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U of I Scientists Study Energy Flow in Ecosystems Using Role of Tasmanian Devil

November 15, 2021

MOSCOW, Idaho — Nov. 15, 2021 — University of Idaho researchers are studying how Tasmanian devils influence ecosystems.

As a top apex predator and scavenger and one of the few carnivores worldwide that consume bones, devils play a critical role in the Tasmanian island ecosystem by cycling essential nutrients back into the soil. These nutrients, including phosphorus and nitrogen, would otherwise remain locked in bone material for years, said Laurel Lynch, an assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Water Systems.

Lynch is among a team of international researchers funded by the National Science Foundation to study the role of Tasmanian devils in maintaining forest health and productivity. The research will reveal links between keystone scavengers and ecosystem resiliency that could have applications worldwide, Lynch said.

Although a highly transmissible cancer — the target of many unrelated studies — threatens Tasmanian devils with extinction, one population on the western coast has not yet been infected. Researchers will use this natural population gradient to determine how scavenger and predator declines alter energy flow through food webs and influence ecosystems.

“We know through population and community ecology that if you remove a keystone species, there’s a reorganization that occurs throughout the food web,” Lynch said. “What we don’t know is whether this reorganization cascades below ground and influences microbial populations and plant-available nutrients.”

When microbes have access to high-quality food sources, such as carcasses, they grow more efficiently than when they are only decomposing plant material, she said. By releasing key nutrients from carcass and bone material, devils may help plants and microorganisms be more productive. Plants may build longer-lived tissues that allow them to survive stressors such as drought, and efficient microbial communities may store more carbon underground, which helps reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

This project titled “Collaborative Research: Effects of Top Scavenger Declines — From Microbes to Ecosystems” was funded by National Science Foundation award 2054716. The total project funding is $677,575, of which 100% is the federal share.

Media Contacts

Laurel Lynch
Assistant Professor
Department of Soil and Water Systems
University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
208-885-4661
llynch@uidaho.edu

Ralph Bartholdt
Communications Manager
Communications and Marketing
University of Idaho
208-790-7731
rbartholdt@uidaho.edu

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at uidaho.edu


Contact

University Communications and Marketing

Fax: 208-885-5841

Email: uinews@uidaho.edu

Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts