Where to find the hungry, hungry herbivores

Carina and some pokeweed plants in Tennessee.

The activities are as follows:

When travelling to warm, tropical places you are exposed to greater risk of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, or dengue fever. The same pattern of risk is true for other species besides humans. For example, scientists have noticed that crops seem to have more problems with pests if they grow at lower latitudes (closer to the equator). Locations that are at lower latitudes have warm climates. We don’t know exactly why there are more pests in warmer places, but it could be because pests have a hard time surviving very cold winters. 

Carina is interested in figuring out more about this pest-y problem. She first got excited about plants in school, when she learned that they use photosynthesis to make their own food out of light, air, and water. She thought it was fascinating that plants have evolved so many different strategies to survive. Even though they don’t have brains, plants do have adaptations that help them compete for light and mate in many different habitats. Carina continues to learn more every day, and especially enjoys researching how plants defend themselves against herbivores, or animals that eat plants. Herbivores pose a challenge because plants can’t run away or hide! 

Carina studies ways wild plants can defend themselves against herbivores. What she learns in wild plants could give us ideas of how to help crops defend against pests too. Scientists aren’t sure why crops have more pest problems in warmer places, but it would help to understand if wild plants also have the same pattern. 

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is a common wild plant that grows all over the eastern US. Pokeweed has beautiful pink stems and dark purple berries. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written with ink made from pokeweed berry juice!

So Carina decided to travel all across the eastern United States to measure herbivory on pokeweed, a common wild plant there. Carina drove a lot for this project! In one summer, she visited ten patches of pokeweed spread out between Michigan and Florida. Carina thought that the pokeweed found at lower latitudes (Florida, 27° N) would have higher herbivory than pokeweed at northern latitudes (Michigan, 42° N) because pests may not be able to survive as well in places with harsh winters. 

At each of the ten sites, she marked five very young leaves on 30 to 40 plants. That equals over 1,500 leaves! She then came back six weeks later to measure how much the leaves were eaten as they grew into large, mature leaves. When leaves are young, they are more tender and can be more easily eaten by herbivores (that’s why we eat “baby spinach” salad). To measure herbivory she compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf, and calculated the percent of the leaf area eaten by caterpillars, the main herbivores on pokeweed. She then averaged the percent eaten on leaves for each plant. Some plants died in those 6 weeks, so the sample size at the end of the study ranged from 4 to 37 depending on the site.

Featured scientist: Carina Baskett from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4

There is one scientific paper associated with the research in this Data Nugget. The citation and link to the paper is below.

Baskett, C.A. and D.W. Schemske (2018) Latitudinal patterns of herbivore pressure in a temperate herb support the biotic interactions hypothesis. Ecology Letters 21(4):578-587.

A window into a tree’s world

Neil taking a tree core from a pine tree.

The activities are as follows:

According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the years 2015-2018 were the warmest recorded on Earth in modern times! And it is only expected to get warmer. Temperatures in the Northeastern U.S. are projected to increase 3.6°F by 2035. Every year the weather is a bit different, and some years there are more extremes with very hot or cold temperatures. Climate gives us a long-term perspective and is the average weather, including temperature and precipitation, over at least 30 years. 

Over thousands of years, tree species living in each part of the world have adapted to their local climate. Trees play an important role in climate change by helping cool the planet – through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and evaporate water into the air. 

Scientists are very interested in learning how trees respond to rapidly warming temperatures. Luckily, trees offer us a window into their lives through their growth rings. Growth rings are found within the trunk, beneath the bark. Each year of growth has two parts that can be seen: a light ring of large cells with thin walls, which grows in the spring; and a dark layer of smaller cells with thick walls that forms later in the summer and fall. Ring thickness is used to study how much the tree has grown over the years. Dendrochronology is the use of these rings to study trees and their environments.

Different tree species have different ranges of temperatures and rainfall in which they grow best. When there are big changes in the environment, tree growth slows down or speeds up in response. Scientists can use these clues in tree’s rings to decipher what climate was like in the past. There is slight variation in how each individual tree responds to temperature and rainfall. Because of this, scientists need to measure growth rings of multiple individuals to observe year-to-year changes in past climate.

