Reflections on a field course (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 15)

The Pymatuning wetlanders demonstrated their knowledge of wetland ecosystems this morning on the final exam.

The end of this course is always a bit bittersweet for me. Teaching a field course like this is intense, high-energy, all-consuming, and by the end…. exhausting.  However, without a doubt the experience has once again been the highlight of my professional activities for the year.  Each time I teach this class, I get to learn something new about wetland ecosystems and sharpen my natural history and plant identification skills.  I have the opportunity to get to know a bunch of  interesting students, much better than I would in a typical classroom setting. And it is extremely satisfying to share my knowledge and passion for natural ecosystems with a group of interested students. The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology is an ideal place to do this.

They came a long way.  Walking in a wetland during week one one top.  Week three on bottoms.

They came a long way. Walking in a wetland during week one and then in week three.

Field courses are transformative experiences. For me, it was a fantastic course in field botany nearly 20 years ago.  We were in the field every day, collecting plants and learning about their biology, evolution, distribution, and natural history. I was amazed at the depth of knowledge of the professor, and his passion for plants was contagious. I knew that I wanted to do science before that course, but after it I knew that I wanted to be an ecologist. Sadly, while teaching here at Pymatuning this year I found out that the instructor of that field botany course passed away in late May.  Professor Don Drapalik, RIP. He was on my mind a lot during the past few weeks, particularly as I watched the students build their wetland plant collections.  I still have my plant collection from Don Drapalik’s field botany course, and I am pleased that a large percentage of students this year want to keep their collections.

I sincerely wish the best for this great group of “wetlanders.”  It was a really fun-loving group, and there was lots of good-natured humor along with the learning.  I wish them all good luck with wherever life takes them from here.

Keep in touch….and stay peaty.  #PLEwetlands

Drawing by Ellie Johnson, a student in the wetlands class. I think this is her vision of how I should spend the rest of my summer.

Drawing by Ellie Johnson, a student in the wetlands class. I think this is her vision of how I should spend the rest of my summer.

 

 

 

 

Presque Isle Exploration (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 14)

Marching out to Gull Point on Presque Isle.

Marching out to Gull Point on Presque Isle. The trail was a bit washed out, but not an obstacle for these wetlanders.

The Pymatuning Wetlanders visited Presque Isle today, where we observed coastal processes and successional change.  After a stop at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, explored the peninsula to observe coastal wetlands and processes.  This included a hike out to Gull point, located at the tip of the peninsula, to observe the youngest landscape and wetlands.  We did some wading in Lake Erie to cool off, had lunch on the beach, on our way home we stopped for the long-promised ice cream.  A fun day before tomorrow’s final exam.

Some young ponds on Gull Point, the youngest portion of Presque Isle.

Some young ponds on Gull Point, the youngest portion of Presque Isle.

It is vey hard to determine which one does not belong....

It is vey hard to determine which one does not belong….

 

Dead Phragmites on Presque Isle.  They are trying hard to get rid of it.

Dead Phragmites on Presque Isle. They are trying hard to get rid of it.

Integration through delineation (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 13)

Doing it themselves.  The Pymatuning wetlanders conducting a wetland delineation, applying some of their knowledge toward solving an applied problem.

Doing it themselves. The Pymatuning wetlanders conducting a wetland delineation, applying some of their knowledge toward solving an applied problem.

The Pymatuning wetlanders learned about the role of wetlands in the broader earth system this morning, with a focus on biogeochemical cycles and climate change. This was followed by a quick overview of federal laws that protect wetlands, particularly the history and controversy surrounding the Clean Water Act.

We headed to Hartstown Swamp in the late morning, where the students were tasked with conducting an actual wetland delineation along a transect from the swamp to the upland.  They received little to no help from me, and had to self organize, determine what data to collect, and then carry it out. They did a fantastic job, and integrating and applying their knowledge of wetland plants and soils. They have come a long way; in fact, just a couple weeks ago most of them struggled to provide a definition for the term “wetland.”  Their data from along the transect was used to construct the diagram below, and we will discuss these results in the morning.

Hydrology, soils, and vegetation data along a transect adjacent to Hartstown Swamp. Gray bars indicate areas that the students identified as wetland.

