Category Archives: Teaching

State of the Lehigh Experimental Forest, 2017

20170911_150231General ecology (EES-152) students have finished resurveying a portion of the Lehigh Experimental Forest, assessing changes in species mortality and recruitment since 2013. A total of 1174 trees were inventoried and measured from across the forest the last two years, representing more than 1/2 of all trees originally tagged in 2013. In the four  years since 2013, 167 of these 1174 trees have died (~14%) and only eleven new trees have established in the study area (<1%).  Data for the dominant tree species are shown in the plot below.

LUEF 2017

Abundance, mortality, recruitment, and the net percentage change of tree/shrub species in the Lehigh University Experimental Forest, 2013-2017. Relative frequency data are from 2013 (M. Spicer, MS thesis 2014) and indicate the percent of each species present (based on a total of 1174 trees). Total mortality and recruitment for each species with greater than 10 individuals are shown as percentages. Species are arranged from those undergoing substantial declines in abundance at the top to those that have increased in abundance on the bottom.

 

We will use these data to discuss processes controlling forest dynamics as the semester progresses.  However, for now, students should answer the following questions:

  1. What factors might have caused the differences in mortality among species?
  2. Develop a hypothesis to explain the lack of recruitment for most tree/shrub species. Then do some research on the two tree species that have successfully recruited and those species that have not. Are there species traits that are common to successful and unsuccessful recruiters? Are these traits consistent (or inconsistent) with what you might predict from your hypothesis?
  3. What does the pattern of mortality and recruitment suggest about the future of the Lehigh Experimental Forest? Assuming the rates of total tree recruitment and mortality are representative of future years, when will there be less than 100 trees in this forest?  In 2013, there were ~2000 trees in the forest so you can use that as your starting number. Show your work and describe how you arrived at your estimate.  Do you think this scenario is likely?  Why or why not?
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Invasion confirmed. Water lettuce and water hyacinth overwintering in Pennsylvania.

Last September, two invasive aquatic plants, water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), were discovered in the Lehigh Canal in Bethlehem PA.  Both species are floating plants, like duckweeds but much larger, and they often grow in dense mats in tropical and subtropical regions. Although this was the first confirmed occurrence in natural habitat within Pennsylvania, both species are sensitive to freezing temperatures so they have not not been regarded as major threats in the Northeast. A description of the discovery of these populations and some background on the species, including a discussion of recent work suggesting that the overwintering potential may be greater than previously thought, can be found in my post from last year (New invaders in the Lehigh Valley? Or Just Summer Visitors?).

The discovery last year prompted several questions. In particular, are these populations really persisting from year-to-year and therefore surviving freezing temperatures? I suspected that they were introduced last summer from someone’s pond and that they would not survive the winter. However, the winter was mild and the recent discovery of some overwintering populations in the lower Great Lakes gave me pause. I road my bike along the canal towpath last week to have a look.

I was wrong. Both species have overwintered. A harbinger of things to come?  Below are some pictures, and I’ll update this post with more later in the summer.

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Water lettuce survived the Pennsylvania winter in the Lehigh Canal. 10 July 2017.

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Water hyacinth also survived the Pennsylvania winter in the Lehigh Canal. 10 July 2017.

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Larger clump of water lettuce in the middle of the canal. 10 July 2017.

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Only a little bigger than the duckweed, you can see the light-green colored water lettuce in this image. Given the small size, I suspect it came back from seed. 10 July 2017.

Tweeting from the field. Ecology 2016.

A summary of course-related tweets for EES-152 (Ecology) in Fall 2016.  What fun we have had!

 

State of the forest, 2016

General ecology (EES-152) students have finished resurveying a portion of the Lehigh Experimental Forest, with the goal of assessing changes in tree growth, mortality, and recruitment since 2013. A total of 690 trees were measured from across the forest, representing more than a 1/4 of all trees. In the three years since 2013, 70 of these 690 trees have died and only three new trees have established in the study area.  Data for the dominant tree species are shown in the plot below.

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Tree abundance, mortality, recruitment, and growth rates in the Lehigh University Experimental Forest, 2013-2016. Relative frequency data are from 2013 (M. Spicer, MS thesis 2014) and indicate the percent of each species present (based on a total of 690 trees). Total mortality and recruitment across the time period are shown as percentages. The average increase in basal area of individuals of each species is shown, with the mean value for all species indicated with the vertical dashed line. Total change in basal area for each species, incorporating mortality losses and basal-area gains, is also shown.

We will use these data to discuss the processes controlling forest dynamics as the semester progresses.  However, for now, students should answer the following questions:

  1. The dbh measurements were converted into estimates of area, assuming that each tree was a perfect circle in cross-section. Why do you think basal area was used to compare growth rates among the different species? Why was this expressed as the average change in basal area per tree? What factors might have caused the observed differences in radial growth among species?
  2. What does the pattern of mortality and recruitment suggest about the future of the Lehigh Experimental Forest? What factors might have caused the differences in mortality among species during these two years? What factors might be contributing to the lack of new tree recruitment in the forest?
  3. Assuming the rates of total tree recruitment and mortality are representative of future years, when will there be no trees left in this forest?  In 2013, there were ~2000 trees in the forest. Show your work and describe how you arrived at your estimate.  Do you think it is likely that the trees will really be gone by this time?  Why or why not?
  4. Which species had both very high mortality and very low growth during this time period? Do some research on current threats to this particular species, and summarize your research in a short paragraph.

