From Forests to Cities: One Entomologist’s Journey to Understand What’s Disturbing Insects
By Karl Roeder, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Kayla Perry, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University. Her current research aims to disentangle local- and landscape-level drivers of ground beetles in urban ecosystems, specifically vacant and restored lots in Cleveland. Previously, Kayla earned a Ph.D. in entomology at Ohio State, studying how disturbance events like emerald ash borer–induced tree mortality impacted the community structure of forest invertebrates. Kayla has received numerous awards and fellowships for her work, including a postdoctoral fellowship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the J. H. Comstock Award from the North Central Branch. Below, we ask Kayla a few questions about her research and why she is so interested in disturbance.
Roeder: Why entomology, and were you always interested in insects?
Perry: My journey to entomology was gradual. As a kid, I wasn’t afraid of insects, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them either. Even though I enjoyed being outside in nature, I spent a lot of time indoors. In some ways, you could say becoming a field insect ecologist was in rebellion to being stuck inside all the time as a kid.
I didn’t realize I was interested in the natural sciences until the end of high school after a teacher convinced me to take AP Biology. Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing right now if I had decided against taking the course. Would I have been something completely different, or would I have found my way to entomology through a different route? After this experience, I was confident that I wanted to study science and went to college to major in biology and minor in environmental science and geology.
It was in college where I developed my interests in insect ecology. There wasn’t a single “light bulb” experience, but rather a culmination of three major influences that led me to entomology. First, my undergraduate advisors were significant influences as I began to develop my interests and skillsets in ecology and entomology. I had the opportunity to assist with research projects in both of their labs, studying topics such as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) reproduction and aquatic macroinvertebrate ecology. These research experiences ultimately led me to apply for research-focused internships during the summers.
The summer before my senior year of college, I was selected to participate in the competitive Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic, Colorado. At RMBL, I worked on a research project investigating ant–aphid interactions on a dioecious wildflower, edible valerian (Valeriana edulis). Participation in the RMBL REU was a transformative experience for me, and it solidified my decision to apply to graduate school to study insects.
Lastly, my interests in insect biodiversity and conservation were greatly influenced by E.O. Wilson. As an undergraduate, I was inspired after I read his 1987 article The Little Things that Run the World (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates). I then bought and read all his books! A memorable experience was when E.O. Wilson came to my undergraduate university to give a lecture, and I was one of the few students selected to have dinner with him and the biology faculty. Wilson helped shape the way I view the natural world and continues to be an inspiration to my science.
What are the main goals of your current research?
My current postdoctoral research focuses on understanding the relative importance of landscape and local drivers of insect community assembly in urban ecosystems using a functional trait approach. I have two ongoing projects.
First, my USDA NIFA postdoctoral fellowship aims to evaluate mechanisms of assembly for ground-dwelling beetles in urban and surrounding greenspaces in Cleveland, Ohio. My initial project found that dispersal limitations were a primary constraint to successful colonization of urban greenspaces, as beetles capable of flight were more common in sites surrounded by less greenspace. I also found that soil heavy metal contamination and lawnmowing frequency shaped beetle communities based on body size, antennae length, and native/exotic status. My postdoctoral fellowship expands on this by incorporating greenspaces outside of the city such as old fields and forests to further investigate landscape constraints to dispersal. I’m currently working to finish up the last objective of this research that was delayed due to COVID-19. Using gut content analysis, I’m assessing resource partitioning of Carabidae and Staphylinidae as a potential biotic filter for community assembly in urban and surrounding greenspaces in Cleveland.
Recently, I’ve started a second project that focuses on the assembly of bumble bee communities in greenspaces surrounding Madison, Wisconsin. This project aims to understand the contexts in which urban landscapes may serve as refuges for bumble bees rather than maintain simplified communities. I’ve never worked with bumble bees, so I’m very excited to expand my research and learn about this insect group.
I’m also involved with a project investigating drivers of native lady beetle decline in Ohio. This project is exciting because we have collated museum records from across the U.S. and our dataset includes lady beetles collected in Ohio from 1900–2018. Our goals are to document changes in lady beetle composition over time in Ohio and evaluate the relative importance of landscape change and exotic lady beetle establishment for native declines.
What is it about disturbance that interests you so much?
