As we head into summer, we’ll inevitably start to see more and more movie trailers in which monsters, robots, and aliens overrun a variety of landscapes, prompting inhabitants (and generally a superhero or two) to fight back to reclaim their territory. If you’re in Indiana, you’ll also likely start to seeing common invasive plants, like Japanese Honeysuckle or Garlic Mustard, appearing in your yard and garden.
Invasive species generally have the ability to adapt to new surroundings easily, grow quickly, and reproduce rapidly, all unchecked in the absence of natural predators and other things that keep their populations under control. These qualities allow invasive species to take over an area formerly populated by a whole range of diverse species; thus, such invasions are responsible for roughly 42% of all species listed as threatened or endangered. Studying biodiversity can illuminate how some groups of species can coexist within environments, while others destroy everything in their paths.
Ecologists study the relationships between living things and their environments; one of the field’s foundational questions asks, “why are there so many species?” Current estimates quantify the number of species on earth at 8.7 million; while many theoretical answers to this question exist, a clear explanation remains elusive. Ranjan Muthukrishnan, an Invasive Species Ecology Fellow at the Environmental Resilience Institute, who arrived at IU in the fall of 2018, runs simulations to test theories about the relationship between invasive species and phenotypic plasticity.