This summer, Biology major Kayla Kroll ’12 and Scientific Illustration major Emilyann Christodoulou ’14 are researching ecology and the disturbance history of pine forests in northeastern West Virginia with Dr. Lauren F. Howard, Assistant Professor of Biology. The study is being done in collaboration with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the Nature Conservancy of West Virginia, and the U.S. Forest Service.
Howard’s research examines the historical frequency and spatial distribution of fire in these regional pine forests as well as the way in which fires influenced the present species composition of these forests. The questions that his research raises create opportunities for self-contained mini-projects that lend themselves to mentored research projects for advanced students.
Kroll Plots Fires to Preserve Pines
For her project, Kroll is identifying the historic dates of forest fires on North Fork Mountain in West Virginia. This information is currently unknown for the rare pine forests found on mountain ridges in the northeastern part of the states, but it is necessary to gather the information in order to facilitate long-term conservation of biodiversity in this fire-adapted habitat.
“Information on fire frequency and geographic spread will help us determine the historic range of variability in fire, and baseline information could be incorporated into management plans that might include controlled burns,” says Howard, who led Kroll and fellow Biology majors Lynn Sipsey ’11 and Steph Clymer ’11 to North Fork Mountain to conduct field research. The four collected more than 60 fire scar samples from trees damaged by forest fires in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Kroll is in the process of sanding wood samples to expose the annual rings, which she will count and cross-date. The results of this project will be shared with the Nature Conservancy, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Forest Service, as North Fork Mountain is part of the Monongahela National Forest.
She explains that fires, generally thought to be destructive, are often necessary to preserve biodiversity. They weed out the dense root systems of the hardwood trees, making it possible for pitch pines to flourish. “These are very fragile ecosystems with sandy soil,” says Kroll. “We want to preserve the pitch pine species. In areas such as North Fork Mountain, fire suppression has been put in place—when there is a fire they put it out immediately.” Pitch pines, unlike hardwood trees, often survive fires. However, they often lay victim to overcrowding when fires are prevented.
Once the data is compiled, information can be used to assess the current fire regimes and inform future management using fire to help those pitch pines thrive.
Christodoulou Illustrates Panther Knob's Past
A rising sophomore, Christodoulou is working on a different portion of the research. Using methodology similar to Kroll, she is cross-dating and measuring the growth rings from more than 200 trees that Howard cored in 2008 on Panther Knob, a Nature Conservancy preserve in northwestern West Virginia. at the southern terminus of North Fork Mountain. Investigating growth patterns of pines on Panther Knob will help conservationists understand the formation of the current forest stand, and hopefully illuminate its links to historic fires in the area.
In a separate project, Christodoulou is also carefully drawing fire scars and tree ring patterns to illustrate a guide to reading tree rings, which future students in Howard’s lab can use to help familiarize themselves with the methodology.
“So far the experience has been great,” says Christodoulou. “Honestly, I was expecting Dr. Howard to tell me to wait until my junior year. When I asked about the opportunity, he asked me if I could start immediately.”
Christodoulou didn’t hesitate, beginning her research during the spring semester of her first year. By the time she graduates, Christodoulou plans to compile a comprehensive field guide with her collection of scientific illustrations.
Faculty Empowers Students
“Dr. Howard only gets involved in our projects when we need him to be, which makes me feel like this is my independent project,” says Christodoulou. “Of course, he is always checking in with us over e-mail, and he comes in about once a week, but because there isn’t a professor here looking over my shoulder, correcting a mistake as soon as I make it, I feel more personal urgency.”
“He’s also very encouraging, so it has been a fun experience so far,” adds Kroll. “He has shown us the basic techniques and tools we need to do the research, but he also gives us a lot of leeway to figure out how to do things by ourselves.”
“One of the very best things that Arcadia offers its students is the opportunity to conduct state-of-the-art research one-on-one with our gifted faculty,” said Arcadia’s President Carl (Tobey) Oxholm III.
“Here, discovery and innovation are not just read about in books—they are experienced with the hands and a mentor. These experiences prepare our students well for graduate schools and careers and help to ensure that our country will have creative minds eager to take on new challenges. But these experiences also create informed citizens, as our students know firsthand how difficult true scientific inquiry is and are better able to evaluate and participate in public discourse about scientific issues that will have local, national and global significance in the coming decades.”