The overarching goal of my research is to understand the drivers that structure and maintain insect communities with a focus on the role of natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Natural disturbances, such as fire, wind, and insect outbreaks, are essential to ecosystem processes, but human-induced disturbances, such as exotic species, pollution, and habitat alteration, are becoming more pervasive. I’m interested in understanding how anthropogenic disturbances may alter insect community structure and whether these changes will impact essential ecosystem services provided by insects such as decomposition, nutrient cycling, pest suppression, and pollination. Importantly, I’m interested in understanding the complex ways in which disturbance agents interact to structure insect communities, especially under future climate change scenarios. With my research, I aim to inform biodiversity conservation and the sustainable management of natural and managed ecosystems.
What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?
During my Ph.D., I was working on several research projects at Powdermill Nature Reserve related to forest disturbance. One of these projects looked at the effects of canopy and understory disturbance, as well as their interaction, on ground-dwelling arthropod communities. I was really excited about this project because I had the unique opportunity to design and create these disturbances myself. In addition to assessing standard community metrics (e.g. abundance, richness, etc.) for ground-dwelling arthropods, I was very interested in understanding whether their dispersal was affected by canopy and understory disturbance. I wanted to assess movement of multiple arthropod taxa simultaneously in response to my disturbance treatments. In general, quantifying dispersal in the field is a major challenge even for only one focal taxon. Rearing arthropods in the lab and releasing them in the field wasn’t an option if I wanted to take a multi-taxa approach. I had to develop a technique where arthropods would self-mark in the field and then could be collected such that the markers were reliable and detectable.
First, I tested two methods using soy, bovine casein, and chicken egg albumin protein markers. These markers were applied to the forest floor in three concentric circles 3, 8, and 15 meters from the center of my treatments. I tested liquid protein markers first and that did not work. We had to hike into the forest with heavy backpack sprayers that had to be refilled often. Once the liquid markers were applied, we couldn’t see them on the forest floor, and I was concerned about cross-contamination between markers and the reliability of the marker detection. My field team and I had to revisit these sites to collect arthropods, so we needed to know where the markers were on the ground.
Next, I tested the same three protein markers as powders, and I mixed each protein powder with a different color of florescent powder. Now we could see where the bands of powdered markers were on the forest floor, and I could test the efficacy of these two marker types for use with ground-dwelling arthropods. This iteration also did not work. Interestingly, arthropods were eating the protein powders and some taxa, such as millipedes, were gathering around the bands! However, arthropods were acquiring the fluorescent powders on their bodies and the three colors were easily distinguishable microscopically under black light. In the end, I used the three colors of fluorescent powder mixed with sand to evaluate movement of the ground-dwelling arthropod community in response to forest canopy and understory disturbance.
What’s next? What question/hypothesis/topic interests you? And why?
I’m interested in further developing my work with insect functional ecology to incorporate measures of intraspecific trait variation. Assessing mean trait differences among co-occurring species is important, but I think we are missing part of the story by ignoring the variance in traits among individuals. I’m working to incorporate intraspecific trait variation into two current projects that focus on understanding the role of urbanization in structuring communities of ground-dwelling beetles and bumble bees.
Any advice for undergraduate or graduate students?
One, always set aside time in your schedule to read and write. I know that reading the literature and writing are usually the first tasks that are left behind when graduate students are busy with classes, lab work, field work, etc., but they need to be prioritized. My advice is to set aside 30 minutes to an hour at least three days a week for writing and associated reading. It helps to set defined, attainable goals to achieve each week or even each session.
Two, take the time to learn statistics. Statistics are an essential tool in science. Every researcher should have a basic understanding of the techniques used in their field of study to appropriately apply a statistical method to a dataset and accurately interpret the results. A strong background in statistics will be beneficial in the long term and will facilitate collaboration with colleagues that value your expertise.
Finally, what is your favorite insect and why?
I have several favorite insects. First, I love beetles, especially predators and detritivores! My interests in these groups center around their behaviors and ecological functions. Some of my favorite beetle families are Carabidae, Scarabaeidae, Geotrupidae, Silphidae, and Staphylinidae. A few examples of my favorites within these families are the Cychrini (snail-eating carabids), burying beetles (Silphidae), and Steninae (Staphylinidae). Outside of Coleoptera, I have always been fascinated with mantids, particularly their voracious hunting behaviors. Also, I absolutely adore Collembola, specifically the globular springtails within Symphypleona.
Thanks, Kayla! You can learn more about Kayla’s work at ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kayla_Perry.
Karl Roeder, Ph.D., is a research entomologist with the USDA–Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, South Dakota, and the North Central Branch representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.