NORMAN, OKLA. – A University of Oklahoma research study on the causes contributing to a declining insect population was named the finalist for the prestigious Cozzarelli Prize through the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The OU article received the “2020 Cozzarelli Prize Finalist” designation in the applied biological, agricultural and environmental sciences class, one of six scientific disciplines within the National Academy of Sciences.
“The Cozzarelli Prize recognizes research of exceptional scientific quality and originality,” said Tomás Díaz de la Rubia, OU vice president for research and partnerships. “By being named a finalist, the importance of this research led by Dr. Welti and Dr. Kaspari is evidenced.”
The article, “Nutrient dilution and climate cycles underlie declines in a dominant insect herbivore,” draws on evidence that insect populations have been steadily declining and proposes a novel hypothesis that a significant contributing factor to this decline is attributable to rising carbon dioxide levels making plants less nutritious, a concern not only for insect populations but ecological systems at large.
“Experiments show that plants contain lower concentrations of nutrients when grown under increased atmospheric carbon dioxide,” said Ellen Welti, the lead author of the study. “Our study suggests this is could be a growing problem for herbivores like grasshoppers and caterpillars.”
The research was conducted in an open-air ecological laboratory, Konza Prairie, at Kansas State University. Michael Kaspari, the paper’s senior author and a George Lynn Cross Research Professor in the OU Department of Biology, said that scientists expected that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide would cause a “greening of the Earth.”
“While strictly true – grass production at our Kansas prairie doubled over the past 30 years – that rise in the amount of food masks a decline in its nutrients, the equivalent of transforming a field of kale into a mountain of iceberg lettuce,” Kaspari said. “Carbon dioxide pollution is creating ‘green deserts’ where animals like grasshoppers are having difficulty making a living.”
The study was led by researchers from OU’s Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. At the time of the study’s publishing, Welti was a postdoctoral researcher in Kaspari’s lab at OU. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Gelnhausen, Germany. Researchers from the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign and Kansas State University contributed to the study.