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.
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
“But can’t you see the rings already?” I ask, wondering why I’ve been asked to sand a sample- it sounds to me like one would damage a sample by subjecting it to the mechanical screech of a sander.
“Yes, but under the microscope they look foggy if you don’t sand them. Also, you’re looking at a black oak sample. You wouldn’t see any rings before sanding if you were looking at a Maple, for example.” Jackie responds. She shows me a maple core sample that she explains has been hand-sanded down to a 1200 grit. It’s smooth and shiny as can be; yet I can barely see what seem to be hairlines.
“Oh. That makes sense.” I secretly hope I won’t have look at another maple sample for a while.
I approach the machine. I look like a character from BioShock or a WWII soldier in the trenches, as I am wearing a respiration mask, goggles and ear muffs. Seemed a little excessive to me at first- once I turned the machine on and I saw the mushroom cloud of sawdust come off the banshee-screeching sander, however, I realized I’d be better off looking like a biohazard worker than having to bring an inhaler and hearing aid to work.
I place my first sample down on the sander, but it flies off and hits the wall… I guess I can hold it tighter and push it down a little harder. I try again but this time my sample stops the belt from spinning. Definitely too hard. Eventually I get just the right amount of pressure, and I realize I can tell because my sample looks clearer every time I take it off the belt. I start humming to myself, singing something along the lines of I can see clearly now, the rings are there… As I go to higher and higher grits and my sample starts developing a cloudless luster, I realize I enjoy this a little too much.
To me, sanding is a process full of Zen. It’s a process I can focus on while still letting my mind wander, and my thoughts usually get pretty philosophical- I have this foggy, unclear sample and slowly I take off its layers and layers of disparities. What results is a core in its purest form ready to tell the story of its life, and after a few hours of sanding I’m ready to listen.
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
My feet are soaking wet and I’m playing a game of Marco Polo, but I’m nowhere near a pool. It’s my second day on the job. It’s my second week of college. I have no idea what to expect.
I’m a first year undergraduate student at Columbia University, and I just began to work at the Tree Ring Lab at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory after being told by a few upperclassmen that the Lamont campus “just isn’t for freshmen”.
On Friday, September 21st, several members of the lab headed to New Paltz, NY to do some field sampling for a project aiming to uncover particularly major ecological events in the Eastern United States in the past three hundred years. I had just started to understand the basic concepts of differing tree rings. When I was told we’d be coring trees and identifying them, I smiled and nodded my head enthusiastically. You should see my poker face.
We get to the town of New Paltz and drive right through the center, heading towards Minnewaska State Park.
After a deceivingly easy one mile hike on road-like paths, we get to the entrance point for the plot that was pre-designated Jackie, Dario, and Neil earlier in the spring. From that point on, I get to witness the transition from a suburban hike to what seems to be the set of Jurassic Park. We’re heading into the area surrounding a ravine, and my feet remind me that I’m not wearing waterproof boots. At some points I feel like I’m in a maze, and I start yelling MARCO! At that point I start remembering that I took the job because I wanted some hands-on experience in the field of environmental science. Grabbing the four-foot fern in front of me, I feel that I’ve made the right choice.
After some strolling, climbing and maneuvering, we finally reach the plot. Here I finally get to see what the overall project is really about.
While some forest ecosystems in the Western United States recycle nutrients and move through successional cycles at fairly large scales through natural and necessary fires, these processes are much slower and do not seem to occur at larger scales in the temperate forests of the Northeast. Trees experiencing suppressed growth only receive the necessary sunlight, water, and nutrients to experience quicker growth when surrounding competing trees perish, either through logging, disease, windstorms, or similar ecological processes. One can see this change as a drastic change in the width of tree rings: once a previously suppressed tree becomes dominant, the increased growth results in relatively wider tree rings.
When this drastic change is seen not only in the rings of one or two trees but across an entire forest ecosystem, a major ecological event is likely the cause. This project is aiming to find the causes of a few suspected major ecological events in the Eastern United States.
In New Paltz in particular, this project encountered a roadblock- some people believed our study forest in Minnewaska State Park was an old-growth forest, but so far the samples brought back have found evidence of logging in the late 1800s. The first samplings, using plots with a radius of 20 meters, returned few older trees that would be useful to the project. The radius was thus increased to 30 meters, and only trees with diameter greater than 40cm were cored past the 20 meter mark. After this adjustment, the second sampling returned double the amount of older trees. The real science can begin.
So here I am, learning all of this for the first time, and I’m fascinated. Another new student and I learn to core a tree, and we realize how physically strenuous it is, laughing about having to lift weights to get in shape for future fieldwork. Like that’s ever going to happen. We’re introduced to a few different tree species during the process, and we begin to learn how to identify them. For the past few days I’ve walked around trying to identify every tree in Morningside Park.
At the end of the day, I’m feeling pretty fulfilled. The way back to the trail isn’t as cinematic as my entrance through Jurassic Park, but I still feel like I won’t get up after sitting down in the car.
That night, I got a rare chance to talk to my cousin, a botanist in Cuba. I told him about my day and he told me that if I start beginning to enjoy science, and the general act of finding answers to questions others might not have thought of asking, it becomes an obsession. He told me I wouldn’t be able to get away from it. I think I’m starting to get a sense of that. I was hoping to land a job at the LDEO that would just let me begin to get my feet wet in environmental science. So far they’ve gotten soaked, but I have a feeling I’ve only started to dip my feet in the water.
This is the first in a series of guest posts by Ana Gonzalez, a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University. Ana is a research assistant at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis starting off with the joys of field work.
2012 is turning out to be an exceptional year in the eastern US. Starting out with what was essentially a #YearWithoutaWinter, followed by a heat wave in March, a hot summer, Macoun and Cortland apples coming in 2-3 weeks early, and the continuation of a severe drought in the Southern US that expanded into the Midwest and Northeast, this year’s climate doesn’t appear ‘normal’. From a 500-year perspective, this year’s drought in the northeast should actually feel like an exception for 58.2% of its people. While there have been droughts in the Northeast over the last 44 years, trees informed us that, as of 2011, we were living one of the wettest 43-year periods since 1531. It is shocking to see towns flood or covered bridges float away during tropical storms in the northeast. But, our new record suggests that the buildup of soil moisture prior to these storms might make these unusual[?] storms the norm.
