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Studying Biodiversity Patterns

Papes Uses Field Research, High-Tech Tools to Study Biodiversity Changes and Address Conservation Issues

The Gatlinburg area is rebounding well from the 2016 fires, but has the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s biodiversity changed? What are the possible long-term effects of the fires?

mona-papesThese are the types of questions Mona Papeş is trying to answer. An associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and director of the Spatial Analysis Lab (SAL) at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), Papeş uses field research and other forms of data gathering, including Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping and remote sensing tools, to study biodiversity patterns and address conservation issues.

“I’m interested in the factors that determine species distribution,” said Papeş, explaining how that can help predict the effects of climate change, disease, and other phenomena on plants and animals. Papeş received the College of Arts and Sciences’ 2021 Faculty Academic Outreach Research Award.

In her work with NIMBioS, Papeş assists researchers using the SAL spatial ecology tools, which include drones, multispectral and thermal cameras, and lidar technology that captures 3D views of the environment.

Mona Papes with lidar scanner

For instance, she used the center’s lidar technology to help students in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries investigate reforestation strategies in managed plots in the Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center.

Outside of UT, Papeş chairs the User Working Group for Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC), a partnership between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, which provides data to scientists, governments, commercial enterprises, and the public worldwide. She also collaborates with EEB faculty and state and federal agencies on revising the State Wildlife Action Plans for the southeastern U.S. They use models to forecast how climate change might affect wildlife distribution across the region.

Mona Papes with data logger

To study how the Gatlinburg fires affected plant communities in the Smokies, Papeş and graduate student Mali Hubert have spent six years monitoring 20 plots of vegetation in areas hit by various fire severities. More recently, she’s installed sensors in the plots to monitor temperature, leaf wetness, and solar radiation. Data-logging devices upload information detected by the sensors to a cloud app so the researchers can retrieve it via computer. EEB colleagues are using the plots to study soil microbiome, soil nutrient cycling, and plant adaptations to fire.

“This collaborative approach will advance our understanding of fire effects on eastern deciduous forest ecosystems,” she said. “Our work has been supported through an internal seed grant and we are exploring external funding opportunities to continue to grow this project towards multiple interdisciplinary, long-term studies.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree in her native Romania, Papeş earned her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Kansas. She did post-doctoral work in Wisconsin and was an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University before coming to UT in 2017.

Papeş enjoys hiking, biking, reading, and baking. Her husband, Arpi Nyari, is a senior lecturer in EEB.

“He is always generous with his time and has contributed so much to my field-based projects. He is my most valued field assistant,” she joked.

Story by Amy Blakely