College of Science

Walsh receives $220K NSF grant for zooplankton research

A UT Arlington biologist will test aquatic habitats in Alaska and Wisconsin to better document, understand and predict how organisms respond to natural change and change that is influenced by humans or environmental pollutants.

Matthew Walsh, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, has received a $220,000 National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research grant to examine zooplankton in more than 20 lakes in Alaska and Wisconsin.

For more than 30 years, scientists have documented site responses of natural populations and communities to rising temperatures, increased urbanization, changes in nutrient availability, and the spread of invasive species. Until now, they have not examined the extent to which these responses reflect evolutionary change in the aquatic habitats.

“We’re really asking key questions about evolution and how predictable it is, and how consistent it is across diverse ecosystems,” Walsh said. “We’re studying zooplankton because they’re important food for fish. And so what that means is if they’re evolving, changes in body size, and more, that’s going to also influence how the ecology changes over time.”

Zooplanktons are organisms that can control the amount of phytoplankton and nutrients in the systems in which they reside. The research will take place in Alaska and Wisconsin because of the extreme climates in both states.

“The arctic is a region that is experiencing very rapid global climate change, and so if you want to get an understanding of the impacts of climate change then they’re good places to establish long-term sites,” Walsh said.

Morteza Khaledi, dean of the College of Science, commended Walsh and his efforts to bridge ecology and evolution.

“Much of Dr. Walsh’s research has to do with how scientists can predict the influence of invasive species, global climate change and more,” Khaledi said. “He asks whether we can simply consider

Matthew Walsh
ecological variables or whether we need to consider how genetic changes over time might also be important.”

He added: “Dr. Walsh is attempting to answer truly significant questions about our planet, its natural resources and survivability, and that aligns with the University’s Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact under the theme of Global Environmental Impact.”

Walsh has a longer-term goal of building his exploratory studies into a research program that integrates long-term ecological and evolutionary studies. As principal investigator of the new NSF grant, he will engage undergraduate and graduate students in the research activities, with plans to recruit students from under-served groups. Existing outreach programs at UT Arlington will allow him to engage high school students in summer research activities and increase awareness of the vulnerability of ecosystems to anthropogenic change and the importance of long-term research.

The National Science Foundation Award No. 1544356 funds Walsh’s project, “Testing the influence of long-term ecological change on evolutionary responses in zooplankton.”

Posted September 9, 2015