Jessie taking a tree core in the winter.

Jessie and Neil are two scientists who use tree rings for climate research. Jessie entered the field of science because she was passionate about climate change. As a research assistant, Neil saw that warming temperatures in Mongolia accelerated growth in very old Siberian pine trees. When he later studied to become a scientist, he wanted to know if trees in the eastern U.S. responded to changes in climate in the same way as the old pine trees in Mongolia. As a result, there were two purposes for Jessie’s and Neil’s work. They wanted to determine if there was a species that could be used to figure out what the climate looked like in the past, and understand how it has changed over time.

Jessie and Neil decided to focus on one particular species of tree – the Atlantic white cedar. Atlantic white cedar grow in swamps and wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from southern Maine to northern Florida. Atlantic white cedar trees are useful in dendrochronology studies because they can live for up to 500 years and are naturally resistant to decay, so their well-preserved rings provide a long historical record. Past studies of this species led them to predict that in years when the temperature is warmer, Atlantic white cedar rings will be wider. If this pattern holds, the thickness of Atlantic white cedar rings can be used to look backwards into the past climate of the area. 

To test this prediction, Jessie and Neil needed to look at tree rings from many Atlantic white cedar trees. Jessie used an increment borer, a specialized tool that drills into the center of the tree. This drill removes a wood core with a diameter about equal to that of a straw. She sampled 112 different trees from 8 sites, and counted the rings to find the age of each tree. She then crossdated the wood core samples. Crossdating is the process of comparing the ring patterns from many trees in the same area to see if they tell the same story. Jessie used a microscope linked to a computer to measure the thickness of both the early and late growth to the nearest micrometer (1 micrometer = 0.001 millimeter) for all rings in all 112 trees. From those data she then calculated the average growth of Atlantic white cedar for each year to create an Atlantic white cedargrowth index for the Northeastern U.S. She combined her tree ring data with temperature data from the past 100 years.

Featured scientists: Jessie K Pearl, University of Arizona and Neil Pederson, Harvard University. Written by Elicia Andrews.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.9

Suggestions for inquiry surrounding this Data Nugget:

  • Set up a field plot on your campus to identify and monitor the diameter of different trees growing. If you have access to an increment borer, sandpaper and dissection scope you can have students date and complete a lab activity by crossdating trees. 
  • Hands on lesson using wood cookies “What can tree rings tell us about climate?” by Chicago Botanic Garden.
  • Join, set up and participate in School Yard Ecology LTER Program by Harvard Forest.
  • Students can also explore how are other forms of paleoclimatology used to generate and predict future changes in the environment. Assign a field of study and create mini presentations and a jigsaw activity.
  • Explore available data related to your region. Determine if there are trends and correlations within the data.
  • Explore various climate profiles of various regions
  • Create an assignment relating to climate data- Become involved in a local data jam and/or have students create an infographic relating to the lesson. 

These videos, demonstrating the science of dendrochronology, could be a great way to spark class discussions:

The carbon stored in mangrove soils

Tall mangroves growing close to the coast.

The activities are as follows:

In the tropics and subtropics, mangroves dominate the coast. There are many different species of mangroves, but they are all share a unique characteristic compared to other trees – they can tolerate having their roots submerged in salt water.

Mangroves are globally important for many reasons. They form dense forested wetlands that protect the coast from erosion and provide critical habitat for many animals. Mangrove forests also help in the fight against climate change. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is a main driver of climate change. During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants in a mangrove forest. When plants die in mangrove forests, decomposition is very slow. The soils are saturated with saltwater and have very little oxygen, which decomposers need to break down plants. Because of this, carbon is stored in the soils for a long time, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Sean is a scientist studying coastal mangroves in the Florida Everglades. Doing research in the Everglades was a dream opportunity for Sean. He had long been fascinated by the unique plant and animal life in the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America. Mangroves are especially exciting to Sean because they combine marine biology and trees, two of his favorite things! Sean had previously studied freshwater forested wetlands in Virginia, but had always wanted to spend time studying the salty mangrove forests that exist in the Everglades. 

