The Broadleaf Papers
Trees have stories to tell, their annual growth rings cataloging changes in the environment, including climate. Many tree-ring scientists focus on conifers, but Neil Pederson, a scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, believes that the less-studied broadleaf trees in temperate forests, such as magnolia, tulip-poplar, maple and birch, have much to teach us.
I walked out of the house Thursday morning when my nose detected it – a forest fire! Having worked for two years in the piney woods of southwest Georgia, I had become accustomed to and, actually, come to love forest fires. That classic line kept coming into my mind, “the scent of fire in the morning reminds me of healthy forests.” The scent can be better than a campfire. It can be a little sweeter. That morning, it filled the entire town. Firefighters were just beginning to quench the fire. As of Saturday night, it had burned about 40 ha (ca 100 acres), but was still uncontained on its northern end. I might have been one of the few people to be thrilled to be in a smoke-filled town. It reminded me that we lived in a heavily forested area, and an active ecological event was playing out just up the hill.
It was fascinating to see the coverage of this fire. There were many resources thrown at it. It is understandable. Clausland Mountain is beautiful, beautiful enough that it is ringed by expensive houses. Twenty-six fire units, composed of about 150 firefighters, were actively fighting the fire (about one fire unit for every 1.5 hectares (3.8 acres)). Two helicopters were brought in to douse the flames. The breathless words of the reporter are fascinating as well, “remote areas” and “extremely dangerous.”
The large response is what happens in the wildland-urban interface, especially outside of one of the largest cities in the world. The conflict between humans and ecological processes has been on the rise as we move out into natural areas and as we become more aware of important ecological processes that maintain ecosystems and the services they provide for humanity. Fire is one of these processes.
So, Sunday we went on a hike to see the impact of the fire. Bushwhacking, we went into the northern end where the fire was still smoldering (though the fire took care of many bushes). It is steep and the ash makes the slope a bit slippery. Much of the leaf litter was consumed, though not completely. In some places, logs were consumed down to the mineral soil. Death shadows are evident. The potentially severe rainstorms approaching from the west should put out the fire. (Update: they did.)
It will be interesting to see how the forest responds. Fire is an important ecological process. It reduces the disease and pest load in an ecosystem; it is an antiseptic in a way. It favors some plants more than others. Like me, fire favors blueberries! Oak trees in the eastern United States do not seem to be regenerating very well over the last 40-50 years. The re-introduction of fire is today’s response to a lack of oak regeneration. Much money is being spent on prescribed fires and education about fire. The lack of oak regeneration seems complex. It is said that the rise of mesophytic species, the species “taking the place” of oak, is changing the forest in such a way that it ecologically dampens the forest, making it hard for fire to take hold. However, the re-introduction of fire doesn’t seem to be having its hypothesized impact – oaks still do not seem to be regenerating in experiments employing fire, while mesophytic species seem to be handling the fire pretty well. Important for the context of this ecological scenario, many changes have occurred in the forest over the last 50-100 years, all of which could be a factor of a reduction in oak regeneration – increased deer populations, loss of important megafauna, and changing land-use and cultural patterns (Hello Smoky Bear!). And, climate change might be playing a direct role in the “mesophication” of the East.
One physical mechanism has been detected – flammability of and differential drying of forest fuels (leaves). Fire is a very physical process. The variation in forest fuels, especially the finer fuels that carry fire in wetter regions, plays an important role in flammability. Thinner leaves absorb moisture more easily. Large, curling leaves, especially lobed leaves, dry faster. Curling leaves make the duff (or “litter”*), the fuel layer, fluffier, allowing better oxygenation of fire, to literally fuel the fire even more. One hypothesis for why eastern forests burn less is the loss of the great American icon, the American chestnut tree. Research by Morgan Varner supports this hypothesis.
