Mathew E. Dornbush
Ph.D. Iowa State University 2005


I am an active member of the Environmental Science & Policy Graduate Program at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay.  We offer M.S. degrees with emphases in Ecosystem Studies, Resource Management, and Environmental Policy & Administration.  If you are interested in pursuing a M.S. degree under my direction, please contact me directly.

Reena P. Bowman:

Status: Current M.S. Student

: Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) dominance and the restoration potential of invaded forests in the upper Midwest.

Thesis Summary:  The composition of North American forest understories has changed significantly in recent years, owing largely to widespread landscape fragmentation, increased herbivore pressures, and negative impacts from non-native species.  Of these factors, the increasing abundance of invasive plants, such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), receives considerable attention from land managers.  My project seeks to investigate the relative contribution of competition from A. petiolata, herbivory from native white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and non-native grey garden slugs (Deroceras reticulatum), and site characteristics on the establishment, cover, and survival of restored native understory species from three unique functional groups (spring ephemerals, summer forbs, and graminoids).  These factors will be investigated at nine field sites located across eastern Wisconsin, where the presence and absence of A. petiolata and/or herbivores in plots receiving native understory restorations will be factorially manipulated. The relative effects of other general biotic and abiotic factors at each site will simultaneously be quantified.  The results of this study will increase understanding of the conditions that promote non-native plant dominance and low native diversity in woodland understories, and aid in the development of restoration strategies for these communities.

Janalee T. Nelson:

Status: Current M.S. Student

: C
hanges in biofuel grassland establishment, yield, and ecosystem services along a soil moisture gradient in converted agricultural lands in northeastern Wisconsin, USA

Thesis Summary:  Perennial biofuels have been proposed as a means to reduce fossil fuel use while sequestering atmospheric carbon and enhancing landscape-level ecosystem services, all of which may help mitigate the effects of climate change.  To reduce competition with other land uses, marginal agricultural lands are frequently proposed as sites for this production, but few studies have evaluated the suitability of low-lying, seasonally saturated fields for conversion into perennial biofuel grasslands.  Using a fully replicated, four block, two factor planted biofuel grassland (manipulating graminoid diversity and legume presence), this project seeks to determine changes in establishment and biomass production along a low-relief soil moisture gradient in NE Wisconsin.  To better evaluate carbon retention potential along the same moisture gradient, I am also conducting a litter bag experiment to determine differences in belowground decomposition with depth among four different species with distinct litter chemistries.  Understanding how microtopography influences these processes can help identify areas where biofuel grasslands may best provide multiple ecosystem services and improve carbon sequestration programs.

Lindsey A. Bender:

Status: Current M.S. Student

: An analysis of soil microbial activity in a northern mesic forest: linking belowground processes to aboveground communities

Thesis Summary:  Soils are the largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon and the primary reservoir of the nutrients required for plant and microbial growth. Site-specific abiotic factors and long-lived trees are known to influence C fluxes from soils, and the associated mineralization of nutrients through their effects on soil organic matter quality and microbial activity, but the effects of herbaceous understory plants on soil microbial parameters remain unquantified. I hypothesized that, in addition to neighboring trees, herbaceous richness and cover would have a significant, stimulatory effect on soil microbial biomass and activity. I tested this hypothesis in the Lake Wabikon Forest Dynamics plot (LWFDP) in northern Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012 by selecting plots (n=21) with a range of understory richness and cover, while controlling for landscape position, soil type, and nearest tree species. I quantified soil microbial biomass and activity (0-10 cm) by substrate-induced respiration (SIR), basal respiration (BR), and the activity of three soil enzymes. Fungal:bacterial community composition was determined using quantitative real-time polymerase-chain reaction with 16S rDNA and ITS rDNA region-specific primers for bacterial and fungal quantification, respectively. The results of this study will improve our understanding of the relative influence of long-term legacy effects that influence soil organic matter content verses the short-term effects of live herbaceous plants on soil microbial activity. The results of this study improve our understanding of the scale and extent to which live and dead plants from multiple functional groups influence soil microbial processes in northern forest ecosystems.

Matthew J. Peter:

Status: Current M.S. Student

: Phragmites australis (common reed) invasion and the tale of two genotypes.

