Symbiosis: Forging Relationships in a Fragmented Landscape

Plan Author

  • Eric Dennis, 2014

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: General Ecology
  • Course: Viva la difference! Exploring tales and tools of genetic variation
  • Tutorial: Evolutionary Ecology
  • Tutorial: Embodying Ecological Concepts in Sculpture

Project Description

Two papers on mycorrhizal fungi and forest fragmentation.

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

    • Peter Palmiotto, Antioch University New England


As a civilization that disproportionately affects the landscape, it is humanity’s ethical obligation to study and manage our impact on the environment to reduce the negative change we inflict. Biological diversity has been correlated with healthy ecosystem functioning. Having healthy biodiversity allows the earth its ability to “provide most of its goods and services” and to improve human physical and mental well being. In order to gain an understanding of the influences that humans have on diversity it is necessary to first recognize the natural patterns as they exist in these systems and the changes that occur in the face of disturbance. One of these patterns is the change in biodiversity over time in a given habitat. What causes the change in the number of species in an ecosystem, and what are the consequences?


“Fossil records show that mycorrhizal fungi most likely co-evolved with plants 400 million years ago. Arbuscules, a structure unique to mycorrhizal fungi that serves as the connection site between fungi and plant and allows the movement of nutrients, water, and minerals, have been found in fossils of extinct species of gymnosperms, bryophytes, and pteridophytes. It is these ancient traces of arbuscules that have convinced scientists that a symbiotic relationship was present during the Cambrian period 541-485 million years ago. Some researchers even hypothesize that the early mutualism with these fungi was ‘pivotal in the origin of terrestrial plants.'”

“Ecology is often viewed as a holistic science relative to the other scientific disciplines. There are many levels of ecology that are possible to research. Autecology: the study of the individual organism; population ecology: groups of organisms of the same species; community ecology: interrelations between groups; and all the way up to landscape ecology: a very broad perspective on the relationships between ecosystems and the environment. Despite the seeming holistic nature of ecology, reductionist relationships still exist between the various sub-disciplines. For example autecology might be viewed as holistic because it is a study of all the factors that affect the relationships between an individual and its surroundings, but compared to population ecology it is a broken down piece of the larger picture that is being defined to ultimately grasp the whole. The dispute often manifests itself in cases between holistic minded system ecologists and reductionist minded population ecologists. The former argue that the ’functional’ level of organization in ecology is formed by ecosystems and that research should therefore be directed at these systems. The latter, who take modern evolutionary theory as a starting point, argue that populations should be the fundamental units of ecological research. Ultimately this debate comes down to defining ecological systems. Does a community have intrinsic properties that arise and can be predicted? Or are they simply groups of organisms that are living in similar time and space and thus must be treated as so? Of course these are the extreme ends of a spectrum; a middle ground to this would be that predictable communities and ecosystems exist, though are fundamentally based on the properties of the groups.”


My Plan was inspired by discussions I had early on in tutorials with Jenny—reading Charles Darwin and Robert MacArthur. Also my love of welding, blacksmith, and art which ultimately lead to my devotion over the last year to sculpture. Putting up the final art show was really exciting. It was the culmination of my artwork from the past year, and seeing it all in a gallery space gave me a new perspective on what I had accomplished. It was an entire process in and of itself that I was really thankful for; having the opportunity to put my art in a gallery space and all the details that go into that—from spackling and arranging the walls, to deciding where pieces should be in the space, to finally watching visitors walk around the space and look at what I had done.