It will be especially interesting to see how the Clausland forest responds to this fire. It is getting much wetter in this part of the world. Deer populations are high because of the high human density and the amount of forest preserve in the county (there is no hunting in the area, and deer have learned home gardens are a smörgåsbord). And, the diversity in this little patch of woods is pretty amazing. On our 0.5-mile hike, if that (our 2-year-old doesn’t hike great yet), I spotted 13 major broadleaf tree species, one conifer, the fading eastern hemlock, and two small tree species (I wasn’t even trying to seek out species; there must be more). Amazingly, yellow birch, a boreal species more common to the Adirondacks, New England and southeastern Canada, is mixed in with pignut hickory and sweet birch, species more common to Virginia.
The understory might respond a little differently, though in the little patch we hiked, the wineberry looked just fine. Guess we’ll have to go back out and hike a little more next spring. Shucks.
A pictorial of the aftermath of the November 2013 Clausland Mountain fire.
We met a colleague and his wife on the trail. They were out to check out the fire. They live near the burn and watched the fire grow and the efforts to stop the fire. She noted that it was like a ring of fire. Absolutely!
* = really? Can we get rid of the term “litter”? Fallen leaves, twigs, branches, bud scales, etc., enrich the soil by returning nutrients back to the Earth and increasing the soil’s ability to retain moisture. If that is “litter,” call me trash.
It was midday. It was dark. It was June! It was pouring. We were sitting in my folk’s cabin in the Adirondacks when my dad groaned, “This is depressing”. Later on that same day, a hometown friend made a similar exclamation. Elizabeth’s update triggered a deluge of similar sentiments. During that discussion, she made reference to The Long Rain. It was the perfect comparison. Judging from the sentiment in our cabin, in the newspapers, and on Facebook, Central New York was on the edge of insanity because of the unrelenting rain.
It was too early in the season to write this post. Predicting future rainfall is like trying to predict Dennis Rodman’s next career move: It will move in a new direction, but no one can pinpoint the trajectory. But now, as Cortland and Macoun apples grace us with their presence, we can now safely say that summer is over (I do not care what the tilt of the Earth says. It is apple season!). In fact, the Northeast Regional Climate Center and NOAA have completed an early overview of this past summer’s climate. Their conclusion regarding precipitation in the Northeastern US? The Pluvial continues.
Actually, these overviews typically discuss climate of just the most recent month or season year or versus the “climate normal.” While useful, these summaries do not paint the full picture. Consider this: A climate normal is often based on a recent 30-year period, like 1970-2000. Now consider this: Instrumental records for the Northeastern U.S. (below) and analyses for the Catskills region and southern New York State, here and here, indicate that since the 1960s drought, the region has seen a substantial increase in precipitation; in fact, hydroclimate seems quite unusual since 2000. Now really consider this: A tree-ring reconstruction of moisture availability indicates that the recent wetting comes at the end of a 120-180 year trend (and maybe longer). So, the daily comparisons on TV or other media sources are typically based upon recent climate and ignore the past. Thus, based upon paleo records, the full picture indicates that we are sitting in one of the more unusually wet periods of the last 500 years.
I return to this topic because of: 1) the many implications of this climatic shift and, most importantly, 2) what seems to be a limited amount of public awareness of how wet it has become in recent decades (though this awareness is growing). The substantial change in moisture across the Northeastern U.S. (the draft of the 2013 3rd assessment is here) is more commonly known in the scientific literature, but it seems to be less well-known outside of that community. For example, under the tab “Climate Change” on the Northeast Regional Climate Center’s excellent web resource, one can only find minimum and maximum temperatures when seeking to understand how much the climate has changed. An increasing trend in precipitation just doesn’t seem to grip the attention of most people like an intense heat wave or drought. In fact, an editor remarked to a freelance writer that they’d only do a story on the change in precipitation in the NYC region if “they were painting the lawns green on Staten Island.”
For the people in Vermont, the Catskills, Mohawk Valley, and those wishing to use beaches in the summer along the coast, this seems a bit short-sighted. Excess rain is costly. It costs the people still trying to rebuild in the Catskills from the flooding of 2011 (and it isn’t just the two tropical storms that triggered the flooding – new research indicates that because the soils were saturated, the impact of Irene and Lee were worse than they might have been in other times). It costs people in Vermont wanting to rebuild their cultural heritage. It will cost all of us in NY State if tax breaks are given to expand flood relief measures in five counties and restoration and reconstruction of managed water systems; climatic change disregards political boundaries. It might cost us if we are managing forests for a long-gone climatic era. It further erodes trust between country and city folk as well as citizens and their government. Tragically, it costs lives.