Sean Charles taking soil samples amongst inland short mangroves.

Sean arrived in the Everglades with the goal to learn more about the factors important for mangrove forests’ ability to hold carbon in their soils. Upon his arrival, he noticed a very interesting pattern – the trees were much taller along the coast compared to inland. This is because mangroves that grow close to the coast have access to important nutrients found in ocean waters, like phosphorus. These nutrients allow the trees to grow large and fast. However, living closer to the coast also puts trees at a higher risk of damage from storms, and can lead to soils and dead plants being swept out to sea. 

Sean thought that the combination of these two conditions would influence how much carbon is stored in mangrove soils along the coast and inland. Larger trees are generally more productive than smaller ones, meaning they might contribute more plant material to soils. This led Sean to two possible predictions. The first was that there might be more carbon in soils along the coast because taller mangroves would add more carbon to the soil compared to shorter inland mangroves. However, Sean thought he might also find the opposite pattern because the mangroves along the coast have more disturbance from storms that could release carbon from the soils. 

To test these competing hypothesis, the team of scientists set out into the Everglades in the Biscayne National Park in Homestead, Florida. Their mission was to collect surface soils and measure mangrove tree height. To collect soils, they used soil cores, which are modified cylinders that can be hammered into the soil and then removed with the soil stuck in the tube. Tree height was measured using a clinometer, which is a tool that uses geometry to estimate tree height. They took these measurements along three transects. The first transect was along the coast where trees had an average height of 20 meters. The second transect between the coast and inland wetlands where trees were 10 meters tall, on average. The final transect was inland, with average tree height of only 1 meter tall.  With this experimental design Sean could compare transects at three distances from the coast to look for trends. 

Once Sean was back in the lab, he quantified how much carbon was in the soil samples from each transect by heating the soil in a furnace at 500 degrees Celsius. Heating soils to this temperature causes all organic matter, which has carbon, to combust. Sean measured the weight of the samples before and after the combustion. The difference in weight can be used to calculate how much organic material combusted during the process, which can be used as an estimate of the carbon that was stored in the soil. 

Featured scientist: Sean Charles from Florida International University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Testing the tolerance of invasive plants

Casey out in the field.

The activities are as follows:

Casey is a biologist who grew up with dogs as pets. His dogs were all the same species and had some things in common – they all had a tail, ears, and fur. But, each dog also had its own unique appearance – tail length, ear shape, and fur color. These things are called traits. Casey became interested in how slight differences in traits make individuals unique. 

As Casey observed in dogs, not all individuals in the same species are exactly alike. This is also true in plants. When we look closely at individual plants of the same species, we often see that each is slightly different from the next. Some grow faster. Some have more leaves than others. Some are better at defending themselves against herbivoresthat might eat them. 

People move species around the globe, and some of these species cause problems where they are introduced. These trouble-making species are called invasive species. Casey wanted to apply what he knew about trait differences to the environment around him, so he chose to study invasive plants and their traits. He wants to know what it is about invasive species that make them able to invade. Casey thought that maybe certain traits cause invasive species to be more troublesome than others. The individual plants that have invaded other parts of the world might have different traits that made them successful in that environment. Plants in their new invasive range might be slightly different than plants in the native range where they came from.  

Along with other members of his lab, Casey is studying an invasive plant species called burr clover. The lab collected seeds of burr clover from all different parts of the world. Some of the seeds came from the native range around the Mediterranean Sea (e.g. Italy, France, and Morocco) and some came from areas where they are invasive (e.g. Japan, Brazil, and the United States). The plants from the invasive range have already proven that they can invade new areas. Studying traits in native and invasive ranges would allow Casey to learn more about how those individuals invaded in the first place. Because Casey thought trait differences might have caused certain individuals of burr clover to become invasive, he predicted that individuals from the invasive range would have different traits than those from the native range. 

