Nishanta Rajakaruna

Nishanta Rajakaruna | | website | (207) 801-5731

Nishanta "Nishi" Rajakaruna received his B.A. in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic (1994).  In 2008, he joined the Faculty at the Department of Biological Sciences at San José State University in California so as to pursue his research on California’s plants. Nishi re-joined COA September 2010. Nishi’s primary research interest is in understanding the role extreme edaphic (soil) conditions play in generating and maintaining plant diversity. He teaches Edible Botany, Ethnobotany, Trees and Shrubs of Mount Desert Island, Plant Taxonomy, Plant Evolutionary Processes, among other botany-related courses.

Nishi, originally from Sri Lanka, fell in love with plants fairly early in his life during a visit to Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Rainforest. He pursued his passion for plants under the supervision of the late Dr. Craig Greene, beloved botanist of COA. During his studies at COA he was able to return to the Sinharaja Rainforest and work for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute as a field coordinator in establishing the first, long-term forest dynamics plot in the rainforest. Upon graduation he worked as a research assistant for the late Dr. Fakhri Bazzaz at the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University. In 1995 he joined the Department of Botany, The University of British Columbia and received a M.Sc (1998) and a Ph.D. (2002) for his work on the evolutionary ecology of the Californian endemic annual plant Lasthenia californica (common goldfields of the sunflower family). Nishi’s graduate research was supervised by Drs. Bruce Bohm, Jeannette Whitton, and Tony Glass.  Nishi joined the laboratory of Dr. David Ackerly, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University (currently, at UC Berkeley) as a NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada) postdoctoral fellow in 2003. His research focused on understanding community assembly patterns on serpentine chaparral in California. Nishi’s recent research (2008-2010) on California’s serpentine plants was funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Forest Service; he will continue to carry out research in California while holding an Adjunct Associate Professor position at San José State University (Fall 2010-onwards).

As faculty member in botany at COA (2004-2008; 2010-current), Nishi has supervised senior projects and independent studies on bryophytes, lichens, and higher plants growing on extreme substrates in Maine, leading to numerous undergraduate student-authored, peer-reviewed publications. Nishi is the co-editor of two key treatments on plant life on serpentine soils: Serpentine: Evolution and Ecology in a Model System (2011, UC Press) and Soil and Biota of Serpentine: A World View (2009, Humboldt Field Research Institute/Allen Press) and an upcoming book titled Plant Ecology and Evolution in Harsh Environments (2014/2015, Nova Science Publishers).

A selection of Nishi's student co-authored publications can be found here.

Nishi’s extra-curricular interests include cricket, badminton and running. He also enjoys travel, especially opportunities to explore good food and drinks from all corners of the world.

Courses Taught


What we currently see in nature is only a snapshot of a constantly varying assortment of plants and animals that are and have been responding to an endless sequence of biotic and abiotic change. Biogeography is the study of plants and animals in space and time and is concerned with the analysis and explanation of patterns of distribution, both local and global, that have taken place in the past and are taking place today. Biogeography is also a predictive science enabling us to predict how biota might behave in the future under a given set of circumstances. As students of biogeography we will attempt to tackle questions such as why are there so many different species of animals and plants? Why are some species so common, others so rare? Why do some species show extremely local distributions while others are cosmopolitan? Why are some parts of the world more diverse than others? How have these unique patterns of distribution come about? What are the factors involved in the evolution as well as the extinction of species? Evaluations are based on class participation, bi-weekly presentations of research papers dealing with biogeography, final paper and its presentation.  

Level:  Intermediate/Advanced.  Prerequisites: Ecology or Evolution, permission of instructor.  Class limit: 15.  Lab fee: $40.  Meets the following degree requirements:  ES

ES1010Biology I

This is the first half of a 20-week, two-term introductory course in biology, providing an overview of the discipline and prerequisite for many intermediate and advanced biology courses.  The course provides an integrative view of the attributes of plants and animals, including cell biology, physiology, reproduction, genetics and evolution, growth and differentiation, anatomy, behavior, and environmental interactions.  Weekly laboratory sessions or field trips augment material covered in lecture and discussion.  Attendance at three lectures and one lab each week is required; course evaluation is based on quality of class participation, exams, problem sets, preparation of a lab notebook, and a written term paper. 

