My research is largely driven by theory and curiosity. That is, theory makes a prediction about how a natural system might operate, which leads to experimentation or empirical tests using observational data. Different systems are more suited for testing different theory. As a result, I do not deal with one specific system, but have worked with laboratory microcosms (zooplankton and flour beetles), monitoring of natural populations (small mammals and zooplankton), and freely available observational data (too many sources to list!). I am always open to a new system if it allows a demonstration or test of ecological theory.
Questions of population synchrony and stability in fluctuating environments have always interested me. What causes populations to crash, and can we predict population extinction? Scaling from populations to metapopulations, can we identify the important controls of patch occupancy, colonization, and extinction?
But species do not exist only as populations, but are subject to interactions with many other species. Considering competitive interactions within the community of species, one thing my research has focused on is the relative importance of species interactions on determining where a species can be within their climatic niche tolerances, as well as the corresponding geographic area. Detecting and quantifying species interactions has been a long-standing interest of mine, as has predicting community composition of both free-living communities and parasite communities.
One of the central goals of community ecology is to understand what shapes species distributions. Metacommunity theory aims to address this question by treating communities of organisms as nodes in a network, connected through dispersal. Using the framework established by Leibold and Mikkelson (2002), I have addressed the factors responsible for structuring zooplankton communities in the northeast US, parasites of small desert mammals, and disease vectors across much of the southeast US.
Macroecology is an area where there are a lot of conceptual hypotheses based on empirical data about how things appear to work. An extension of much of the theory from population and community ecology, macroecological laws have become an interest of mine. Gauging support for/against existing ideas, developing simulation models to test some core macroecological ideas, and quantifying the predictability of macroecological relationships are three general themes of my work in this realm.
I build tools for accessing and analyzing ecological data. I also maintain an open lab notebook, and have been interviewed by Georgia public radio about Open Access publishing (John Drake and I are around the 15 minute mark). A majority of the code and data used in my publications is freely available and hosted on Figshare