Casey’s field site where he studies Burr Clover

The lab decided to look at one trait in particular – how much an individual plant was affected by herbivores, which is called tolerance. The most tolerant individuals can still grow and produce fruits, even when herbivores eat a lot of their tissue. Casey thought that individuals from the invasive range would be more tolerant than individuals from the native range. One reason the invading individuals may have been successful is that they were more tolerant of herbivores in their new environment.The fruits contain seeds that make new plants, so plants that make more fruits can invade more easily. If individuals from the invasive range can make more fruits, even when herbivores are around, then they may reproduce and spread more quickly. 

So, Casey and his lab collected seeds from 22 individual plants from the native range and 22 individual plants from the invasive range. Each plant produces many seeds, so they collected several seeds from each individual. They created 24 2×2-meter plots in a field in California. Into each plot they planted 2-4 seeds from each individual plant and the seeds were planted in a random order in each plot. In all, there were 3,349 plants! In half of the plots, they removed any insects that might eat the plants. To do this they randomly chose half of the plots and sprayed them with insecticide, which kills insects. They sprayed the other half of the plots with water as a control. They wanted to know how many fruits were made by plants under good conditions so they could compare to plants that are being eaten by herbivores. After the plants grew all spring, they measured how many small, spiky fruits each plant produced. They compared how many fruits each plant produced in the plots with insects and the plots without insects. 

Featured scientist: Casey terHorst from California State University, Northridge

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

Fast weeds in farmer’s fields

Native and weedy radish plants.

The activities are as follows:

Weeds in agricultural fields cost farmers $28 billion per year in just the United States alone. When fields are full of weeds the crops do not grow as well. Sometimes weeds even grow better than the crops in the same field. This may make you wonder, how do weeds grow so well compared to other types of plants? Scientists think that weeds may have evolved certain traits that allow them do well in agricultural fields. These adaptationscould allow them to grow better and pass on more of their genes to the next generation.

Weedy radishis considered one of the world’s worst agricultural weeds. This plant has spread around the world and can now be found on every continent except Antarctica. Weedy radish commonly invades wheat and oat fields. It grows better than crops and lowers the amount of food produced in these fields. Weedy radish evolved from native radish only after humans started growing crops. Native radish only grows in natural habitats in the Mediterranean region. 

Because weedy radish evolved from native radish recently, they are still very closely related. They are so closely related they are actually listed as the same species. However, some traits have evolved rapidly in weedy radish. For example, native radish grow much slower and take a few months to make flowers. However, weedy radish can make flowers only three weeks after sprouting! In a farmer’s field, the crop might be harvested before a native radish would be able to make any seeds, while weedy radish had plenty of time to make seeds.

Ashley collecting data on the traits of weedy and native radish. 

The differences between native versus weedy radish interested Ashley, a teacher in Michigan. To learn more she sought out a scientist studying this species. She found Jeff, a plant biologist at the Kellogg Biological Station and she joined his lab for a summer to work with him. That summer, Ashley ran an experiment where she tested whether the rapid flowering and seed production of weedy radish was an adaptation to life in agricultural fields.

Ashley planted four populations of native radish and three populations of weedy radish into fields growing oat crops. Ashley made sure to plant multiple populations of radish to add replication to her experiment. Multiple populations allowed her to see if patterns were the same across populations or if each population grew differently. For each of these populations she measured flowering frequency. This trait is the total number of plants that produced flowers within the limited time between tilling and harvesting. Ashley also measured fitness, by counting the total number of seeds each plant produced over its lifetime. Whichever plant type produced a greater number of seeds had higher fitness. Oats only grow for 12 weeks so if radish plants were going to flower and make seeds they would have to do it fast. Ashley predicted the weedy radish population would produce more flowers and seeds than native radish during the study. Ashley expected few native radish plants would flower before harvest.

Featured scientists: Ashley Carroll from Gull Lake Middle School and Jeff Conner from the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.1

Can biochar improve crop yields?

Buckets of pine wood biochar.

The activities are as follows:

If you walk through the lush Amazon rainforest, the huge trees may be the first thing you see. But, did you know there are wonderful things to explore on the forest floor? In special places of the Amazon, there exist incredible dark soils called “Terra Preta”. These soils are rich in nutrients that help plants grow. The main source of nutrients and dark color is from charcoal added by humans. Hundreds of years ago the indigenous people added their cooking waste, including ash from fire pits, into the ground to help their food crops grow. Today, scientists and farmers are trying out this same ancient method. When this charcoal is added to soil to help plants grow, we call it biochar.

