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Robert Pal Is a Man on a Mission — of Ecological Restoration

Robert Pal, Ph.D., smiling and wearing a black shirt.
Robert Pal, Ph.D. Image by Alycia Holland.

The theme of this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting was “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems,” which aimed to examine how science, engineering, and technology can help various biological, physical, social, and economic systems maintain balance and achieve improvements. Fittingly, one of the presenters was restoration ecologist and botanist Robert Pal, Ph.D., whose work involves identifying solutions for areas that have become unbalanced by invasive plants and finding ways to restore those ecosystems.

Like so many things these days, the AAAS Meeting was held online, and Pal, who is an associate professor and the director of restoration at Montana Technological University’s Department of Biological Sciences, notes that while there were some challenges and drawbacks to the new format, there were also some distinct upsides to the virtual knowledge-sharing, including sharing the virtual stage with colleagues from as far as India.

“I loved getting questions from people all around the world,” he says. “Not only did this virtual event allow scientists from around the world to share their work, but it also gave audience members a unique opportunity as well, particularly in cases where they may not have been able to afford to attend in person.”

Pal’s research focusing on flora and vegetation in disturbed habitats, has also evolved. He has long been interested in both urban and agricultural areas, and he leads the Montana Tech Native-Plant Restoration Project, which is working to restore compromised landscapes with native plants. To take precautions against COVID, says Pal, he and his research team travel separately to sites whenever possible and limit the number of people in the lab, greenhouse, and classrooms.

“I’m dealing with biological invasions, how different plant species come in from another continent and conquer native plant communities,” explains Pal. “And in our case, in these high elevations, the climate is changing, and that provides new opportunities for these invaders to conquer and climb up.”

That’s why he stresses the importance of listening to the science — and in his field, the plants — and using that information to gain a better understanding of what is happening in our planet at large. He notes that invasive plants are able to take advantage of long summers, melting snow, and other environmental changes to flourish and proliferate.

This idea of invasive species throwing ecosystems out of whack isn’t just limited to plants. According to Pal, an example of invasive animals is wild boars in the southeast of the U.S., which were introduced to the region from Europe and have thrived there while competing with native species for resources.

In other words, losing plant diversity means much more than, say, the end of a species of orchid or a shrub; it can have massive consequences for nature and humans alike.

“We need to understand these plants from a global perspective—where they are coming from and where they are going and how they changed,” says Pal. “We call it a biogeographical approach of studying invasive plants… we need to get closer as a global scientific community and work together.”

As important as this work is, it’s not an easy undertaking. Pal notes that there is no recipe for how to do restoration because every site, even in a smaller geographic area, is different. “You need to take into consideration all the site conditions — what you are working with and what the problems are — we call them “limiting factors” — that can inhibit restoration success,” says Pal.

One of the successes Pal and his team have had in restoring balance to certain areas involved the use of a seed mix they created that was based upon reference models collected around the area. The mix, which only contained native seeds, was recognized by the EPA and dubbed “Pal 2015,” recalls Pal.

“They used it right away and I was so nervous,” recalls Pal, who points out that failure would have meant much more than say, a research paper that is criticized or doesn’t get many citations. “It would have been such a big embarrassment if it hadn’t worked out,” he chuckles.

Pal, who has worked at the University of Pécs (Hungary) and in the U.S. at the University of Montana and Montana Tech, and was awarded prestigious research grants such as the Fulbright Research Grant and the Marie Curie Fellowship, revels in his work as a restoration ecologist and professor.

“I’m getting paid to do my hobby,” says Pal. “Everything I did, from being a gardener — it’s so important to know how to grow plants, to understand them from the seed stage — and all the research I did so far gave me a really good background to put those things that I learned into action.”

Robert Pal working on invasive plant research with wife/colleague Judit Nyulasi. More specifically studying the impact of giant goldenrod (Solidago gigantea) on species richness in its non-native range of Hungary.
Robert Pal working on invasive plant research with wife/colleague Judit Nyulasi. Image by Robert Pal.
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