UM Collaboration to Investigate Tropical Forest Growth, Nutrient Acquisition

January 28, 2016

MISSOULA – When University of Montana biogeochemistry Professor Cory Cleveland begins a new project in Panama this summer, he will push the boundaries of soil science and how scientists collaborate with journalists to document their research.

Cleveland will build on his long-held conviction that “a fundamental piece of good science is to communicate it effectively” when he has a graduate student from UM’s School of Journalism embed with his research team to document their fieldwork at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  

“It’s an innovative model of collaboration between journalism and the sciences that we hope will serve as a model for other research efforts at the University of Montana,” said School of Journalism Associate Professor Henriette Lowisch, who runs the school’s master’s program in environmental science and natural resource journalism and is included on the grant as senior personnel.

Tropical forests are among the most productive on Earth and take up much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. If these forests can balance that extra atmospheric CO2 with the right nutrients, such as phosphorous, they could absorb more CO2 as they grow bigger and greener. However, much of that needed phosphorous is in a form that is thought to be inaccessible to plants — bound up with iron or aluminum, for example.  

Ten years ago, Cleveland started wondering if tropical plants were able to get more nutrients from the soil than scientists previously thought. He just received a grant of nearly $784,000 from the National Science Foundation to investigate if and how plants access scarce nutrients from soils.

Together with his co-principal investigators Noah Fierer from the University of Colorado and Benjamin Turner of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Cleveland will plant seedlings in varying mixtures of soil nutrients to see how plants access different forms of soil phosphorous.

“We think that plants might get help from bacteria and fungi to access and use the phosphorous traditionally thought unavailable,” Cleveland said. “If we’re right, this has huge implications for what we know about plant growth in the future.”

The research will improve predictions about future rates of plant productivity in tropical forests and could lead to improvements in how soil fertility is managed in tropical agricultural soils. If tropical forests can access more phosphorous than current global models predict, those forests might be able to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere.

The opportunity to document all phases of the research will allow the journalism student to produce compelling stories about a rigorous scientific experiment that has large potential impacts on humanity, Lowisch said.

“This will be a huge challenge for an emerging journalist, who will be able to practice all they’ve learned about making complex research accessible to the public,” Lowisch said.

Cleveland and collaborators will begin research in Panama this summer with expected preliminary results by fall 2017. 

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Contact: Cory Cleveland, UM associate professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology, 406-243-6018, cory.cleveland@umontana.edu.