Biochar is a pretty unique material. It is created by a special process that is similar to burning materials in a fire place, but without oxygen. Biochar can be made from many different materials. Most biochar has lots of tiny spaces, or pores, that cause it to act like a hard sponge when it is in the soil. Due to these pores, the biochar can hold more water than the soil can by itself. Along with that extra water, it also can hold nutrients. Biochar has been shown to increase crop yield in tropical places like the Amazon.

Farmers in western Colorado wanted to know what would happen if they added biochar to fields near them. Their farms experience a very different climate that is cooler and drier than the Amazon. In these drier environments, farmers are concerned about the amount of water in the soil, especially during droughts. Farmers had so many questions about how biochar works in soils that scientists at Colorado State University decided to help. One scientist, Erika, was curious if biochar could really help farms in dry Colorado. Erika thought that biochar could increase crop yield by providing pores that would hold more water in the soil that crop plants can use to grow.

Matt, a soil scientist, applying biochar to the field in a treatment plot.

To test the effects of biochar in dry agricultural environments, Erika set up an experiment at the Colorado State University Agricultural Research and Development Center. She set up plots with three different soil conditions: biochar added, manure added, and a control. She chose to include a manure treatment because it is what farmers in Colorado were currently adding to their soil when they farmed. For each treatment she had 4 replicate plots, for a total of 12 plots. She added biochar or manure to a field at the same rate (30 Megagrams/ ha or 13 tons/acre). She didn’t add anything to control plots. Erika then planted corn seeds into all 12 plots.

Erika also wanted to know if the effects of biochar would be different when water was limited compared to when it was plentiful. She set up another experimental treatment with two different irrigation levels: fullirrigationandlimitedirrigation. The full irrigation plots were watered whenever the plants needed it. The limited irrigation plots were not watered for the whole month of July, giving crops a drought period during the growing season. Erika predicted that the plots with biochar would have more water in the soil. She also thought that corn yields would be higher with biochar than in the manure and control plots. She predicted these patterns would be true under both the full and limited irrigation treatments. However, she thought that the biochar would be most beneficial when crops were given less water in the limited irrigation treatments.

To measure the water in the soil, Erika took soil samples three times: a few weeks after planting (June), the middle of the growing season (July), and just before corn harvest (September). She weighedout 10 gofmoistsoil, thendried the samples for24 hoursin an oven and weighed them again. By putting the soil in the oven, the water evaporates out and leaves just the dry soil. Sarah divided the weight of the water lost by the weight of the dry soil to calculate the percent soil moisture. At the end of the season she measured crop yield as the dry weight of the corn cobs in bushes per acre (bu/acre).

Featured scientist: Erika Foster from Colorado State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Resources to pair with this Data Nugget:

Tree-killing beetles

A Colorado forest impacted by a mountain pine beetle outbreak. Notice the dead trees mixed with live trees. Forests like this with dead trees from mountain pine beetle outbreaks cover millions of acres across western North America.

The activities are as follows:

A beetle the size of a grain of rice seems insignificant compared to a vast forest. However, during outbreaks the number of mountain pine beetles can skyrocket, leading to the death of many trees. The beetles bore their way through tree bark and introduce blue stain fungi. The blue stain fungi kills the tree by blocking water movement. Recent outbreaks of mountain pine beetles killed millions of acres of lodgepole pine trees across western North America. Widespread tree death caused by mountain pine beetles can impact human safety, wildfires, nearby streamflow, and habitat for wildlife.

Mountain pine beetles are native to western North America and outbreak cycles are a natural process in these forests. However, the climate and forest conditions have been more favorable for mountain pine beetles during recent outbreaks than in the past. These conditions caused more severe outbreaks than those seen before.

Logs from mountain pine beetle killed lodgepole pine trees. The blue stain fungi is visible around the edge of each log. Mountain pine beetles introduce this fungus to the tree.

