Sunday, December 21, 2014


CPEL presented at AGU this year.  With over 24,000 attendees, this is by far the largest scientific conference we have attended.  AGU is an interesting meeting for a coastal lab since there are many physical processes to consider on barrier islands, in addition to biotic interactions.  We spent a lot of time at talks and posters of these physical processes (dune building, shoreline change, hydrological dynamics) and realize that as coastal scientists we need to integrate better the ecological and physical processes.  PI Julie Zinnert gave a talk on cross-scale interactions on barrier islands and analysis of ecosystem state change at the Virginia Coast Reserve over the last 30 years.  PhD student Benjamin Dows presented a poster on the controls between alternate stable states of grassland and shrubland.  In addition to papers by CPEL, VCU was represented at AGU this year with papers by PI Chris Gough (and students) and an undergraduate Environmental Studies student.  It was nice to see other VCU people at the meeting.

As a parent, it is challenging to integrate both work and family; however, most conferences are family friendly (or becoming so) by offering childcare services as well as a general acceptance of children at the conference.  While the number of children at AGU was less than we see at ESA, there were still many parents who toted along their little ones.  It was refreshing to see!  Despite such a rainy week, it was an excellent meeting with lots of motivation for shaping our future research.  It was also nice to see ex-CPEL graduates, Sheri Shiflett (post-doc at UC Riverside) and Steven Brantley (Research Scientist at Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center).  The Old Guard took AGU by storm!

Julie Zinnert and baby A at the poster session.

Ben Dows presents his poster.

The Old Guard (or part of it): Sheri Shiflett, Julie Zinnert, Donald Young, Steven Brantley

Friday, December 12, 2014

Meeting and seminar with Dr. Tony Stallins

Dr. Tony Stallins visited the Coastal Plant Ecology Lab the weekend following Thanksgiving.  It was a very enlightening visit that has stimulated a lot of ideas regarding plant species, feedbacks with physical processes, island stability, disturbance, and scale.  We will continue to pursue these ideas in our research and in an upcoming BIOL693 seminar - Cross-scale interactions.  Barrier islands are ideal systems for studying resilience theory, alternate states and thresholds because of the strong feedbacks between plants and the physical environment.  Dune building vegetation creates different types of dunes, which affects whole island level processes.  Tony's paper "Stability domains in barrier island dune systems" has been very influential in current CPEL research and discusses the role of vegetation in shaping barrier islands.  We are very grateful to Tony for taking time to meet with us and look forward to future collaboration.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

PhD student Stephen Via's research is focused on the impact of explosive compounds on vegetation across scales.  In his recently-published paper, "Differential effects of two explosive compounds on seed germination and seedling morphology of a woody shrub, Morella cerifera", Stephen examined the impacts of two common explosives, TNT and RDX, on germination and juvenile growth of a native coastal shrub that is commonly found at former coastal bombing ranges.  His investigation across life stages showed that plants have variable responses to contaminants, concentration, and these effects differ with life stage.  These findings are important as explosive compounds have the potential to act as filters of species establishment and community structure / function.  Stephen will continue his research to quantify the effects of explosives on establishment, physiological functioning, and ultimately community composition.  More exciting results to come! The article can be found at:
or by emailing

Morella cerifera growing in different concentrations of RDX.  Photo credit: Stephen Via

Monday, September 29, 2014

Meet our new faces

We have a new group of graduate and undergraduate researchers working on a range of topics in coastal plant ecology. Their research will continue to advance our understanding of the many complex and interacting factors across barrier island landscapes, which provide the first line of defense against storms for millions of people living in coastal areas.

April Harris joined our lab as a master's student.  Her research interests include investigating the competitive/facilitative interactions between the three dune building grass species:,Ammophila breviligulata, Uniola paniculata, and Spartina patens, in the presence and absence of sand accretion.  These interactions are particularly interesting because they ultimately lead to differences in dune morphology and barrier island stability.

Joey Thompson joined our lab as a master's student.  His research interests include plant diversity, how it is affected by human caused disturbances, and the most efficient ways to implement restoration and conservation.  He is interested in identifying native plants and understanding relationships with other organisms.  Knowing interactions between species in an ecosystem  helps him to better understand how that ecosystem functions.  Joey has a strong interest in naturalism which is expressed partly through photographing nature and identifying species and phenomena.  He uses photography and knowledge of the natural world to inspire others who are less interested in the scientific community.  Joey's main interest is plants, although he has a general passion for science and philosophy of all types.  Botany, ornithology, entomology, mycology, physics, and metaphysics are some topics that he is particularly interested in.  Music is another favorite ways to express himself outside of science.  Joey plays a doumbek and listen to blues, soul, folk, and classic rock. Other hobbies include mountain biking, longboarding, and reading.


