Data Entry, Insects, and Flying Cacti: My BRIT Internship

By Haley Rylander, BRIT Operations and Research Assistant.

Last summer (2015) I was a research intern at BRIT. I was first intrigued by BRIT – this strange and beautiful building of plants – during a field trip there for a Plant Biology class my junior year at TCU. I mean who wouldn’t want to spend the summer surrounded by fellow science nerds and doing ground-breaking and exciting research in a building made half of glass with an entire prairie on its roof? Naturally, my research internship was not quite this glamorous… But it was a priceless experience learning what really goes on behind scientific research, what it’s like working in a non-profit, and making valuable connections in the conservation science community.

Looking for rare species at a vernal pool at Elk Mountain, Oklahoma.

Looking for rare species at a vernal pool at Elk Mountain, Oklahoma.

I did a wide array of tasks in my internship. I helped with the long and intense herbarium inventory, entered data for Enchanted Rock and LBJ Grasslands species lists, went on a field day to the mountains in Oklahoma to document a rare species, entered more data…

A day on the living roof with BRIT researchers Heather Bass and Kim Taylor.

A day on the living roof with BRIT researchers Heather Bass and Kim Taylor.

I was also very fortunate to be trained to go onto the living roof. With three other researchers, I climbed onto the roof at the crack of dawn and helped record what species were growing. We also spent a lot of time clearing the lines that connect researchers to the roof via bungee cords and a harness. This primarily consisted of kicking cactus off the path and thoroughly confusing everyone in the building as cactus fell from the sky past their windows and crashed onto balconies. We even found a poor duck who had made her home in the brush on the roof and laid her eggs there! Apparently there was quite the panic later about what would happen to the ducklings if they hatched and tried to get off the roof, but (un)fortunately the roof was too hot and the eggs never hatched.

Objects of terror and tragedy: cacti that came flying off the roof and duck eggs that never hatched.

Objects of terror and tragedy: cactus that came flying off the roof and duck eggs that never hatched.

My primary project, however, was studying arthropod diversity on the living roof as compared to a native prairie upon which it was modeled. Before my internship, BRIT researchers installed pitfall traps on the living roof and counted and recorded everything that fell into them. Pitfall traps were then installed in a prairie near Benbrook Lake – and I was the lucky one who got to process these specimens! I counted thousands of ants, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and more, identifying them and grouping them by family/genus/species. After I had processed all these data I compared the species populations, diversity, and ratios of Benbrook Prairie to that of the roof and made a research poster of my results. It was an interesting project that gave some very useful information. The roof essentially had the same species as the prairie but in ratios mirroring a much earlier stage of succession.

A job of an intern: counting, counting, counting...

A job of an intern: counting, counting, counting…

My internship gave me so much valuable experience in my field. I met some awesome people, learned a lot of very different things, and felt that I made a lasting contribution to the organization – and it was pretty cool to know my research poster would continue to hang in the hallways after I left!

As a BRIT staff member, I now get to walk past my poster several times a day!

As a BRIT staff member, I now get to walk past my poster several times a day!

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Documenting Diversity: The First Step in Conservation

In the conservation community, there is often nothing more rewarding than walking through a landscape that you had a hand in saving and knowing that you did good. You saved this rare and valuable natural treasure for future generations. This is conservation at its finest and what most in the conservation community strive for. But there’s so much more that goes into the process, and believe it or not, it’s the early steps that I find most exciting.

And what is that first step? Documentation!

I know. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but we can’t protect what we don’t know. Before we can protect a piece of land, we need to know what we stand to lose if we fail; before we can restore a degraded prairie, we have to know what we are working towards; before we can protect a rare species, we need to know first that it exists and then that it is truly in need of protection. All of these conservation actions require that we know about the plants and ecosystems that we’re trying to conserve. Without this basic knowledge, we could easily squander our limited time and resources protecting a species or a piece of land that doesn’t need our protection. Cataloging diversity enables us to prioritize our efforts and identify what is truly at risk and what is truly unique.

