Unlike many labs on campus in which undergraduate researchers are expected to contribute to an on-going project, if you decide to do research with me, it will be your own project that you will conduct with my tutelage/assistance/encouragement/interference. Given that the projects proposed below are not parts of larger, grant-funded research (but some funds are generally available), success will depend almost entirely on your motivation. I should also note that if I had the time, I would carry out these projects myself, but I will resist trying to take over if you take one on. If you enroll for research credits, which is an option, I will chase you as necessary to make sure you satisfy the requirements, but to reach fruition, the projects really deserve much more time, effort, and ingenuity than could be expected for 1-3 credits (but need not be completed in a single semester). Also note that I am COMPLETELY open to project suggestions from you—if I do not feel confident to advise you on the project you propose, I will help you find a suitable mentor.
Based on my experience, I believe that the research topics listed below could very well yield interesting and perhaps even publishable results (the published results of several such projects are cited below). In addition to supporting student scientific endeavors, I am motivated to disseminate research results to broader audiences than just other scientists. For that reason, if you are a nature writer in need of a biological mentor (who is also interested in nature writing), I might be helpful (especially on ecological and native plant-related topics). See my lab’s website to get more of an idea of the sorts of research in which my students and I are involved (http://people.biology.ufl.edu/fep). You might also want to read my book of local natural history essays, Finding Home in the Sandy Lands of the South which is in the Science Library and available on Amazon and Kindle and from me directly. If you are interested in ethnobotany, you might like my novella Yaupon Wins. And if your taste in literature is not refined, you might try my rather steamy (but nature-filled) jungle novel entitled Borneo Dammed: A Very Family Affair (also available from Amazon and on Kindle but published under the penname of Juan Camilo Moro).
PROJECT IDEAS (offered with enthusiasm but no guarantees)
- Duff (= Mor Humus): What is it? Where does it accumulate? How does it ignite during fires? How can duff fires most efficiently be extinguished [water vs. wet water (water plus surfactants) vs. compaction]? NOTE: would involve lots of experiments and require learning a lot about the physics and chemistry of fire.
- Sources of Charcoal in Controlled Burns in Longleaf Pine Savannas: Perhaps with an emphasis on why bark contributes disproportionately. Also, why is so much live oak leaf litter converted into charcoal (i.e., black carbon) instead of being combusted (i.e., converted into ash) during landscape fires? NOTE: would involve lots of experiments and require learning a lot about the physics and chemistry of fire.
- Schinus terebinthifolius (Brazilian Pepper) Invasion of Tree Crowns in Maritime Forests. Due partially to its capacity to grow first as a vine and then as a tree, Brazilian pepper can pierce up through and then overtop live oak trees and even cabbage palms. One impact of this invasion is that they fill previously open spaces, which might be bad from a nesting pelican perspective.NOTE: would require spending substantial time near where this phenomenon is underway.
- Getting Food (Starch) from Smilax Rhizomes, the “Red Coontie” of the Timucuans and other Amerindians: Plenty of recipes are available, but none have worked for me and all seem to have been copied (without verification) from William Bartram, who copied down what he was told by the men he interviewed (who might also not have known). The two challenges are to extract the starch from the fibrous mass and then to separate from the edible starch from the abundant phenolic compounds (source of the red). One solution might involve lye from wood ash. Could include a broader study on the use of lye in food preparation (e.g., olives and acorns). NOTE: good project for someone interested in food chemistry and ethnobotany.
- Compartmentalization of Decay in Roots after Mechanical Damage: Urban trees have rough lives that are often short due in part to root damage caused by road expansion, sidewalk installation, and etc. Some is known about compartmentalization of decay in tree trunks, but nothing about this process in roots. Note that this is a critical issue in urban forestry and that this would be a good project for someone who likes digging.
- Water Uptake by the Crowns of Cabbage Palms (Sabal palmetto): Several lines of evidence suggest that in addition to root uptake, palms take up substantial rainwater through their crowns. Testing this novel hypothesis would most likely require use of stable isotopes, with which I have no experience, but plenty of labs on campus do this sort of work. Note that I dohave the perfect study site with plenty of accessible cabbage palm trees.
- Smilax pumila (sarsaparilla vine) as a ground cover. This nearly spineless catbrier has lovely evergreen leaves that flush purple, spreads with rhizomes, is shade tolerant, and hardly climbs. This project would likely involve some excavation, to determine its below-ground structure, and propagation trials with rhizome fragments.