Immediately preceding this epic pluvial (a period of increased precipitation) was the 1960s drought, one of the most intense droughts of the last 500 years. Having lived only during this epic pluvial, I cannot fathom this drought. Pluvial is my norm. So, every time I lead a hike or lab tour on campus, like during Lamont’s great Open House, I always ask if someone was alive during the 1960s drought. Heads tilt back, eyes come alive, and the stories pour out. People talk about tough times and odd events like a landfill catching on fire. I then congratulate them for surviving one of the worst droughts of the last 500 years. Then I have to say, “Uh, but it has been worse. Much worse.”
Often when looking deeper into Earth history, we see things that send shivers up our spine. For those who lived through the 1960s drought, our new record should send shivers up your spine. Our lab’s first study showed the 1960s drought to be the worst since 1700. However, when looking back almost another 200 years, we can say things like, “Yeah, the 1960s drought was bad, but it was only six years in duration.” [six years of below average conditions in our new record] Six years of drought is tough. It must have felt like a decade. But, how might we feel about 23 years of drought? How might a 23-year drought feel when the preceding 11 years had only a few years of average to above average precipitation? [shivers].
The current epic pluvial caps a 150-year wetting trend for the Northeastern US. This trend, however, is not limited to the Northeast. Much of the entire Eastern US has become wetter over the last 150 years. Only the Deep South has trended towards drought over the last 20-30 years.
For more on the development of our new record and some of the implications of what we found, go here. The rest of this post focuses on the contribution of biodiversity and broadleaf species to the new record.
Biodiversity, Broadleaf Species, & Tree-ring Reconstructions in Humid Regions
An interesting result of our study was that the use of a greater number of species can improve a tree-ring based reconstruction (for more examples, see here, here, here, here). Reconstructions have been made using multiple species in humid regions like southeastern NY State since the beginning, so the use of multiple species in not groundbreaking. But, our initial analysis indicates that using 10 records drawn from 10 species outperforms the 10 best chronologies regardless of species (best is defined as the strongest correlation to the climate data used for reconstruction). It seems biodiversity is not only good for life, it can be good for reconstructions of past climate.
We are not exactly sure why increased diversity might improve reconstructions. My pet hypothesis is that each species has a different sensitivity to its environment and that by combining multiple species, differing responses are filtered out, resulting in a more accurate common signal. Some of this is driven by genetics. Some of it could be driven by the ecology of the sites where trees live. Think of it in human terms: some people can eat whatever they want and never gain weight. Some of us look at a banana split and gain two pounds. We might disagree on what we want for dessert, but when offered a fine blueberry pie, or for us sweet tooths – maple cream pie, we can generally agree if it is righteous. I imagine trees have a similar response.
“Remember 1972? Wow, that was a good water year!”
“ Yes, that was a good year, but I really liked 1989.”
“Oh yeah, that was a good year. But what about 1833?”
All 27 records chime in chorus, “Most righteous. Water. Ever!!”
These findings bode well as tree-ring scientists move into new regions of study – say the rich, temperate, broadleaf forests of Asia, for example. Regions with a vast array of tree species could be a boon for the future of dendroclimatology (the reconstruction of climate from tree rings).
Thinking about how we can improve reconstructions is important. Many scientists are exploring new statistical techniques to extract a chorus of solidarity from trees. From a biological perspective, though, the rate of extinction (literal and functional) is a real threat to our science. Hemlock woolly-adelgid is wiping out hemlock trees, a stalwart species and one of the backbones of the North American Drought Atlas. The loss of hemlock and other important species will thus diminish future reconstructions. Replacements species are needed.
Of the 12 species used in our study, eight are broadleaf species. We found that tuliptree or tulip-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is one of the best species to replace hemlock*. Not only is it drought-sensitive, it has shown to be long-lived: a 512 years old specimen was recently found. Amazingly, only about half of its radius was recovered, as the tree was hollow. I would guess this species can live 600 to 700 years, if not more.
Our study also found other broadleaf species suitable for dendroclimatic research. These species include: black birch (for Yanques, but sweet birch for Southerners; Betula lenta), pignut and shagbark hickory (Carya glabra and Cary ovata, respectively), and northern red oak (Quercus rubra). While these trees do not live as long as hemlock or tulip, they are proving to live longer than expected. Continued exploration of species in the diverse eastern North American forest for maximum ages and climatic sensitivity should help dendroclimatological research as species are lost.
* Tuliptree is quickly becoming one of my favorite trees. It great longevity is a real treat. It is now the tallest documented tree in eastern North America now, too. But, it is how it handles drought that is so fun. Tuliptree is a drought-deciduous species, meaning that, during drought, it cannot close its stomata as well as other species to staunch the loss of water from its leaves. Therefore, it drops leaves to reduce water loss. If you paid attention to this tree in 2012, you would have noticed yellow leaves in July, a more common leaf color in September.
The really, really cool thing about this species, however, is that it also has indeterminate growth. This means that, unlike many temperate trees, its growth is not limited or set prior to the growing season. I once saw tuliptrees putting on new leaves in September following a dry August. This plasticity is awesome. It also suggests that September Song is not necessarily mournful for tuliptrees.
I have to call myself out. Earlier I had professed to being a former coniferphile. That was, of course, silly. I like coniferous trees very much. Half of my business is made from this lovely branch of the tree family. This introduction is a lead in to say that this blog will be quieter while my gig in Mongolia continues. A team of us are off to Mongolia to recover an millennia or two of xylemite. My focus in August and September will be on the development of a tasty and long record of drought from central Mongolia. You can follow these adventures here. Before I make that switch, I wanted to make a brief update on a good, busy summer.
Update #1: I caught a tweet that indicated that angiosperms have the ability to adapt a wee bit quicker than conifers. Looking forward to that line of work!
