The Great BRF Tree Project: Introduction

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View of the Hudson from one of my favorite spots in the forest

Hi, I’m Betsy.  Welcome to my tree blog.

There’s a ninety-five percent chance you’re reading this because we already know each other and I peer-pressured you into it in some way.  But just in case you’re in the minority and found my site through other means, here’s a brief introduction to me.  I’m a rising senior at Barnard College double-majoring in biology and English.  I hail from the great state of Connecticut (where the trees are a major draw rather than the people), and I write everything from investigative pieces for the Columbia news site Bwog to tweets of questionable humor.  My hobbies include taking the one train for a very long time and answering the question, “is this postmodernism?”

This summer, I am doing research for my Barnard biology senior thesis in a continuation of a research project upon which I worked last summer.  My project involves a survey of biomass construction costs of deciduous trees at Black Rock Forest, an ecology research site and educational center in upstate New York.  But what does that mean, exactly?  And why am I writing a blog about it?

Intro to Black Rock:

Black Rock Forest is a 1500-hectare privately-owned forest and biological field station in Cornwall, New York.  It’s basically located in between the Hudson Highlands and Hudson River Basin, adjacent to Storm King State Park.  The forest has been preserved and utilized for research since 1928, when Dr. Ernest G. Stillman consolidated it out of tracts of mountain forest his family had begun purchasing in the late 1800s.

Dr. Stillman bequeathed the forest to Harvard, his alma mater, when he died in 1949.  Many scientific papers were published using data collected at the site, but Black Rock became threatened in the 1960s by plans to build a power plant on Storm King Mountain. In a pioneering instance of environmental activism, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the Cornwall-on-Hudson Garden Club, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups came together to oppose the plant. Environmentalism won the lawsuit in 1980, and the forest lived on.

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Map of Black Rock Forest

In 1989, the Forest traded hands to the Black Rock Forest Consortium, a collection of research institutions and public schools that includes both Barnard College specifically and Columbia University as a whole.  My research mentor, Columbia ecology professor Kevin Griffin, currently serves as the president of this Consortium.  The Consortium supports research projects examining carbon storage, water filtration, ecosystem regulation, responses to climate change, and other aspects of the forest that have broader implications for ecology studies worldwide.  It provides subsidized housing and equipment, as well as mentoring, to researchers such as myself while we work on our projects.

In addition to supporting research, the Black Rock Forest Consortium supports science education through science summer camps and programs that bring kids to the forest in order to learn about the natural world through hands-on experience.  Such hand-on experience can include, from my observations, fishing in Black Rock’s rivers, long hikes to the Stone House (a favored camping location), and playing with the dog of caretaker John Brady.  (There is, in fact, a group of elementary school students and their chaperones sleeping in the park’s lodge in between days of park exploration as I write this post.)

Between the constant student activity and the long research legacy, Black Rock Forest is an incredibly exciting site for a research project.  Data of young scientists such as myself can be compared with similar data from decades of scientists who have come before me.  Such legacy is especially important for ecology research, as the lifespan of a typical oak or maple tree far exceeds the lifespan of a typical biologist; through collecting information about the same trees (and ecosystems based around the same trees) for decades, we are continually building a more complete picture of how this forest works.  My project is a very small piece of this larger puzzle, and I hope other students can expand upon my work someday.

Goals of this project:

Here’s the research abstract I wrote when applying to grants this past spring:

This summer, I will work with Prof. Kevin Griffin of the Columbia University Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology department to survey energy requirements of deciduous trees at Black Rock Forest.  My survey will be based upon the construction cost metric, which links energy creation processes (photosynthesis) with physiological traits (biomass construction) and provides a basis for ecologists and plant physiologists to track how resources are partitioned in a temperate forest ecosystem.  In this project, I will continue my work with Prof. Griffin from last summer, in which I conducted a preliminary survey and found several possible trends and areas for further investigation.

And here’s what that means in plain English:

This summer, I’ll work with Kevin Griffin, an expert in plant physiology (and overall incredibly knowledgeable plant biologist).  He is guiding me in the collection of leaf samples of a number of broadleaf tree species at Black Rock Forest.  I will use all of these samples to calculate the construction cost, a measurement of how much sugar a plant needs to build one gram’s worth of leaf material.  My resulting data will help demonstrate how trees at Black Rock use the light, water, and nutrients available to them to grow.  I am basing this summer’s work on a similar project I did last summer which was less well organized and didn’t lead to any significant conclusions.