Joseph Brown joined our lab as a master's student.  His research interests include looking at how sand accretion and competition of two dune building species, Ammophila breviligulata and Uniola paniculata affects functional traits and growth of these species. His research will contribute our understanding of how grass distribution and island morphology could change on barrier island depending on the northern migration of Uniola paniculata due to climate change.

Ashley Moulton joined our lab as a master's student.  Her research interests include understanding how feedbacks between abiotic and biotic factors influence the distribution of vegetation in coastal landscapes. She is also interested in utilizing spatial analysis to better understand variance within these dynamic systems. Her research aims to further develop best management practices which aid professionals who work to restore coastal systems to improve their resiliency and stability. 

Audrey Kirschner joined our lab as an undergraduate student.  Her research interests include understanding the physiological responses of barrier island graminoids (Spartina patens and Fimbristylis spadicea) to salinity, flooding, and drought. These physiological responses affect their distribution across the landscape with changing climate (i.e. variable precipitation, sea-level rise).  In addition to studying at VCU, Audrey spent a semester abroad in Western Australia where  she took courses learning about Australian flora and fauna.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Successful trip to the 99th annual Ecological Society of America meeting

We have just returned (although some of our luggage has not) from Sacramento, CA where three graduate students and I presented papers.  Benjamin Dows talked about his master's research on dispersal of the native shrub, Morella cerifera which is expanding range across the Virginia barrier islands.  I presented a lab project on community level shifts between shrubland and grassland and how this influences island geomorphology at the island-chain level.  We met scientists from the Netherlands and learned that the same phenomenon of shrub expansion is occurring on the Frisian barrier islands.  Perhaps a trans-Atlantic barrier island comparison is in our future.

Stephen Via presented a portion of his doctoral dissertation research quantifying community level impacts of buried explosives, which have long lasting implications on composition, structure and functional traits.  Paul Manley talked about his master's research on remote sensing detection of explosives using plants.  We were interviewed by livescience thanks to the excellent talks by Paul and Stephen.  Check out the story here:

Finally, no meeting is complete without experiencing what the area has to offer.  We visited local parks and enjoyed the different vegetation of California, tasted local drinks at wineries and breweries, and of course hiked at the Pacific Coast.

Posted by: Julie Zinnert

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Graduate student awards to travel to Crete

Graduate students, Stephen Via and Paul Manley II received travel awards to present cutting edge research on plants and explosives at the 11th annual International Phytotechnologies Conference in Crete! They will present research on the effects of explosives on plant communities and advances in using remote sensing of plants to detect contaminated soils. We are very proud of their hard work and effort and excited for their trip!

Sign at Duck Field Research Facility where unexploded ordnances continue to pose a threat. Photo credit: Julie Zinnert


Friday, July 18, 2014

Paper published on coastal woody plant and vine associations

Spencer Bissett’s research is focused on the role of vines in shaping communities in coastal ecosystems, specifically large-scale successional effects.  In his recently-published paper, "Linking habitat with associations of woody vegetation and vines on two mid-Atlantic barrier islands" describes our findings comparing woody and vine plant communities at two sites.  Working at Hog Island, off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and the Duck Field Research Facility in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Spencer measured environmental variables including soil acidity, soil salinity, elevation, and distance from shoreline at multiple plots, and related these variables to the presence of plants across the sites to test whether these variables affected distributions of woody vegetation or vine species.  Vine presence was positively affected by woody plant presence, which in turn was most strongly influenced by elevation.  In some places, vines were so thick Spencer could walk over the shrubs.  Future research will focus on species-specific relationships, in a continuing effort to better understand the influences contributing to vine presence and success in these fragile, dynamic, and highly environmentally-responsive coastal habitats.  The article can be found at: or by emailing

Image: Smilax sp. covering Morella cerifera thicket. Photo credit: Spencer Bissett

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Plant ecology and hydrology

Our visit to University of Córdoba was productive and successful. Dr. Maria Jose Polo and Dr. Cristina Aguilar presented their work on hydrological models of the Guadalquivir River. Dr. Rafael Villar presented research on plant functional traits and relationships with plant and ecosystem functioning. We are developing research to examine plant functional traits and community changes along riverine environmental gradients, as well as incorporating vegetation changes and subsequent hydrological/biotic feedbacks into models.  We will be considering students interested in pursuing this line of research. Other areas of research that integrate physical and biotic interactions will be developed by VCU Biology and UCO faculty.  During our visit we also enjoyed great food (the essence of the CPEL lab) and wonderful friendship.    

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Headed to Córdoba, Spain

We are excited to begin a new adventure with our colleagues from the University of Córdoba to develop both a degree program and research collaboration focusing on the impacts of sea-level rise on two river ecosystems. CPEL is interested in the interaction between vegetation and hydrology, the functional traits of plants that enhance resiliency to sea-level rise, and remote sensing methods that enhance our understanding of ecohydrologic dynamics.  This program will provide opportunities for students to get involved in research both here and in  Córdoba. Details from our trip to come.....