Faculty Research Award Recipients

Marco Restani
Dr. Marco Restani, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences

2006: Marco Restani

On August 30th, 2006, Marco Restani, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, was awarded the 2005-2006 College of Science and Engineering (COSE) Faculty Research Award.  The Faculty Research Award was established in the academic year 1997-1998.  The purpose of the award is to recognize outstanding contributions to research during a faculty member’s appointment at St. Cloud State University (SCSU).  Each year faculty from COSE are invited to nominate a colleague or themselves for the award.  Previous award recipients are not eligible for future research awards.  However, previous nominees may be, and are encouraged, to be re-nominated for the research award.

Award criteria includes a faculty member’s collaboration with and support of student researchers, dissemination of research results (publications and presentations), external recognition of the quality of research activities and service to the professional community.  The COSE Applied Research Committee selects the recipient of the research award and forwards their recommendation to the Dean’s Office for approval.

Research Interests
Restani received his Master of Science in 1989 from Montana State University and his Ph.D. in 1997 from Utah State University.  He began his appointment at SCSU in 2002.  During this brief time period, Restani has received over $480,000 in external and internal funding which has funded his research on wildlife species such as the Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), Black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni), Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), American White pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), and Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).  In particular, his research has uniquely contributed to our understanding of the effects of sylvatic plague within the prairie dog ecosystem.

In addition to the above research, Restani has also co-received external grants to collaboratively conduct research with David Robinson, SCSU Professor of Statistics and Computer Networking, on the relationship between military activities and the effect these activities have on the plants and wildlife within the Camp Ripley Military Installation.  Of the over $480,000 that Restani has received and co-received since his 2002 appointment at SCSU, $159,000 has been awarded by the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, U.S. Forest Service, which is located in Bismarck, North Dakota. 
Black-Tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus)
In 2004, Restani, along with graduate student, Kristie M. Trudeau, and colleague, Hugh B. Britten, Professor of Biology at the University of South Dakota, published an article titled “Sylvatic Plague Reduces Genetic Variability in Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs.” Plague is a generalist bacterium spread by fleas or direct contact and is found in over 200 species of mammals.  Sylvatic plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was introduced to North America from Asia approximately 100 years ago.1 

In the early 1900s, sylvatic plague caused an epizootic (attacking a large number of animals simultaneously) resulting in declines and extirpations (exterminations) of many Black-tailed prairie dog colonies in north-central Montana.  For their research, Restani and his colleagues investigated the impacts of the plague epizootic and distance to nearest colony on levels of genetic variability in six prairie dog colonies sampled between June 1999 and July 2001 using 24 variable randomly amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) markers.  The number of effective alleles per locus (ne) and gene diversity (h) were significantly decreased in the three colonies affected by the plague that were recovering from the resulting bottlenecks compared with the three colonies that did not experience the plague.  As such, plague-induced population bottlenecks may contribute to significant reductions in genetic variability in addition to the fact that small, isolated populations of Black-tailed prairie dog colonies are vulnerable to loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding and genetic drift.1 

Because sylvatic plague is the only disease known to cause widespread fatalities of Black-tailed prairie dogs, and no evidence has been found confirming resistance, the significant and widespread declines of Black-tailed prairie dogs in North America are attributed, in part, to the devastating effects of plague.  High-density communal living and clumped distributions of prairie dog colonies also favor the spread of plague.1 

According to Restani’s research colleague, Britten, “Restani is a rigorous and creative field ecologist.  Beyond this, his analyses of species recovery funding and the Endangered Species Act (Conservation Biology 15:1292-1299, BioScience 52:169-177) have given him national exposure.  It was Marco who suggested that we collaborate on the Black-tailed prairie dog studies that we have been conducting for nearly six years now.  This has proven to be a highly productive line of research involving an extremely important species in the prairie ecosystems of western North America.  Marco is extremely hard-working, he always pulls his own weight and then some, and he is an excellent editor.  St. Cloud State University is fortunate to have such a productive and collegial faculty member.”

A recent paper titled “High Prevalence of Yersinia pestis in Black-tailed Prairie Dog Colonies During an Apparent Enzootic Phase of Sylvatic Plague” has just been accepted for publication by the journal Conservation Genetics.  In it Restani, Britten, and colleagues discovered that Yersinia pestis, the causative bacterial agent of plague, may exist within prairie dog colonies without the need for reservoir hosts.  This work has implications for management of prairie dogs. 

Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
In 2006, Restani and co-authors published an article titled “Emerging Disease and Population Decline of an Island Endemic, the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii.”  The aim of the research project by Restani and his colleagues was to assemble all available quantitative data to assess the distribution and impact of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) on the wild Tasmanian devil population.  Restani and his research colleagues drew on data from a wide range of sources and locations across Tasmania, acquired through trapping, spotlighting and public observation, to assess the impact and distribution of this disease.2 
The dramatic tumours characteristic of DFTD were first reported in 1996.  There were no reports of these signs in any of more than 2020 individuals trapped previously.  Since 1996, DFTD has been histologically confirmed in individuals from 41 separate sites, covering 32 930 km2 (51%) of mainland Tasmania.  Ongoing work by the Devil Disease Project Team to characterize the pathology and identify the aetiological agent of the disease includes evidence that the disease is an undifferentiated sub-epithelial sarcoma of possible neuroectodermal origin.  Evidence has also been presented that the disease is transmitted as an infectious cell line directly between animals as seen in the case of canine transmissible venereal sarcoma. 2

Overall, the article reported that DFTD is a cancerous disease found exclusively in wild devil populations and appears to be consistently fatal to afflicted individuals.  On the basis of the threat posed by DFTD, the devil has been listed as a threatened species in Tasmania and nominated for listing at national level.2   

Nick Mooney is a Biologist and co-author of the article “Emerging Disease and Population Decline of an Island Endemic, the Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii.” Mooney offers that, “Dr. Restani was instrumental in establishing a science-based assessment as to the seriousness of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, a fatal, apparently infectious cancer endemic to the iconic Tasmanian devil.  Dr. Restani’s observation at Christmas 2002 that the records at the time were the result of chance, and not [produced by a] systematic survey, were basic to an understanding of the disease spread.  He was the genesis and chief designer of a 2003 snap-shot survey, the first (and still only) state-wide survey of the disease.”

Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia)
In 2006, Restani, along with his graduate student, J. Morgan Davies, published an article titled “Survival and Movements of Juvenile Borrowing Owls during the Postfledging Period.”  The ubiquity and magnitude of Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) population declines in North America are of considerable concern to wildlife biologists working to conserve grassland ecosystems.  Greatest population decreases are occurring along the northern and eastern periphery of the owl’s range, with extirpations recorded in Manitoba, Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota.  Two international symposia devoted to the status and management of Burrowing owls resulted in a “conservation plan” which identifies the following research priorities:  estimate demographic parameters and model population dynamics, identify mortality factors, determine habitat selection, and investigate migration and dispersal.3  

In 2003 and 2004, Restani and Davies monitored survival of 40 radio-tagged Burrowing owl juveniles during the postfledging period in the Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota, where owls nested in Black-tailed prairie dog colonies.  In the Great Plains, Burrowing owls are most strongly associated with Black-tailed prairie dogs.3

Survival of the radio-tagged juvenile Burrowing owls during the postfledging period was 57% in the Little Missouri National Grassland.  Taking into account some uncertainty in the aging technique, mortality occurred 0-13 days and 22-34 days after radio-tagging.  Predation and starvation were the primary causes of mortality.  The most likely predators included Swainson’s hawks, badgers (Taxidea taxus) and other small carnivores.  Contrary to Restani’s and Davies’ predictions, abundance of escape cover (number of prairie dog burrows surrounding the nest and size of the occupied prairie dog colony), body condition, and brood size did not affect survival.3     

Wildlife managers working to conserve Burrowing owls within the prairie dog ecosystem should strive to maintain high burrow density, but achieving this goal will be difficult because of unpredictable yet recurring epizootics of sylvatic plague throughout the Great Plains reduce prairie dog populations and thus burrow density.3 

Success with Students
Restani has contributed to the undergraduate education of Biological Sciences students both in the classroom and by providing distance education.  He has developed a number of experiential and career networking opportunities for field biology students.  These include activities involving the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Department of Military Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey (Biological Resources Division).  Restani has also revised core courses required for wildlife ecology to reflect current practice within the field (e.g., computer modeling).

Over the last four years, Restani has sponsored seven undergraduate and graduate students at SCSU’s annual Student Research Colloquium.  The research conducted by the students range from whether the breeding of American White pelicans in Northern Montana are responsible for catfish depredations in the southeastern U.S. to effects of post-fire fuels treatments on vertebrate communities in southeastern Montana.  Two of his students have received awards including the Fedeler Memorial Scholarship from the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society and the COSE Denise M. McGuire Student Research Award.     

Restani is currently advising seven graduate students.  Of these students, he is a Committee Chairmen for two SCSU M.S. students and a Committee Member for two SCSU M.S. students and three Ph.D. students at the University of Washington and the University of South Dakota.  As a Committee Chairman, three of Restani’s previous students have completed their graduate theses.

Additional Scholarly Achievements

  • Through external grants, provided salaries for 16 undergraduate and five graduate students.  Eight of the undergraduate student’s salaries were provided by grants obtained by Restani and Robinson.
  • 18 undergraduate and graduate students presented their research at national, regional and local conferences.
  • Authored or co-authored 6 scientific papers since arriving at SCSU. 
  • Eight technical reports written.
  • Ten invited presentations, four of the presentations were international.
  • Awarded Elective Membership to the American Ornithologists’ Union for “significant contributions to ornithology.”
  • Affiliate Associate Professor, University of Washington and South Dakota.
  • Memberships on international, national, and regional research groups.
  • Peer reviewed 23 articles for national scientific journals and organizations.

Future Plans
Restani plans on continuing his research in the prairie dog ecosystem of North Dakota and Montana and developing long term research projects of bird-habitat relationships on Camp Ripley in Minnesota. For students interested in conducting research with Restani, you may contact him at restani@stcloudstate.edu, (320) 308-4975.

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