Maile Neel

Genetic Diversity and Resilience in Wild Celery, a Keystone Aquatic Plant in the Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay is both a national treasure and travesty.  An ecosystem once teeming with life, it has long been impaired due to effects of runoff from agricultural, suburban and urban landscapes. Submersed aquatic plants such as American wild celery (Vallisneria americana) are among the most impacted in the bay.  These keystone species are food and habitat for many other species and provide essential ecosystem services (including nutrient and sediment capture, wave attenuation and shore stabilization). Dramatic reductions in distribution and extent of aquatic plants compromise their ability to provide essential services and bring their future persistence into question. Extensive efforts to improve water quality and restore these habitats have helped, yet abundance and extent remain far below target goals. Long-term resilience is in question if past declines eliminated genetic diversity needed for future acclimation and adaptation.  Neel has been documenting the amounts and distribution of genetic diversity in American wild celery to understand the impact of past declines on diversity. Genetic techniques also allow us to understand how the current distribution of species facilitates or impedes dispersal needed to maintain or expand populations. Further, Neel uses experiments on known genotypes to understand the effect of genetic diversity ecological function.  Results from these different lines of investigation are applied to restoration and management of the species. 


About the Speaker
Maile Neel joined the University of Maryland in 2003 after a career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. Her joint appointment in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (College of Agricultural and Natural Resources) and the Department of Entomology (College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences) indicates the interdisciplinary nature of her research. Her overarching goal is to understand how to effectively and efficiently conserve all types of biological diversity, from genes to ecosystems. To do so, she integrates theory and analytical approaches from multiple disciplines including population genetics, and population, community, and landscape ecology.  She uses ecological and evolutionary science to quantify patterns of biological diversity needing conservation and to evaluate the efficacy of real-world conservation practice. In keeping with the university’s land grant mission, she translates the basic science into practical guidance for action and policy through extensive interaction with government agencies and nonprofit organizations working on conservation. She also trains her students and postdoctoral researchers to conduct scientific research that interfaces with policy and practice. She has authored 45 peer-reviewed journal publications and has received competitive funding from the National Science Foundation, Maryland SeaGrant, The Hudson River Foundation and the Department of Defense. Her work has been applied to the conservation of endangered species and to the restoration of submersed aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River of New York.