Associate Professor Santa Clara University, United States
Human evolution and culture are closely intertwined with the grass family. Early hominins differentiated themselves in part by utilizing more open, grassy habitats. Later, grasses were critical to the development of agriculture, and constitute most staple crops and critical feed for livestock. Today, many of the most invasive and disruptive weeds are grasses. Thus, understanding how this plant family is distributed, how it responds to environmental change and how it influences its ecosystem are critical. In this talk, I will discuss the two-way relationships between grasses and humans including ethnobotanical uses, species invasions and grass-mediated feedbacks to climate change, often through the lenses of functional traits and phylogeny. I will also make the case that grasses are an ideal model group for macroecological research, and present new work providing the foundational data required to achieve this vision.
Grasses have more known uses than most other large plant families, including fiber production, construction and medicinal uses. Of course, they also play a critical role in both crop and grazing systems. The most-used genera are phylogenetically and functionally clustered, and are also most likely to be sources of introduced species. Introduced species transfers among regions appear to show a signature of human-grass coevolution, as many introduced species have their native range in areas with long-term hominin occupation and their introduced range in areas where humans arrived more recently. Grass introductions, in turn, often then dramatically change the functional and sometimes the phylogenetic structure of the recipient community.