Dr. Rachel Collins

Check out my classes here and my research lab further below

students in lab

INQ 250 Citizen Zoology

The topics we cover include: How animals evolved? What are the different types of animals?  Why should we care if animals go extinct?  Are animals altruistic?

Two of my favorite things about this class are: First, animals are cool.  Second, I get to share what I know about biology with non-biologists. 

in the woods

INQ 277 Natural History of the Southern Appalachians

(May Term next in 2023)
The topics we cover include: We study the forests and biodiversity of the Appalachian Mountains outside our doors and in the Smokey Mountain National Park in TN. Students learn about the natural history and how to identify plants and animals.

Two of my favorite things about this class are: First, the Appalachian Mountains are our classroom.  Second, we get to spend so much time hiking in the woods

Class standing together outside

BIOL 180 Exploring Diversity in Biology

The topics we cover include: Phylogenetics; Evolutionary relationships and key characteristics of major lineages in Bacteria, Fungi, Plants, Animals, and other Eukarya; the relationship between species diversity and ecosystem function; and major themes in evolution. 

Two of my favorite things about this class are: First, we do so many different activities during the semester and move among different activities in each class period.  Second, the topics we cover are some of my favorite things to consider in the living world.  I enjoy the opportunity to share these topics with students.

Students in woods

BIOL 205 General Ecology

The topics we cover include: “Standard” ecology topics of how species interact with the environment; population ecology such as population growth, competition, predation, mutualisms; community ecology such as succession and ecosystem functions 

 Two of my favorite things about this class are: Frist, rather than marching through a general ecology textbook addressing each one in turn, we take an ecosystem approach of focusing on forests, streams, and microcosms. Second, I love the outdoor labs we do!

Students in greenhouse

BIOL 330 Community Ecology

The topics we cover include: The causes and consequences of species diversity; invasive species; disease ecology

Two of my favorite things about this class are: First, we dive deep into the literature (but don’t worry, I am your guide) to see how theory and practice come together.  Second, we grow a prairie in the greenhouse. 

Students in woods

BIOL 340 Animal Behavior

The topics we cover include: We study communication, antipredator behaviors, learning, and cooperation, to name a few.  

Two of my favorite things about this class are: First, we explore how ecology and evolution collide to produce animal behaviors.  Second, we get to talk about why vampire bats share meals with non-relatives; how many different things can prairie dogs encode in an alarm call; and how crows can recognize individual humans but humans cannot tell crows apart!

in the woods

What Drives My Research?

As a community ecologist, I am interested in how organisms in forests interact with each other and with the environment to affect ecosystem function (e.g., species diversity, productivity, invasibility, and other dynamics). I am especially interested in species diversity.  Many factors contribute to the number of species in an area and the number of species in an area impact ecosystem functions. You may have noticed that there seems to be some circularity in my description.  Although in academic writing, one might try to avoid circular arguments, understanding this circular nature of species diversity is key to understanding natural systems.  And it is this interplay of the causes and consequences of species diversity that I am most interested in exploring in my research lab and classes. 


Smooth Coneflower Demography

Smooth coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) is a federally listed, endangered species that is endemic to permanent forest openings such as glades. A few reports prepared by Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, the US Fish and Wildlife, and a small number of articles have been published on this species.  Nonetheless, critical information about its basic biology and life cycle (i.e., demographics) are largely unknown. Additionally, these glade habitats contain other rare and endemic species in the region and are also largely understudied. We have been following the growth, reproduction, and survival of about 1,700 smooth coneflower plants in four populations since 2014.  Our results suggests that the drivers of smooth coneflower population decline vary by site and include woody encroachment and white-tailed deer herbivory.  Thus in 2021 we will begin active management of these populations including deer fencing and the removal of woody vegetation.  We will continue to monitor the tagged smooth coneflower plants.  Our work will elucidate causal mechanisms of smooth coneflower decline and demonstrate effective management strategies. 

pouring mustard water onto ground

Earthworm Communities

Non-native earthworms are prevalent and abundant in eastern deciduous forests, often greatly outnumbering native earthworms.  As ecosystem engineers, native and non-native earthworms have differential effects on nutrient cycling and plant communities.  My research students and I have been examining patterns of earthworm abundance, richness, and community composition across a suburban to rural gradient (suburban lawns to suburban woodlots to large contiguous forests).  We have been applying invasion ecology theory to patterns of earthworm community dynamics in the Roanoke Valley since 2007.  Here are some of our results to date.  Native earthworms are very rare in the Roanoke Valley.  Of the more than 3,000 earthworms sampled since 2007, we found fewer than 10 native earthworms (Diplocardia). Counter to our hypothesis, all native earthworms were in suburban lawns (high levels of anthropogenic disturbance) and not in large contiguous forests (less anthropogenic disturbance).  We found that non-native earthworms (primarily European Lumbricidae) had higher richness and abundance in suburban woodlots compared to large contiguous forests.  Lastly, we have found that Amynthas is moving into more sites, but its abundance is not increasing uniformly across sites.  Taken together, our mixed results suggest earthworm community dynamics do not appear follow invasion theory predictions.  Understanding invasion patterns of these ecosystem engineers is important in this era of human-induced, global change.

students with posters by van

Research Students

Research students can be volunteers, conduct field work with me in the summers, work on their own research project during the academic year.  Some students earn course credit and others earn a stipend (in the summers).  Students work on one of my established research projects and make a piece of it their own.  Students can use their research for their senior research experience and/or present their research at an event on campus or a professional conference.  I can supervise a limited number of students each semester.  Interested? Send me an email.

moutain view

Recent Publications

Collins, R.J., C. A. Copenheaver, J.N. Barney, and P.J. Radtke. 2020. Using Invasional Meltdown Theory to Understand Patterns of Invasive Richness and Abundance in Forests of the Northeastern USA.  Natural Areas Journal.40: 336-344

Collins, R. and C. Copenheaver.  2019.  Lessons learned from the loss of American chestnut.  Virginia Forests. Spring 2019.  Pages 16-18.

Collins, R.J., C.A. Copenheaver, M.E. Kester, E.J. Barker, and K.G. DeBose.  2018.  American chestnut: Re-examining the historical attributes of a lost tree.  Journal of Forestry. 113: 68-75