So, as we become aware of the impacts of additional rainfall (and certainly there are additional costly impacts than what is listed above), we need to know that precipitation is likely to increase over the coming century. Model projections indicate it is likely that the Northeast will get wetter and have more extreme rain events. This doesn’t mean we will not experience droughts in the future, nor does it mean each summer will be like 2011 or 2013. And, these model projections could be wrong. But, our state of knowledge indicates that these Long Rain conditions could become more common.
This shouldn’t be viewed as more environmental doom and gloom. Humans have enormous brains and know how to use them! See: Klaus Jacob. We have the ability to prepare for potential adversity. And, if it isn’t clear by now, humans are one of the more adaptable and flexible animals on the planet. Heck, we might even celebrate wetter conditions with some enormous fun. And, from my Broadleaf perspective, the Northeast could become a temperate rainforest with bigger trees and a denser forest.* Folks spend enormous money to experience such things.
* unless future warming overwhelms our rain wealth and stunts the future forest…. apologies. It is hard to avoid all of the potential doom and gloom…
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
When we walked into the Sheraton in Springfield, Massachusetts we were greeted by none other than a wall full of cross sections from trees perfectly sanded to reveal the rings.
“No way” I say. “I forgot the camera!” says Neil.
We were just walking into the Northeast Natural History Conference, along with Dario and Jackie from the Tree Ring Lab. When I pictured my freshman year of college last summer, I pictured a lot of things. I did not picture getting to go to a conference to present a poster on my own research.
On the first day we listened to talks given by people who dealt with everything from conservation science to birds and berries and beetles. I’ve gone to multiple talks at Lamont, but those talks are mostly geared towards graduate students, so I’m always the slightest bit lost listening to them. This conference seemed to be geared towards a wider audience: I could actually understand the talks. I couldn’t believe it at first. After the first day I knew a little more about a wide range of topics: I can now tell you about the reproductive cycle of a lobster, what kind of fruits allow birds to fly farther during migration and even the life cycle of an Emerald Ash Borer in a tree.
I also learned more about the research process, since many people were presenting research projects that we weren’t already familiar with. I thought there was only a specific set of proxies for climate, but I found that people are continually finding more and more. I listened as someone described how they were using a mountainside as a proxy for climate change, and I realized that one of the great things about environmental science is that you can use the world as your lab, in many cases literally.
That afternoon during lunch we were told to make sure our GPS systems were safely hidden in our car. We were warned that we had to realize that we were now in a “big city.” We joked at our table—all being from New York—about how Springfield didn’t seem like a big city at all. I liked the thought, however, of a field of science where so many people are able to work in small rural towns that they do see Springfield as a big city. Want to know a secret? As much as I like school in the Big Apple, and I see myself living the city life for a while after school, I don’t see myself living anywhere with a population over five thousand after that.
Everyone in the lab was scheduled to present the next day. I was scheduled to give a poster, but Jackie, a Senior undergrad at Columbia, was scheduled to give a talk: we were both freaking out in the hotel room that night, but she probably had more justification. That night Jackie, Neil and Dario went through their talks while I made a big deal over how to cut my poster. Jackie ended up cutting it for me; my hands were too shaky. I must have asked a million questions to prepare that no one ever actually asked me, but by the end of that night I felt ready. “At least I’m not giving a talk!” That didn’t really calm Jackie’s nerves.
The next morning we had an awesome breakfast, I bought a piece of flan for no apparent reason, and we headed to the conference. I set up my poster and less than a half hour later sat to watch Jackie, Dario and Neil give their talks back to back. They were all wonderful, and some questions were asked that sparked some good conversation. Someone made a comment about baldcypress, and my ears turned up at the corners. She was mentioning how incredibly sensitive it was to drought, and I have to admit I got a little too excited. I talked to her afterwards: “That makes so much sense! I’ve been trying to cross-date this batch of baldcypress for so long, and it seems like every drought year thus far has produced either a narrow, missing or micro ring, and yeah, like you mentioned, isn’t it crazy that they’re so sensitive…” yeah, I was a little over-excited. It worked out well, because I had to go stand by my poster directly afterwards.