Level: Introductory.  Prerequisites: College-level algebra (by course, assessment,) or signature of instructors, chemistry helpful.  Lab fee: $25.  Meets the following degree requirements: ES

ES2016Edible Botany

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Why are potatoes modified stems and sweet potatoes modified roots? Did you know that the true fruits of the strawberry are the achenes (seed-like structures) embedded in the flesh of the strawberry?  Why is the fruit of the peanut a legume and not a nut? This introductory botany course of edible plants is aimed at enhancing your understanding of and appreciation for the plant world. We will cover general plant anatomy and morphology focusing on plant organs such as leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, and roots we use as food and discuss the botany of plant families dominating the world of agriculture. Evaluations are based on class participation, weekly laboratory/field quizzes, and term project.

Level: Introductory/Intermediate. Prerequisite: An appreciation for the plants we eat.  Recommended: A course in Biology. Offered every year. Class limit: 20. Lab fee: $50.  Meets the following degree requirements: ES


From the dawn of human history, plants have played an integral role in human societies across the world. The course is aimed at generating an appreciation for the myriad uses of plants by human societies, both past and present. We will explore the use of plants as food and beverages, raw materials, fuel, medicine and psychoactive drugs, spices and perfumes, genetic resources, and for religious and spiritual needs. The future ecological, economic, and social implications of our dependency on plants will also be discussed in light of current threats to plants and their native habitats, including threats to plant-human relations in traditional societies. The important roles played by human societies in maintaining floristic and associated cultural diversity will be a primary focus of readings and discussions. Evaluations will be based on class participation, involvement in class discussion, and a term project involving a half-hour oral presentation. Level: Intermediate. Prerequisites: Signature of instructor or Edible Botany. Class limit: 15. Lab fee $30. *ES*

ES478Evolutionary Processes in Plants

What is a species? What is the process by which species originate? Does the evolutionary process in plants differ from that of animals? What are the evolutionary consequences of being a plant? The course will address aspects of plant evolution including variation, natural selection, breeding systems, species and speciation, adaptive radiation, co-evolution, and systematics. Classic case studies of plant evolution will be used to examine the nature of the evolutionary process and introduce current hypotheses of plant evolution. The course is directed at students interested in evolutionary biology, plant ecology, and systematics. Evaluations are based on class participation, two oral presentations and term paper. Level: Intermediate/Advanced. Lab fee: $25. Prerequisites: Advanced course in Biology, Signature of the instructor. Class Limit: 8. *ES*

ES2028Landforms and Vegetation

The course is directed at those interested in descriptive and applied research on taxonomic and ecological aspects of plants. Using field observations and experimental methods students will explore the influence of lithology (parent material), geomorphology (landforms, including topography), and land-use history on the composition and ecology of plant communities of Mount Desert Island and other settings in Maine. Lectures will cover a broad range of topics in geoecology, including plant-soil-microbe relations, plant ecology and evolution, plant ecophysiology, stressors influencing plant species and communities of the Northeast, and conservation and restoration. Students will learn the theory and practice of plant taxonomy and the nomenclature of over 150 species of vascular plants, including the morphological and ecological traits characterizing their families. As part of the evaluation, students are responsible for making a 25-specimen plant collection from one or more plant communities and providing a detailed description on the biotic and abiotic features characterizing the chosen plant-habitat association. Students will also be exposed to methods in plant ecology, including techniques in vegetation surveying and the collection of ecological data on below- and above-ground habitat features to better characterize plant-habitat associations. While students are encouraged to explore a range of habitats on and off the island, students working on plant-habitat associations in the Northeast Creek Watershed will be able to incorporate their plant-habitat data into the Watershed Database managed by COA’s GIS Laboratory. Evaluations are based on a 25 specimen plant collection and report (30%), weekly field quizzes on plant taxonomy and ecology (30%), final project presentation on a plant community ecology topic (30%), and class participation (10%).

