AboutZoos, Since 2008


Century-​long exper­i­ment tests for­est diversity

pub­lished 03 Novem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 03 Novem­ber 2014

Tucked into the wooded land­scape and rolling hills of the Smith­son­ian Envi­ron­men­tal Research Cen­ter in Edge­wa­ter, Mary­land USA, a new for­est has appeared. Six months ago, a corn­field cov­ered this ter­rain. Today, it is the Bio­di­ver­siTree project, with 24,000 stick-​like year-​old trees. By next spring, if every­thing goes as planned, 35,000 trees will cover 10 fields.

Biodiversitree SERCsaplings-planting“We’re try­ing to fig­ure out whether or not an ecosys­tem with lots of species func­tions any bet­ter or worse than an ecosys­tem with only a few species,” said senior sci­en­tist John Parker, who devel­oped the plan. Prior smaller-​scale research sug­gests diver­sity mat­ters because it reduces pests and makes trees health­ier. But Parker won­dered if he would find the same result if he looked at an entire for­est over the long-​term.

Sum of the parts

We’re try­ing to fig­ure out whether or not an ecosys­tem with lots of species func­tions any bet­ter or worse than an ecosys­tem with only a few species
John Parker, ecol­o­gist, Smith­son­ian Insti­tute »

The 100-​year Bio­di­ver­siTree project calls for 125 plots with one, four or 12 species each. Marked off in the field by tall white poles, Parker says each pro­vides a unique research oppor­tu­nity. “In many cases what we are see­ing is a decline in native species, and then the ques­tion is, well, does that mean any­thing?” Parker said. “Can other species fill that role of that miss­ing species or does each species do some­thing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent such that the sum of the parts is more than the whole?”

While Bio­di­ver­siTree has a cen­tury to sup­ply the answers, stud­ies are begin­ning now. The area sits beside forested land and near a stream that flows into the Chesa­peake Bay, the nation’s largest estu­ary and a valu­able nat­ural resource that pro­vides fresh drink­ing water for mil­lions of people.

“One of the big con­cerns over the last half cen­tury or so is that water qual­ity in the Chesa­peake Bay is get­ting worse,” Parker said. That prob­lem is exac­er­bated by nutri­ent runoff from decades of farm­ing in the mid-​Atlantic region. “What our study is doing is we take those 35 years of pre-​data,” Parker said. “We put a for­est in. Now we can com­pare what hap­pens when you had corn ver­sus what hap­pens when you have a native for­est planted in this diverse arrange­ment. If we plant even more of that water­shed with for­est, do we take out even more of those nutrients?”

Chang­ing land­scape
Smith­son­ian Research Fel­low Susan Cook-​Patton, who helped design Bio­di­ver­siTree, gath­ers leaf sam­ples with intern Emily Dubois. “We are inter­ested in how the insects are eat­ing the leaves now,” Cook-​Patton said. “And we are also look­ing at traits that the leaves have to see if there are some types of species that have things that make the leaves less palat­able, like if they are really tough or if they are really fuzzy those types of leaves will get less con­sumed by insects.”

“If you do not have a base­line, you really do not know what you have lost or gained in the future,” she said. “So if you can have a snap­shot in time and move for­ward from there, you can actu­ally learn a lot more than if we keep doing an exper­i­ment in two years, in 10 more years in the future we do another one short term exper­i­ment. So, sci­en­tif­i­cally, that’s incredible.”Physically, it is incred­i­ble, too.

Over the course of five weeks, about 100 vol­un­teers helped Parker and his staff plant the 24,000 trees. Phil Bishop, who man­aged a com­puter cen­tre before he retired, fig­ures he single-​handedly planted 500 or 600 of them. While his knees are a bit weary, he is glad to help out.

“I decided that I could make a con­tri­bu­tion here, and that is really what I wanted to do was to be part of a pro­gram,” Bishop said. “I will not see any results out of this more than likely, given my age and every­thing else.” But, he adds, vol­un­teer­ing is good for the soul and in the case of Bio­di­ver­siTree, good for the soil, too.

(Source: Smith­son­ian Sci­ence research news, 30.10.2013)

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