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SDSU biology professor receives Fulbright to Norway

Professor Charles Fenster of South Dakota State University’s Department of Biology and Microbiology has received an award from the Fulbright scholar program to do research in Trondheim, Norway. Fenster, who is director of the Oak Lake Field Station, will begin his seven-month stint at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in February 2022.

As a Fulbright scholar, Fenster hopes to build connections with Norwegian scientists that lead to long-term collaborative research. Those connections may also create opportunities for the Oak Lake Field Station to pair with field stations in other parts of northern Europe and possible student exchanges.

Charles Fenster with plant sample and microscope
Professor Charles Fenster will spend seven months doing research in Norway as a Fulbright scholar.

“My work here in South Dakota is to understand how land use drives biological diversity and how biological diversity then drives services to humans,” explained Fenster, who is an evolutionary biologist. “I see the field station as a platform to understand how natural areas and cultivated areas interact with one another in the mosaic of the Prairie Coteau, and how to optimize both crop production and biodiversity.” The Prairie Coteau spans more than 5 million acres across eastern South Dakota and southwestern Minnesota.

Fenster will work with a research group that is part of a larger group of biodiversity scientists from three universities assessing the impact of land use in the Trøndelag County ecosystem in central Norway. The group is also interested in how laws and government policies promote different types of land, according to Fenster, whose interest in the policy perspective stems from his role as president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. “We have a lot of parallel interests.”

The Trøndelag area is smaller and more urban than the Prairie Coteau, Fenster explained. The city of Trondheim has more than 180,000 people. Like the rest of Europe, central Norway has been heavily impacted by human activities, including farming, for nearly 4,000 years.

While Americans think of native grasslands as undisturbed areas, that is not the case in Europe. “Typically in Scandinavia, what they think of as highly diverse habitats are hay meadows, grasslands kept in permanent disturbance because they are hayed,” he said. These meadow habitats have decreased and the area has become more urbanized.

As part of the project, the researchers will develop a sampling approach to quantify the elements of landscape use that contribute to biodiversity—that is where Fenster’s experience will be helpful.

The Norwegian team’s current methodology involves picking a number of sites and intensively sampling that site within and across seasons for several years, Fenster said. “That approach has its strengths, but the analyses are limited by the small amount of replication. Even though you sample a prairie remnant, for instance, many times, it’s the same site so you cannot be sure what other factors might be contributing to insect diversity, for example. You don’t have the replications needed to make robust conclusions that you can extrapolate more generally.”

Fenster will introduce the Norwegian research group to the random sampling approach he uses in South Dakota. “We look at the landscape as a dartboard and then throw the darts at the landscape to select sampling site randomly as much as possible. This random sampling has both a spatial and temporal component. When we look at the results of how land use affects the sample, each site becomes a replicate and our sampling is spread out across the whole region.”

Furthermore, Fenster pointed out, remote sensing satellite images may be another tool that could help the research group “look for factors that are determining what you see when you sample.”