Level: Introductory/Intermediate. Prerequisites: Biology 2 and Critical Zone I or II. Other recommended courses include Wild Life Ecology and Management and Chemistry of Waters.  Class Size: 20. Lab Fee: $60.  Meets the following degree requirements: ES

ES540Plant Communities of the Americas

Plant communities consist of distinct assemblages of plant species which interact with each other as well as with other biotic and abiotic elements of their environment. Plant communities vary both spatially and temporally and are generally distinguishable by their overall appearance based on species present, as well as their size, abundance, distribution relative to one another, and species-interactions. The study of plant communities has contributed much to ecological and evolutionary theory and provided insight for conservation in light of climate change and other stressors impacting native plants and their communities in every region of the Americas. The course introduces you to the stunning geographic patterns of plant diversity across the Americas with respect to climatic, topographic, and edaphic gradients. We will explore major plant communities of the temperate, Mediterranean and tropical regions of the Americas, including grasslands, rock outcrops, deserts, chaparral, wetlands, boreal forests, and rainforests, focusing on key species which characterize these communities, their functional traits, and other aspects of their ecology. Readings will include topics on plant morphology and diversity, ecophysiology, population biology, community ecology, evolutionary ecology, and conservation. Evaluations are based on class participation, weekly readings and their presentation, and a final paper and its presentation. Offered every other year. Level: Intermediate/Advanced. Pre-requisite: Trees and Shrubs of MDI, Plant Morphology and Diversity, Plant Physiological Ecology, History of Life, Biogeography, or Ecology (at least one). Class limit: 20. Lab fee: $25. *ES*

ES558Plant Systematics

This course is aimed at those interested in exploring the taxonomy of non-woody plants of New England and learning the science of plant systematics. Lectures will cover aspects of taxonomy and topics of systematics, including botanical nomenclature, methods and principles of plant systematics, classification systems of flowering plants, recent advances in molecular systematics, plant mating systems, plant evolutionary processes, phylogenetic relationships of flowering plants, and herbarium specimen preparation and database management. Laboratories will introduce students to approximately 30 plant families of the region including species-rich families such as Asteraceae, Poaceae, and Cyperaceae. Students participate in this course for one academic year and receive one credit. This course will meet once a week, 3 hrs, in both Fall and Spring terms for lectures and labs. Students will be expected to commit to a week of collecting and preserving plant specimens with the instructor in the late Spring OR Summer prior to Fall, as well as independent work in Winter. Evaluations are based on the identification and preparation of 50 plant specimens belonging to at least 25 plant families and a 30-minute oral presentation of a final project. Level: Advanced. Pre-requisites: Trees and Shrubs of MDI and Plant Taxonomy OR Plant Communities of the Americas. Instructor permission required. Class limit: 10. Lab fee: $30.*ES*

ES534Plants with Mettle

The course deals with the biology and applied ecological aspects of a unique flora, the metallophytes. Metallophytes are plants that are tolerant of and restricted to areas that are high in heavy metals, either naturally or due to anthropogenic activities. We will discuss a wide range of topics relating to metallophytes including natural history, phytogeography, systematics, physiology, evolution, ecology, and how these plants may help us clean vast and growing areas of heavy metal contaminated sites found all over the world. You will become involved in research at two heavy metal-rich sites in Hancock County - nickel and chromium-rich on Deer Isle and the copper, zinc-rich Callahan Mine in Harborside, ME. Both sites offer excellent opportunities to examine the role extreme soil conditions play in generating and maintaining plant diversity as well as examine the potential for phytoremediation. The course is directed at students with interests in plants, their environment and green technologies. Evaluations are based on a mid-term exam, a group project, and a final class presentation. Level: Intermediate/Advanced. Prerequisites: an intermediate or advanced course in botany or the consent of the instructor. Class limit: 15. Lab fee: $30. *ES*

ES2014Trees and Shrubs of Mount Desert Island

This course introduces you to the native and ornamental shrubs and trees of Mount Desert Island. Lectures will cover basics of plant taxonomy and forest ecology focusing on the dominant woody plant species of the region. Laboratory and field sessions will involve the identification of woody plants and an introduction to the major woody plant habitats of the island. The course is designed to teach botany and plant taxonomy for students interested in natural history/ecology, forestry, and landscape design. Evaluations are based on  class participation, weekly field/lab quizzes, a plant collection, and term project.

Level: Introductory/Intermediate. Recommended: some background in Botany, Ecology. Offered every year. Class limit: 15.  Lab fee: $40.  Meets the following degree requirements: ES