence
Mathias Grants give young scientists like Hayes the opportunity to pursue a unique research path. “For graduate students who have somewhat independent projects from their advisor, the grant lets you get some of this figured out own your own, and not have to work within what has already been set up by your lab,” she says.
A Mathias Grant award can also help students secure additional funding for their projects. The early stages of a scientist’s career is typically when funding is most difficult to obtain. A Mathias award can signal to other funders that the project is worthy of further support. Surveys of previous recipients indicate early career funding from a Mathias Grant can be pivotal to their professional success.
A longstanding grad student resource
The $37,995 awarded this year comes from the Kenneth S. Norris Endowment Fund for the California Environment, provided to the NRS by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since its establishment in 1988, the Mathias Grant program has awarded a total of $1,020,439 to 529 students. A table of all Mathias grant recipients and their projects to date is available on the NRS website.
The Mathias Grant competition is open to UC graduate students who submit a proposal for research to be conducted at one or more NRS reserves. Students from all disciplines are encouraged to apply. Students at an early stage of their careers and in underrepresented fields of study receive preference.
All award recipients will be invited to present their findings at the Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant Symposium. The symposium enables students to grow their scientific community, interact with leading field researchers, and discuss career options. The symposium has been on hiatus due to the pandemic, but may be held in 2024 if conditions permit.