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Kim Taylor documenting the plants at a private ranch in central Texas.

This idea of conservation through documentation has been a cornerstone of BRIT research for years. Our past projects in Peru, Jamaica, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and even right here in Texas have actively cataloged plant diversity. BRIT Biodiversity Explorer Dr. Sula Vanderplank is currently on the front lines of this work. Her biodiversity surveys in Baja California are working to catalog the total biodiversity of areas threatened by development or mining. Without these surveys there would be no evidence of the impact these developments would have on natural ecosystems and no sense of what was at stake. I was amazed when I saw that 29 species protected under Mexican law were in the proposed impact area for a gold mine inside the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve. Sula’s work has brought the well-being of these treasures to the forefront. We now know what we stand to lose.

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Dr. Sula Vanderplank and her colleagues generated a report cataloging the diversity of a proposed impact area for a gold mine in Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve.

The protection of any plant, animal, or ecosystem is contingent upon the ability to recognize that it exists in the first place. Many of our rare plants and ecosystems are still unknown to us. BRIT Vice President of Research, Dr. Peter Fritsch, recently described a new species of wintergreen (Gaultheria marronina) from the mountains of Sichuan, China. This new species is only known from two populations worldwide and is classified as endangered. Documenting the very existence of this species puts it on the radar for conservation. Without a name, this plant would forever live in obscurity and quite possibly be lost to extinction.

This same concept applies to ecosystems as well species. A plant community without a name can easily be overlooked. BRIT Biodiversity Explorer (and my mentor), Dr. Dwayne Estes, is working on the Pennyroyal Plain prairies, a little known prairie system in Tennessee and Kentucky. This system once spanned more than 200 miles, but today has only a few small remnants. The drastic contrast between this open grassland system and the surrounding forest landscape means that by its very nature, it harbors a unique set of plant species. With the loss of this system, many of the Pennyroyal Plain species, such as the rare Rudbeckia subtomentosa (sweet coneflower), are at risk. We will never know how many species were lost before scientists began documenting the diversity here. Without thorough documentation, this system could’ve gone unnoticed, and its remaining treasures lost forever.

Participants at the Mid-South Prairie Symposium learn about the Pennyroyal Plain prairies.

Participants at the Mid-South Prairie Symposium learn about the Pennyroyal Plain prairies.

Once we know that a plant or community exists, we have to determine if it’s truly in need of protection. Over the past six years I’ve worked to understand the distributions of rare and endemic species in Texas. We’ve shown that species which were previously thought to be rare, or not known to occur in our region, are actually common in certain habitats. We now know what truly needs to be done to conserve rare species like Dalea reverchonii (Comanche Peak Prairie Clover), Gratiola quartermaniae (Quarterman’s hedge hyssop), and Isoetes butleri (Butler’s quillwort). Currently, I’m documenting the distribution of four rare species in north Texas. This summer I began working on one of these, Pediomelum reverchonii (Reverchon’s scurfpea). When I first started the project there were only 10 known populations from the state of Texas (and only 15 outside of Texas, all from Oklahoma). During the course of the last month we’ve documented nine previously unknown populations, and we have only just begun. Finding and documenting these populations is the first step. Once we know where it grows, how abundant it is, and what habitat it prefers, we can begin to make informed decisions about the future of this rare species and work strategically towards its conservation. It’s an exciting process, and it all starts with documentation!

BRIT Research Assistant Haley Rylander (standing) and BRIT interns Lorena Cisneros (left) and Hanna Lieberman (right) survey a population of Pediomelum reverchonii.

BRIT Research Assistant Haley Rylander (standing) and BRIT interns Lorena Cisneros (left) and Hanna Lieberman (right) survey a population of Pediomelum reverchonii.

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Grey Fox: Exploring an Ancient Maya Center

Not all is as it appears! Bella the begonia visits Belize and helps Karen dig up potato root for collection.

