plants

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Roads and Research

Last week's NYTimes article about roadkill (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=roadkill&st=cse) got us thinking about how roads change the way scientists do research.  Roads are in part a great research tool because they provide easy access to every region of the country but, as well as creating other issues, they can also skew data.

Craig Freeman, a botanist at the Biodiversity Institute, studies the flora of the Great Plains.  His research often requires him to drive a lot:

"Not surprisingly, when we plot the collect locations of our specimens on a map showing the network of highways in the state, many occur at sites along or near roads, urban areas, and public lands," Freeman said. "Why? Botanists are more likely to see plants (or habitats) of interest from the roads that they travel and in areas where access is not limited. Consequently, there is a collection bias in our data."

This is particularly evident in the western quarter of Kansas, where there is very little public land and few urban areas. Many records documenting the flora of western Kansas come from roadside or near-roadside habitats. So, Freeman said, it's necessary to access lands away from roads to get a more accurate estimate of the diversity and abundance of plants.

Not only do roads change how we investigate the environment, but they also provide habitats for plants that wouldn't normally grow in the plains.  Freeman continues:

"The use of salt to melt snow and ice on paved roads in eastern Kansas has permitted both alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster to spread eastward in Kansas, taking advantage of shoulders of highways where regular mowing elevated salinity limits competition from most other species. Alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster can be found along I-70, KS Hwy 10, and other major highways through eastern Kansas into the Kansas City metropolitan area, places where they did not occur as recently as 40 years ago."

Next time you're driving to KC via I-70, keep an eye out for the salty intruders.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Winter Orchids

winter orchid

When the cold winds of November tug the last leaves from the maples, basswoods, and elms, orchids probably are the farthest thing from most Kansans’ minds.  However, fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to search for one of the state’s more secretive plants – the puttyroot orchid or Adam-and-Eve [Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt.].  The plant’s specific epithet “hyemale”, referring to winter, alludes to the plant’s habit of producing a winter leaf.  The name puttyroot is a reference to sticky substance released from the crushed tubers, which usually occur in pairs (hence the name Adam-and-Eve).

Puttyroot has evolved a fascinating strategy to survive in the low-light environments of rich, deciduous forests.  As forest canopies develop in the spring, light limits the ability of understory plants to photosynthesize.  Consequently, many herbaceous species flower and fruit in the spring, before the canopy fills in, or in the fall, when the canopy begins to thin.  Puttyroot takes this strategy to an extreme.  Each plant produces a single, elliptic, dark green, pleated, 3-6 inch-long leaf in the fall.  The ground-hugging leaf remains green and photosythetic from fall through winter and into spring, producing sugars needed by the plant to grow.  From late May into mid June, some plants will produce a single, 10-20 inch-tall flowering, each bearing a dozen whitish purple or brownish white flowers near the tip.  Ribbed, pendent fruits – each about 1 inch long – mature through the summer and persist into the fall, leaving another clue to the plant’s presence.  

Populations of puttyroot are documented in 10 eastern Kansas counties (Anderson, Coffey, Crawford, Douglas, Franklin, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami, and Wyandotte).  Most occur in moist, maple-basswood forests or cottonwood-dominated floodplain forests along rivers and streams.  Populations generally comprise a few, closely-spaced individuals, but large populations can contain several hundred plants.

The next time you head out to your favorite forest trail for a fall or winter walk, keep an eye to the ground.  If you are lucky, you may spy the distinctive leaves of this forest gem.  If you do find this rare Kansas orchid, plan a return visit to marvel at its amazing flowers and fruits in the dim light of the forest floor.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Looking for Damage

beetle

Since the traps were established on Day 2, we have developed into an efficient 5-person vacuum of arthropods. This morning, we return to the plot to service each trap. We remove the insects and spiders that have been caught, replenish the ethanol, clean out leaves and twigs that have fallen on them, and make sure the traps are not collapsed or overturned. By lunch time, we are having a generous hot meal with our dynamic assortment of field station researchers, swapping stories about wildlife and research. This is such a select crowd: intrepid biologists with a sprinkling of stand-up comics. I am learning as much as I am laughing!

insect damage

The traps are working 24 hours a day but we go out on routine daytime, evening and nighttime walks. As I am seeking plant-feeding insects, I am searching the plants.  It is slow and intense, scrutinizing for feeding damage — scars, mines, holes — and then moving in closer to turn over leaves, pull down branches.  In this part of Peru, I am particularly interested in chrysomelids that have become specialists of bamboos and bambusiform grasses, palms (the ones a 5 ft tall person can reach!), and a particular chrysomelid species that live in unopened or slightly opened leaves of monocot plants in the Marantaceae and Heliconiaceae families.  This latter group is particular abundant here — nearly every rolled leaf has a few individuals of different species living in this tight semi-aquatic space.  Unrolling a leaf is like opening a Christmas present — which specimens, how many individuals, what is their feeding pattern?

—Caroline