New invaders in the Lehigh Valley? Or just summer visitors?

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Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) growing in the Lehigh Canal. Most colonies in this picture are water hyacinth, although the light green colony in the middle is water lettuce. (RK Booth, 20 Sep 2016)

Back in June an alligator was found in the Lehigh Canal. Apparently it wasn’t the first one found in the broader Lehigh Valley.

But perhaps just as surprising are a couple of potentially new plant arrivals. Or are they just summer visitors?  Last week I noticed sizable populations of two aquatic plant species, water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), in the canal at Sand Island in Bethlehem. Both of these species float unattached on the water surface, like the more common duckweeds, and they often grow in dense mats that make fishing and boating difficult, crowd out other plant species, and alter water chemistry and light penetration. To my knowledge, neither species is confirmed to occur naturalized in Pennsylvania  but it is not uncommon to see them cultivated in backyard ponds (USDA Plants: water hyacinth, water lettuce).

 

 

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The Lehigh Canal at Sand Island, Bethlehem PA. In September 2016, water lettuce and water hyacinth occurred in scattered colonies along much of the canal length shown in this Google image.

The populations of water lettuce and water hyacinth in the Lehigh Canal consist of scattered colonies extending from about the Hill-to-Hill Bridge (Route 378) east past the New Street Bridge (Fahy Bridge), to about the point where the Sand Island Trail meets the towpath (D&L Trail). The total distance is about a half mile.  The water lettuce appears to cover a slightly greater distance than the water hyacinth, and the plants are generally smaller in height as you head east (downstream) from the Main Street Bridge.

Water lettuce and water hyacinth are tropical or subtropical in origin. The two species have dramatically expanded their range in warmer regions in recent years, where they have cause considerable ecological and recreational impacts. However, given that both species are sensitive to freezing temperatures, they have not not been regarded as major threats in the Northeast. However, some uncertainty about this assumption has emerged in the last several years. For example, a few years ago populations were found in the lower Great Lakes (Adebayo et al. 2010), and resurveys found both species in three subsequent years (Maclsaac et al. 2016), raising concerns about the potential for the establishment of persistent populations in more northerly locations.  Although freezing typically kills individuals of both species they can produce seeds that survive cold temperatures; in fact, water lettuce seeds can still be viable after a few weeks in solid ice (Pieterse et al. 1981).  Maclsaac et al. (2016) suggested that the two species likely persist in the lower Great Lakes due to annual reintroductions by humans (both species are sold for ponds/aquariums), but also noted that at least in the case of water hyacinth, seasonal regeneration from viable seeds may be occurring.

 

 

For background, the Lehigh Canal was built in 1827 to transport anthracite coal from the upper Lehigh Valley, and it remained in operation until the early 1940s. Heavy transportation and industrial activity along the canal and river corridor, as well the development of the surrounding Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton region led to numerous environmental problems, including pollution, habitat degradation, the spread of invasive species, and eutrophication of the canal. However, the towpath along the canal is now a natural-area corridor and the old towpath is a great place to bike, run, hike, fish, bird, and observe nature from within the urban and suburban matrix of the Lehigh Valley. Near Sand Island in Bethlehem, the canal itself gets pretty green by mid-summer, as the slow-moving water warms and algae proliferate.  Invasive eurasian water milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and curly-leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) are common submerged plants within the canal, and provide a favorable substrate for filamentous algae.   The habitat is ideal for water lettuce and water hyacinth, except for the fact that it freezes in the winter.

Have these species been in the canal in previous summers? Are these populations persisting, or did this expansion occur just this year?  Perhaps the two species came into the canal with the pet alligator 🙂   Although this was the first time I noticed the two floating species, I don’t frequent this particular area of the towpath often.  Will they reemerge next summer?  Are they producing viable seed? Lots of questions, and certainly something to watch. The observations have been submitted to iMap Invasives, a database of invasive species.

Of course, floating plants are also very good at moving.  Maybe not as fast as an alligator, but fast enough for me to watch a cluster of water lettuce floating down the canal.  Perhaps on its way to Easton?

Literature Cited

Adebayo, A., E. Briski, O. Kalaci, M. Hernandez, S. Ghabooli, B. Beric, F. Chan, A. Zhan, E. Fifield, T. Leadley, and H. MacIsaac. 2011. Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) in the Great Lakes: playing with fire? Aquatic Invasions 6: 91-96. DOI 10.3391/ai.2011.6.1.11.

MacIsaac, H.J., A.P. Eyraud, B. Beric, and S. Ghabooli. 2016. Can tropical macrophytes establish in the Laurentian Great Lakes? Hydrobiologia 767: 165-174. doi:10.1007/s10750-015-2491-y

Pieterse, A. H., L. Delange, and L. Verhagen. 1981. A study on certain aspects of seed germination and growth of Pistia stratiotes L., Acta Botanica Neerlandica 30: 47–57. doi:10.1111/j.1438-8677.1981.tb00386.x

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?

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