James Mickley examining Phlox drummondii flowers
James Mickley examining Phlox drummondii flowers in the UConn greenhouse

I am a botanist whose work and varied interests span both Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I’m currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Bagchi Lab. Our research is on determining how forest fragmentation breaks down networks of ecological interactions, such as food webs. We are particularly interested in understanding how fragmentation disproportionately affects dietary specialists in a community. Our study system is centered around caterpillars, and extends to the plants that they eat, the birds and parasitoids that prey on them, and deer that compete with them.

I’m captivated by the puzzle of why so many plants have five-petaled flowers. While there is tremendous variation in petal number across all of flowering plants, this variation seems to have decreased as angiosperms radiated, and several lineages became fixed for five-petaled flowers. Five petaled flowers are so predominant in the higher angiosperms that one of the largest Angiosperm clades comprising most of the Eudicots has been named Petapetalae. I’m interested in how or why this fixation on five petals occurred: what developmental or genetic changes are required for a change in petal number, and whether these shifts were driven by selection.

Recently, I started developing microcontrollers to collect research data from cheap sensors. This has resulted in a durable weather station that collects temperature, humidity, photon flux density (PFD), soil volumetric water content (moisture), and soil temperature, all for less than $20. My collaborators and I have built nearly 150 of these units. Along the way, I’ve become interested in micro-environmental variation and it’s effects on organisms. This variation can be substantial, even over spatial scales of 10-100 meters, and is not captured by current climate data, which is strongly biased towards open areas several feet off the ground.

Phlox cuspidata with 4 petals growing wild in Texas

I earned my Ph.D. with Dr. Carl Schlichting at the University of Connecticut Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology researching petal number evolution. My thesis work was with species in the Polemoniaceae (particularly Phlox), many of which have low levels of natural variation for petal number.