Community ecologist Richard "Rick" Karban
Community ecologist Richard "Rick" Karban joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1982 and retired in June 2024, a 42-year career.

Richard Karban: International Authority on Plant Communication

Professor Neal Williams Praises His Ecological Research and Mentoring

UC Davis distinguished professor Rick Karban doing plant communication research
UC Davis distinguished professor Rick Karban doing plant communication research

UC Davis distinguished professor Richard "Rick" Karban, retiring in June after a 42-year career with the Department of Entomology and Nematology, is an international authority on plant communication, a noted author and an exemplary mentor, Professor Neal Williams told the crowd attending the department's June 11th retirement luncheon at the UC Davis Alumni Center. The department honored seven retiring or retired faculty members. (See news story)

Williams praised Karban for "his contributions to the field of insect ecology and to the training and mentoring of a couple of generations of insect ecologists."

"I have always loved that Rick has a book called How to Do Ecology (Princeton University Press). It is a truly a useful book for those launching a career in ecology and for veteran ecologists too.  What I additionally love about it is that Rick and his approach as a person make it is so genuine and matter of fact-- never let me tell you how it is."

UC Davis Professor Neal Williams
UC Davis Professor Neal Williams  (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Williams, a pollination ecologist and former Chancellor's Fellow, also called attention to Karban's "passion for ecological puzzles" and "his quiet excellence." Williams shares office and lab space with him in Briggs Hall. "I admire his influence, his wisdom, his wise thoughts. He is a trusted colleague. I have known him for 15 years."

"I asked Rick what projects he liked the most," Williams related. "All of his answers were about working with people on interesting science, and doing what you love with people who you care about."

Karban, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 1982, researches volatile communication between sagebrush plants that affects resistance to herbivory and factors that control the abundance and spatial distribution of wooly bear caterpillars.

Sagebrush in the Sierra. Karban has researched plant communication in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) on the east side of the Sierra since 1995. His groundbreaking research on plant communication among kin, published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, drew international attention. In that study, Karban and his co-researchers found that kin have distinct advantages when it comes to plant communication, just as “the ability of many animals to recognize kin has allowed them to evolve diverse cooperative behaviors.”

Cover of Rick Karban's book, "Plant Sensing and Communication"
Cover of Rick Karban's book, "Plant Communication"

Of volatile communication, Karban explains: "When sagebrush is experimentally clipped it releases volatile cues that undamaged branches on the same plant, on different sagebrush plants, and on some other plant species respond to.  These volatile cues cause many changes in neighboring plants and some of these changes make the undamaged neighbors better defended against their herbivores.  We currently know little about the nature of these cues."

The author of landmark book, Plant Sensing and Communication, Karban was featured in the Dec. 23-30, 2013 edition of The New Yorker  in Michael Pollan's piece, The Intelligent Plant: Scientists Debate a New Way of Understanding Plants. Zoe Schlanger spotlighted him in a Nov. 21, 2020  Bloomberg Quint article titled  The Botanist Daring to Ask: Do Plants Have Personalities

Wooly bear caterpillar at Bodega Head
Wooly bear caterpillar at Bodega Head

Wooly Bear Caterpillars.  Karban's 40-year research on wooly bear caterpillars at the Bodega Marine Reserve has drawn widespread attention, including an article, "These Fuzzy Little Caterpillars Are Better at Predicting Elections Than Most Pundits," published April 26, 2016, in The Washington Post. The caterpillar, in its adult stage, is the Ranchman's tiger moth, Arctia virginalis, formerly known as Platyprepia virginalis.

Of his 40-year data on wooly bear caterpillars, Karban says he seeks to understand "the factors that produce patterns in abundance and distribution. The ‘usual suspects’ all have relatively little explanatory power: weather, food limitation, and parasitoids all fail to provide much insight. Indeed, caterpillars often recover from the attacks of their tachinid parasitoids and alter their diets when parasitized to increase their chances of surviving.  Including a more complete food web in our analysis does not appear to provide more resolution although ants may be unappreciated as predators and food quality may also be important."

Cover of Rick Karban's book, "How to Do Ecology"
Cover of Rick Karban's book, "How to Do Ecology"

How to Do Ecology. "One of my interests is helping people understand the culture of ecological research," Karban related on his website. " How to Do Ecology provides nuts-and-bolts advice on how to develop a successful thesis and research program. Science progresses when we ask testable ecological questions. This book covers the uses, strengths, and limitations of manipulative experiments in ecology. It will help ecologists consider meaningful treatments, controls, replication, independence, and randomization in experiments. It also discusses how to do surveys and analyze natural patterns. It gives advice for thinking creatively about research questions, generating alternative hypotheses, and dealing with negative results."

"The science itself is only part of being a successful ecologist," Karban pointed out. "This book offers advice on working with other people and navigating through the land mines of research. Findings that don’t get communicated are of little value. How to Do Ecology suggests effective ways to communicate information in the form of journal articles, oral presentations, and posters. Finally, it outlines strategies for developing successful grant and research proposals. In short, this book makes explicit many of the unspoken assumptions behind doing good research in ecology." 

ESA Fellow. Karban is a fellow of the Ecological Society of America  and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the recipient of the 1990 George Mercer Award from ESA for outstanding research.

Karban received his bachelor's degree in environmental studies from Haverford (Penn.) College in 1977 and his doctorate in biology from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1982. He served as a lecturer at Haverford College for six months before joining the UC Davis faculty in May 1982 as an assistant professor. He advanced to associate professor in 1988 and to full professor in 1994.

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