Hydrology, soils, and vegetation data along a transect adjacent to Hartstown Swamp. Gray bars indicate areas that the students identified as wetland.

What plant is that?

What plant is that?

Reading environmental history from peat (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 12)

Today the Pymatuning wetlands spent the entire day in the lab. Our first day without any fieldwork since the course began.  However, we made up for it by doing a bit of time travel…

Examining plant microfossils from a peat core collected from Titus Bog.

Examining plant microfossils from a peat core collected from Titus Bog.

We examined the core we collected from Titus Bog yesterday.  We subsampled the sediment and peat, sieved the samples to isolate plant macrofossils (i.e., seeds, leaves, needles, etc.), and identified and tallied the microfossils to determine how the vegetation of the wetland has changed over the past 8000 or 9000 years.  The students determined that the site was occupied by a shallow lake prior to the establishment of the modern peatland, with submerged and floating leaved aquatic plants like Najas (water nymph), Nuphar (spatterdock), and Nymphaea (water lily) growing in the deeper portions of the littoral zone. Emergents like Cladium (sawgrass), Rhynchospora (beaked sedge), and other sedges likely occupied the lake margin along with small amounts of Sphagnum moss. The area abruptly became a floating peatland about 350 years ago, when Sphagnum became dominant.  The upland vegetation around the site contained Tsuga canadensis (hemlock), Pinus strobus (white pine), and Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch) for much of the record. Most of the species in the paleoecological record have been observed at the wetlands we have visited during the past two weeks of the course; in fact, quite a few are the “must-know” list.

Summary macrofossil diagram from Titus Bog, PA.  Numbers per 10cm3 are plotted against depth in the core. Ages, in years before present, were estimated from Ireland and Booth (2011). The microfossil record was put together in one afternoon by seven students, with each student analyzing about 10 samples.

Summary macrofossil diagram from Titus Bog, PA. Numbers per 10cm3 are plotted against depth (cm) in the core. Ages, in years before present, were estimated from Ireland and Booth (2011). The microfossil record was put together in one afternoon by seven students, with each student analyzing about 10 samples.

Our age estimates for the record are tentative and come from a broader study of peatland development at the site by Ireland and Booth (2011).  We will discuss our paleoecological record in class tomorrow, along with the Ireland and Booth study, emphasizing the implications for understanding long-term wetland development and hydroseral succession.

Boggin’ (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 11)

Exploring Titus Bog.

Exploring Titus Bog.

After spending considerable time in marshes and swamps over the past two weeks, the Pymatuning wetlanders spent much of today in a bog (well, as they all know it is technically a poor fen). We drove to Titus Bog, located about an hour northeast of the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, and Tim Lyons of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania accompanied us into the bog. The moat swamp surrounding the bog was fun to cross, as the water levels were quite high from the recent rain, and several students were delighted to have the opportunity to get a little water into their waders again.

Wetland Ecology class collecting a peat core from Titus Bog.

Wetland Ecology class collecting a peat core from Titus Bog.

Peatland ecosystems are quite unique. They leave a detailed record of their own development through time, recording past changes in plant communities, hydrology, and other environmental conditions within the stratigraphy of their waterlogged peat. To examine the paleoecological history of Titus Bog, we collected a peat core capturing most of the upper 9 meters. The students did a great job collecting the core, and tomorrow we will carefully examine the peat and sediments under the microscope to reconstruct how the present-day wetland came to be. We will use the record of past vegetation change as a springboard for a broader discussion of wetland development.

Bog copper butterflies. Mating individuals are shown to the left and upper wing coloration shown on right. Photographs by Tim Lyons.

Bog copper butterflies. Mating individuals are shown to the left and upper wing coloration shown on right. Photographs by Tim Lyons.

After collecting the peat core, we hiked around the surface of the floating peat mat, where we saw many typical bog plant species including several orchids, cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus), leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), podgrass (Scheuchzeria palustris), bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), and of course lots of Sphagnum moss. We were lucky enough to be on the bog during the brief window that the bog copper (Lycaena epixanthe) was active and mating. These small butterflies occur exclusively in these acidic peatland habitats, where cranberries serve as the host plant.

After we finished our exploration of Titus Bog, we went on a short hike to a very small peatland that has a nice population of purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea). The students have now seen all of their “must-know” plant species in the field.

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