Biodiversity and Natural History

The Mount Holyoke campus encompasses a surprising diversity of ecosystems including two streams, three reservoirs, several vernal pools, wetlands, hardwood, conifer and mixed forests, and urban and open fields, with a rich assortment of animals and plants.

There are several types of wetlands on campus including forested swamps, scrub/shrub wetlands, emergent vegetation, and vernal pools. Our wetlands are a natural showcase of high productivity and species diversity.

The Mount Holyoke College Restoration Ecology Program (REP) actively monitors the productivity of wetlands on campus, and works to rehabilitate previously degraded sites --particularly those around Upper Lake-- by either restoring historic wetlands or creating new ones. Additionally, students design independent studies around themes of Restoration Ecology, and the REP often supports several summer interns.

There are three dams across Stony Brook on the MHC property. Two of these dams create two reservoirs on campus, Upper and Lower Lake. A third dam is a spillway in front of the Willits-Hallowell Center.

The College campus contains roughly 278 acres of forests and 85% of the campus is forested. There are several different types of forest stands of varying ages on the Mount Holyoke properties. The most common tree species are those typical of a New England forest, such as hemlock, white pine, maple, oak, beech, cherry and birch. However, historically, various landscape architecture firms have had a hand in planting several exotic species around campus which can still be found today. These non-native species consist of trees such as Western catalpa, Kentucky coffeetree, and Cucumber tree.

The health and growth of Mount Holyoke’s wooded areas are consistently monitored by the College’s senior research associate, Dr. Leszek Bledzki, and by students and faculty across departments. Additionally, long-term data on the forest regeneration plots on Prospect Hill is stored in the Institutional Data Archive.

The MHC property includes the 28 acres of the Long Farm Tract. This area consists of a large 23 acre field and an adjacent 5 acre field. Long Farm is a hay field and jumping course for the Equestrian Center.

The two lakes on campus are Upper and Lower Lake. Both bodies of water are dammed reservoirs. They are characterized as shallow lakes with short retention times (water passes quickly from inlet to outlet.) Both lakes are also high in nutrients -- eutrophic to hypertrophic. Nutrient loading occurs via inputs from Stony Brook and migrant and non-migrant waterfowl. The Golf Course withdraws water from Upper Lake.

The water quality of the campus lake bodies is routinely monitored by senior research associate Dr. Leszek Bledzki, and students in both Biology and Environmental Science regularly sample and perform their own monitoring of the lakes on campus in individual projects or as supplementary to labs and coursework. Long-term water quality data can be found on the College’s Institutional Data Archive.

The heart of the MHC campus lies in the Stony Brook watershed. Stony Brook is the largest stream on the MHC property. Several smaller, intermittent streams feed into Stony Brook or the reservoirs. The biological character of this stream is determined both by its geomorphology and human influences. These influences include impacts from the surrounding watershed such as agricultural runoff, construction and industrial effluents, and from similar activities within campus.

In addition, sections of the riparian corridor on either side of the stream have been severely modified by human activity. A riparian buffer zone provides cover for wildlife, stabilizes the bank, and can filter runoff before it reaches the stream. If the buffer is too narrow, it cannot effectively provide these functions.

Many of these issues are known to faculty, staff and students, and are being addressed through restoration ecology, biology, and environmental studies. By approaching ecosystem degradation through the campus living laboratory, students learn crucial skills they will be able to apply to a host of similar environmental problems later in their careers.

There are several vernal pools scattered across the College campus. Vernal pools often resemble small ponds that dry up in the summer, and are a critical wetland resource for many species of animals and plants.

Many of Mount Holyoke’s quads and the habitat bordering roads and walkways are also ecosystems. Some potential impacts of these types of edge habitats are the disruption, or fragmentation, of other types of natural habitats by urban spaces and issues surrounding stormwater runoff from these surfaces into Stony Brook and the campus lakes.

In particular, the College’s Restoration Ecology Program takes an in depth look at issues surrounding the quality of water entering the campus from roadways and the golf course, and how it affects the College’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

A part of the hemlock stand has been destroyed by an exotic insect pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. The insect has been detected on campus, and can kill a hemlock in as little as 10 years after initial infection. Students in biology and environmental studies classes study the interactions between these pests and their environments, and forest health data is stored in the College’s Institutional Data Archive.

Additionally, many other invasive species are prevalent on campus, including exotic varieties of honeysuckle, multiflora rose, japanese barberry, oriental bittersweet, and water chestnut. These species are actively managed in parts of campus and particular efforts have been made to eradicate the water chestnut from the campus lake systems.