& A with Jesse Bellemare, plant ecologist
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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