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Larisa DeSantis


In the end we will conserve  only what we love.  We will love only what we understand.  We will understand only what we are taught.
~ Baba Dioum







Research Program

As a Ph.D. Candidate in Zoology (with a minor in Botany) at the University of Florida, I aim to understand both ancient and modern ecological dynamics. By uniting the fields of paleontology, ecology (ecosystem ecology, community ecology, landscape ecology, etc...), climatology, and geochemistry, I can better understand both modern and ancient environments. My research goals are as follows:

1) Reconstruct ancient forested environments using modern ecological studies to help constrain paleoecological hypotheses.

2) Understand how mammalian communities and their floral environments have responded to climate change during the late Cenozoic.

I also maintain active in education and outreach, communicating my research and that of others to the public and K-16 students.

Reconstructing ancient environments

Using stable isotopes, dental microwear, and morphology, I infer mammalian dietary categories and subsequent floral environments. With a focus on understanding the diets of extinct and extant tapirs, I have documented stable isotope variation of modern tapirs (DeSantis 2005). Subsequently, I have examined tapir diets over time using stable isotopes and craniodental morphology in order to model ancient forested environments (DeSantis & MacFadden 2007). Additionally, I have examined the paleoecology of the most fossiliferous tapir site in the world, to date - The Gray Fossil Site (DeSantis & Wallace 2008). In the near future I will complete a similar study to that of the Gray site, examining the paleoecology of the second most fossiliferous site, a late Pliocene Florida fossil site - Haile 7G.

Effects of climate change on late Cenozoic mammalian communities

The fossil record provides an invaluable record, documenting floral and faunal responses to environmental change. I use stable isotopes within mammal teeth to understand the diet of fossil animals and how they responded to climate change during the late Cenozoic. Currently, I am comparing fossil mammalian communities under glacial and interglacial conditions in Florida during the late Pliocene (~2 million years ago) to early Pleistocene (~1.5 million years ago). Additionally, I am examining how marsupial mammal communities responded to environmental change during the late Pleistocene (400 to 36 thousand years ago) in southeastern Australia - using stable isotope and dental microwear analyses. This work has the potential to inform ecologists and conservation biologists about how mammalian communities may respond to current global warming.

Assessing floral responses to climate change

My undergraduate and graduate background in environmental management has prepared me to assess floral responses to short-term climate change. Recently, I and others documented how sea-level rise and drought accelerated forest decline on the Gulf Coast of Florida. We used both traditional forest mensuration tools and innovative stable isotope analyses to help understand the effects and potential reasons for such dramatic forest decline in both species richness and abundance. This work was recently featured in Global Change Biology (DeSantis et al. 2007).
Education & Outreach

Bridging the gap between scientists and educators is a life long goal. As Dioum states, “We will understand only what we are taught.” Therefore, I have engaged in public outreach through programs with the Yale Peabody Museum, Yale Outdoor Education Center, American Museum of Natural History, Florida Museum of Natural History, and several other organizations. Through the Yale Peabody Museum's Biodiversity Fellows Program, I assisted teachers with the development of events based science curriculum, taught science process skills in New Haven Schools (grades 3-8), and assisted with workshop and program development. Concurrently, I developed a 2.5 mile brochure guided nature trail for the Yale Outdoor Education Center – enabling visitors to discover what is in their “backyard” (Grawe & DeSantis 2004).

While at the American Museum of Natural History I had the adventurous job of educating students throughout the five boroughs about paleontology, utilizing the 38-foot Paleontology of Dinosaurs Moveable Museum (DeSantis 2003). As a former formal science instructor at the Foote School in New Haven, CT, I brought current science to three fourth grade classes. Additionally, I developed and coached the Foote Schools first Paleo-Knowledge Bowl teams - in preparation for the Yale Peabody Museum's Paleo-Knowledge Bowl. Similarly, in Florida as a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow (SPICE Program) I was paired with an eighth grade science teacher in Gainesville, Florida. As a team, we “spiced up” the science classes by developed and executed inquiry-based curriculum material to underserved students (DeSantis & Gray 2006).

Currently, I am involved in developing science education materials for K-12 teachers that correspond with both my research and that of a temporary museum exhibit that I helped develop – Megalodon: The Largest Shark that Ever Lived . These resources, in addition to others, are available on the Educator Resources page.

As a Nature Conservancy employee I have also extend science to managers through the Global Marine Initiative. I have helped develop the following websites, with the goal of bringing relevant science to “on the ground” Marine Protected Area managers: Please also see the following website to become more familiar with The Nature Conservancy's Global Marine Initiative.

I enjoy communicating my science and that of others to the public through both peer-reviewed journals and mainstream media. Please see my CV for a list of these manuscripts.
Publications & News Articles

Below are links to representative publications and news articles. Note, some journal articles may require subscriptions and are unavailable to the general public.

Ecology & Evolution:

DeSantis, L.R.G., Wallace, S.C. 2008. Neogene forests from the Appalachians of Tennessee, USA: geochemical evidence from fossil mammal teeth. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 266: 59-68 (PDF)

DeSantis, L.R.G., MacFadden, B.J. 2007. Identifying forested environments in Deep Time using fossil tapirs: evidence from evolutionary morphology and stable isotopes. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 258: 147-157 (Special Issue: Advances in Angiosperm Paleobotany and Paleoclimatic Reconstruction, Contributions Honoring David L. Dilcher and Jack A. Wolfe; PDF)

DeSantis, L.R.G., Bhotika, S., Putz, F.E., Williams, K. 2007. Sea-level rise and drought interactions accelerate declines on the Gulf Coast of Florida, USA. Global Change Biology 13: 2349-2360 (PDF)

Education:

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2007. Clarifying tropical cyclone activity in centuries past. Science Teacher 74(6): 78-84 (peer-reviewed; PDF)

MacFadden, B., DeSantis, L.R.G. 2007. No more ivory tower: communicating geoscience to society. Geotimes 52: 42-43
link to Geotimes

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2007 Reconstructing the ancient ecology of the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. Now & Then 23(1): 22-24
link to Now & Then

News Stories:

Rising seas may be killing Florida palms.
Mongabay News

Palm deaths accelerating on Florida coast; likely cause is rising seas.
University of Florida News

UF students spend spring course helping ready museum for display about megalodons.
The Gainesville Sun

Fla. Museum April 9 lecture explores fossil teeth research on ancient ecology.
The Gainesville Sun

Study: Key part of evolution eludes museums' guests.
The Gainesville Sun

Fossils reveal details of Gray's ancient ecosystem.
Johnson City Press

Portions of long-extinct mammal unearthed at Gray site.
Johnson City Press

Tennessee Tapirs and Rhinos, Too.
Pony Express

Teachers become students of science in Peabody program
Yale Bulletin

Evolution confusion: Human vs. geological time scales.
Florida Citizens for Science

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