When Tony moved to Colorado, he drove through the mountains eager to see beautiful forests. The forest he saw was not the green forest he expected. Many of the trees were dead! Upon closer examination he realized that some forests had fewer dead trees than others. This caused him to wonder why certain areas were greatly impacted by the mountain pine beetles while others had fewer dead trees. Tony later got a job as a field technician for Colorado State University. During this job he measured trees in mountain forests. He carefully observed the forest and looked for patterns of where trees seemed to be dead and where they were alive.

Tony thought that the size of the trees in the forest might be related to whether they were attacked and killed by beetles. A larger tree might be easier for a beetle to find and might be a better source of food.To test this idea, Tony and a team of scientists visited many forests in northern Colorado. At each site they recorded the diameter of each tree’s trunk, which is a measure of the size of the tree. They also recorded the tree species and whether it was alive or dead. They then used these values to calculate the average tree size and the percent of trees killed for each site.

Featured scientist: Tony Vorster from Colorado State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below:

Are forests helping in the fight against climate change?

Bill setting up a large metal tower in Harvard Forest in 1989, used to measure long-term CO2 exchange.

The activities are as follows:

As humans drive cars and use electricity, we release carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. Because COhelps to trap heat near the surface of the earth, it is known as a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change. However, carbon is also an important piece of natural ecosystems, because all living organisms contain carbon. For example, when plants photosynthesize, they take COfrom the air and turn it into other forms of carbon: sugars for food and structural compounds to build their stems, roots, and leaves. When the carbon in a living tree’s trunk, roots, leaves, and branches stays there for a long time, the carbon is kept out of the air. This carbon storage helps reduce the amount of COin the atmosphere. However, not all of the COthat trees take from the air during photosynthesis remains as part of the tree. Some of that carbon returns to the air during a process called respiration.

Another important part of the forest carbon cycle happens when trees drop their leaves and branches or die. The carbon that the tree has stored breaks down in a process called decomposition. Some of the stored carbon returns to the air as CO2, but the rest of the carbon in those dead leaves and branches builds up on the forest floor, slowly becoming soil. Once carbon is stored in soil, it stays there for a long time. We can think of forests as a balancing act between carbon building up in trees and soil, and carbon released to the air by decomposition and respiration. When a forest is building up more carbon than it is releasing, we call that area a carbon sink, because overall more COis “sinking” into the forest and staying there. On the other hand, when more carbon is being released by the forest through decomposition and respiration, that area is a carbon source, because the forest is adding more carbon back into the atmosphere than it is taking in through photosynthesis.

In the 1990s, scientists began to wonder what role forests were having in this exchange of carbon in and out of the atmosphere. Were forests overall storing carbon (carbon sink), or releasing it (carbon source)? Bill is one of the scientists who decided to explore this question. Bill works at the Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts, a Long-Term Ecological Research site that specializes in setting up big experiments to learn how the environment works. Bill and his team of scientists realized they could measure the COcoming into and out of an entire forest. They built large metal towers that stand taller than the forest trees around them and use sensors to measure the speed, direction, and COconcentration of each puff of air that passes by. Bill compares the COin the air coming from the forest to the ones moving down into the forest from the atmosphere. With the COdata from both directions, Bill calculates the Net Ecosystem Exchange (or NEE for short). When more carbon is moving into the forest than out, NEE is a negative number because COis being taken out of the air. This often happens during the summer when trees are getting a lot of light and are therefore photosynthesizing. When more COis leaving the forest, it means that decomposition and respiration are greater than photosynthesis and the NEE is a positive number. This typically happens at night and in the winter, when trees aren’t photosynthesizing but respiration and decomposition still occur. By adding up the NEE of each hour over a whole year, Bill finds the total amount of COthe forest is adding or removing from the atmosphere that year.

Bill and his team were very interested in understanding NEE because of how important it is to the global carbon cycle, and therefore to climate change. They wanted to know which factors might cause the NEE of a forest to vary. Bill and other scientists collected data on carbon entering and leaving Harvard Forest for many years to see if they could find any patterns in NEE over time. By looking at how the NEE changes over time, predictions can be made about the future: are forests taking up more COthan they release? Will they continue to do so under future climate change?

