Any gardener knows that weeds are a nuisance, but did you know they can be an ecological threat?
According to David Marsh of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), they’ve become a major problem within wildlife refuges because they can crowd out native plants and alter the habitats on which native wildlife depend. The issue is compounded, he says, because information on invasive plants near wildlife refuges is often incomplete and scattered among a variety of sources. That’s why Marsh enlisted the help of Mount Holyoke associate professor of biology Martha Hoopes (pictured) and students in her Invasive ecology course. The MHC group is one of eight national participants in this year’s NCEAS distributed ecology research project, which is looking at invasive plant growth in federal wildlife refuges across America.
Each of the eight teams has spent the semester compiling data on refuges within their respective regions; Hoopes’s class covered the Northeast region, which stretched from Maine to Virginia.
Earlier this month, Hoopes and a pair of students from the class, Danelle Laflower ’12 and Anne Arbuthnot ‘12, traveled to NCEAS headquarters in Santa Barbara to help analyze the data collected by all of the regional partners.
“The students learned a lot about the process of data collection and analysis that they would not learn otherwise in a class without a lab,” Hoopes said. “It is very easy to criticize studies and expect them to attack a question from every possible angle and to include every possible relevant factor. The process of working with public data helps the students see the advantages of large datasets, but also the limits of data collected by multiple people. I think the project has also helped them to think more concretely about the effects of certain factors on the success of invasive species.”
Danelle Laflower said she had a great time working on the NCEAS project. “It provided an excellent opportunity to better understand the methods section in a peer-reviewed paper,” she said. “And, it was rewarding to see our class’s research get connected to the work of other schools.”
Each year, NCEAS’s distributed ecology research projects take a large-scale ecological question and break it into manageable regional pieces for graduate student classes to analyze; this was the first time the organization partnered with undergraduate collaborators.
In addition to Mount Holyoke, the participating colleges include Jacksonville University, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, San Francisco State University, Stanford University, Utah State University, University of Wisconsin-Stout, and Western Carolina University.
By combining the sets of regional data, refuge managers will better understand the magnitude of current plant invasions and the possibility for future invasions of weedy plants. “We will also leave behind a more complete public database on invasive plants in protected areas,” Marsh said.
Hoopes believes the team’s findings could also generate some scientific journal headlines.
“We actually have some novel results that should make this study fairly easy to publish,” she said. “I'd rather not state them here, though, so that we don't accidentally scoop ourselves.”