Research

I am currently pursuing three related research themes: landscape connectivity and ecology, habitat modeling, and watershed assessment. The themes are related in that spatial models can be used to address each (I have summarized this relationship in a recent article on Landscape Modeling). The types of questions that I address include: What are the dominant drivers of forest community distributions and how do communities respond to changes in these drivers such as those predicted with a warming planet?; How do species move across the landscape and how is this movement influenced by landscape configuration?; and How do human uses of the land alter ecological and hydrologic flows and how effective are remediation actions in reducing these impacts?

Landscape Connectivity

Habitat loss and fragmentation is thought to be the number one threat to biodiversity, worldwide. Too often, studies do not distinguish between the effects of habitat loss and the effects of strictly defined habitat fragmentation – i.e., the breaking up of habitat, independent of loss. Although the negative effects of reductions in habitat have been well documented, the direct effects of fragmentation are less well understood. My research invokes GIS-based methods of network analysis to address questions of landscape connectivity, metapopulation dynamics, and species dispersal in fragmented habitats.

In theoretical studies on randomly generated landscapes, we have shown how connectivity metrics systematically vary as a function of habitat loss. Deviations from these theoretical curves for real landscape can be used to interpret the true impact of the spatial pattern of fragmentation, controlling for the overall quantity of habitat. In other theoretical work, my lab has demonstrated that many connectivity studies may be misrepresenting the risk of exotic plant invasions for fragmented landscapes by not fully taking into account the importance of initial conditions at the time of species introduction. We have also explored general strategies for designing  effective conservation networks in the United States and have tested new methods for evaluating functional connectivity.

My research in this area is not organism nor location specific, but rather focuses on advancing connectivity theory and the application of that theory. In addition to invasive plants, my research in National Park landscapes is currently addressing issues of connectivity for squirrels, bats, mammals, and amphibians. My research interests with the National Park Service are generally less in the relatively pristine park units of the west and more in the mixed use parks in urban and sub-urban settings of the eastern United States. Because these parks have been managed for some time to maintain a mixture of habitat types (e.g., to preserve the conditions observed during the civil war), I argue that they are excellent mesocosms for the study of habitat fragmentation. Past student projects along this research line include a study of the potential connectivity of Richmond Battlefield for herpetofauna (Angela Campagnoli) and an analysis of the Green Infrastructure networks for Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic, and Richmond (Carroll Courtenay). My work with the National Parks of the National Capital Region was recently recognized for excellence in natural resources research.

Habitat Modeling

My interest in modeling the spatial distribution of species based on their habitat requirements  stems from dissertation work in the Oregon Western Cascades. In this study, I examined the correlation between physical components of the environment and the spatial transition of old-growth forest types.  I found that although temperature was a major correlate with community composition at the landscape level, variability in soil moisture and snowpack was more important in shaping the vegetation distribution.  The implications severely complicate efforts to predict how these forests may respond to climate change scenarios. As a major product of this research, I developed a series of novel sampling and analytic approaches to extrapolate fine-grain environmental variability in temperature and soil moisture to the larger scales typical of resource management and environmental policy. These spatially implicit models allow for ready visualization within a GIS framework. Additionally, I helped to develop improved GIS-algorithms for generating radiation estimates in mountainous landscape using only digital terrain data. Work continues on this project with an emphasis on generating better spatial models of variability in snowpack and on identifying biological mechanisms of species turnover at the ecotone level. I also have ongoing analyses examining changes in forest bird and wetland communities in the state and national parks of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

The habitat modeling techniques that I use offer many opportunities for student research. Recent student projects include: Nadia Bukach – an invasive tree species in a National Park of Maryland, Megan Sebasky – an herb species endemic to high elevation lakes of the western U.S., and Carly Vendegna – dominant forest community types in the Pacific Cascades. Tiho Kostadinov has been working in the lab as a post-doc using a combination of field data and remote sensing imagery to examine the importance of changing snow packs in the Pacific Northwest on plant species distributions.