Update #2 – This summer our lab hosted two Lamont Summer Interns. Jackie Testani worked with me and Dario Martin-Benito on understanding the long-term forest dynamics of the Palmaghatt Ravine in the mid-Hudson Valley, NY. When first viewed from the west, the Palmaghatt made me think that if I re-labeled the image below as Borneo, folks would ooh and ahh. The light-green pyramidal crowns of the tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) gave me the feeling many people have about tropical forests: luscious, wild forest.
Jackie has completed some impressive work this summer. A history major with an interest in medical sciences and Africa, she has taken to tree rings like nobody’s business. Most impressively, Jackie slew the zombie maples. See, a small, but not insignificant proportion red maple in the northeastern US tend to not produce growth rings in the decade or two prior to coring. This on top of red maple’s diffuse-porous rings makes it difficult to work. The cause for the zombie’ness is not yet so clear. But, it happens. Often. Jackie’s work matches an independent collection of red maple from the 1980s. Both show some trees missing 5-6 rings in the decade or two prior to coring. This has important implications for all kinds of tree-ring based research.
And, to finish this update (as we approach the Christmas season), we also found a porcupine in a birch tree.
Update #3 – We has also gotten some preliminary dates on the samples from Turkey. Dr. Nesibe Kose and her students have done a nice job in making their way through the collection. A spruce and fir tree is more than 200 years old. The limited beech forests that we could reach during fieldwork are wicked-fast growers and not too old – 100-180 years old. The oaks look to date to the mid to late-1700s. The coolest thing is that the umbrella pine have a large age range, from ~100 years to >210 years of age. So, these ages suggest this stand was not planted by Russians in the late-1800s. However, when in Eurasia, you can never be too sure this stand was not planted at some point in time. If these ages hold, it suggests that, regardless of their origin, they comprise a functioning stand with little stand-scale disturbance.
Update #4 – I will use this blog to call attention to some neat pieces of the literature in broadleaf forests. Bob Booth and colleagues have a 2012 paper indicating that changes in moisture availability in the Great Lakes region, a relatively humid region, plays a strong role in forest dynamics. Particularly, changes in moisture lead to a long-term decline in American beech. There is also some indication that snowpack is beneficial to sugar maple. You like maple syrup? If so, let’s hope that the snowless 2012-2013 Winter does not become a climatic habit.
Update #5 – Speaking of drought, the drought in the southern US has crept its way into the northeast Maybe The South will rise again? ;). The US drought monitor for July 24, 2012 shows drought across much of the US. Here in NY, the drought came fast and seems exacerbated with the successive heat waves this summer. This year’s growing-season drought is in stark contrast to 2011, one of the wetter years since 1531 (a paper just accepted in the Journal of Climate). If you are lucky to live in the range of tuliptree, however, you do not need an internet connection to know the severity of drought in your area. Go seek the tulip tree. Being a drought-deciduous tree, some of its leaves yellow and fall during drought. It almost seems like a 10% increase in the ratio of yellow leaves to green leaves equals one unit of the Palmer Drought Severity Index.
Finally, update #6 – I just came across a paper by the White Lab suggesting that southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), or bull bay, is becoming naturalized to the north and west of its range (The South will rise again, II?). The implications in the paper is that warmer winters are allowing this iconic Tree of the South to expand its range. If you find yourself near Auburn, AL, find your way to the Bartram Trail. It will take you through some spectacular forest-grown southern Magnolia. They look much different than the ones you see in people’s yards. When in this form, it is one of my favorite trees.
After a few days of mild frustration, the sampling of potentially old umbrella pine lifted our spirits and put us in a good frame of mind to conduct our last day of research in the temperate rainforest region of northeastern Turkey. We headed out of Borçka and met with a forest officer in charge of forests in the Murgul Mountains. He seemed pleased with our research goals and supplied an extra jeep and a forest ranger to assist with our work. As often happens in fieldwork, highs like the discovery of great trees or the donation of free assistants get intermixed with unforeseen issues. On our last day of fieldwork in Turkey, we experienced all of that.
We headed up into the Murgul Mountains in a two-rig caravan. We stopped at a few places to take in the view and study slope forests. It was turning out to be a lovely day. During this slow journey on a narrow, mountain road, it became clear that even the steep slopes had been harvested. After about 30 minutes of driving up the mountain, we met up with loggers cutting oak logs on the side of the road. We stopped and talked with the loggers for a few minutes and inspected their bounty. The oaks were not big, but as regular readers of this blog might understand, size doesn’t equal age. The smallish oaks looked to have at least 150 rings. The loggers gave us a sample, we shook hands, and continued up the mountain.
As we continued to see evidence of recent logging over the next 10-20 minutes up the road on steeper slopes, it became apparent that we would have to travel deep into the forest to find old trees. Alas, the heavy snowfall of Winter 2011-2012 soon stopped our vehicles’ progress: the road was still clogged with nearly a meter of snow. Thus, it was time to do one thing that humans do quite well: hoof it.
As we walked up the road, Nesibe’s cell phone rang (side note: why can people in Bhutan or Turkey get cell reception in deep forest in rural regions, but we cannot get it in places within 30 miles of NYC, like on the Lamont campus? Can you hear me now?). High-level forestry officials called to say that the core samples collected on this trip could not leave the country….ugh…This was almost deadening news. We had overcome many obstacles on this trip, but this one was serious. We had previously made plans to split the samples between the two labs for analysis, and we really wanted to bring some samples back to our lab.
See, the joys of research do not end in the field. The process of tree-ring analysis for me is almost Pavlovian: at every step of the game discoveries can be made that make me drool. First, we head into a wild area and soak in the gorgeous scenery – ding! Next, we hike into the forest seeking old trees – ding! Once found, we begin coring old-looking trees. When the first cores reveal many rings – ding, ding! I am notoriously bad at estimating the number of cores on a sample in the field. It seems I consistently underestimate age by 50-100 years. Knowing this, why do I not automatically adjust my estimate? One, it keeps us looking for older trees. Two, I’d rather be wrong on the lower side so that when the first samples are sanded so that we can clearly see the rings, there is much thrill in the lab – ding, ding, ding!! Don’t get me started about how wonderful it is to see beautiful rings pass under my eyes as rings are measured – seeing the highs and lows of tree life over the centuries is truly joyous. Yes, I enjoy this process very much. In fact, I stash a mop outside my office on high Pavolvian days.
