Leger studying how native plants adapt to invaders

Associate Professor of Plant Ecology Beth LegerCABNR welcomes Associate Professor of Plant Ecology Beth Leger to the fold. Leger recently received tenure and has been at UNR since her 2006 emigration from New York, where she did her post-doctoral research. Leger, a specialist in the evolution of invasive species, recently shifted focus from studying invasive species to researching the invaded.

"I started asking how native species were responding to invaders," she said. "Are native species noticing these changes around them? I was hoping for evidence of adaptive evolutionary change in response to invasion - can native species evolve to grow better in invaded systems? We found evidence that this is possible."

One considerable change to native species, Leger discovered, was to plant phenology - the timing in the year when plants begin to grow new leaves. Plants which began to grow earlier did better among invasive species.

"We'll take plants that are across the road from one another, and one section is really invaded and one not," Leger said. "The invaded samples have had a genetic shift toward earlier phenology."

"Historically, there may have been reasons why plants wouldn't green up too early," she added. "If plants were fooled by early storms, long periods of drought afterwards may have been harmful. But these plants seem to be doing better against these invasive plants."

Leger said many of Nevada's native plants are threatened by invasive weeds like cheatgrass, while some native plants like squirreltail and Sandberg bluegrass tend to do well in highly invaded, disturbed sights.

When she's not studying the ecology of native plant species, Leger teaches NRES 345 - Range and Forest Plants. She is also researching which native plants perform best in restoration sites.

"You can find really important plants in really ugly places," she said. "The most pristine areas should be protected, but we may also be able to learn something from native plants growing in disturbed sites."