Combining music and science, MSU biologist turns childhood goals into career

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Photo by Megan Bean
Barton conducting research on using sound to control pests in an environmentally friendly way. Senior biochemistry major Jillian M. Kurts of Elberta, Alabama, and Carter L. Wolff, a doctoral student from St. Joseph, Michigan, are assisting with the research.

 

Brandon Barton came to MSU in 2015 and established his career—and The Barton Lab—studying food webs and how they are affected by global change. Barton’s work explores global change ecology, mass mortality events, and wildlife conservation, among others—categories he said are not mutually exclusive.

 

“No animal lives in complete isolation, but instead they are constantly interacting with other organisms. Herbivores are eating plants, and predators are trying to eat the herbivores. But each of these species are also affected by other things, like temperature, wind, rain, sound, and so much more,” Barton said. “Our research doesn’t just seek to understand how predators affect herbivores and herbivores affect plants, but we want to understand how changes in the environment change the way in which predators affect herbivores and herbivores affect plants.”

 

Barton’s research has gained national attention—attracting more than $800,000 in grants since 2015—for his in-depth studies into topics previously not explored.

 

“When it is hot, do predators hunt less? When it is windy, do herbivores eat more? When it is noisy, do animals change what they eat?  But, why are we interested in these questions?” Barton said. “My overarching interest is to understand how human-caused changes in the environment—like climate change or predator removal—has ramifications throughout an ecosystem.

 

“My colleagues and I led the first experimental studies of mass mortality events, where we placed thousands of pounds of carcasses—invasive feral pigs that were donated—into the environment and carefully tracked their decomposition and effects on the ecosystem.”

 

The 2016 experiment on the pig carcasses was featured in National Geographic and was led by Barton and Marcus A. Lashley—a former MSU assistant professor of wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture in the College of Forest Resources now working now at the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife, Ecology and Conservation. Other collaborators included MSU biological sciences assistant professor Heather Jordan, and faculty from Texas A&M University.

 

“Within five days, bacteria developed, vultures, maggots and microbes appeared, and the pig carcasses were gone. We also noticed herds of armadillos that had moved into the area to get at the maggots,” Barton said.

 

“Disturbance from the maggots and the armadillos that came behind them caused a change in the leaf litter and soil, which affects the plant community growing in that ecosystem,” Barton explained.

 

A 2018 study allowed Barton to explore music’s effects on wildlife, concluding noise pollution can have a harmful effect on environmental systems by investigating how ecosystems of lady beetles, aphids (small agricultural pests) and soybean plants respond to noise.

 

Barton said the study offers a “proof of concept” indicating sound can alter one organism, which could then have effects on others

 

In a 2019 study on wolves and their diets, Barton discovered that grey wolves have had an unexpected effect on ecosystems after being reintroduced into the western region of the U.S. in the mid-1990s. While on a hiking trip in Hells Canyon Wilderness along the Oregon-Idaho border four years ago to study elk ecology, Barton stumbled upon wolf excrement containing the remains of 181 grasshoppers.

 

Barton said the discovery that wolves, as known predators, can eat grasshoppers has implications sending ripple effects through the ecosystem. “Our discovery of a lone wolf foraging on grasshoppers gives us insight into how lone wolves keep from starving,” he explained. “Alternative prey, like grasshoppers or river otters, may keep them going until they can meet up with a few other lone wolves and establish a new pack.”

 

His current research, funded by the USDA, focuses on using sound as a weapon and has implications that could be good for both farming and the environment.

 

“This project lets us look at how to weaponize sound to create more environmentally friendly ways of controlling pests,” Barton said.

 

Barton is collaborating with MSU students on the research initiative, including Jillian M. Kurtts, a senior biochemistry major from Elberta, Alabama, and member of MSU’s Judy and Bobby Shackouls Honors College, and Carter L. Wolff, a Ph.D. student from St. Joseph, Michigan.

 

Barton’s unique research interests have attracted attention from national publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, Gizmodo, and the Smithsonian magazine, as well as outlets such as podcasts with audiences across the U.S. and around the world.

 

Barton’s work has received support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Department of Defense, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks; as well as MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES).

 

Barton said everyone “has unique ways to be a positive force” in the world. “I think my strength is that I see the world a little differently than others, which lets me ask questions and spawn lines of research that did not previously exist. My research on how wind affects predator behavior led to quite a few new studies on the topic. My use of rock music in experiments helped to spread an awareness how sound pollution affects our world. And my willingness to collect and study literal tons of decaying carcasses has helped pave the way for future studies of mass mortality events.”

 

“I love science and hope to keep doing it for a long time.”


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