In general science terminology, a project like mine is known as a survey.  This is the basic, entry level of research into a topic, in which researchers collect a lot of preliminary data without asking very specific questions or performing any experimental manipulation.  It’s a bit like sticking your foot into the shallow end of a pool before you go dive in; you need to test the waters before you start drastically changing the environment.  Not much research has been done using construction costs recently, and much of it has come from my mentor and his collaborators.  That puts me on the forefront of a possible new field, and means that the most useful thing I can do is collect as many samples as possible.

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Sample collection often involves tree hugging

That being said, I do have more specific goals that guide me in planning what to collect.  Primarily, I hope to find a difference between energy requirements of major species that have dominated at Black Rock for decades (i.e. primarily oaks and maples) and of species that have invaded from other habitats (i.e. tree-sized weeds).  The older, established species are well-settled and can grow slowly, devoting more energy to building their mass as they form strong bark, thick sap, and other defenses against animals that might eat them. (Think industry giants working to maintain their status quo and stay ahead of competitors.)  Thus, I expect these species to have higher construction costs.  Meanwhile, the weedy, invasive species need to grow fast in order to take over new environments, so they use less energy to build the same amount of biomass.  (Think startups grasping at any capital they can find.)  I expect these species’ construction costs to be lower.

Last year, I collected about 130 samples from 15 different species, focusing on this established v. invasive question.  My results showed a general trend in line with my expectations, but the differences between my oaks and maples and my weedy trees was not significant enough to be scientifically valid.  This almost-but-not-really result was a major motivator for me to continue the project this summer.  I plan on collecting more samples from the same species and locations as last summer, while also expanding to new species I couldn’t find or didn’t have time to look for.  Overall, I aim for this project to span at least 20 species with at least 250 total samples.

Another result from last summer that I found curious was the construction costs of my maple samples.  Angie Patterson, a former student of my mentor, collected samples several years ago for a similar project and was kind enough to share her data with me.  For most of the species we had both collected, the results were fairly close, but for both red maple and sugar maple, I was way off her mark.  Red maple in particular was unusually high considering past research has shown it to be relatively inexpensive to construct.  This variation has driven me to collect a lot of red maple and sugar maple in different ecosystems within Black Rock.  I will compare the energy requirements of trees in low and high elevation, wet and dry soil, and other different habitats, potentially providing an explanation for the variation I found.

I have new skills this summer that I plan on bringing to my collection and analysis, as well.  Most notably, I will be mapping all of my samples to gather location data; this will make it easier for me to do environmental comparisons and will give more information to students who might want to do similar studies in the future.  I will also build on my knowledge of the forest and my knowledge of tree identification to make my work more efficient.  Expect more on these topics in future posts!

Goals of this blog:

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Casualties of last summer’s lost-in-the-swamp incident

The main goal of this blog is to communicate my research to a non-scientist audience.  It’s easy to say, “I’m surveying construction costs of deciduous tree species at a forest site upstate,” but nobody outside of a fairly niche group of plant physiologists would have any idea what that actually entails on a day-to-day basis.  But when you put it into simpler terms, a lot of research can be informative and entertaining for naïve readers.  Ecology field work is a wild and crazy ride, and you don’t need to understand complex theory to read stories about it.

Through this blog, I’ll document the nuts and bolts of collecting and processing leaf samples, as well as the adventures I have climbing in forklifts, getting lost in swamps, skinny dipping in reservoirs, and so on (all true events from last summer!)  I will also use it to hold myself accountable to my research goals – the more I publicly document what I’m doing, the less time I waste procrastinating on the Internet.  And finally, this blog serves as a medium for me to practice science writing, which I one day hope to pursue as a career.  What better way to learn about writing about science than writing about your own science, right?

My posts will take three main forms:

  • Weekly recaps of my work for the week, posted every Friday
  • Descriptions of specific pieces of my research methods, posted every Tuesday
  • Anecdotal stories about adventures in the field, posted whenever they occur

I’m living and working at Black Rock from this week until the end of June, so expect ten to fifteen total posts from my time here.  In July, I will be living in New York City while I do lab work to further process my samples; I might continue with updates during that time, but the work will be much less entertaining.

That’s all for now.  Keep an eye out for my first weekly recap tomorrow, and feel free to shoot me questions about anything in this initial post via email, social media, or comments.

Map via BRF website; all other photos via Betsy (CC by-ND 4.0)

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