About the lab

Our research approach links biogeography and ecosystem science with microbial ecology and molecular organic chemistry, and draws on collaborations with remote sensing and Earth systems modeling experts. The goal of this approach is to provide a mechanistic understanding of ecosystem-scale responses to global change. We integrate field and laboratory methods, with a methodological emphasis on isotopic, spectroscopic, and chemical techniques. Our research projects focus on plant and soil processes in a changing world, with a regional focus in the wet and dry tropics.

Featured research (5)

Vegetation processes are fundamentally limited by nutrient and water availability, the uptake of which is mediated by plant roots in terrestrial ecosystems. While tropical forests play a central role in global water, carbon, and nutrient cycling, we know very little about tradeoffs and synergies in root traits that respond to resource scarcity. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change | www.frontiersin.org 1 December 2021 | Volume 4 | Article 704469 Cusack et al. Tropical Root Traits Tropical trees face a unique set of resource limitations, with rock-derived nutrients and moisture seasonality governing many ecosystem functions, and nutrient versus water availability often separated spatially and temporally. Root traits that characterize biomass, depth distributions, production and phenology, morphology, physiology, chemistry, and symbiotic relationships can be predictive of plants' capacities to access and acquire nutrients and water, with links to aboveground processes like transpiration, wood productivity, and leaf phenology. In this review, we identify an emerging trend in the literature that tropical fine root biomass and production in surface soils are greatest in infertile or sufficiently moist soils. We also identify interesting paradoxes in tropical forest root responses to changing resources that merit further exploration. For example, specific root length, which typically increases under resource scarcity to expand the volume of soil explored, instead can increase with greater base cation availability, both across natural tropical forest gradients and in fertilization experiments. Also, nutrient additions, rather than reducing mycorrhizal colonization of fine roots as might be expected, increased colonization rates under scenarios of water scarcity in some forests. Efforts to include fine root traits and functions in vegetation models have grown more sophisticated over time, yet there is a disconnect between the emphasis in models characterizing nutrient and water uptake rates and carbon costs versus the emphasis in field experiments on measuring root biomass, production, and morphology in response to changes in resource availability. Closer integration of field and modeling efforts could connect mechanistic investigation of fine-root dynamics to ecosystem-scale understanding of nutrient and water cycling, allowing us to better predict tropical forest-climate feedbacks.
Humid tropical forests contain some of the largest soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks on Earth. Much of this SOC is in subsoil, yet variation in the distribution of SOC through the soil profile remains poorly characterized across tropical forests. We used a correlative approach to quantify relationships among depth distributions of SOC, fine root biomass, nutrients and texture to 1 m depths across 43 lowland tropical forests in Panama. The sites span rainfall and soil fertility gradients, and these are largely uncorrelated for these sites. We used fitted beta parameters to characterize depth distributions, where beta is a numerical index based on an asymptotic relationship, such that larger beta values indicate greater concentrations of root biomass or SOC at depth in the profile. Root beta values ranged from 0.82 to 0.95 and were best predicted by soil pH and extractable potassium (K) stocks. For example, the three most acidic (pH < 4) and K-poor (< 20 g K m-2) soils contained 76 ± 5% of fine root biomass from 0 to 10 cm depth, while the three least acidic (pH > 6.0) and most K-rich (> 50 g K m-2) soils contained only 41 ± 9% of fine root biomass at this depth. Root beta and SOC beta values were inversely related, such that a large fine root biomass in surface soils corresponded to large SOC stocks in subsoils (50–100 cm). SOC beta values were best predicted by soil pH and base cation stocks, with the three most base-poor soils containing 34 ± 8% of SOC from 50 to 100 cm depth, and the three most base-rich soils containing just 9 ± 2% of SOC at this depth. Nutrient depth distributions were not related to root beta or SOC beta values. These data show that large surface root biomass stocks are associated with large subsoil C stocks in strongly weathered tropical soils. Further studies are required to evaluate why this occurs, and whether changes in surface root biomass, as may occur with global change, could in turn influence SOC storage in tropical forest subsoils.
