In Galapagos Islands, doctoral student researches the role of soil microbes in plant invasions with Young Explorer grant

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LAWRENCE — A doctoral student of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and Kansas Biological Survey has earned a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant to investigate how soil microbes drive plant invasion in the Galapagos Islands — a biodiversity hotspot famously studied in the 1830s by Charles Darwin during the trip chronicled in “The Voyage of the Beagle.”Camille Delavaux recently left for the Galapagos — not an easy trek. First, she made her way to the capital of Ecuador.

“I travel using all kinds of transportation,” Delavaux said. “I fly to Quito, take a bus to our mainland site in Machalilla National Park, take another plane to the Galapagos Island of Baltra, then a ferry to Santa Cruz Island. At our field sites, we live in hostels, hotels or dorms and drive to get to our field sites.”

Delavaux studies mycorrhizal fungi and plant pathogens in the context of plant invasion in tropical ecosystems.

“More and more, we are seeing the important role of microbes in individual plant success and also in maintaining plant community structure or diversity,” she said. “Although invisible to us, microbes can be beneficial to plants and ecosystems but may also harm them. Because they can determine plant community structure, shifts in soil microbes can either accelerate or slow down plant invasions. I study how microbes mediate plant invasions.”

According to Delavaux, the Galapagos offer an ideal setting to study plant-microbe interactions, where long-present plants are mixed with invasive plant species from mainland Ecuador, with each group having its own associated microbes.

“Because the Galapagos are relatively young, we still see initial colonizers on the island,” she said. “In terms of invasion, that means we’re catching the invasion as it’s happening. There are sites that are uninvaded and represent an early stage of plants on the island, and then there are sites …

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