Thesis Summary:  In an effort to better understand the mechanistic workings of invasive Phragmites australis (common reed), my study compares stands of native and exotic P. australis at three sites managed by The Nature Conservancy in Door County, WI.  Within each site, three stands of exotic and three stands native P. australis genotypes will be identified, and species composition, light levels, soil properties, stand moisture conditions will be recorded.  Additionally, surface litter and seed rain treatments will be administered to evaluate the effect of negative feedbacks from litter accumulation and propagule limitation on local plant diversity within P. australis stands.  This study will enhance our understanding of the mechanisms by which exotic P. australis elicits ecosystem changes, allowing land managers to better design and implement effective management options.

In the News:

Bodilly, S. December 23, 2013. Alumni Rising: Peter investigates understudied native Phragmites. Inside.

Thompson, C. September 13, 2013. Understanding Native Phragmites. Peninsula Pulse.

Mandy K. Peterson:

Status: M.S. May 2012

: Interactive Effects of Native Plants and the Exotic Alliaria petiolata (Garlic mustard) on Emergent Insects and Root Production in a Northeastern Wisconsin Forest

Thesis Summary:  Invasive plants significantly impact the ecosystems in which they invade by altering plant production and elemental cycling, native plant abundance and diversity, and ecosystem food web structure.  All of these changes have direct or indirect implications for the ecosystem services benefiting human society. The objective of my research was to study the effect of A. petiolata on fine root production and soil emergent insect populations.  Soil ingrowth cores were inserted to measure fine root production.  Emergence traps were used to catch insects that emerged from the soil environment.  A. petiolata had no significant effect on fine root production or emergent insect captures.  Fine root production was positively related to non-A. petiolata plant cover and to native plant cover.  Total insect and Dipteran captures, and order richness and Dipteran richness also had a positive relationship with native plant cover.  Chironomidae abundance was positively related to fine root production.  Dipteran diversity was positively related to native plant cover and A. petiolata cover, while Order diversity was negatively related to A. petiolata cover.  These results suggest that native plant cover was more important to fine root production and emergent insects abundance and diversity than the direct effects of A. petiolata cover.

Adam C. von Haden:

Status: M.S. May 2012

: Interactive Effects of Soil Moisture, Temperature, and Depth on Fine Root Dynamics in a Restored Tallgrass Prairie in Northeastern Wisconsin: Implications for Carbon Sequestration.- Awarded the
2012 UW-Green Bay Outstanding Thesis Award

Thesis Summary:  Biofuels are likely to play a significant role in the impending shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. Conversion of marginal agricultural lands to biofuel grasslands may provide additional ecological services such as erosion control, nutrient retention, and carbon sequestration. My first research objective was to quantify and predict fine root dynamics within the soil profile in relation to environmental variables.  Surprisingly little is known about how root production and decomposition change within the soil profile, yet these processes are intrinsic to carbon sequestration.  I found that root production mimicked the patterns of root biomass within the soil profile, but that root decomposition declined more dramatically with depth than had previously been reported.  Soil temperature was the best predictor of all root dynamics, but soil moisture improved predictions of root production and decomposition.  My results suggest that soil temperature and moisture can be utilized to predict carbon sequestration deep into the soil profile.  My second research objective was to assess the effects of soil moisture on root dynamics and their relative distributions within the soil profile.  I found that root biomass and production were unresponsive to changes in soil moisture, but that root decomposition declined in wet conditions.  I also found that all root distributions tended to be more shallowly distributed in wet soils.  I suggest that concurrent changes in plant species and soil moisture may have reduced the impact of water on root production.  My results indicate that wet landscapes are ideal for carbon sequestration.  My research highlights the increased potential for carbon sequestration in water-saturated perennial grasslands in northeast Wisconsin.


von Haden, A.C., and M.E. Dornbush.  Fine root dynamics throughout soil profiles of restored tallgrass prairie in Northeastern Wisconsin: evaluating the effects of soil moisture and temperature. Submitted.

von Haden, A.C., and M.E. Dornbush.  Patterns of root decomposition in response to soil moisture best explain high soil organic carbon heterogeneity within a mesic, restored prairie. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.  Accepted.

Joshua A. Martinez:

Status: M.S. December 2011

: Facilitation as a Potential Tool for Understory Restoration in an Overgrazed, Invaded Woodland in Northeastern Wisconsin.

