Keller Receives National Science Foundation Grant for Alpine Plant Research

Looking south along the Green Mountains from the Forehead of Mt Mansfield, VT
Looking south along the Green Mountains from the Forehead of Mount Mansfield, VT. Photo credit: Steve Keller.

UVM Department of Plant Biology Associate Professor Steve Keller was awarded a $497,476 grant, as part of a larger $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), for research into the effects of climate change on alpine plants in the northeastern United States.

Keller is teaming up with researchers from the University of Maine to investigate alpine plant biodiversity and the impacts of climate change. They are interested in testing different hypotheses for how past climate change has shaped the biodiversity of alpine plant communities over time, and the persistence of certain species and populations on different mountain peaks. For example, did alpine plants adapt evolutionarily to changing climates in the past, or did they find suitable microclimates within the nooks and crannies of individual mountains where they could take refuge?

The alpine plant communities found in high elevation areas such as Mount Mansfield, VT, and Mount Washington, NH, have established themselves from tundra communities that tracked the retreat of the glaciers after the last ice age about 13,000 years ago. Mount Mansfield contains approximately 200 acres of alpine plant cover, the largest concentration in the state. The plants that make up alpine ecosystems are not only important in supporting life above the tree line, but they are also culturally important. Thousands of people are drawn every year to the tops of Mount Mansfield and Mount Washington to hike, birdwatch, botanize, and appreciate the panoramic views.

The UVM and UMaine teams will study plant communities across 12 alpine summits spanning the Adirondacks of New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and Mount Katahdin in Maine. Their approach will characterize the current diversity contained within each range as well as the historic diversity of ancient alpine plants, by sampling fossil pollen and plant fragments preserved in lakes and bogs.

Alpine plants mountain sandwort with white flowers and green leaves of bog bilberry growing on mountaintops.
Mountain sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica) on Mount Mansfield, and Bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) on Camel’s Hump, VT. Photo credit: Steve Keller.

UVM’s role is multifaceted, and will include using genomic sequencing of DNA to assess the genetic diversity and evolutionary history of alpine plant communities. The gene sequencing, along with measurements of “functional trait diversity”, will tell researchers how the plants interact with their environment and with other species.

Keller’s team will use common garden and growth chamber experiments to quantify local adaptation and “plasticity” of traits, the ability to flexibly grow across a range of environments, for six species of alpine plants. They will use this information along with whole genome sequencing and climate modeling to make predictions about the vulnerability of northeastern alpine plants to climate warming.

Alpine plant three-toothed cinquefoil with blooming white flower growing in between rocks on a mountaintop.
Three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) on Mount Washington, NH. Photo credit: Steve Keller.

Keller stated, “Our research looks at climate change vulnerability in the alpine through a very interdisciplinary lens, from genomics to field ecology to modeling. Combining across these approaches can be really powerful for addressing problems in global change, including the evolutionary processes that have shaped these alpine communities throughout their history since the end of the last ice age.”

The ecological and genetic diversity present within species are really important components to understand when making predictions about future climate change responses. How plastic are current genotypes to variation in their environment? How strongly adapted are the populations on different mountains to their local microclimates, and how is this reflected in the diversity contained within their genomes?

By answering these questions, Keller hopes to identify which populations may be most sensitive or resilient to future climate stress, and help inform ongoing conservation efforts in these unique ecosystems.

Alpine plants mountain cranberry and Bigelow's sedge growing together with lichens in a rocky area.
Mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and Bigelow’s sedge (Carex bigelowii) on the slopes of Mount Washington, NH. Photo credit: Steve Keller.

Keller has been fascinated by New England’s alpine plant communities for a long time, since his first thru-hike on the Long Trail as a college student during the summer of 1994. He used his sabbatical leave during 2022 to develop the project with UMaine collaborators. “We were really fortunate to be selected for NSF funding,” he said. “Now I get to work on the project I’ve been dreaming about for all these years!”

Click the links below to read the two funded collaborative proposals:

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