The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $621,488 to The University of Texas at El Paso under the direction of Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Jennie McLaren for Arctic research that will assess herbivore impacts on carbon cycling in northern Alaska.
Small mammals (such as voles and lemmings) can have large impacts on the vegetation of the Arctic tundra through activities such as grazing and nesting. Although this grazing may influence many aspects of carbon cycling in tundra ecosystems, current models predicting future carbon storage in the Arctic do not include the influences of small mammals. McLaren’s project will change the number of voles and lemmings living on specific plots of land, and monitor changes in the cycling of carbon and nitrogen as the animals graze.
To understand how the current climate controls the importance of grazing by small mammals, the investigators will conduct their studies at three sites in Alaska, located in the Seward Peninsula, the foothills of the Brooks Range, and on the Arctic coastal plain.
The natural abundance of voles and lemmings will be studied at these sites to provide background for applying the experimental results throughout the Arctic.
The results will be used to expand a mathematical model of tundra ecosystems to include activities of small mammals, which will improve the predictions that can be made about how the Arctic may change in the future. The research will involve a number of undergraduate and graduate students, and investigators will integrate their research into classes and other educational programs.
“Understanding what impacts the carbon storage in the Arctic is critically important, particularly currently in light of global change,” McLaren said. “This is an amazing opportunity for both myself and also the students at UTEP.”
This latest grant will continue UTEP’s research in the Arctic for another four years.