How do more than one species coexist in the same place when they compete for the same resources? Why are there twice as many species in one ecosystem as in another? These are some of the most puzzling questions in ecology.
I study the zooplankton biodiversity of freshwater lakes and ponds. Specifically, the crustacean zooplankton of the Atlantic Coastal Plain Carolina Bays is a hyper-rich assemblage in that it has a higher diversity of species than similar ecosystems found anywhere on earth. Together with students at UGA, I am trying to document undiscovered species, quantitatively describe this rare ecological community, and figure out just how so many species are able to live together in ecosystems that may be only a few hectares in size.
So far, our work has shown that there are several cryptic species — species that are morphologically and ecologically similar but reproductively isolated and evolutionarily divergent. Additionally, we have shown that the transient nature of these ecosystems — most Carolina Bays are fed by precipitation and dry and fill on an annual basis — is key to maintaining their diversity.