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Tech gets funding to investigate invasive species that thrive in Montana and Kashmir

Tech professor Robert Pal kneels in a patch of invasive plants at the edge of a parking lot on the Montana Tech campus. Pal and his collaborator, Manzoor Shah at the University of Kashmir, have received funding to look at invasive plants and native plants in both mountain regions and see if there are similarities or differences in how these plant communities are responding to climate change.

On Wednesday afternoon, Robert Pal, Montana Tech assistant professor of biological sciences, walks a few hundred feet from the greenhouse where he conducts much of his research on invasive plants to the tiered parking lot below, where he plucks tall hill mustard, small tumbleweed mustard and a host of other non-native plants from the soil between the expanses of pavement.  

But while he doesn’t have to go far to find examples of the invasive plants he is studying, Pal will lead a small contingent from Tech to the other side of world to pursue his research at the University of Kashmir, in Srinagar, India, from June 20 to July 4.

There, in a city at about the same elevation in the Himalayan Mountains as Butte is in the Rockies, Pal will meet with Manzoor Shah to discuss their ongoing work to understand better how climate change might drive the expansion of invasive species like those in the Tech parking lot, elsewhere in the northern Rockies and in the Himalayas.

In particular, Pal says he and his fellow researchers are “looking at some species that are invasive here but not there — and that are invasive there but not here.”

Due to the similarities between the regions in terms of environmental factors like elevation and climate, researchers in Butte and Srinagar are able to learn a lot about how species behave differently when they are native versus when they are invasive, Pal says. 

“We need to understand why they behave differently in different areas, if at all,” Pal says.

To conduct their research, Pal and Shah have set up 1-meter-square quadrants where they are observing the effect non-native plants have on native species.

While Pal says one might expect the non-natives to simply “crowd out” the natives, he says the relationship between the two can be more complex.

And he says the nature of those relationships is in greater flux due to climate change, which has especially strong effects on distinct and sensitive mountainous regions like the northern Rockies and the Indian Himalayas.

As climates change, Pal says, plants move into areas where they historically have not been — and invasive species are those that have already proven “more flexible in a wider range of conditions.”

While they have selected a relatively small number of plant species to study, Pal says what he and Shah learn can have broad implications for improving the understanding of proactive ways to control invasive species.

One such mechanism for stopping non-natives from spreading, Pal says, might be the use of organisms that already stop the plants’ proliferation in their native region. When imported to another region, these organisms can serve as so-called biocontrols that provide a natural means of keeping invasive plants under control.

Pal and Shah first applied for the approximately $250,000, three-year grant in late 2015 and began work on it last year, when a group from Kashmir visited Butte. They are set to return to the Montana Tech campus in 2019.

The project is being funded through the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative, which aims to promote partnerships between American and Indian scholars. Beverly Hartline, Montana Tech’s vice chancellor for research and the dean of its graduate school, says collaborations like the one between Pal and Shah create invaluable opportunities to expand the school’s network, which can bring in more students and “more engagement in research.”

In an effort to take advantage of those opportunities, Pal will be joined in Kashmir by Hartline, retiring dean of Tech’s College of Letters, Sciences and Professional Studies Doug Coe, Professor of Biological Sciences Martha Apple and Jeremy Aal, an undergraduate biology student at Tech who has assisted Pal with invasive plant research.

Apple will give a talk on alpine plants, her specialty, and Hartline will give a more general talk on Montana Tech, including opportunities for studying at the university and the potential for research collaboration between faculty at the two schools.

According to Hartline, international projects like the one being spearheaded by Pal have the potential to reverberate broadly on Tech’s campus.

“It expands the reach and the visibility and the reputation (of the university),” Hartline says. “And any of the projects like this do that.”

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