The most frustrating aspect of the denial to export samples is that we had anticipated the bureaucracy of getting governmental permissions: we started the permit process approximately 4-5 months before our trip. And, poor Nesibe had to shoulder the necessary mountain of paperwork. It was only two weeks before we left the US that we thought we had permission to export samples (BTW, this is not a knock on Turkish governmental efficiency. Permission to sample in the US or import samples into the US can often require at least 4-6 weeks, just like shipping times of yore). Anyhow, we paused and pondered this heavy news. Nesibe said her lab could analyze the additional samples and we proceeded forth.
We continued on foot and spied some potentially interesting trees.
We scrambled up a beech-leaf slickened slope and cored two Oriental beech trees. Like previous samples on this trip, they turned out to be fast growing/not very old. We continued deeper into the forest and realized many of the older-looking trees along the road ‘hid’ that the forest was recovering from a significant amount of logging decades ago. Soon after entering the second-growth portion of the forest, however, I spied an omen.
In the eastern US, the pileated woodpecker makes large foraging holes similar to that above. Pileated woodpeckers tend to be associated with mature woods. When I’m in an old forest, I often hear the call of this old friend. So, it was this sign that lifted my spirit. I suspect the species that made this hole is the black woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in Europe. We continued along the edge of the slope when one of us spotted an oak.
Not only were we thrilled to find another potentially old species, this tree had some of the charismatic megaflora chacteristics of being fairly old for its size. The first core indicated decent age (decent age for a dendrochronologist is roughly 200 years). We then found an oak that had recently fallen and cored it. It too had decent age.
We continued along this slope coring nearly ten oaks before the local distribution of decently-aged oaks ran out (they were clustered with spruce on and near south-facing rock outcrops). We headed back to our rig for lunch – it was now about 4 pm. While gathering food, we noticed similar topography and forest downslope. Dario and I begged off our fine lunch to explore this area. We were thrilled we did. This is where the forest became mighty tasty.
Not more than a soccer field from our rig did we find stunted, aged oaks. We had found our Turkish Delight – truly old trees growing along a cliffline. Forget nourishment. These sessile oaks provided all we would need.
Some scenes of Murgul Mountain forests in northeastern Turkey.
We were in a truly wild forest. No, Dario didn’t go wild and claw that beech tree. The marks were likely made by a brown bear.
The best identifier of beech the world round? “Emir (John, Wei, etc.) loves Tayla (Sue, Xue, etc.) 1978″.
Tea derived from Tilia (basswood).
In the northeastern part of Turkey, the highest Pontic Mountains meet the Black Sea. Here altitude drops from more than 3900m to sea level in a less than 30 miles. Both the orographic effect of mountains and the lake effect (well, better sea effect) cause very high precipitation, allowing for rich and productive temperate forest to grow. Snow accumulations of several meters are not rare even at mid elevations as we could observe in a trip a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm weather we experienced, some roads were still blocked from last winter’s snow, so access to many places was still not possible.
This temperate rainforest is very rich in tree species, including mainly broadleaved species (oaks, beech, maples), but also many conifers such as fir, spruce and pines. Coming from Western Europe, where forests have been logged, managed or mismanaged for hundreds of years, a forest with more than six or seven dominant tree species is a biodiversity hotspot to me. For those used to the forests in the American east or the tropics these forests might seem species-depauperate. But they shouldn’t.
Turkey lies at the crossroads between Asia and Europe. The enchanting city of Istanbul, with its amazing culture and long history as a bridge uniting the East and the West, symbolizes this better than any other place. Actually, Istanbul is the only big city in the world that lies on the border of two different continents. The diversity of the Turkish forests also reflects many species migrations over hundreds of thousands of years and might have served as a glacial refuge for many plant species during the last glacial maximum around 16,000 to 60,000 years ago. This way Turkish flora has evolved to be one of the richest floras in Europe or Asia by having components from both continents.
The wet northeastern Turkey also offers some very interesting flora surprises, like the unique umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) growing on a steep slope near the city of Artvin. Umbrella pine receives its common name because, well, it looks a bit like an umbrella: Its crown grows round when the tree matures and it is almost completely free of lower branches. The fact that it is also called Italian Stone pine (it was a main character in Vittorio de Sica’s film “Villa Borghese,” known in English as “It happened in the Park”) gives an idea of its distribution range. We can find it all along the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula on the western side comprises more than 75% of its distribution area. But the Artvin forest is very far from the Mediterranean coast and more than 1000 km away from the closest umbrella pine forest.
The same processes that create high precipitation near the Black Sea coast are responsible for a rain shadow effect further south, as high mountains block precipitation, creating much drier conditions in some valley bottoms. In a matter of less than 32 kilometers precipitation drops from more than 2000mm per year to less than 700mm. That’s like going from Scotland to Rome in less than half an hour’s drive.
Along its broad distribution range, umbrella pine grows together with many different species of the Mediterranean flora, like evergreen oaks, colorful rockroses, or scented herbs like rosemary or oregano. But in this relict forest at 600m of elevation, on the banks of the Çoruh River near the Kaçkas Mountains, umbrella pine has some non-habitual neighbors like Scots pine, hornbeams or hazel, more common in the wetter and colder climates that abound in the surrounding forest as we climbed in great elevation not far from here. The view of these forests reminded me of some deep valleys in Northern Spain, where a similar combination of lake effect and rain shadow creates Mediterranean vegetation dominated by the evergreen holm and cork oaks on southeast facing slopes, while north-facing slopes are covered by beech and deciduous oaks.