Featured scientist: Bill Munger from Harvard University

Written by: Fiona Jevon

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

  • There are several publications based on the data from the Harvard Forest LTER. PDFs for all papers can be found online here. Citations below:
    • Wofsy, S.C., Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Fan, S.M., Bakwin, P.S., Daube, B.C., Bassow, S.L. and Bazzaz, F.A., 1993. Net exchange of CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science260(5112), pp.1314-1317.
    • Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Fan, S.M., Daube, B.C. and Wofsy, S.C., 1996. Exchange of carbon dioxide by a deciduous forest: response to interannual climate variability. Science271(5255), pp.1576-1578.
    • Barford, C.C., Wofsy, S.C., Goulden, M.L., Munger, J.W., Pyle, E.H., Urbanski, S.P., Hutyra, L., Saleska, S.R., Fitzjarrald, D. and Moore, K., 2001. Factors controlling long-and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science294(5547), pp.1688-1691.
    • Urbanski, S., Barford, C., Wofsy, S., Kucharik, C., Pyle, E., Budney, J., McKain, K., Fitzjarrald, D., Czikowsky, M. and Munger, J.W., 2007. Factors controlling CO2 exchange on timescales from hourly to decadal at Harvard Forest. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences112(G2).
    • Wehr, R., Munger, J.W., McManus, J.B., Nelson, D.D., Zahniser, M.S., Davidson, E.A., Wofsy, S.C. and Saleska, S.R., 2016. Seasonality of temperate forest photosynthesis and daytime respiration. Nature534(7609), p.680.
  • Our Changing Forests Schoolyard Ecology project – Do your students want to get involved with research monitoring carbon cycles in forests? Check out this hands-on field investigation, led by a team of Ecologists at Harvard Forest. Students can contribute to this study by monitoring a 20 meter by 20 meter plot in a wooded area near their schools.
  • A cool article about the diversity of research being done at Harvard Forest – Researchers blown away by hurricane simulation
  • Additional images from Harvard Forest, diagrams of NEE, and a vocabulary list can be found in this PowerPoint.

The case of the collapsing soil

An area in the Florida Everglades where strange soil collapse has been observed.

The activities are as follows:

As winds blow through the large expanses of grass in the Florida Everglades, it looks like flowing water. This “river of grass” is home to a wide diversity of plants and animals, including both the American Alligator and the American Crocodile. The Everglades ecosystem is the largest sub-tropical wetland in North America. One third of Floridians rely on the Everglades for water. Unfortunately, this iconic wetland is threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change. Sea level rise is caused by higher global temperatures leading to thermal expansion of water, land-ice melt, and changes in ocean currents.

With rising seas, one important feature of the Florida Everglades may change. There are currently large amounts of carbon stored in the wetland’s muddy soils. By holding carbon in the mud, coastal wetlands are able to help in the fight against climate change. However, under stressful conditions like being submersed in sea water, soil microbes increase respiration. During respiration, carbon stored in the soil is released as carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. As sea level rises, soil microbes are predicted to release stored carbon and contribute to the greenhouse effect, making climate change worse.

Shelby collecting soil samples from areas where the soil has collapsed in the Everglades.

Shelby and John are ecologists who work in southern Florida. John became fascinated with the Everglades during his first visit 10 years ago and has been studying this unique ecosystem ever since. Shelby is interested in learning how climate change will affect the environment, and the Everglades is a great place to start! They are both very concerned with protecting the Everglades and other wetlands. Recently when John, Shelby, and their fellow scientists were out working in the Everglades they noticed something very strange. It looked like areas of the wetland were collapsing! What could be the cause of this strange event?

John and Shelby thought it might have something to do loss of carbon due to sea level rise. They wanted to test whether the collapsing soils were the result of increased microbial respiration, leading to loss of carbon from the soil, due to stressful conditions from sea level rise. They set out to test two particular aspects of sea water that might be stressful to microbes – salt and phosphorus.