- Ecology and Ethnobotany of Bidens alba (Beggarticks): This common annual weed displays remarkable diversity in growth form. For example, it can grow to heights of >2 m but reproduce when only 0.1 m tall. It is light-demanding, but when overtopped it gets very spindly and tall, thereby often overtopping its competitors. A study on growth-form or biomechanical plasticity might be interesting. NOTE: This is a fast-growing plant that germinates in the spring and reaches full height and reproduces in late summer and fall.
- Green Wood: The phylogenetic and ecological distribution of chloroplasts in the xylem of woody plants has not previously been investigated, and the role of xylem photosynthesis needs further study. NOTE: might involve microscopy and photophysiology, or the focus might be more on phylogeny, but I am not an expert on any of these so a collaboration with other faculty would be required.
- Edibility of Avicennia germinans (Black Mangrove) Propagules: Fruits of this species are eaten around the world after treatments similar to those used for olive-making. Fruits/propagules of this species are abundant on both coasts in the autumn. My efforts at making olives from olive fruits have so far failed, but food chemistry is a great field.
- Shrub Invaders/Invaders of Shrubs: Even the most dense shrub carrs seem susceptible to being invaded, often by vines but also by herbaceous plants, trees, and other shrubs. In horticultural settings (and blueberry fields), controlling these invaders is a costly challenge. The plants that invade must share some physiological and biomechanical characteristics, but as far as I know, this topic has yet to be investigated. I might start by looking at planted shrubs on campus and talking with gardeners, but where you might end up is anybody’s guess.
- Natural History of Chinquapin (Castanea pumila). A close relative of chestnut, this small tree or shrub produces edible nuts. When the stems grow to be more than 5 cm in diameter or so, they suffer from a fungal disease, but the plant resprouts from the root crown. It also resprouts after top-killing fires, and produces abundant nuts 1-2 seasons later. Not much is known about this fascinating native species.
If you care to see the results of some of the small-scale, short-term, low-budget projects of this sort that previous students have conducted, I invite you to read the following (PDFs available upon request):
— Smith, C. and F.E. Putz. Effects of permanent and temporary edges on Pinus clausa (sand pine) architecture and stand conditions. Canadian Journal of Forest Research (in review).
— Putz, F.E and N. Patel. 2019. Florida Sezchuan pepper. The Palmetto 35: 4-7.
–Zakarkaite, K. and F.E. Putz. 2017. American lotus and its close Asian counterpart. The Palmetto 34: 12-17.
–Diaz-Toribio, M and F.E. Putz. 2017. Clear-cuts are not clean slates: Residual vegetation impediments to savanna restoration. Castanea 82: 58-68.
–Dutcher, H. and F.E.Putz. 2016. Saving cypress. The Palmetto 32: 12-15.
–Arevalo, B., J. Valladarez, S. Muschamp, E. Kay, A. Finkral, A. Roopsind, and F. E. Putz. 2016. Effects of reduced-impact selective logging on palm regeneration in Belize. Forest Ecology and Management 369:155-160.
–Graves, S.J., S.W. Rifai, and F. E. Putz. 2014. Outer bark thickness decreases more with height on stems of fire-resistant than fire-sensitive Floridian oaks (Quercus spp.; Fagaceae). American Journal of Botany 111: 1-6.
–Wainwright, A.E. and F.E. Putz. 2014. A misleading name reduces marketability of a healthful and stimulating natural product: A comparative taste test of infusions of a native Florida holly (Ilex vomitoria) and yerba mate (I. paraguariensis). Economic Botany 68: 350-354.
—Carvalho, E.L., Kobziar, and F.E. Putz. 2011. Fire ignition patterns and charcoal production in a pine flatwoods in Florida. International Journal of Wildland Fire 20:474-477.
–Marshall Mattson, K.D. and F.E. Putz. 2008. Sand pine (Pinus clausa) seedling distribution and biomechanics in relation to microsite condition and proximity to nurse plants. Forest Ecology and Management 256: 1458-1467.
–Casteneda, H. and F. E. Putz. 2007. Predicting sea-level rise effects on a coastal nature preserve on the Gulf coast: a landscape perspective. Florida Scientist 70: 166-175.
–Condon, B.M. and F.E. Putz. 2007. Countering the broadleaf invasion: Financial and carbon consequences of removing hardwoods during longleaf pine savanna restoration. Restoration Ecology 15: 296-303.
–Spector, T. and F.E. Putz. 2006. Biomechanical plasticity facilitates invasion by Brazilian pepper Schinus terebinthifolius. Biological Invasions 8: 255-260.
–Corogin, P. and F.E. Putz. 2004. A bog by the highway: a unique flora faces an uncertain future. The Palmetto 23: 6-7.
–Templeton, M. and F.E. Putz. 2003. Crown encroachment on southern live oaks in suburban settings: tree status and homeowner concerns. Journal of Arboriculture 29: 337-341.