Thursday, September 13, 2012

Doing Biology in the Field.

Hey all! This post was intended for earlier in the week, but I've been having computer problems recently and am just now finding myself with enough time to type it up in the library ;p

So there are obviously lots of things at Saint Mike's that I think are interesting or worthwhile, and this often includes my classes. You'll hear me talk about the awesome professors and their accessibility, as well as some classes that are just cool on their own. One class that I'm taking this semester, Intro to Ecology and Evolution (BI151) fortunately already has great professors, but on top of that, it's also one of the coolest classes I've taken so far here at SMC.

I don't know for sure, but I don't think it's common that intro Biology courses allow students to do relevant field research for their lab, and design a project on their own. Well, that's what this course is, and, without overloading on the info, I'll attempt to describe what it's all about.

In Vermont, and mostly Chittenden County, there are endangered ecosystems called Sandplain Forests. They're endangered because most of what was left of them has been built on and developed over the years. But luckily, neighboring Saint Mike’s campus is the Vermont National Guard's headquarters, Camp Johnson, which contains a sizeable chunk of what's left of the Sandplain forest.

This is important because they've A) allowed us to do field research in there, and B) have done really well at preserving the Sandplain Forest ecosystem. And that’s important because part of maintaining this ecosystem includes prescribed burns, a.k.a. forest fires.

We called him Kernel.
When I first learned this, I was pretty shocked, because I'd never heard of forest fires as a means of preserving an ecosystem. But in this case, fire actually helps to maintain a balance of species diversity and catalyzes regeneration, so that the existing ecosystem isn't lost forever. Also certain species in the forest, such as the Pitch Pine, are rather fire-resistant, and this indicates that periodic fires have been an integral part of the ecosystem in the past.

So what do we do? Students get to go in the field and set up research areas where we collect invertebrate species (bugs) and record what trees we find, how many there are, and how big they are. That way, after the next burn takes place (this coming spring), there will be "before" data to compare to the “after” data when it’s collected. We also learn a lot about the biodiversity of the forest, and naming trees, shrubs and eventually bugs, and we get to see things like this caterpillar.

A lab like this may not be for everyone, but I certainly enjoy it! And it's making Ecology more and more of an appealing option for me after undergrad. But who knows?

Thanks for reading!

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