Students Annalise Meyer and Jill Richards, along with Professor Beth Lynch, have worked to catalogue plant species on two specific algific talus slopes in the Driftless Area. The slopes are small and fragile ecosystems on top of underground ice deposits. Cold air vents make the slopes much cooler than the surrounding forest. Some plant species are at their southern range limits on algific slopes, with most of their populations living much farther north.
“Many of these species are glacial relics, meaning they are species that we think were growing here from the last ice age and this was a place they could hang out that was cold but not ice-covered. The thought is that they have been here ever since the ice left and so as the climate warms farther and farther, they’re getting pushed closer to their tolerance limits. So my question is, as the climate warms, are these species going to be able to continue living here or not?” says Professor Lynch.
The study is being conducted in two units of Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge (DANWR), located in Northeast Iowa and managed by US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Richards, Meyer, and Lynch want to collect baseline data on the slopes against which future changes in microclimate and vegetation can be measured.
“There are plants that can only grow on the slopes or plants that are at their southern limit of their distributions. If we are able to identify plants that live in these cooler regions, and need that climate, we could potentially identify plants that require protection from global warming and what's going to happen with these plants as the climate slowly gets warmer and warmer. There isn’t baseline data on algific slopes and what the temperature is right now. We will be able to compare it to future data to see what plants are growing here with global warming and what the temperatures are so we can see what species are in most need of help,” says Meyer.
The research group uses the point-intercept method to quantify the vegetation on the algific slopes.
“The sampling technique involves running a long tape measure along the ground and then at every meter we drop a pin down to the ground. We record every single plant species that the pin hits on the way down. Is it a rock? Is it moss? Is it dead leaves? We are dropping a pin along these transects to collect information about the vegetation,” says Lynch.
The researchers collected temperature and soil moisture data by hand 3x during the summer, and installed data loggers at one of the sites to collect hourly soil temperatures (no moisture) from June until October.
“Nobody has ever collected baseline data at the places we're looking at! There's not been a species list made especially for a lot of these plants. Working with the species that are endangered and in peril is hard. I get kind of emotional because there’s no real tangible way to just scoop them up and save them,” says Richards.
“When you first go out into the woods you just think all the plants are the same, they're all green and they're all this high. But then once you take a closer look you can see all the differences and really appreciate the biodiversity that’s present in the places that we are studying” says Richards.
The research results will be shared with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and seventh graders at Decorah Middle School. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service owns the property that we have been working on, and these are data that they are really eager to have for their management planning of these sites. We are sharing the data and information about the project with the seventh grade science teacher at the Decorah Middle School and so that she can use the data to help teach her students about algific talus slopes and also give them real data that they can practice graphing and analyzing.”
Richards and Meyer believe the project has helped them learn about problem solving and what a career in research consists of.
“I feel like I’ve learned how to work in a team, design my own project, and address the problem when things don’t go exactly how we want it. Being able to go with the flow and change things as the challenges arise are good skills to know,” says Richards.
“I’ve learned a lot about the biology of plants and how research works so it's helped me in my decision process for what kind of career I’m going to go into. It's also provided me with a hands-on experience which I appreciate,” says Meyer.
Lynch teaches classes in botany, ecology, and an introductory biology course (Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity) and feels that research projects benefit students because they involve real challenges and experience.
“When I was a biology student the real learning and career preparation happened in places like this where you are in the field, are faced with real research problems, and you’ve got to solve them. These students are getting to spend eight weeks this summer doing what I call real research. The data we are collecting are going to be published someday and to be able to participate in that is going to teach them so much about what being a biologist is,” said Lynch.
“Go for it! It's a lot of fun and you will learn lots of things and even if you don't like it you can decide whether or not it's something you want to do.”
“Find an advisor or a subject you are really interested in or even just slightly interested in. You'll learn so much!”
“It matters that we are training people to do science. They can ask and answer really important questions about the ecosystems that sustain us. They are entering their careers as biologists who are learning how to collect data and to tell stories about what’s happening in the world. ”