Friday, February 28, 2014

Spring Break on the Prairie Proves Transformative for Michigan Student

Nichols Arboretum caretaker and University of Michigan student Julie McLaughlin  talks about how working outdoors led her to study ecology and the environment.

How did I end up in the Conservation Ecology graduate program at Michigan?

I didn’t begin working outdoors until my senior year of college. As part of Michigan’s Alternative Spring Break program, I spent a week working on oak savanna and tallgrass prairie restoration with an AmeriCorps group in Indiana instead of laying on a beach in Mexico (or, more likely, watching TV in my parents’ basement.)

This was my first exposure to the unique ecosystems of savanna and prairie, of which very few remnants remain in the Midwest, and which many conservation ecologists are scrambling to protect, as less than 1% of this habitat remains. I spent my post-graduation year with the same AmeriCorps team, traveling across the state year-round, exploring Nature Conservancy sites and learning how ecosystem health was measured and restored. I also learned what would become my life motto: there is no bad weather, just bad clothing choices.

I then moved to a totally different region: the Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado. I enjoyed the dry and sunny weather, the different species of plants and wildlife, the culture of open space, and the thrills of summiting high peaks. But despite all of these differences, my experience in the Midwest was quite useful: it turns out that if you travel southwest from Michigan, the tallgrass prairie recedes and then disappears throughout Kansas and Nebraska, right up until you reach the Rocky Mountain foothills. Here, in the ecotone—the transition area between two biomes—where the plains and the mountains collide, are pockets of tallgrass prairie that are remnants from the last ice-age.

After years of seasonal jobs, I realized that I would need to pursue an advanced degree if I really wanted to commit myself to ecology as a career. Despite my experience out west, it was the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan that appealed to me most, and that’s how I ended up back in Ann Arbor, where Conservation Biology as a discipline was formally founded almost 30 years ago.

The author participates in a prescribed burn in 2007 at the Northern Indiana Public Service Company savanna, which is a Nature Conservancy property in Jasper County, IN.

One of the best parts of my graduate studies so far is how integrated my studies are with my work and personal life. As a resident caretaker in the Arboretum, I live in the same place where I work and study. I get to lead volunteers in restoring a prairie that is many things: a valuable research site, a rare ecosystem I'm deeply invested in conserving, and a place that's right in my own backyard. I’ve also come to learn that, despite working with vastly different species and ecosystems, and in different parts of the world, our goals as students of conservation are the same: to understand the diversity of the human and natural worlds, and how to ensure that these worlds will exist long into the future.

Julie McLaughlin is a master's student in Conservation Ecology with interests relating to restoration ecology. She hopes to work on projects focused on invasive species ecology, removal, and post-treatment monitoring, including the use of prescribed burning as a treatment tool. Julie is also interested in prairie and oak savanna restoration in the Midwest and Mountain Pine Beetle issues in the Rockies.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Skunk Cabbage - A Sure Sign of Spring!

In case you hadn't noticed it's been a groundbreaking winter season with record low temperatures and record high snowfalls. But leave it to the natural springs to break the ground in their own way and provide us with our first hint of spring!

Last Saturday (February 22), Nichols Arboretum caretakers discovered the first signs of spring life down by the Huron River banks near a natural spring - skunk cabbage! Skunk cabbage, or Symplocarpus foetidus, is one of the first plants to emerge in spring. It's a thermogenic plant, which means it is able to generate heat at the cellular level, specifically in the mitochondria cells. This process melts the frozen ground around the plant, allowing growth to occur. Characteristics of the plant include an early spring bloom of mottled purple flowers at 4-6 inches tall that produce a pungent but harmless odor - the root of this plant's common name.  Leaves emerge slightly later than the bloom and can reach 21.5" long by 16" wide. Get your hiking boots ready, because spring is right around the corner!

Skunk cabbage pushing up through the snow in Nichols Arboretum

Guest post by Nichols Arboretum caretaker Jacob Hamilton, part of a series of posts written by our student workers.