Humans have favored umbrella pine for thousands of years for its delicious seeds, which are eaten in many different forms but mainly used for some of the best pastries. Still today, pine nuts are the most valuable product of these pine forests in countries like Spain and Portugal, where they are commercially harvested. So these trees were extensively planted within and outside their natural distribution range probably as early as Roman times. In general, people have been great natural vectors of many tree species, mainly agricultural crops or related trees. Take for example the English Elm, which turned out to be, again, a very Roman clone. The history of the Old World complicates the attribution of whether some of its forests are natural or not. Northeastern Turkey has a centuries-long history as a frontier land, first between the Byzantines and the Turks and later between the Ottoman and the Russian empires. The Artvin Province changed hands several time as late as the early 20th century. Long before that, the southern Black Sea coast was explored by Greek and Phoenician sailors, and Arrian wrote his Periplus Ponti Euxini, a sort of maritime guide describing these coasts. Even in Greek mythology, Jason is thought to have visited the area with the Argonauts in his quest for Colchis (present day Georgia).
Despite the long history of human settlement and land use in these regions, probably some of the few old growth temperate forests left are found here, like the Camili Biosphere reserve. But still, little is known about the ecology and dynamics of these forests. We hope that our research in this area will allow us to add some very interesting new perspectives on the ecology and history of both the broadleaved temperate rain forest and this relict pine stand.
Note: The origin of this stand is unknown. Some say it is a natural stand while others think it was planted by Russians in the late-1800s. Our coring of these trees might or might not solve this question.
The cool, snowy weather really put a crimp in our plans. Dario, Tuncay, Cengis, and others spent two days trying to find potential sampling locations before Nesibe and I arrived. Even though it had been well above freezing during the day and above freezing at night, the snow had only retreated so far in the mountain roads. So, much of the areas we had access to were areas that loggers have had access to: lower elevations and (likely) productive forests. After two days of driving, Field Crue One didn’t find much.
The valley we hit the day before was the best of what they had seen. While it looked like it had some potential as we drove through it, once we spent a few hours in it taking test samples, it was clear the prodigious rainfall in the region produced large trees in no time (no time for a dendrochronologist = 80-150 years). We had two days left to make something out of this trip. I was keeping it to myself, but I wasn’t feeling too hopeful.
Luckily, we had Nesibe on our team!
Nesibe is a young and rising scientist. Her short career has been filled with a range of experiences that normally might take a decade or two. Most impressively, she is pretty much self-taught in tree rings. Her excellent mentor, Ünal Akkemik, is a very good botanist/forest ecologist who has done some very good work in dendrochronology. Nearly a decade earlier he conducted some work with Gordon Jacoby and Rosanne D’Arrigo of our lab. But, much in the field has changed over the last 15 years. There are more scientists and methodologies have become quite complex. Today you would be hard-pressed to get a single chronology published in mid-level journals unless it was more than 2000 years in length or showed something completely in the field. To get into the upper-level journals today, you likely need many records –30? 80? 100? 400? spread over a large geographic area so that you can discern differences in regional-scale climate or ecology, for example.
So, for young scientists, the mastery of skills (ecological, geochemical, geographical, etc., on top of statistics, plant physiology, some wood anatomy) needed today might seem daunting for many of the scientists from 30-40 years ago (not saying earlier science was bad or weak. Just the opposite: earlier work was so outstanding that the stakes have been raised). Nesibe has taken this challenge on by reading and digesting perhaps the most complex book in our field. It is truly impressive. Her determination to learn and will to succeed was on display when facing the snow barrier.
She said, “I have an idea. Tomorrow morning we’ll go to the depot.”
What initially ensued was a discussion of the North American forestry terms and English. We determined a depot was a log yard. This led to the realization that when you break down some English words, they are comically simple. Log yard for the place to put logs before they are sold. Other similar terms – woodstove, stovepipe, waterpipe, etc. It was a fun conversation, the kind you can have when you have hours to kill in a jeep.
Anyhow, Nesibe had been to the log yard previously and made a collection of Oriental beech dating back 400 years. Nesibe explained to us that the records kept at the log yard could be used to tell which valleys or locations the logs came from, what elevation they grew at, etc. Her resourcefulness was in full display. Away to the log yard we went.
Perhaps it was the heavy snow, but there was only about 25-33% of the normal amount of logs in the depot. But, the logs in the yard were an indication of what can be found in the forest. Logs of spruce, fir, and beach were 1-1.5 meters in diameter. Logs of chestnut and oak were 0.5-0.75 meters in diameter.
It was hard to sense the age of these trees. It didn’t seem outrageous that many were 150-300 years old. The potential of conducting tree-ring science in the depots of the Artvin Province were also on display.
There was still a challenge. How do we take samples from multiple logs and not cause pseudoreplication in our collection? (Psuedoreplication is where replicates, in our case logs, are not independent, as in, they are not from different trees, which is ideal for our work). We didn’t want to take 3-4 samples from the same tree and think they were different trees. Thus, our combined skills in science of tree-ring analysis came into play. We studied each log, not only looking at its shape, wounds, sapwood, etc, but identifying patterns of ring width to match multiple logs to the same tree. We cannot claim we were 100% correct. That will take lab analysis.
I have to be honest: conducting science in a log yard with no shade was tough. Not only did it turn out to be the hottest day of our visit to northeastern Turkey, once we got over the fascination of the larger logs, it was somewhat boring. When you are in the forest and seeking the oldest trees in rugged terrain is a challenge that keeps one’s body and mind engaged and focused. Conducting science in the hot, sunny log yard lulled me into a stupor. It might have made us a little silly with boredom, even.
After the log yard we headed towards our second destination of the day. We were hot, thirsty, hungry, a little cranky, and with a substitute driver that didn’t seemed thrilled to be driving us to where we needed to go (drivers can make or break these trips, sometimes). It didn’t feel hopeful. With hindsight, I can tell you that afternoon turned out to be one of the most important discoveries of this trip.
Despite reading about these temperate rainforests, this is not the Turkey I imagined. This might not be the Turkey most people imagine. I’m really not sure what you envision when you think about Turkey. A dry, open landscape? That is what I thought until I stepped into Artvin Province. Because what I saw there was green, steep, lush, heavily forested. Really? Yes!
In prepping for our pilot research in the temperate rainforests of Turkey, I pulled out the travel guide to get more background. I love going to the history section and learning the long-term trajectory of the people and region. Man, talk about long term and a wide mix of culture. There cannot be too many other places that have that mix of people and culture. At the end of the trip, I was seeing the ecology of Turkey in the same way.