This is it. I’m standing by my poster. Someone comes up to me. THEY’RE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING I CAN’T ANSWER… THEY’RE GOING TO… “Hey, so can you tell me a bit about what you did?”
Wait. Really? I can do that!
The rest of the poster session went well. I was asked more than “can you tell me about your poster,” but it wasn’t half as bad as I had imagined. There were many questions I could answer, and there were many that I couldn’t. I ended up liking the questions I couldn’t answer more, however, because they told me what to do next. The same scientist who I had talked to previously about the baldcypress caught me off guard when she told me she’d look forward to reading about my findings in a paper. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess that’s my next step: take the unanswerables and answer them.
All in all, I learned more than I ever thought I could at the North East Natural History Conference, and walked away with much more than just natural history. I’m more excited than ever for what’s to come.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is finally out of the woods. She has, essentially, completed her first-year as a student in environmental science and creative writing at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She has completed her blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations…for now. We are happy to announce that she will be working with us for Summer 2013.
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
“You can do math on excel?” I ask. I immediately imagine a face-palm response, but Dario, one of my advisors, is nice enough to hide it. I’ve collected tree core samples, I’ve prepared them and cross-dated them. Now what?
Oh, right. The Science.
I guess I never really understood there could be so much involved in answering a question. When I imagine the scientific method I’ve learned since the sixth grade, I somehow imagine a question that can be answered with a yes or no. If I let go of this apple, will it fall to the ground? Hypothesis: yes, it will. Experiment: yes, it does. Conclusion: yes, it will. To the credit of my high school science teachers, it’s not that they didn’t make it perfectly clear that the why and the how are just as important as the yes or the no. I just couldn’t imagine that you’d have to explain why the apple falls with four different figures: haven’t you seen an apple fall too?
Dario is helping me understand how to analyze the data from the black oak samples I have already been working with for some time now. I know these samples. Or at least I think I know these samples. I’m learning there’s more to know about them than I initially thought.
We’re analyzing the climate response, which proves to be exactly what it sounds like. We have recorded measurements of climate (precipitation records, temperature records) and a proxy for tree growth (our ring width measurements!) and by comparing those we can see how a tree population responds to a range of climactic conditions. Alright. I can do this. I’ve made graphs before.
“So we’re going to find correlations,” says Dario.
“Click on an empty cell.” I start to make a scatter plot; I think what we’re going to do is look at the slope of a line of best fit.
“So we’re going to see if the correlation is positive or negative?” I ask.
“Yes, but we also have to see if the correlations are significant.” Isn’t any correlation higher than a zero significant? They’re showing a relationship.
Dario continues, “Any correlation above a 0.2 or so is significant for the hundred years of ring width and climate that you have for this analysis.” I learn how to use the =correl function to compare the populations to temperature and I have to say I’m disappointed. I thought 0.2 sounded so low, but some of my data is showing a much lower correlation, and the data that is significant only ranges from about really close to 0.2 to 0.38 or so. I wanted to see a 0.5 correlation like I did between tree samples within a species as I was cross-dating. Comparing precipitation to ring width gives me slightly higher correlations, a few in the 0.3 range, but I’m still feeling underwhelmed.
“No, but it’s still significant! It matters!” Dario tells me to make a scatter plot comparing precipitation to ring-width measurements over time at both sites. At first it looks like a ball of yarn, but as I mask the plot out I can see why those 0.3 correlations are significant. I follow each curve, visually skateboarding up and down the peaks and valleys and noticing that I’m going up and down a lot of very similar hills as I do so. What’s most rewarding is looking for years I know are drought years (1966 and 1954 were big droughts) and seeing relatively low measures of precipitation and ring width during those years. I knew while I was cross-dating that those years were important when I saw how small the rings were, but now I can prove it. Like the apple falling, I can’t just say that because I see the rings are small those were dry years. I have to compare it to precipitation records, temperature records, and, dare I say it, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (I have to admit I don’t entirely understand the mechanics behind the index, but I understand that dryness is a composite of precipitation and temperature forcings).
