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University forest plot added to global network

By Irene Park, For the Daily
Published August 14, 2014

Tuesday, a 57-acre forest research plot in the University’s Edwin S. George Reserve was added to the Forest Global Earth Observatory, an international effort to study forest ecology through the Smithsonian Institution.

ForestGEO is an expanding network of forest research plots that now includes 60 plots in 24 different countries, including 4.5 million trees that belong to 8,500 different species. The project allows researchers to study many aspects of forest ecology on a global level, as well as monitor the effects of long-term environmental processes.

Christopher Dick, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the director of the reserve, said one area where the plots, especially when combined into a group like this, are a valuable resource is when it comes to climate change research.

“These plots become really important over time,” he said. “You can compare (new data) with the historical records. But you can’t just look at one plot. With 60 plots, we can get the statistical power to address the broader questions.”

The plots can also be useful because they can aid researchers in hypothesizing which species will be present in a forest before all of it is explored, Dick said.

Although the individual plots in the ForestGEO project differ in their tree make-up and climate, they are unified by research protocols and regulations. All freestanding trees in the plot with the diameter of at least 1 centimeter are tagged, measured, and identified to species. In addition, every five years the trees are re-characterized using the same criteria.

The protocols mean that adding the research plot to ForestGEO isn’t easy. The plot in the University reserve is roughly the size of 43 football fields, and characterizing every tree required the work of 12 students over 11 weeks of this summer. By the end, the team had characterized 21,000 trees and re-characterized an additional 24,000, totaling to 45,000 trees.

“It was an opportunity for the students to really get a good experience,” Dick said. “They worked very hard. They worked in teams — one person would measure, one person would map, and someone would call the measurements.”

David Allen, a visiting assistant professor from Middlebury College who did his doctoral work at University of Michigan, supervised the students through the completion of the project.

Although the protocol only requires identifying and tagging trees in the plot, Dick said it’s possible to study other forms of life present as well, such as insects, fungi, and pathogens.

“One of the motivating reasons for starting the network was to study plant-animal interactions,” he said. “Is there a disadvantage of being too common? Are the common trees more likely to be wiped out by diseases and herbivores?”

The reserve, which is located 25 miles away from campus, has long been a popular destination for students and researchers alike because of the wealth of animals and plants that live there, with over 475 research papers published on studies carried out there. Dick said he hopes to see that increase and continue following the plot’s addition to ForestGEO.

“I’m looking forward to having students from Michigan getting experiences and doing projects,” he said. “I’m hoping to see that the courses utilize the plot as a resource.”