NSF IRES Grant Awarded to UF

The UF International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) project will engage U.S. undergraduate students in field-based ecology and conservation research in the southern Africa country of Swaziland. The project will use mentoring, teamwork and innovative research to train students to address some of the planet’s most pressing conservation issues. Students will work with American and African scientists to study the integration of human livelihoods and needs for agricultural production with the need to maintain the diverse and vigorous ecosystems that allow human communities to thrive. Working internationally in Swaziland, students will first gain an understanding of regional cultures, natural history, ecological theory and research techniques. Students will then spend their summer conducting independent research projects. Over the course of the project student research projects will examine how recently converted agricultural lands may alter wildlife communities and the health of entire ecosystems. As global biodiversity continues to decline and agricultural landscapes increase, this project will help us understand how to maintain biodiversity, healthy ecosystems, and human livelihoods. Additionally, the program will produce a new generation of scientists who will spread their newly found knowledge to local and global audiences and be well prepared to face our planet’s growing conservation challenges.

Global conservation efforts must embrace agricultural landscapes, because agriculture has and will continue to play a dominant role in shaping land-use practices. Nonetheless, there is only a limited understanding of how agricultural landscapes alter biodiversity and ecosystems? ability to provide resources for humans (ecosystem services). One major hypothesis for balancing agricultural production with biodiversity and ecosystem functioning is the habitat heterogeneity hypothesis. Swazi and American scientists will work with students to understand the role of heterogeneity on faunal biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. One cohort of students will relate variation in the distribution of faunal communities to patterns in landscape heterogeneity. A second cohort of students will test the mechanisms that drive faunal community changes in agriculturally dominated landscapes. A final cohort of students will examine how landscape heterogeneity and faunal communities influence ecosystem functions.