The global demand for beef is rapidly increasing (FAO, 2019), raising concern about climate change impacts (Clark et al., 2020; Leip et al., 2015; Springmann et al., 2018). Beef and dairy contribute over 70% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), which collectively contribute ~6.3 Gt CO2‐eq/year (Gerber et al., 2013; Herrero et al., 2016) and account for 14%–18% of human GHG emissions (Friedlingstein et al., 2019; Gerber et al., 2013). The utility of beef GHG mitigation strategies, such as land‐based carbon (C) sequestration and increased production efficiency, are actively debated (Garnett et al., 2017). We compiled 292 local comparisons of “improved” versus “conventional” beef production systems across global regions, assessing net GHG emission data from Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies. Our results indicate that net beef GHG emissions could be reduced substantially via changes in management. Overall, a 46 % reduction in net GHG emissions per unit of beef was achieved at sites using carbon (C) sequestration management strategies on grazed lands, and an 8% reduction in net GHGs was achieved at sites using growth efficiency strategies. However, net‐zero emissions were only achieved in 2% of studies. Among regions, studies from Brazil had the greatest improvement, with management strategies for C sequestration and efficiency reducing beef GHG emissions by 57%. In the United States, C sequestration strategies reduced beef GHG emissions by over 100% (net‐zero emissions) in a few grazing systems, whereas efficiency strategies were not successful at reducing GHGs, possibly because of high baseline efficiency in the region. This meta‐analysis offers insight into pathways to substantially reduce beef production's global GHG emissions. Nonetheless, even if these improved land‐based and efficiency management strategies could be fully applied globally, the trajectory of growth in beef demand will likely more than offset GHG emissions reductions and lead to further warming unless there is also reduced beef consumption. Global demand for beef is rapidly increasing, raising concern about climate change impacts. We compiled 292 local comparisons of “improved” versus “conventional” beef production systems across global regions, assessing net greenhouse gas (GHG) emission data from Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). Overall, strategies for carbon (C) sequestration on grazed lands reduced net beef GHG emissions by 62%, and growth efficiency strategies reduced net GHG emissions by 30%. Despite these improvements, net‐zero emissions were achieved only in 2% of studies. Brazilian studies had the greatest reductions in beef GHG emissions. This meta‐analysis offers insight into management strategies to reduce beef GHG emissions across global regions.
Tropical forest soils contain some of the largest carbon (C) stocks on Earth, yet the effects of warming on the fate of fresh C entering tropical soils are still poorly understood. This research sought to understand how the fate of fresh C entering soils is influenced by warming, soil weathering status, and C chemistry. We hypothesized that compounds that are quickly incorporated into microbial biomass (i.e., greater C use efficiency [CUE]) subsequently have longer-term (255 days) retention in soil. We also hypothesized that relatively weathered soils with greater sorptive capacity also retain more fresh C in the short and longer-terms, and that C in these soils is more resistant to weathering loss compared with less weathered soils. We tested these hypotheses by adding two 13 C-labeled compounds (glucose and glycine) to three tropical forest soils from a weathering gradient in Hawai'i, and then incubating soils at ambient (16 • C), +5 • C, and +10 • C for 255 days. We found that 255-day 13 C retention in mineral soil across sites and temperatures was best predicted by two factors: initial retention of 13 C in mineral soil and initial microbial 13 CUE (Adjusted R 2 = 0.78). Carbon compound type influenced 13 C initial retention, with greater glucose-13 C retention versus glycine-13 C retention in mineral soils and microbial biomass, corresponding to greater glucose-13 C retention in soil at 255 days. Warming had a negative longer-term effect on the retention of 13 C only in the least-weathered soil, supporting our hypothesis. These results show that initial retention of fresh C in soils via mineral sorption and microbial uptake is a strong predictor of longer-term retention, indicating that immediate C losses are a major hurdle for soil C storage. Also, retention of fresh C appears most sensitive to warming in less-weathered tropical soils, supporting the idea that mineral sorption may provide some protections against warming. Understanding the interaction between soil sorptive properties and warming for C cycling could improve predictions of forest-climate feedbacks for tropical regions.
Abstract Tropical forests are expected to green up with increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but primary productivity may be limited by soil nutrient availability. However, rarely have canopy-scale measurements been assessed against soil measurements in the tropics. Here, we sought to assess remotely sensed canopy greenness against steep soil nutrient gradients across 50 1-ha mature forest plots in Panama. Contrary to expectations, increases in in situ extractable soil phosphorus (P) and base cations (K, Mg) corresponded to declines in remotely sensed mean annual canopy greenness (r2 = 0.77–0.85; p

Lab head

Daniela Cusack
  • Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability
About Daniela Cusack
  • I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecosystem Ecology and Sustainability at Colorado State University. My main research interest is in the effects of global change (e.g. drying, nitrogen deposition, wildfire) on tropical ecosystem carbon storage, root dynamics, and nutrient cycling across biogeographic gradients.

Members (4)

Amanda Longhi Cordeiro
  • Colorado State University
Joseph K. Lee
  • moovel Lab
Avishesh Neupane
  • University of Tennessee
Taylor L. Mccleery
  • University of California, Los Angeles
Wendy H. Yang
Wendy H. Yang
  • Not confirmed yet
Jason Karpman
Jason Karpman
  • Not confirmed yet
Chase S LeCroy
Chase S LeCroy
  • Not confirmed yet