Man standing next to a sign that reads

Thomas Lake

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

My hometown is Bloomington, Minnesota. I’ve lived in Minnesota my whole life!

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am developing a common garden experiment with the invasive plant species Tanacetum vulgare (common tansy). A widespread invasive plant in Minnesota, common tansy is a perennial flowering plant that severely reduces pasture and rangeland capacity for livestock animals, and can be toxic if consumed. Common tansy also hinders wildlife habitat by competing with native prairie species. In my common garden experiment, I will grow hundreds of common tansy populations collected from across the state of Minnesota in the St. Paul agricultural fields. The experiment will first assess whether current common tansy populations are adapted to their local environments through Minnesota. If invasive populations are locally adapted to current climates, they may do poorly in new climate conditions (“climate change losers”). Secondly, we will modify the temperature and precipitation to mimic future climate change, and assess how populations respond to such treatments.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

I am interested in invasive plants from both an applied and basic scientific perspective. From an applied perspective, invasive plants cause substantial harm to our few remaining native ecosystems by crowding out native species. Not only do they imperil ecosystems, invasive species are attributed to billions of dollars of losses annually in agricultural systems. To alleviate a problem, we often need a basic understanding of why such issues are occurring. To this end, I am interested in studying the basic evolutionary and ecological mechanisms by which plants invade, asking questions such as: Why do regular plants become invasive? How do invasive plants move and invade so rapidly? Can we predict where invasion will occur in the future, and prevent future plant invasions? Overall, my focus on invasive plant species seeks to learn how basic information on invasions can to solve applied problems.

How are you working toward that goal?

To mimic the effects of climate change on common tansy, we are building what are essentially small greenhouses, just large enough to cover individual plants. Our tiny greenhouses will create a microclimate of increased temperature and decreased precipitation—which mimics the expected effects of climate change in Minnesota by 2100.

How did you get started/what drew you to your area of study?

I studied conservation biology during my undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. Although many conservationists are drawn to the allure of studying large, charismatic mammals or rare, imperiled species, I found myself most interested in plants. Plants are omnipresent, but often overlooked despite their enormous ecological and economic services. As it turns out, plants are highly complex organisms and provide an incredible platform to study evolution and ecology. After my undergraduate, I decided to combine my interest in conservation biology and plant biology to study the ecology and evolution of plant invasions.

What will your next steps/research be?

After the common garden experiment is complete, we can use our information on the response from common tansy to climate change to inform models that predict the future distribution of the species across North America. If we find that current common tansy populations grow very poorly under future climate conditions, this might indicate that common tansy would invade greater areas in northern Minnesota and Canada by 2100.


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