Earthwatch scientist Dr Clare Aslan

Clare Aslan, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor
Landscape Conservation Initiative, Northern Arizona University

Dr. Clare Aslan is Assistant Professor, Landscape Conservation Initiative at Northern Arizona University. She is a community ecologist and conservation biologist, interested in the ecology and conservation of species interactions and how dynamics at the interaction level can scale up to the full community level.

What do you enjoy most/what do you find most interesting about your research topic?

I am fascinated by the idea of mutually positive interactions between species – what we call "mutualisms." The idea that species provide essential services for each other satisfies my inner idealism and optimism! Seed dispersal is a perfect example of this: plants make beautiful, tasty, fleshy fruits to attract animals, representing a big investment on the part of the plant. The animals get a delicious meal, and return the favor by transporting seeds to likely growth locations. It gives us a glimpse of how complex and diverse natural systems can be.

How does citizen science support your research?

Citizen science is essential to this research. To understand how these plants and animals depend on one another, we need to observe as many interactions as possible in a number of different locations. Our most important resource is, therefore, patient people willing to be in the right place at the right time to perform those observations. In the end, the more hours of observation we’re able to do for this project, the higher our confidence that we understand the dynamics at play and the importance of these fruiting trees to the broader ecological community in the region.

How does citizen science support your research?

Research focused on species interactions can sometimes require very precise timing. On one occasion, while conducting field work in Hawaii, I was helping to pollinate an endangered Hawaiian silversword growing far out in a remote part of the Big Island. The plant was many miles from any other flowering plants, so there was no chance that it would be able to reproduce before dying unless we could bring it pollen from another flowering plant. However, a storm was brewing that day, and pollen won’t adhere to wet flowers. I soon found myself running over broken lava flows, following my colleagues and racing storm clouds, to reach the lonely plant before the rain began. We made it – reaching the remote patch of boggy vegetation under a dark gray sky. The plant was as tall as me, covered in thumb-sized, sweet-smelling maroon flowers. We set to work with our pollen vials and paintbrushes. The rain began about a half-hour after we’d finished, as we hiked back toward the car, joking and singing in the downpour.

Education
  • Ph.D. Ecology, University of California, Davis, CA (U.S.)
  • B.S. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, AZ (U.S.)
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