Project 1. Physical-chemical characteristic of pitcher plants and their aquatic food webs (S. Ramaswami, Computer Science & A.L. González, Biology)

Pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) have evolved modified leaves that accumulate rainwater, arthropod carcasses, and organic detritus, which provide a stable microhabitat for aquatic organisms (especially insect larvae and microbes). Among their adaptations, these plants also secrete acidic fluids that play a role in the digestion of insect prey. In addition to pH, other physical-chemical parameters of the fluid may affect the digestion of prey, but also the complexity of the food webs living in the pitcher plants (phytotelmata). Phytotelmata food webs (mainly insects, other invertebrates and microbes) develop in this living habitat container, and interactions between the plant and the animal food web are critical for understanding nutrient fluxes and stoichiometric patterns. The aim of this project is to characterize the physical and chemical properties of carnivorous plants and their aquatic macroinvertebrates accross several New Jersey bogs.

Research. Students will learn about the ecology of pitcher plants. The REU student will study: (1) the physical and chemical characteristics of pitcher plants at different spatial scales; (2) the species richness, composition and abundance of aquatic invertebrates living in pitcher plants. The project will use survey samplings of pitcher plants, their fluid and inhabiting food webs in bogs across South New Jersey. The student will learn how to measure some of these physical and chemical characteristics in situ through the use of portable meters.

Student activities. The RUE student will be trained for fieldwork that includes experimental design and sampling collection, observing and measuring pitcher plants, collecting pitcher plants, their fluid, processing and identifying maxroinvertebrates in the lab. The student will also learn field methods relevant to the project, for example the use of portable meters to measure pH, temperature, conductivity, and will also gain experience with GPS navigation, dissecting scopes, and data collection and management.