Landscape Ecology

Jeffery B. Cannon

The Jones Center at Ichauway Landscape Ecology lab is proud to welcome Leah Andino! Andino recently joined the lab as Research Associate after completing her MS research at Yale School of the Environment with Dr. Mark Ashton.

Andino’s MS work addressed the effects of physiographic and microclimate differences on leaf morphology in Puerto Rico. Her experience make her a great addition to the lab where she will train, lead, and organize techinicians in the lab, especially in our ForestGEO Ichauway Forest Dynamics Plot, and lead research in the lab’s growing drone and remote sensing research.

I asked Leah to share more about herself and the work she is doing.

What got you interested in conservation of longleaf pine or ecology in general?

Some visits to National Parks as a child did it for me. But I found it exciting to learn about how the environment around me works and how nature responds to our influence on it. I think studying forest ecology specifically has always seemed so attractive because I grew up in the suburbs in Los Angeles County where I’m just surrounded by street and park trees and even the Los Angeles National Forest is more shrubby than an actual forest (yay Mediterranean Climate). So, I was always allured by forests since they weren’t familiar to me.

Los Angeles National Forest

How long have you been working in conservation? What is your background with ecological research?

I’m quite new to it all still! I studied Geography/Environmental Studies in undergrad, but mainly did climate research on extreme wind events in Antarctica and Southern California. I didn’t start dipping my toe in ecological research until the very end of undergrad and fully dove in around 3 years ago in 2021 when I started my Master’s program in Forest Science. My program was a research track with a thesis, but my advisor was also a forester. So, I took classes focusing on forest dynamics, field ecology, plant ecophysiology, and botany to help with my thesis and field work. But I also took some forestry classes on silviculture, creating management plans for protected areas, and field skills for land stewardship and engaging landholders. After finishing my Master’s, I worked in the Luquillo Experimental Forest as an intern and had the opportunity to work on the latest census of their ForestGEO Forest Dynamics Plot. And now I made it here to Ichauway!

What was the focus of your Master’s research at Yale? What is one of the most important or impactful finding from those studies?

My Master’s research focused on potential plant adaptability across topography in a moist limestone forest in Northwestern Puerto Rico, the Rio Abajo State Forest. The landscape is similar to Ichauway in that they’re both karst, but different in that the Rio Abajo has distinct limestone hills typically with a steep elevation gain but at the same time a relatively small elevation difference compared to other mountainous tropical forests. The average elevation difference between the limestone ridges and valleys sampled is about the height of an adult longleaf pine tree, around 40 m. Site quality varies greatly across these hills, with shallow soil or sometimes bare rock on ridges and deeper more fertile soil in valleys. The goal was to connect the change in site quality between ridges and valleys of limestone hills to vegetation, including forest structure, species composition, and some basic morphological leaf traits. In another tropical karst forest in Southwestern China, there have been several studies on species found across a wide range of site conditions within the forest and their adaptive traits that allow them to persist. In comparison, one of the findings from my study is that we actually found very little species overlap between ridges and valleys in the Rio Abajo despite the relatively small elevation difference and proximity of sites. This result could be highlighting the role of soil presence/quality and hurricanes in shaping forest structure and species distribution.

A limestone hill in the Rio Abajo State Forest with bare rock peeking out on the cliff face.

What do you look most forward to accomplishing and learning in this new position at the Jones Center?

I’m most excited to learn more updated methodologies to studying forests. If I could sum up the theme of the Landscape Ecology Lab, it would be looking at current methods of measuring trees and capturing the state of a forest and seeing how technology can do it better. In this new Research Associate position, I’m really looking forward to developing my skills in flying drones, learning more about the applications of LiDAR data, and becoming a better coder.

You just successfully completed your MS defense. Congratulations! What advice do you have for current graduate students and for those considering a career in ecology, conservation, or academics?

I’m a first-generation college graduate (and no one in my family or friends was interested in ecological research or conservation), so having mentors/advisors in ecology has been crucial for getting me through school and figuring out what kind of career I want. My advice for graduate students and people starting their careers is to find a mentor(s)/advisor(s) who they can relate to, trust, and feel comfortable asking them lots of “dumb” questions. It would also be a bonus if you think their job is cool or if you’re interested in pursuing a similar career to theirs. In speaking with my mentors, I’ve been able to learn more about the route they took to get to where they are now and figure out what route I want to take. I guess this advice is good for pursuing any type of career, not just one in ecology. But, if I had to be more specific, maybe try to figure out how often you would like to be outside and that should help you gauge what kind of career in ecology/conservation/academia you should pursue.

What is one text that you think of as a “must read” including scientific papers, textbooks, or recreational reaading?

Dune and Climatology: An Atmospheric Science. The Climatology textbook is quite dense and I’m sure outdated. The edition I have is from 1993. But it made sitting in the sun feeling the breeze less romantic and mysterious, and I would think about how I’m just somewhere along a pressure gradient feeling a bunch of scattered solar radiation. I guess that shift in perspective could be a good or annoying thing, but I thought it was cool at the time. Now that it’s been a while since I read the textbook for a class, a breeze is back to being a mysterious force that’s pretty cozy.