Dario, over multiple days, teaches me a few more nuances of Excel and helps me understand the ARSTAN program and how we use it to make our ring-width measurements more effective as proxies for tree growth. He mentions this would all be easier if I knew how to use R. I make a mental note: learning R is the next step. If I thought that was scary, now I have to put this information on a poster. That real people will see. At a real conference.
Neil shows me a few poster examples, and the message is clear. Show your data instead of describing it in words. That also means I’ll have to explain my data by actually… talking… about it. Gulp. The North East Natural History Conference is next weekend, but I feel like I’m ready. I understand the why and how after analyzing my data. At least I understand it enough to give an answer better than yes or no.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
Ever since I’ve started learning to cross-date tree core samples, I’ve learned I have a type. I prefer my tree cores to be black oaks, middle-aged, with some nice big rings to show me. Alright, fine, I can deal with some smaller rings every now and then. As long as they’re some nice marker rings.
Unfortunately, the trees don’t seem to be trying to impress me.
I was told on a fifth grade field trip that you could tell the age of a tree by chopping it down and counting from the ring on the outside, which represents the current year, to the inside ring, which represents the year it started to grow. I’m coming to learn at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that there are a few problems with that statement.
Primarily, you don’t have to chop the tree down. I learned while doing fieldwork that coring a tree does not damage it at all. More importantly however, you can’t always find the exact age of a tree by simply counting the rings backwards. One has to verify the years you assigned to each ring against other samples, and, occasionally, against known climatic or ecological events. Sometimes a ring can be missing, possibly from either a very dry year or insect defoliation that causes a lack of growth on the side of the tree you’re looking at. Sometimes a ring is there, but it’s tiny; so small you need a microscope to see it: a micro ring. And this is where cross dating comes in.
I sit down to cross date my first batch of samples, black oaks from 2003, with rings I can see without using a microscope. I use the microscope regardless, of course, because sometimes what looks like a ring from far away can actually be a false ring: an “extra” late wood growth caused by an early freeze, early warming, or some disruption to ‘normal’ seasonal weather. The microscope helps me see whether these bands have defined edges or seem to fade, and I’ll know that only the truly defined ones are rings.
I seem to be lucky, however, as none of the Black Oaks seem to have any false rings. I’m actually eager to find some missing rings and micro rings, but I don’t find any of those either; missing rings in oak are so rare that you’ll likely be able to plant your own oak forest and watch it grow to maturity before you find one. This is so easy, I think. I feel like I have it in the bag.
I finish measuring the rings on my samples and labeling them with the years I assigned hypothetically to each ring from my cross dating. Now I’m ready to run the measurements through COFECHA, a program that gives me the correlations between individual samples and finally the correlation between all of the samples. When I first run the program with every sample, I’m told something between 0.5 and 0.6 is the expected correlation for ‘good’ black oaks (in other words, there is a 50 to 60 percent chance that given the ring-width measurements on one sample, you’d be able to predict the measurements on a second sample from the same batch). I get a 0.3 correlation. What could I have possibly done wrong?
I soon find that although Black Oaks don’t usually produce missing rings, micro rings or false rings, it is still a possibility, for reasons I didn’t understand at that time. There is also the possibility of human error resulting from mounting the samples incorrectly, missing pieces of the sample after coring and so on. (Editor’s note: one of the biggest issues dating oaks is jumping from one side of a ray to another while moving down an increment core. Sometimes the rings that are aligned across this division are not!).
What I was doing up until this point was just writing down the years where I found narrow and wider rings as marker rings and trying to find a pattern with everything I wrote down. It was helpful, but I needed to learn more about cross dating to make a few problem samples correlate with the population.
