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Excerpted from Botanic Garden News   Date: 1/12/10 Bookmark and Share

Q & A with Jesse Bellemare, plant ecologist

Jesse Bellemare joined the Smith faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences last fall following the retirement, after 36 years at Smith, of plant ecologist John Burk, in 2007. Bellemare, like Burk, is a strong supporter of the Botanic Garden and will act as a liaison between the Botanic Garden and students in biological sciences. Bellemare recently talked with Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the Botanic Garden.

Michael Marcotrigiano: Most students interested in life sciences are unaware of the career opportunities with plants. What made you decide to concentrate your studies and career on the plant kingdom?

Jesse Bellemare

Jesse Bellemare: I have really always been interested in natural history—plants, animals, and exploring different types of habitats. My parents are both avid birders and gardeners, plus they live in an area that is surrounded by protected natural lands, making access to the outdoors as easy as walking out the back door! At some point my general interest in natural history shifted more strongly toward plants, probably through interactions with a friend of my family who was involved with the New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS). One vivid memory I have is of coming to the Lyman Conservatory with a family friend. It was during the Bulb Show, but I think I was most interested in the orchids! In any case, I joined NEWFS while I was still in junior high school and started taking part in their intro botany classes and field trips around New England. By the time I reached college, I was already looking to focus my studies on plants and plant ecology. In reality, I think the recognition that my interest and fascination with plants could be a career came many years after I was already hooked!

MM: Tell us about your educational background prior to coming to Smith.

JB: A large part of my education actually took place locally—I was a biology major at UMass Amherst and then went on to do a master’s at Harvard University’s Harvard Forest in Petersham, in central Massachusetts. I’ve been out of the area for the last several years working on my Ph.D. at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, but I am really excited to be back now and teaching at Smith College.

MM: Were you born and raised on the east coast?

JB: I’m actually from right here in western Massachusetts—I grew up in West Whately, about 10-15 minutes north of Smith. So, I’ve already spent many years exploring and “botanizing” in the Berkshires and Connecticut River Valley. I am really looking forward to incorporating this local perspective on plants and plant communities into my teaching and field trips associated with my classes.

MM: Some plant researchers are not plant geeks. If you like plants outside of your career what kinds do you like and do you own or plan to collect any particular plant groups?

JB: My family’s property in Whately has a fairly wide range of environmental conditions, from wetland to meadow to wooded areas, so I’ve been growing and propagating native plants in these different habitats for many years. In particular though, I am a big fan of woodland perennials, including species native to New England, but also species that are restricted in their natural distributions to the forests of the southern Appalachians Mountains or other parts of the Southeast.

MM: In simple terms what kinds of research do you do?

JB: In general, I am interested in a range of questions that fall at the interface of ecology, biogeography, and evolution. One topic that I’ve investigated concerns the factors that determine plant species’ geographic range edges. Traditionally, most ecologists have presumed that plant species’ ranges were in “equilibrium” with climate and the biotic environment; in other words, if you moved a species beyond its range edge it would fail due to some limiting factor in the environment, such as cold temperatures or attack by insects or pathogens. While this is undoubtedly accurate for many species, there is increasing evidence that some species may not disperse “fast” enough to attain this type of distributional equilibrium with the environment, given that the environment is always changing, as with long-term changes in climate. I’ve employed some simple experimental techniques to directly test the nature of plant species’ range edges in the eastern United States. For example, I’ve sown seeds of forest plant species at sites within and beyond their natural range edges to test whether we see declines in survival and growth outside their geographic range, as would be predicted by standard ecological theories of range edges. Surprisingly, for some species there is no evidence of a decline in performance and, in fact, the plants appear to be doing quite well outside their natural distribution. This suggests that there may be areas of suitable, but uncolonized habitat, for these species in the north.

Over all, I think this type of research has fascinating implications for thinking about species’ responses to modern climate change. It raises the possibility that some species may be too slow to track rapid climate change on their own. Obviously this opens up a whole range of questions about appropriate conservation strategies, risk management, and ethical considerations, but I think that we need to start working on these types of questions now so that we have good empirical data in hand when we make these types of important decisions in the future.

MM: Suddenly the relevance of ecology is becoming known by everyone. Overpopulation, global warming, and the threat of extinction are all in the news. Of course, it is polar bears rather than orchids that we see on the news. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to be an authority who provides sound arguments for decisions made at a political level?

JB: I think ecologists have a very important role to play in helping policy makers make sound decisions regarding the environmental crisis and in helping the public to understand the scope and relevance of environmental issues. Interestingly, this role might be split between developing the best understanding and predictive capabilities that current ecological science permits, but also acknowledging that the complexity of many biological and ecological systems makes predicting their responses to novel conditions or new threats quite difficult. Ideally, this perspective might encourage both thoughtfulness and caution when confronting these environmental challenges.

MM: Finally, if you had to tell a student why they should study plants what would you say?

JB: Plants are fascinating organisms and there is still an incredible array of things waiting to be discovered about their ecological interactions and evolution. For students starting out in plant ecology, there are a whole range of opportunities for conducting new and exciting research—research that will have great relevance for our basic understanding of ecological systems as well as direct applications in solving the key environmental challenges confronting our society today. In my teaching and research at Smith, I will be sharing my enthusiasm for plants with students and hopefully encouraging or inspiring many of them to pursue their own interests in plant ecology or botany.

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