Wilkes University Professor Michael A. Steele Wins NSF Opus Award

by Web Services

A Wilkes University biologist has received one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious grants – and is the first faculty member at a small liberal arts university to receive the honor.

Michael A. Steele, professor of biology and The Hilda Fenner Chair of Research Biology, has received an OPUS Award of $134,204 to complete a book synthesizing more than 25 years of his research. Steele’s research examines how acorns are dispersed in the ecosystem – principally by rodents and jays  – and why dispersal is important for regeneration of forests worldwide. 

The OPUS Award, which stands for Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis, is presented by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology. Often awarded to mid- to late-career researchers, the awards are given to help integrate work that will produce significant insights for the scientific community. Instituted in 2013, the awards have traditionally been given to researchers at larger, research-focused institutions.

Steele is one the world’s foremost authorities on oak seed dispersal and on tree squirrels – which play a significant role in the dispersal process. His synthesis will support and promote improvements in oak forest management and conservation, especially in the context of climate change. It has important implications for understanding the lack of oak regeneration – which is a significant problem in many deciduous forests in the United States, northwest Canada, Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Costa Rica.

The book will demonstrate how animals store acorns in the ground and also how certain ecological processes prevent the recovery of some acorns, allowing them to germinate, oak seedlings to take root and forests to grow. Steele’s project will re-evaluate traditional views of seed dispersal and will demonstrate how expertise from many scientific disciplines is needed to understand the precise mechanisms of oak dispersal and why it is important for conservation of oak forests.

It also will offer new insights into how the relationship between seeds and animals who consume them drive ecological processes in forest ecosystems, including forest structure, the evolution of seed characteristics, predator/prey interactions and acorn production, which is a primary food sources for hundreds of invertebrate and vertebrate animals in many hardwood forests across the globe.

To learn more about Steele’s work and his teaching at Wilkes University, please click here. 

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