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Monday, June 22, 2009

Preserving diversity: USI students take inventory of flora at Wesselman Woods

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Wendy Knipe Bredhold
Media Relations Specialist, News & Information Services
Armed with trowels, clippers, plastic bags, GPS devices, cameras, and field notebooks, three USI biology students have a license - in the form of a permit from the Department of Natural Resources - to go off-trail and collect plants at Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve.

(View a slideshow of students collecting and preserving plant species from Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve.)

Rebecca Reynolds of Carmel and Daniel Shigley of Elberfeld are two of 18 students selected for the competitive SwiSTEM Early Undergraduate Research Program pairing students who have completed their freshman year with faculty mentors to perform hands-on research early in their collegiate careers.

Under the direction of Dr. Edith Hardcastle, assistant professor of biology, and with the assistance of senior Amber Hougland of Newburgh, Reynolds and Shigley will document the floral diversity of the preserve over the next year. When the inventory is complete, they will produce a research paper to be presented at the fall 2010 meeting of the Indiana Academy of Science.

Kim Meadors, executive director of Wesselman Nature Society, said, "Evaluation of the biodiversity in our natural areas can help us determine what we need to do to protect our natural history. Many people don't realize that Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve is not just a protected hiking area. This forest showcases historic Southern Indiana as it was before it was impacted by logging, agriculture, and other development. This research will help us to catalog the richness of floral diversity within the preserve and assist us in protecting these plants into the future."

Hardcastle is a member of Wesselman Nature Society's natural resources committee. She said, "The goal of the project is to establish a baseline of plant species present in the preserve today, so that any decline in native plant diversity or invasion of exotic species may be tracked over time. The species in the preserve may or may not change in the future, but we can't say what's declining unless we know what's there now."

The students spend their mornings at the nature preserve locating and taking "voucher" specimens, and in the afternoon they press the plants for preservation in the University's herbarium. "If there is any question later about a particular plant, the voucher specimen can prove or disprove that the plant grows - or grew - at the preserve," Hardcastle said. "If we're lucky, we may come upon some rare, native plants they didn't know they had and help them manage those better."

Wesselman has already been identified as the only place in Indiana where a flower called the ocean blue phacelia grows. The students won't remove species that are rare, threatened, or endangered, and no plant will be removed if it is not part of a larger population.

If there are more than 10 examples of a species, the students dig up or clip off two specimens and place them in a sack. They record the GPS coordinates and write down basic habitat data and any unique properties in a field notebook.

Recently, they found only two examples of butterfly weed, so instead of taking a sample, the students took a picture and recorded the flower's coordinates with the GPS. "It doesn't make sense to pick the last plant there," Hardcastle said. "The point is to come back and find a population. The most important thing about a specimen is that you can relocate the plant."

The work will continue through October and resume in spring 2010, so the flora can be documented through each season.

Wendy Knipe Bredhold
News & Information Services

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