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Philbrick to build on three decades of trail-blazing field studies in river system biodiversity: WCSU biology professor receives NSF research grant

image of Dr. Tom Philbrick
Dr. Tom Philbrick

DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University biologist Dr. Thomas Philbrick will embark on new field investigations in search of previously unknown riverweed species in the Amazon River watershed of South America thanks to a recently awarded (2018) research grant from the National Science Foundation.

Philbrick, Connecticut State University professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at WCSU, will collaborate as co-principal investigator for the three-year project with Dr. Brad Ruhfel, assistant professor of Biological Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University. Approximately one-third of the $200,000 NSF grant will fund continuation of Philbrick’s field studies spanning more than three decades that have resulted in the discovery of many plant species new to scientists, found in the rapids and waterfalls of rivers across the Western Hemisphere from Mexico to Argentina. Although referred to as “weeds,” Philbrick noted that these plants are native to the rivers in which they occur and play a fundamental role in river ecology.

His field and lab work in riverweed taxonomy will be complemented by Ruhfel’s research investigation focusing on the evolutionary relationships of these species and their distribution across South America during geological time.

Philbrick observed that their research project rests on the biological foundation of systematics, defined as the study of the diversification of living forms and the relationships among living things through time. Their investigation will be framed by the three fundamental questions addressed by systematics, he said. “How many kinds of life, or species, are there? How are they related in the tree of life? And what classification best reflects each species’ place on the tree of life? We are looking at evolutionary patterns and the distribution of species as they relate to the geological histories of the major river systems of South America.”

Philbrick expects that the NSF grant will fund new field studies in upstream regions of the Amazonian watershed in the northeastern, northwestern and southwestern regions of Brazil, as well as the hiring of a student research assistant.  Beyond the immediate goals of the NSF-funded project, this field work will contribute to his ongoing publication of a series of monographs documenting for present and future generations of biologists the new riverweed species that he has identified in river systems across the Americas.

Philbrick is accustomed to blazing trails as a research scientist who has used his comprehensive knowledge of the taxonomy of plants previously identified in the fast-flowing rivers of Central and South America to test less familiar samples collected in his field trips and determine whether they represent authentic new species. His research trips have taken him to biologically rich watersheds in the interiors of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Suriname, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

“When I began my work more than 30 years ago, I would never have predicted that the discovery and description of species new to science would become such an important part of my research,” he said. He noted that documentation of the rich biodiversity of major river systems in the Americas also provides the basis for analyzing the environmental impact of human activity on the flora of these watersheds, such as the destruction of species as a result of dam construction.

“In South America, we are gaining an understanding of the nature and diversity of species in these river systems so that we can also understand what is at risk of being destroyed,” he remarked.



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