Thesis Summary:  The interactive effects of herbivory, exotic species and other human mediated changes to the biosphere are reducing species diversity and altering ecosystem services globally.  In this study, I tested if facilitation could be used as a management technique to restore a degraded NE Wisconsin, USA forest understory facing high white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browse pressure and high abundance of the exotic herb Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard).  Specifically, I attempted to facilitate native understory restoration by planting or seeding native herbs into three different matrix densities of the native, browse-tolerant grass Elymus virginicus (Virginia wild rye), that were either protected from (fenced), or accessible to, deer grazing.  Deer had minimal impacts on E. virginicus, but significantly reduced the cover, survival, and flower production of Ageratina altissima (white snakeroot) transplants, largely independent of the density of E. virginicus plantings in open-access plots.  In contrast, native seeded species richness and abundance were not affected by deer access, but were reduced by increasing E. virginicus densities.  Alliaria petiolata cover was significantly higher in plots accessible to deer, but declined significantly with increasing E. virginicus planting density in both open-access and fenced plots.  These results were largely corroborated by results from an associated observational study, with the exception that natural E. virginicus stands supported slightly higher native species richness than adjacent areas lacking E. virginicus.  Thus, while I found little support that establishing E. virginicus facilitated browse-susceptible native understory herbs during the short-term experimental study, the restoration of E. virginicus successfully increased total native species cover and significantly reduced the cover of the exotic A. petiolata.  I suggest the planting of browse-tolerant native species, such as E. virginicus, as a viable restoration technique in heavily browsed, A. petiolata invaded woodlands.


Martinez, J.A., and M.E. Dornbush. 2013. Use of a native matrix species to facilitate understory restoration in an overbrowsed, invaded woodland. Invasive Plant Science and Management 6: 219-230..

Philip G. Hahn:

Status: M.S. May 2010

: Drivers of native forest herbaceous layer decline: exotic slugs more limiting to native plants than competition for an exotic plant. - Awarded the
2010-2011 UW-Green Bay Outstanding Thesis Award

Thesis Summary:  Recently, the effects of overabundant consumers have gained attention as a potential mechanism facilitating the dominance of invasive plants.  The introduced slug Deroceras reticulatum is found in high abundances in Wisconsin woodlands invaded by Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard) and appears to be selectively grazing on native plants. This provided a unique opportunity to study how competition and herbivory from introduced species interact to affect native plant diversity.  Feeding experiments showed that the introduced slug Deroceras reticulatum exhibited a preference for many native plants, but avoided the invasive plant A. petiolata. Plant preference was negatively related to leaf thickness, and rosette plants were damaged significantly more than erect plants.  In the field, herbivory significantly reduced both the growth and survival of seedlings from two species of native palatable rosette plants, whereas competition from A. petiolata had negligible affects on the growth and survival of any native seedlings tested. In contrast, A. petiolata was not affected by slug grazing, suggesting that consumer avoidance, not direct competitive exclusion, is most promoting A. petiolata dominance in our NE Wisconsin forest site.


Hahn, P.G., and M.E. Dornbush.  2012. Exotic consumers interact with exotic plants to mediate native plant survival in a Midwestern forest herb layer. Biological Invasions 14: 449-460.

Hahn, P., M. Draney, and M. Dornbush. 2011. Exotic slugs pose a previously unrecognized threat to the herbaceous layer in a Midwestern woodland. Restoration Ecology 19: 786-794.

Simone E. Kolb:

Status:  M.S. December 2007

Thesis:  Understanding the mechanisms by which a manure-based charcoal product interacts with soil to affect microbial biomass and activity.

Thesis Summary:  Phosphorous loading of freshwater systems is a serious, long-lasting, and unintentional environmental impact than can result from livestock production.  At the same time, the offsite transport of manure needed to reduce potential environmental impacts is often hindered by the high cost of transporting the largely liquid waste.  Recent advances in pyrolysis technology may provide the dual benefit of converting livestock manure into a local, renewable energy source, and an easily transportable and agriculturally beneficial soil amendment in the form of charcoal.  To examine the potential effects of charcoal additions to temperate soils, Simone‚Äôs thesis examines the effect of varying charcoal application quantity on soil microbial biomass and activity among four distinct soil series from Wisconsin, USA.


Kolb, S.E., K.J. Fermanich, M.E. Dornbush. 2009. Effect of charcoal quantity on microbial biomass and activity in temperate soils. Soil Science Society of America Journal 73: 1173-1181.