Dr. Elizabeth Lynch, an Associate Professor of Biology at Luther, recently co-authored a paper that was published in the December 2020 edition of Castanea, the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society’s journal. This paper detailed the results of the first published survey of plant diversity at the Malanaphy Springs State Preserve (MSSP), which is located in northeastern Iowa along the Upper Iowa River. Surveys like these provide baseline data so that future researchers can track changes in the ecosystem of MSSP. Dr. Lynch and her team found incredible diversity of plant life throughout MSSP, including a few endangered species and several species that haven’t been found before in Winneshiek County. Malanaphy Springs is one of the most diverse natural areas in the state of Iowa. When I interviewed Dr. Lynch about this paper, she mentioned that she was surprised to see this much diversity, especially regarding the number of moss species found during the survey. Dr. Lynch also said that this diversity wasn’t unique just to MSSP. There are several extremely diverse natural areas in northeastern Iowa, including Lionberger Environmental Preserve, which is located just a few miles from Luther. Dr. Lynch has enjoyed finding these “little pockets of diversity” and said that in her over 20 years in this area, she still has fun “finding these pockets and getting to know them”.
However, these diverse natural areas are not without their threats. Dr. Lynch cites deer herbivory as one of the biggest threats to MSSP’s diversity. Deer will select and eat only certain species of plants, which does quite a bit of damage to an area’s vegetation. By only eating certain species, deer can dramatically change the composition of a natural area’s plant life and undermine plant diversity. Dr. Lynch also mentioned that invasive plants, the size of the preserve, and climate change present threats to biodiversity. The state of Iowa, responsible for managing MSSP, does not have the budget to actively control invasive species, such as garlic mustard, that can easily outcompete native plants. Small, isolated preserves make it nearly impossible for plants to become reestablished in an area once they go extinct. Climate change is an ongoing global issue that, among other things, will eliminate the environmental conditions that many native and specialist plants need to survive. Because of these challenges and presence of rare plants, Dr. Lynch recommended that a new survey of the area be done every 5-10 years, and that the rare plants should be checked on every year.
Dr. Lynch shared that there are many ways to get involved and help prevent the loss of biodiversity. At Luther, students can become land stewardship interns that spend their summer removing invasive species from local natural areas. Students can also get involved in a wide variety of volunteer opportunities, such as the Friends of Decorah Parks garlic mustard pull events. Students can even get involved with faculty research about biodiversity, such as Dr. Kirk Larsen’s surveys of northeast Iowa insects, Dr. Molly McNicoll’s research on the impact of management on forest composition including invasive species, or Dr. Lynch’s research on plant ecology. While it is not the most obvious solution, responsible deer hunting practices can also help to protect biodiversity. Responsible and legal hunting of deer, especially hunting does as opposed to bucks, reduces the impact of deer herbivory. Encouraging the DNR to advocate for better control of deer populations will also help to preserve plant biodiversity.
Even something as simple as “going outside and noticing what’s out there”, says Dr. Lynch, can make an impact if you translate your observations into action to protect biodiversity. “If these natural areas disappear, we become corn, beans, and forests lacking native species diversity” says Dr. Lynch, “it’s so important that we know that they’re there”. While Iowa isn’t thought of as an extremely diverse area as far as plant life, Dr. Lynch was surprised by how much natural diversity can be found throughout Iowa when she moved to the area over 20 years ago. She hopes to continue her research by performing plant surveys and environmental monitoring in additional sites in northeastern Iowa.