Watershed Assessment

A third primary research interest of my lab is on the landscape controls of hydrologic processes.  One focus of this research is on improving the scientific understanding and predictability of the relationship between mine reclamation and flooding. Surface mining is the dominant driver of land cover change in the central Appalachian Mountains. Reclamation, the federally mandated replacement of mining overburden to approximate original contours, has likely not resulted in restoration of pre-mining hydrology, though this has been poorly studied. Our model results for small watersheds in western Maryland indicate that changes in flood frequency and intensity induced from mine reclamation do not match those predicted from either forest harvesting or urbanization studies.  More broadly, I have a strong interest in how society has acted to promote the increased the mobility of water, energy, materials, and organisms in urban watersheds. I have ongoing studies investigating the patterns of development within the James River and Potomac River basins and how this development affects watershed hydrology. My lab is particularly interested in the ecosystem effects of exurban development.

I also work closely with the National Park Service on three natural resource assessment programs.  My lab recently completed Natural Resource Condition Assessments (NRCA) for Colonial National Historical Park and Petersburg National Battlefield. I continue to work with the Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program, especially with the National Capital Region group of parks: (1) to develop and refine their monitoring protocol for remote sensing; (2) to construct ecosystem-based conceptual and quantitative models that effectively communicate monitoring principles and data through conceptual diagrams; and (3) inventory wetland resources using remote sensing and field data. In related work, I am working on an assessment of sites in the Northeast Region for potential listing as National Natural Landmarks (NNLs). Our previous efforts have led to the national listing of the Nottingham Serpentine Barrens, PA and Ice Mountain, WV. My lab is currently working on the evaluation of a third site in Albany, NY. All of these short-term projects have provided excellent student research opportunities. A summary of the James River work was recently featured in the UR Alumni Magazine.

Natural Resource Condition Assessment Reports
Costanzo, S. D., T. Lookingbill, B. Walsh, A. Fries, S. Spitzer, J. Hawkey, V. Vargas, B. Webb, S. Easby*, C. Goelst*, & M. Rouch. 2016. Natural Resource Condition Assessment for Shenandoah National Park. Prepared for Natural Resources Condition Assessment Program, NPS. Natural Resource Report. NPS/SHEN/NRR—2016/1190. National Park Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Lookingbill, T., B. Miller*, J. Madron, J. Finn, & A. Valenski*. 2013. Petersburg National Battlefield Natural Resource Condition Assessment: Virginia. Prepared for Natural Resources Condition Assessment Program, NPS. Natural Resource Report. NPS/PETE/NRR—2013/704. National Park Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Lookingbill, T., C. Bentsen, T. Carruthers, S. Constanzo, C. Doherty*, S. Lucier*, J. Madron, E. Poppell, & T. Saxby. 2012. Colonial National Historical Park Natural Resource Condition Assessment: Virginia. Prepared for Natural Resources Condition Assessment Program, NPS. Natural Resource Report. NPS/COLO/NRR—2012/544. National Park Service, Fort Collins, CO.

National Natural Landmark Designations
Lookingbill, T., N. Somerville*, C. Sibilia*, D. Kitchen & K. Engelhardt. 2016. Evaluation of Bear Rocks, WV Plateau for its Merit in Meeting National Significance Criteria as a National Natural Landmark. Prepared for National Natural Landmark Program, National Park Service, Gettysburg, PA.

Lookingbill, T., M. Brickle*, & K. Engelhardt. 2013. Evaluation of Albany Pine Bush, NY Sand Dunes for its Merit in Meeting National Significance Criteria as a National Natural Landmark. Prepared for National Natural Landmark Program, National Park Service, Boston, MA.

Engelhardt, K., T. Lookingbill, & J. Mayfield*. 2011. Evaluation of the Ice Mountain, WV Cold-Air Producing Talus Slope for its Merit in Meeting National Significance Criteria as a National Natural Landmark. Prepared for National Natural Landmark Program, National Park Service, Gettysburg, PA.

Lookingbill, T., K. Engelhardt, L. Florkowski, J. Churchill, & L. Ashley. 2008. Evaluation of the Nottingham Park, PA Serpentine Barrens for its Merit in Meeting National Significance Criteria as a National Natural Landmark. Prepared for National Natural Landmark Program, National Park Service, Gettysburg, PA.

* UR undergraduate Student