Environmental science students at the Rochester Institute of Technology hope their senior project will change the way people think about a plant commonly perceived as a weed.
Their research contributed to the largest evolution study outside of human genomics and included collaborators in 185 cities around the world.
Five RIT students collected hundreds of samples of white clover in dozens of urban, suburban, and rural locations around Rochester.
"It's one of those plants that often people are trying to get out of their lawns; it's not often valued," said RIT visiting assistant professor Kaitlin Stack Whitney. "One of the things that's really exciting about this project is what we can learn about a plant that's often overlooked."
Researchers in charge of the Global Urban Evolution Project chose white clover because it grows on all six inhabited continents. It's also an important plant because it's a favorite source of nectar for bees and other endangered pollinators.
One goal of the study is to determine how urbanization affects plants that are beneficial to pollinating insects.
Whitney said students tested the clover samples for a chemical compound known as HCN that defends the plant against herbivores but also makes the plant less tolerant to cold temperatures.
"They were interested basically in whether or not plants are evolving to be cold-tolerant or if they're giving this up because maybe the planet is warming," she explained. "Especially in urban areas, we know that urban heat islands are a concern."
The results of the study won't be revealed for another year, but RIT students hypothesized that white clover plants with HCN are more likely to be found in rural rather than urban areas.
Stack Whitney said she hopes people think about how plants that are overlooked on the side of the road can be critical to conservation.
"A weed is only what we make of it," she said. "Lots of native vegetation can be really beneficial to all kinds of wildlife, even if it's maybe not so exciting to us as people, or we don't think it's so pretty. It can hopefully open more people's eyes to the idea of what benefits all kinds of flora and fauna can be bringing to conservation."
In addition to Stack Whitney, RIT researchers who contributed to the study included Briana Burt, Kristina Chomiak, Ibrahim Cisse, Benjamin Hamilton, and Aaron Paratore.