Phosphorus is found in sea water and is a nutrient essential for life. However, too much phosphorus can lead to over enriched soils and change the way that microbes use carbon. Sea water also contains salt, which can stress soil microbes and kill plants when there is too much. Previous research has shown that both salt and phosphorus exposure on their own increase respiration rates of soil microbes.

A photo of the experimental setup. Each container has a different level of salt and phosphorus concentration.

To test their hypotheses, a team of ecologists in John’s lab developed an experiment using soils from the Everglades. They collected soil from areas where the soil had collapsed and brought it into the lab. These soils had the microbes from the Everglades in them. Once in the lab, they put their soil and microbes into small vials and exposed them to 5 different concentrations of salt, and 5 different concentrations of phosphorus. The experiment crossed each level of the two treatments. This means they had soil in every possible combination of treatments – some with high salt and low phosphorus, some in low salt and high phosphorus, and so on. Their experiment ran for 5 weeks. At the end of the 5 weeks they measured the amount of COreleased from the soils.

Featured scientists: John Kominoski and Shelby Servais from Florida International University. Written by Shelby, John, and Teresa Casal.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

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Marsh makeover

A saltmarsh near Boston, MA being restored after it was degraded by human activity.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are diverse and productive ecosystems, and are found where the land meets the sea. They contain very unique plant species that are able to tolerate flooding during high tide and greater salt levels found in seawater. Healthy salt marshes are filled with many species of native grasses. These grasses provide food and nesting grounds for lots of important animals. They also help remove pollution from the land before it reaches the sea. The grass roots protect the shoreline from erosion during powerful storms. Sadly today, humans have disturbed most of the salt marshes around the world. As salt marshes are disturbed, native plant biodiversity, and the services that marshes provide to us, are lost.

A very important role of salt marshes is that they are able to store carbon, and the amount they store is called their carbon storage capacity. Carbon is stored in marshes in the form of both dead and living plant tissue, called biomass. Marsh grasses photosynthesize, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in plant biomass. This biomass then falls into the mud and the carbon is stored there for a very long time. Salt marshes have waterlogged muddy soils that are low in oxygen. Because of the lack of oxygen, decomposition of dead plant tissue is much slower than it is in land habitats where oxygen is plentiful. All of this stored carbon can help lower the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This means that healthy and diverse salt marshes are very important to help fight climate change.

However, as humans change the health of salt marshes, we may also change the amount of carbon being stored. As humans disturb marshes, they may lower the biodiversity and fewer plant species can grow in the area. The less plant species growing in the marsh, the less biomass there will be. Without biomass falling into the mud and getting trapped where there is little oxygen, the carbon storage capacity of disturbed marshes may go down.

Jennifer, working alongside students, to collect biomass data for a restored saltmarsh.

It is because of the important role that marshes play in climate change that Jennifer, and her students, spend a lot of time getting muddy in saltmarshes. Jennifer wants to know more about the carbon storage capacity of healthy marshes, and also those that have been disturbed by human activity. She also wants to know whether it is possible to restore degraded salt marshes to help improve their carbon storage capacity. Much of her work focuses on comparing how degraded and newly restored marshes to healthy marshes. By looking at the differences and similarities, she can document the ways that restoration can help increase carbon storage. Since Jennifer and her students work in urban areas with a lot of development along the coast, there are lots of degraded marshes that can be restored. If she can show how important restoring marshes is for increasing plant diversity and helping to combat climate change, then hopefully people in the area will spend more money and effort on marsh restoration.

Jennifer predicted that: 1) healthy marshes will have a higher diversity of native vegetation and greater biomass than degraded salt marshes, 2) restored marshes will have a lower or intermediate level of biomass depending on how long it has been since the marsh was restored, and 3) newly restored marshes will have lower biomass, while marshes that were restored further in the past will have higher biomass.

To test her predictions, Jennifer studied two different salt marshes near Boston, Massachusetts, called Oak Island and Neponset. Within each marsh she sampled several sites that had different restoration histories. She also included some degraded sites that had never been restored for a comparison. Jen measured the total number of different plant species and plant biomass at multiple locations across all study sites. These measurements would give Jen an idea of how much carbon was being stored at each of the sites.

Featured scientist: Jennifer Bowen from Northeastern University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.0