National Science Foundation grant boosts Huston’s ecological OPUS
By Chelsea Stockton
University News Service
June 30, 2009
Michael Huston, professor of biology at Texas State University-San Marcos, was awarded a $165,085 grant from the National Science Foundation for his project “OPUS: Global Biodiversity - Synthesis of Ecology and Evolution.”
William Resetarits, program director of the National Science Foundation, commended Huston’s proposal as one that “captured the imagination and interest of reviewers, our panel and the program directors.”
According to Huston, the heart of his OPUS project is to develop a major new synthesis of ecological and evolutionary ecology that will challenge, and hopefully replace, many of the dominant paradigms of the past century.
Huston explained that his idea tackles some of the biggest questions that Charles Darwin left unanswered and that scientists are still trying to answer: Why do some places have more species than others? Why are there more species in the tropical rain forest than there are in Texas, for example, or in Wisconsin, or in Missouri?
“My idea is that there are some of the simplest explanations for the biggest patterns of life on this planet,” Huston said. “And how well plants grow, how fast they grow, and the differences in how fast they grow in different parts of the planet is the key explanation to a lot of the things we see.”
Biodiversity and why it varies from one place to another is a big, unanswered question. A leading theory today is that biodiversity is highest where plant productivity is highest, and many scientists use the example of the tropical rainforests as supporting evidence. Scientists believe that tropical rainforests, brimming with a diverse array of species, are an incredibly productive location because of their vast appearance of plant life.
That, Huston said, is where today’s leading scientists are incorrect.
“The tropical rain forests are not productive,” Huston said. “Everybody is wrong about its pattern of productivity. The trees grow slowly, and there’s not much food for plants and animals down there. That is why most of the animals down there are pretty rare.”
Huston’s theory goes against the grain of the leading explanation for biodiversity, saying that in areas where vegetation struggles for life, actually more species of plants, and animals that eat plants, will be found. A key to this concept is what is known as ‘competition.’ At locations where vegetation is fruitful, at least one type of species of plant will crowd everything else out, reducing the variety of species.
“It’s a theory that doesn’t make a lot of sense at first,” Huston said. “But where plants grow best, with lots of nutrients and water, there is almost always one type of plant that will take over. It’s the best of the best.”
Huston’s theory helps explain why there are desert environments with almost as many different species of plants as can be found in a rainforest, and why some environments are known for a particular type of species, like the Mountain Ash trees of Australia.
The answer, Huston said, is all in the quality of the soil, an aspect that he hopes will link the relationship between biodiversity and poverty.
“If it works the way I think it works,” Huston said, “where poor soil is preventing the dominance of one or more species, it’s also harder to raise food and, consequently, to make a living as a farmer.”
Looking at the patterns of poverty around the world, Huston continued, a lot of people with low income and not enough food live in the Tropics, where the soils are poor.
Huston addressed the issue in his paper “Biodiversity, Soils and Economics,” which was published in Science magazine in 1993 but was essentially ignored.
“I thought it was important,” Huston said. “So I published it in a place where I thought most people in the world would see it. And it had zero impact.”
But that is a direction that with the NSF grant Huston is positive will change. The money will go toward Huston’s work on his second book, to be released in 2011, and to traveling around the world to research and discuss the OPUS project.
“I haven’t been discouraged because I’m confident that I’m right,” Huston said. “This grant gives me another change to get it out there. I think it will catch hold.”