First, I was told I could take a step back and get my nose off of the microscope. By holding up a problem sample to one with a good correlation, I could try and find where patterns aligned visually, and this was usually more helpful than just trying to find the patterns in a sea of numbers I had written down. Second, I was focusing too much on individual samples and not remembering that multiple cores are often taken from the same tree: before a sample can correlate well with an entire forest it is easier to make sure it correlates against the others from the same tree. Finally, I learned that some trees—the very young, the very old, and the trees that constantly get outcompeted for resources—just don’t conform: the rebels, the grumpy old men, the proud nerds. Very suppressed rings won’t correlate well with a series, and neither will very wide rings that signal a release from competition from neighboring giants. Sometimes a 0.3 or a 0.4 correlation is the best you can get for a sample, and I had to learn how to know whether to accept that or keep trying further.
That first batch took me a week and a half to finally cross-date. You should’ve seen the look on my face when I saw my first correlation in the 0.5 range.
And that was just the black oak.
I decided to continue coming to the Tree Ring Lab over winter break, and at first it was incredibly peaceful. A few days of sanding and stabilizing some pines really put me in the Christmas spirit. And then I met Baldcypress, which made me more of a Grinch.
At first, baldcypress and I were really only going to be a one-time thing. I was only told to measure three or four batches from the 80s as a side project, but after I logged all the measurements the COFECHA results were cringe-worthy. I was told I had to try my hand at cross dating the cypress.
If I thought the black oak population had trouble samples, I reconsidered. While Quercus velutina hardly ever displays missing rings, false rings or micro rings, Taxodium distichum seems to want to flaunt them. My first batch had mostly been false rings, but I also learned what a micro ring actually looked like.
I remember staring at a set of what should have been ten rings for 20 minutes, but only seeing nine. I finally asked my advisor and then watched as Neil marked a band relatively darker than its surroundings a cell wide as a ring. If any ring could be called a marker ring, it was this one. Sometimes finding a micro ring where I knew, from the chronology, that a narrower ring should be, was actually a relief. 1966, a heavy drought year for most of the Northeastern US, quickly (and morbidly) became my favorite year.
I dealt with so many false rings that I felt like I was five and my fingers were all turning green (I’m glad no one ever showed me this; I always felt like a princess). Every time I thought a sample couldn’t have any more missing rings I found more. I started thinking everything was a micro ring.
The black oak took a week and a half. I’ve gotten through three batches of baldcypress, and I’m on my fourth: I started over winter break and it is currently spring break. Of course, I’ve been working on other things as well, including a poster presentation on my black oak samples for the Northeast Natural History Conference, but it feels as if the baldcypress just doesn’t want to leave me alone.
Yes, I do have a type. I like real rings, I like big rings and I like rings that conform. In the end, however, I’ve learned more from the “problem children” than the ones that worked out like I wanted them to. I might even admit that the baldcypress has been much more rewarding to work through.
Shhh, don’t tell the black oak.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.
By Daniel D. Douglas
“Are you using this idea for your thesis research?”
I heard this as I stood in front of a classroom full of old-growth forest ecology students. The question had come from Neil Pederson, who was sitting directly in front of me. He was asking this question because I had just spent the past 12 minutes discussing the intricacies of land snail biology and ecology that would make them great organisms to use for ecological modeling in regards to disturbance. Things such as their lack of mobility, susceptibility to desiccation and sudden change that would occur because of major disturbance make their preferences for habitat similar to the defining characteristics of old-growth. Neil looked at me with the excitement of a small child on Christmas morning because he knew that I could potentially be on to something.
So, you can imagine his dismay when I answered his question with “No, I hadn’t really given it any thought.” I know I winced (at least on the inside, if not physically) after I answered because I had suddenly realized that I could be passing up a golden opportunity. I remember walking back to my apartment that night, thinking about what had just happened. I thought about it another hour or so after I arrived home and then emailed Neil to discuss the potential that my presentation had for being used as a master’s research project. Long story short, we developed a research plan of attack with the help of David Brown, my co-advisor, to study how anthropogenic disturbance* can shape land snail communities.
Not many people study land snail ecology. I had the fortune of working under someone that did, Ron Caldwell, while I was an undergraduate at Lincoln Memorial University. I had become deeply interested in these ignored and overlooked organisms. So, as I entered graduate school in biological sciences at Eastern Kentucky University, I had a fairly strong background in “snailology”, aka malacology. I had been unsuccessful in finding a graduate program where I could continue to work with land snails and was wandering the halls of EKU uncertain about what I was going to do for a graduate research project.