After a day getting settled in Istanbul, my colleague and host, Dr. Nesibe Kose, flew with me to the far northeast corner of Turkey to catch up with another colleague on this project, Dr. Dario Martin Benito (post-doc at the TRL), and Nesibe’s former MS student, Tuncay Guner, who agreed to help with our planned field work. They flew out two days earlier because our original “domestic” flight was canceled just two weeks before our trip. So, they headed out early so we didn’t lose too much time, given our very tight schedule.
How far east did we have to fly to reach Artvin Province and our ultimate home away from home on this trip (Borçka)? Georgia! Not the Georgia next to South Carolina, the Georgia bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is so mountainous in northeastern Turkey that the best place to land is apparently in Turkey’s neighboring nation. An agreement has been worked out so that we can then board a bus and pass through the border as though we are still on a domestic flight. Except that in Hoopa, on the Black Sea, we actually had to transfer buses and go through a border check. Traveling from Istanbul to beautiful downtown Borçka takes about as much time as it took to go from NYC to Istanbul. And, we were not going that deep into northeast Turkey.
This winter has been weird in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Northeast Turkey is no exception. It was still snowing in early April and it was said most of the roads where we wanted to go were blocked. I swear I heard the phrase ‘7 meters of snow’ when discussing this last winter in the region; Istanbul was covered in snow in late-January. So, on top of the canceled flight, we had to work around the unusual winter of 2011-2012. Our plan was to sample in Camili Biosphere Reserve. Snow covered roads forced us to work around Artvin. This is often a reality in fieldwork: unexpected conditions overrule the best-laid plans sometimes.
It is a shame we were not able to make it to Camili. It sounds like a kind of heaven. A survey indicated 990 taxa and 432 genera. Importantly to our project, there are 946 angiosperm taxa (BROADLEAF!). As we learned on this trip, bees and bears are an important part of the culture here. UNESCO states, “The basin is the only area where the Caucasus bee race has remained without its purity being damaged. It is one of the three most important bee races in the world.” We saw this in action over breakfast one morning. They asked us how many kilos of honey did we want to take home to the US. Dario and I both answered, “Kilos?” I offered that ½ a kilo would be fine with me. Our local hosts looked extremely disappointed. From the discussion of honey that followed, some bear genes might have migrated into the human genome in northeast Turkey.
As you will see as an extreme example in a future post and as a mirror of the people and culture of Turkey, the ecology of the flora in this part of Turkey is incredibly mixed. The floral survey indicates that the sources of the flora in Camili come from three regions: Euro-Siberian, Irano-Turanian, and Mediterranean, with about half being multi-regional. So, our team, being composed of a Mediterranean European (Dario) and a Turk, was set for all the vegetation that would be thrown at us.
We finally decided to head up a remote valley east of Borçka. What I learned on this portion of the trip is how amazing and adaptable the human race is. We traveled up a narrow valley with steep mountains for several miles before we saw anything that looked old. Much of the forest, unfortunately, had been heavily cut. The trees we found were quite large, but as you know, that doesn’t make them old.
We cored several species that day, but focused mostly on the Oriental beech. There were some outstanding individuals on the landscape, but none more outstanding than this one.
We soon realized that there has been heavy cutting in the high elevation, steep portion of the older looking forest. Most of the trees were young’ish (maybe only 150 years old). Most of the older looking trees we spied turned out to be ‘bee trees’. These were trees left behind to ‘house’ bees.
One of their specialties is to take logs and use them as bee hives. It apparently makes a better honey. Most of the larger beech turned out to be host trees for these log homes.
And, the value of these special bee hives is clear in how they were protected from the brown bear inhabiting these woods.
The fun part for me working in these was the chance to be around natural chestnut trees. The American chestnut is essentially gone, though we still live with its lore. The sweet chestnut in the rainforests of Turkey likely rival what was growing in the southern US. A roadside chestnut blew us away, but it was the old stump we found late in the day that was the clue to how big the sweet chestnut trees could grow.
Seeing sweet chestnut in temperate, old-growth rainforests of northeastern Turkey will have to wait for another trip.
All in all, it was a very fun and eye-opening day. Besides the massive trees, perhaps the most interesting thing was the avalanche we witnessed. We were hydrating after swimming through Rhododendron throughout the warm day when all of a sudden I hear a low rumble. I realize we had not heard a plane all day (this region is only a bird corridor, not travel corridor). I looked up and saw nothing. The low rumble kept getting louder and was sustained. I finally spotted it. Across the valley we saw snow pouring downhill. We didn’t see any trees come down, but the force of the snow looked tremendous.
I’ll sign off with some scenes from our early days in Borçka.
A true bonus of tracking old trees in various parts of the world is that it takes you to some real outposts of the human race. Artvin was no different. First, it was really interesting to live among people who you could pluck out of Poland, Bulgaria, or perhaps anywhere in central and eastern Europe. Making it more interesting, the population is predominantly Muslim. It certainly would blow commonly held stereotypes held in the US. It was really interesting, too, to be in a heavily forested region that looked like a combination of the Adirondacks and Rocky Mountains and hear a call to prayer throughout the day.
Second, we reserved a table in a local club to see local folk music. It is hard for me to describe – it sounded like gypsy-infused eastern European music. The crowd was just as interesting. In near opposition to most of the restaurants we visited, ~65% of the audience was female. Curiously, the restaurants were almost always 90% men.
The night we were there, it seemed a famed emeritus musician was in the crowd. They honored him partway through the set.
Enjoy clips of the music we heard that night.
and, does anyone remember dancing?
I have been very fortunate lately. In the last 6 months I visited forests I have longed dreamed about and visited forests I had never dreamed of before. I have been so fortunate that it is hard to believe. And, it is only going to get better in the next two weeks.
