Todd Dawson

Research Expertise and Interest

physiological plant ecology, evolutionary plant ecology, ecosystem processes, adaptations of plants, carbon, water, nitrogen

Research Description

Todd Dawson is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, and the Department of Integrative Biology.  He is also the director of UC Berkeley's Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry. Research in his laboratory focuses on the interface between plants and their environment. The tools of physiological and evolutionary plant ecology are currently being applied towards the study and interpretation of this interface. Investigations draw upon a variety of physiological methods, modeling and the use of stable isotopes as avenues for improving our understanding of how the ecophysiological characteristics of plants are shaped by and respond to the natural and human-modified environments they inhabit. Projects done in his laboratory pay special attention to how aspects of plant form and function combine to permit adaptation to environmental variation, whether naturally or anthropogenically imposed, and how plants and their unique traits influence the structure and function of the communities and ecosystems they compose.

Some current research themes include (1) measuring how the ecological and physiological characteristics of plants influence community and ecosystem processes. Here, work on the water, carbon and nutrient relations of plants and how they influence ecosystem hydrology and biogeochemistry are of particular interest; (2) elucidating how particular functional adaptations of plants are either constrained by or the result of their unique evolutionary history. Here we are examining the adaptations that confer tolerance to low soil nutrient status, periodic drought, or low light and disturbance in plant species or groups where we know about something about their evolutionary history; and (3) looking at the fluxes and exchanges of materials such as carbon, water and nitrogen between organisms and their biotic and abiotic environments. Here the application of novel stable isotope techniques is proving to be especially powerful in looking at the diverse sources of water used by plants from diverse ecosystems, the exchange of water and nitrogen between plants and their fungal (mycorrhizal or endophytic) symbionts or their neighbors. Research is based in California, Costa Rica, and South Africa.

In the News

Discarded ostrich shells provide timeline for our African ancestors

In a paper published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, former UC Berkeley doctoral student Elizabeth Niespolo and geochronologist and BGC and associate director Warren Sharp reported using uranium-thorium dating of ostrich eggshells to establish that a midden outside Cape Town, South Africa, was deposited between 119,900 and 113,100 years ago.

Deploying drones to follow the water

Drones will play a key role in assessing the impact of highly variable water resources around the state thanks to a new $2.2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Drones help monitor health of giant sequoias

Todd Dawson’s field equipment always includes ropes and ascenders, which he and his team use to climb hundreds of feet into the canopies of the world’s largest trees, California’s redwoods.

Cloud forest trees drink water through their leaves

Tropical montane cloud forest trees use more than their roots to take up water. They also drink water from clouds directly through their leaves, University of California, Berkeley, scientists have discovered. While this is an essential survival strategy in foggy but otherwise dry areas, the scientists say that the clouds the trees depend on are now disappearing due to climate change.

Remote sensing places nature at our fingertips

UC Berkeley geologist Bill Dietrich and biologist Todd Dawson are two of many UC scientists placing remote sensors in natural reserves to map land, track animals and collect environmental data.

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