What happened in Neil’s class that semester was really fate telling me this is what I should be doing. A year and a half later, I found myself sitting on my back porch sifting through leaf litter samples, picking out micro-snails, excitedly thinking “I’ve got something here.” It was clear that these organisms could be indicators of past human disturbance.
This research took me to some of the most memorable places that I’ve ever been. Since the availability of old-growth in Kentucky is sparse, my sampling sites were limited. The first place I sampled, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, was just a few miles north in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky and, oddly enough, a few miles outside of Lexington. It’s crazy to think that a place with trees hundreds of years old exists right outside a fairly large municipal area, but it does.
Floracliff rests on the Kentucky River Palisades in a very rugged, deeply dissected network of gorges cut by streams over eons of geologic time. It also has some of the most spectacular examples of old-growth trees you’ll find in Kentucky, including the oldest known tree in Kentucky to date: a 400+ year old Chinqaupin Oak.
Though this wasn’t true old-growth, it gave me some of the best results I got for the entire study: there was a clear separation of the land snail communities between old and young forest sites. In fact, abundance, richness, and species diversity, were all greater in the older sites. This is also the site where I found the most new county records (i.e. never documented from that county). These results only whet my appetite for more data from different forests.
The next stop was EKU Natural Areas‘ Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station, a small patch of prime mesophytic old-growth forest in Letcher County. It’s bizarre to think that forests like this exists in the Cumberland Plateau portion of Kentucky, due to the fact that our countries insatiable thirst for natural resources has left the region in one kind of an ecological ruin. I was deeply impressed by this forest as wandered around. The snails at LCW did not disappoint either. I saw the same patterns as in Floracliff: old-growth forest had greater abundance, richness, and diversity. The highest species richness for the entire study came from LCW as well, which is something that I did not expect. The evidence was beginning to stack up.
My final study site was Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve. This preserve is over 1200 hectares and contains the largest tract of old-growth forest in Kentucky. Dominated mostly by oak and hemlock, the forest is very rugged and it had more rhododendron than I care to remember. Nevertheless, it is impressive. Comparing Blanton to a nearby young forest didn’t necessarily give me the same exact results, statistically speaking, but I still saw the same trend of higher abundance, richness, and diversity of microsnails in old-growth forest.
You may be asking, “What does this all mean” or, “Well, he found that there is better habitat for these organisms in undisturbed forests. That’s doesn’t really seem novel.” In reality, this is novel. Better, it is important.
First, I documented that a minimum of several decades, if not more than a century, is needed for land snail populations to recover to a point that resembles what their assemblages looked like before human disturbance. As an important part of forested ecosystems in terms of nutrient cycling, organic material decomposition, calcium sequestration, and food sources for many other animals, it is vital that we know things like this so that we can better manage our forests for everything that lives there, starting from the ground up. Second, all of you must know that everything in an ecosystem is interconnected and, once one thing is removed, it can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Better management practices will help us maintain ecological integrity of forests. Third, my findings also indicate the need for locating and protecting remnants of old-growth forests. As I have shown, old forests, whether true old-growth or lightly logged by humans a century or more ago, are biodiversity hotspots and therefore deserve protection beyond their representation of how complex forests are at great ages. And finally, my findings also indicate that land snails have great potential for being used as indicators of old-growth. This is something that many scientists, especially citizen scientists, have been chasing after for decades.
For myself personally? This means that I have a lot more work to do. Despite the fact that there are people out there that study land snails, they remain poorly understood. I feel as if it is my job to bridge that gap in the knowledge. I also hope that what I have accomplished with this research will open the door for future studies on not just land snails, but other non-charismatic fauna. I also hope that my work enables people to look at more than just the trees in old-growth forests. The trees are wonderful, and we are lucky to still have them, but there is a lot going on underneath those trees that we don’t know much about.
* = the linked article is open access and free for downloading – download away!
Daniel Douglas earned his master’s degree in biological science from Eastern Kentucky University in 2011 studying terrestrial snails, important, but less charismatic creatures.