Early in my education I ran across a book on the world’s five main temperate rainforests. It was around the time of the spotted owl and logging of the great old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. Besides learning more about the rainforest in the Pacific Northwest, I recall imagining the great Valdivian Forest of Chile, the rainforests in Japan and New Zealand, and the one that stuck out in my mind the most, the rainforest off the Black Sea in Turkey. Yes, Turkey. The Turkey currently taking in refugees from Syria. It was explained there was a strong sea effect from the Black Sea that produces high rainfall amounts. Growing up firmly in Lake Ontario’s lake effect belt, I understood the phenomenon immediately. Having no money at the time, I scraped up what I had and set out for Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I mean, it was during the rise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and grunge. That combined with massively impressive trees, there was no place else to go.
Luckily, no pictures from that trip have made it to the digital era; my former mullet is still a myth. This recent picture from the redwoods of northern California will have to suffice.
Tonight I leave for Turkey. Yes, that Turkey. The Turkey with the temperate rainforest. This temperate rainforest is broadleaf-dominated. I am a lucky dog. Posts on this trip will arrive sometime in the future. In the mean time, here is a very brief overview of the broadleaf forests I have visited in the last 180 days.
I was invited to give a talk in northeastern China in early October to discuss some of my work. My host and former visitor to our lab, Zhen-ju Chen, of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Shenyang, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was beginning research in the broadleaf forests of northeastern China and wanted me to visit these forests. How lucky is that? I had known that the forests of northeastern China were like the forests of the northeastern U.S. I would now get to see firsthand how similar these forests were to one another.
First, I got to visit the forests in the Changbai Shan national nature preserve. The upper forests were primarily stunted birch. This patch of wild, scraggily birch was my favorite in the upper part of the preserve.
My favorite forest in Changbai had to be the Dell Forest. Its mix of larch, maple, birch, spruce, ash, etc., strongly recalled the forests of the northeastern U.S. Just as important, the trees looked 300 years or more. It was a delight.
But, speaking of fortunate, I got to see the crater lake that borders North Korea on top of Changbai Shan. It is a rare day when one gets this view:
After Changbai, we moved on to lower elevations and visited the Changbai Shan Museum Institute permanent plot. Like the Harvard Forest, this is a heavily-instrumented experimental forest. And, most stunning to me, with a forest composed of basswood, Korean pine, Mongolian oak, birch, it looked like the Harvard Forest.
Seedlings of the Korean pine could almost fool the experts of eastern North America’s eastern white pine.
My final stop in northeastern China was the Qing Yuan Experimental Secondary Forest. This forest was further south and a bit lower in elevation. Its species mix – maple, oak, birch, elm, etc, however, could have been almost anywhere in southern New England. The Japanese maple would be a good clue that you weren’t in North America. There were other clues, too. But, the similarities to northeastern North America were striking.
Perhaps only the Asian architecture and pond of brightly colored carp hint to the continent you are on?
While there is much tree ring activity happening in China, not a tree was cored in the making of this trip. Sadly, I had to leave and was left to wonder how old and what stories the broadleaf-dominated forests contained.
Luckily, I immediately flew from Shenyang to Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon (and temperate broadleaf forests!).
Under the direction of our lab director, Dr. Ed Cook, and long-time technician/MacGyver, Paul Krusic (now of the Bert Bolin Centre for Climate Research), the Lamont Tree Ring Laboratory has had a strong and productive collaboration with various institutions in Bhutan. Our trip in October 2011 re-invigorated this collaboration and centered around a fieldweek, a climate conference, high altitude lake research, and an investigation into the broadleaf forests of western Bhutan.
Cook and Krusic have done a fabulous job finding old trees in high elevation forests and drought-sensitive sites to assist in reconstructing the Asian Monsoon. Yet, few studies have been conducted in Bhutan’s broadleaf forest, which comprises more than half of its forested area. My short time there was an exploratory visit to determine the feasibility of conducting tree ring research in the many large old-growth forests in western Bhutan.
I will leave the details of this trip for another post. In the mean time, I will close with a pictorial highlight of some of the forests and trees visited in Bhutan. Wish us luck in Turkey. The cold winter in eastern Europe was felt in Turkey. The normal high winter precipitation in northeastern Turkey and colder temperatures have led to the possibility of limited fieldwork: There might be too much snow in mid-April at 41 degrees north latitude.
Lest I forget: one of the world’s coolest broadleaf forests is in Lamont’s backyard. The scenes below might look like Appalachia, but they are not. They are ~20 mi as the bald eagle flies from Manhattan.
Charismatic megaflora? What kind of a tree might that be? As with many things, one person’s charismatic megaflora is another person’s tree. For myself, a tree that would draw and hold my attention as a younger person/student is very different than my current definition of a charismatic tree. My earlier self was typically drawn to the large eastern white pines that inhabit the Pack Forest in the southeastern Adirondacks or the massive eastern white pines at Cranberry Lake, N.Y. When I was getting introduced to the world according to dendrophiles, these trees triggered emotions similar to those in a Sierra Club calendar where they literally towered over any nearby object. In the northeastern U.S., these large white pines are about as good as they get. They are big. They are stupendous. They make us look up. They make us wonder about times long ago. They convey a sense of great age.
You know, like this scene:
I do not have pictures of those eastern white pine, but this white oak has a similar kind of charisma for eastern trees:
Now, however, after searching many forests for the oldest trees to obtain the longest possible, tree-ring based records of environmental history, my definition of charismatic megaflora has changed. Significantly (p < 0.0001). Ah, these large trees are beauts, but if you want to truly wonder about time, don’t miss the old tree hiding right in front of your eyes.
What do old trees look like?
When I was cutting my teeth in tree-ring analysis, I was mostly involved in projects studying conifers. Notably, I was able to core the old’ish, large loblolly pines of the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Soon after, I had a job in the wonderful longleaf pine ecosystems of the Deep South. At the time, there were few guides to what old trees looked like, though two papers were published on the subject prior to my time among the longleaf pines – here and here [be sure to check out the beautiful line drawings of old trees by Richard Guyette in that second link]. So, my first intuition was a natural one: seek out the large trees to find the oldest trees. Prior to Hurricane Hugo, the Congaree had 22 state champion trees and 7 national champion trees. It is a kind of heaven. However, most of the trees that have been cored in the Congaree [as far as I know] top out at 250-300 years. That is old for a person. But, for a tree being sought out by a dendrochronologist, honestly, that is kind of middling.
