Carla Atkinson

Carla Atkinson


Associate Professor


  • Postdoctoral Research, Cornell University
  • PhD, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Oklahoma, 2013

Research Interests

Our lab is focuses on the role of organisms in maintaining vital ecosystem processes and how flow regime alterations and land use and climate change may interact to influence these processes. Through our work, we contribute to the understanding of freshwater ecological systems and the interaction and feedbacks between the surrounding terrestrial landscape. We are particularly interested in how species traits, especially stoichiometric traits, influence structure and function within aquatic systems. To do this, we employ combination of field observational and mesocosm studies to understand how body stoichiomtery, remineralization rates, trophic ecology, threshold elemental ratios, and growth efficiencies respond under various conditions and states of physiological distress. Research in my laboratory addresses both basic and applied ecology and currently follows two main themes:

Physiological Stress Due to Changed Thermal and Nutrient Regimes

Understanding the mechanistic linkages between land use and flow regime changes and biodiversity loss is an essential need for both scientists and managers. Our research aims to addresses these linkages by examining how multiple species physiologically respond to enhanced nutrient concentrations and altered thermal regimes. This trait-based approach will allow us to make linkages between organism-level processes to ecosystem-level Freshwater ecosystems support a disproportionate amount of species relative to the area they cover and are subject to declines in native biodiversity that far exceed those in the most impacted terrestrial ecosystems. Within North America, freshwater mussels (Bivalvia; Unionidae) are the most imperiled faunal group in the world with approximately 70% of the more than 300 recognized species at risk of extinction. Evidence of the causes of extirpation of freshwater mussels has often been circumstantial and lacks a direct casual mechanism. We are coupling lab and field experiments with field observational approached to understand metabolic responses, growth, and survival of unionid mussels under altered nutrient and temperature regimes. We are also setting up a flow/temperature monitoring stations in nearby basins to make our work ecologically relevant for managers.

Aquatic-Terrestrial Linkages via Amphibians

Spatial and temporal heterogeneity in ecosystem processes presents a challenge to quantify and conserve ecosystem function across landscapes. In particular, many ecosystems contain small features that play much larger roles in ecosystem processes than their size would suggest; therefore, they may represent “hotspots” of activity relative to their surroundings. Flows of energy and nutrients that move across habitat boundaries (i.e. subsidies) are spatially and temporally variable and strengthen connections between heterogeneous habitat patches. We are using amphibians to study the fluxes of subsidies across aquatic-terrestrial boundaries, as they spend much of their life in terrestrial habitats and migrate to wetlands to breed and lay eggs. Amphibian larval cohorts develop in aquatic habitats and then metamorphose synchronously, causing natural pulses of these consumers into terrestrial environments. Wetland-breeding amphibians often move considerable distances (hundreds of meters) between the upland and aquatic habitats; thus, they may generate substantial pulses of nutrients and energy between terrestrial and aquatic environments. We are using a combination of field observations and mesocosm experiments to study these fluxes in southwest Georgia in cooperation with the J.W. Jones Ecological Research Center.

Selected Publications

  • Atkinson, C.L. and C.C. Vaughn. In press. Temporal and spatial scaling of the impact of freshwater mussels on ecosystem function. Freshwater Biology. *Part of special issue on consumer-driven nutrient cycling
  • Capps, K.A., C.L. Atkinson, and A.T. Rugenski. In press. Consumer-driven nutrient dynamics in freshwater ecosystems: an introduction. Freshwater Biology. *Part of special issue on consumer-driven nutrient cycling
  • Sitters, J., C.L. Atkinson, N. Guelzow, P. Kelly, and L.L. Sullivan. In press. Spatial stoichiometry: cross-ecosystem material flows and their impact on recipient ecosystems and organisms. Oikos. *Written as a part of Woodstoich III
  • Vaughn, C.C., Atkinson, C.L., and J.P. Julian. In press. Multiple droughts lead to long-term losses in mussel-provided ecosystem services. Ecology and Evolution.
  • Capps, K.A., C.L. Atkinson, and A.T. Rugenski. In press. Implications of species addition and species loss on nutrient dynamics in freshwaters. Freshwater Science.
  • Atkinson, C.L., J.P. Julian, and C.C. Vaughn. 2014. Species and function lost: interaction between drought and land cover. Biological Conservation 176:30-38.
  • Atkinson, C.L., J.F. Kelly, and C.C. Vaughn. 2014. Tracing consumer-derived nitrogen in riverine food webs. Ecosystems 17:485-496.
  • Atkinson, C.L., A.D. Christian, D.E. Spooner, and C.C. Vaughn. 2014. Long-lived organisms provide an integrative footprint of agricultural land use. Ecological Applications 24:375-384.
  • Atkinson, C.L. 2013. A comprehensive review of North America’s most imperiled faunal group: setting the framework for new hypotheses. Invited review, Ecology 94:2657-2658.
  • Atkinson, C.L. 2013. Razor-backed musk turtle (Sternotherus carinatus) diet across a zone of invasion. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 8:561-570.
  • Atkinson, C.L., C.C. Vaughn, K.J. Forshay, and J.T. Cooper. 2013. Aggregated filter-feeding consumers alter nutrient limitation – Consequences for ecosystem and community dynamics. Ecology 94:1359-1369.
  • Atkinson, C.L. 2013. Sternotherus carinatus (Razor-backed musk turtle). Reproduction. Herpetological Review 43:639-640.
  • Atkinson, C.L., J.P. Julian, and C.C. Vaughn. 2012. Scale dependent longitudinal patterns in mussel community composition. Freshwater Biology 57:2272-2284.
  • Capps, K.A., C.L. Atkinson, A. Rugenski, C. Baxter, K.S. Boersma, C.C. Carey, P.B. McIntyre, J.W. Moore, W.H. Nowlin, C.C. Vaughn. 2012. Impacts of Species Addition and Species Loss on Ecosystem Function in Freshwater Systems. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 93: 402-408.
  • Atkinson, C.L., S.W. Golladay, and M.R. First. 2011. Water quality and planktonic microbial assemblages of isolated wetlands in an agricultural landscape. Wetlands 35:885-894.
  • Atkinson, C.L., M.R. First, A.P. Covich, S.P. Opsahl, and S.W. Golladay. 2011. Suspended material availability and filtration-biodeposition processes performed by native and invasive bivalve species in streams. Hydrobiologia 667:191-204.
  • Atkinson, C.L., S.P. Opsahl, A.P. Covich, S.W. Golladay, and L.M. Conner. 2010. Stable isotopic signatures, tissue stoichiometry, and nutrient cycling (C and N) of a native and invasive bivalve. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 29:496-505.
  • Atkinson, C.L., S.W. Golladay, S.P. Opsahl, and A.P. Covich. 2009. Stream discharge and floodplain connections affect seston quality and stable isotopic signatures in a coastal plain stream. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 28:360-370.
  • Sterrett, S.C., L.L. Smith, M.B. Howze, A.M. Heupel and C.L. Atkinson. 2008. Pseudemys concinna (Eastern River Cooter) movement.Herpetological Review 39:464.