Soon after settling into the longleaf pine forest, I started paying closer attention to what old trees really looked like. I studied the papers linked above and got advice from seasoned foresters, like Leon Neel, and my supervisors. Thus began my study of old trees. Sometimes we found them. Sometimes we were stumped.
The main characteristics for old conifers are discussed in this report on ponderosa pine by Laurie Huckaby. The image on page 17 in Huckaby’s paper pretty much sums up what you are looking for: a spiked top, a flattened crown (or loss of apical dominance), smooth bark (balding is a potential sign of age in trees, too!), and a small living crown. A few, large, twisting branches in the canopy (as opposed to a crown with many smaller branches), a characteristic related to a small living crown, can be added as a useful characteristic. You can also add lower stem taper as an important characteristic. In this case, if the diameter at the base of the stem is not too much larger than at the base of the live crown, you likely have an old conifer, except when you do not.
I’ll never forget the time a buddy and I had a couple of free hours to cruise a 22,000 acre landscape of longleaf pine. We decided to try to find the oldest tree in the landscape. Suddenly, we spotted Ye Olde Longleaf Pine. It was flat-topped, had a spiked crown, was of decent diameter, and, most excitedly for us, was perched on a sandy ridge. We had learned by then that trees growing in poor-quality sites can be slow growing and thus older than expected if of decent diameter. We sprinted to that tree! We rapidly cored that tree!! We hit the pith of that tree!!! It was 55 years old….wha? The marker ring for southwest Georgia, a thin latewood band in 1954, was only a few rings from the pith (the center of the tree). Oh yeah, we were stunned. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be fooled. Trees are cunning.
Since that time I have focused more on broadleaf or hardwood species like oak, tulip-poplar, hickory, and Magnolia. I applied many of the characteristics above when looking for old broadleaf trees. For the most part, it works. Balding bark is an important characteristic, although you have to know your species. Do not get fooled by the natural balding of cucumbertree (cucumber Magnolia). They can have bald patches at young ages. In fact, it is one of the better identifying characteristics of this species. Also, balding on the side of a tree next to a hiking trail can also be a false sign of age (you know, they can bald from the loving they get from those two-legged mammals with tendencies toward dendrophilia). Narrow stem taper in broadleaf species generally works: It can take a long time to get a good amount of wood 50-80 feet above the ground. A small amount of live crown, especially when combined with a decent-sized diameter, indicates an older hardwood tree. A few large, heavy, twisty branches are good characteristics, too.
One somewhat common characteristic of old broadleaf trees that I have run into, not in the papers above, is a sinuous trunk. Others have discussed a spiral grain as an important characteristic of older trees. It works well for post oak. But this trait, the sinuous stem, is an important clue of age in dense forests, no matter if they have been cut or are uncut. Sinuous trees remind me of the first time I saw a rat snake climbing a tree in the Congaree: While rigid, its body is twisted from side-to-side. In case you haven’t had been lucky enough to see a snake climb a large tree, I just found a video of a black rat snake climbing a tulip-poplar:
At any rate, here is an example of a particularly sinuous tree:
I’ve not investigated why this trait seems to be somewhat common to old hardwood trees (there are papers on sinuosity). I like to think (hypothesize) that each twist is a record of decadal-scale phototropism. Individual plants track or move with the sun as it moves through the sky. Sunflowers are a classic example, though cartoon broccoli are apparently capable of the same thing. In dense forests like the Eastern Deciduous Forest, one of the most important elements that seedlings and saplings need for survival is sunlight. To go with this, the most dominant natural disturbance regime in dense forests like the Eastern Deciduous Forest is gap dynamics. Gap dynamics can be generalized by the mortality of 1-2% of the forest (a handful of trees) in a given area each year. Thus, if you are a seedling or sapling sitting below towering trees during a relatively stable period of time, you would yearn for some light. And, if a neighbor tree died, you would run to the sunlight streaming to your level of the forest like we ran to that 55-year-old longleaf pine.
Except, you are a tree. You cannot run. While trees are awesome, one drawback to their life strategy is that they are a bit sedentary. When Trouble comes to your neighborhood, there is little hiding. Thus, one reason trees are so awesome is how they persist despite it all.
So, what do you do if you are an understory tree and a small gap has created a fleck of light in your general vicinity? You reach for it, almost literally. Your solar panels “detect” the higher light levels, intercept more light, and grow in that general direction. If you are successful in that pursuit, you then gain more energy and stretch more in that direction. This becomes a positive feedback loop: As you gain more energy, you can grow more. As you grow more in that direction, your mass will “move” in that direction. And, in opposition, “trailing” or more heavily-shaded branches and leaves might lose out as you “move” toward the more resource-rich area of the forest.
There are many quotes used above because this is not moving in the same way or at the same time scales as animals move. So, as you imagine that, think of something moving slower than molasses in January 1777 (not January-March 2012).
And, here is another problem for you: At the time scale of forests, most gaps created annually are small and ephemeral. So, as you spend 2-3 years or so moving toward the light, your towering neighbors, with greater resources as acquired through a larger canopy and root system, will fill these gaps with their lateral branches. You are blocked again. So, you must wait again for another pocket of light. Perhaps it is in another direction? Perhaps you have to grow in another direction? If so, then one could imagine how these sinuous stems are found in older trees in dense forests. Mind you, this a rather simple hypothesis. There are other factors that likely play a role in the sinuous architecture of trees. It is a place to start. However, I certainly saw potential examples of this in an old-growth forest in Manchuria. Check out this ash:
Or, how about this black walnut in Mammoth Caves National Park:
One more thought on what old trees look like: Size does not always imply age. If I didn’t hint about it enough above, let’s be clear: Big broadleaf trees can be old, but they might not be old. Some of the oldest trees I’ve cored in the eastern U.S. are of middling size. Most folks might walk by them while hunting for large trees. Not me. For me, they are the charismatic megaflora in dense forests. There are more details in the paper here. Contact me if you would like a copy.
So, as you go out to enjoy the current “heat wave” in eastern North America, have a little different look at the forest. Can you find my definition of a charistmatic megaflora? Can you spot the old trees hiding in front of your eyes?