Over the past two summers (2015 & 2016), BRIT Resident Research Associate Dr. Grace Bascopé, a Medical and Environmental Anthropologist, worked with the Maya Research Program’s (MRP) Blue Creek Archaeological Project to investigate the flora in far northwestern Belize. Working with her were Dr. Will McClatchey, former BRIT staff member and ethnobotanist, and Dr. Thomas Guderjan, Associate Professor of Anthropology (University of Texas, Tyler) and director of the MRP Blue Creek project.

For over two decades, MRP has undertaken annual archaeological field seasons in northwestern Belize to better understand the ancient Maya civilization that lived there from 900 BC to AD 900 and later. This effort has included major excavations of several ancient Maya centers and multi-disciplinary and multi-national studies of their agriculture systems. Besides Dr. Guderjan, others working on this project are Dr. Tim Beach, soil scientist and geographer (Georgetown University), Dr. Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, hydrologist and geographer (George Mason University), and Dr. Nick Brokaw, forest ecologist (Universidad de Puerto Rico), among many others.

Trekking through high canopy in the rainforest toward the archaeological site core. This summer, the team did transects there to calculate the biodiversity.

MRP staff have witnessed the ongoing loss of forests and archaeological sites to clearing for modern agriculture and are taking steps to protect remaining sites. They recently purchased the “Grey Fox” site, one of only four Maya plaza-pyramid centers remaining in northwestern Belize. MRP is actively studying two of the other three sites—now only “forest islands” of 150 and 154 acres—and hopes to purchase for protection. While MRP’s primary interest is in protecting the archaeological materials within these sites, its members are also deeply concerned with protecting these forest remnants and treating them wisely as excavations go on.

Brokaw has completed an inventory of the trees of the high canopy at Grey Fox, to which Bascopé and McClatchey are adding the other plants of the region. They collect in duplicate for the BRIT herbarium and the National Herbarium of Belize (BRH) in Belmopan, and they also trained senior staff members of the MRP Project in collecting plant specimens and properly drying and storing them. This will allow the plant collections to grow even after those staff associated with BRIT leave the field. As a way of both saying thanks for allowing the research to be conducted in Belize and helping the resource-scarce National Herbarium, all specimens to be deposited there by the BRIT/MRP team are carefully mounted on archival paper and properly labeled.

Making collections for the BRIT herbarium and National Herbarium of Belize. The researchers wrote descriptions of the specimens and prepped them for pressing, drying, and labeling. Bella also lent a helping hand!

The overall goals of this joint BRIT/MRP project—benefiting BRIT, MRP, and the Belize National Herbarium—are (1) to contribute to BRIT’s collections from this Central American region; (2) to contribute to the national collections of Belize; (3) to provide a plant inventory so that archaeological work can continue with as little impact on the forest as possible; and (4) to provide an understanding of plants that are in the immediate area of the sites so these can be compared with pollen, phytolithic, and other plant material recovered during excavation. This also provides the archaeologists with a floristic baseline, which helps them address issues such as subsistence patterning and climate change.

The BRIT/MRP project has led to the discovery that a very large percentage of the plants found at Grey Fox are edible, and this possibly lends credibility to the argument that the Maya have long-engineered their own forest environments. Even site cores (the ceremonial centers full of large pyramids and other structures), not to mention the residential precincts of these ancient cities, may not simply have been sterile places covered over with white plaster, but more likely resembled temperature-lowering gardens full of edible and useful plants.

Working in the rainforest calls for impressive mosquito protection! But all is worth it when surrounded by such natural beauty.

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Survey of BRIT’s Tarrant County Bryophyte Collection

By Hanna Liebermann, Hendrix College biology student / BRIT intern, & Charles Gardner, bryophyte specialist / BRIT Research Associate

Moss

A tiny world of wonder! (taken with an iPhone 6 through the microscope eyepiece)

 

Bryophytes, defined by their lack of vascular tissue, are a category of smaller plants that include the mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. With the exception of the few specialists who hold these groups dear and recognize their miniature complexity, the “bryos” are generally an unsung category of botanical study. Nevertheless, they are an extremely valuable section of BRIT’s collection, representative of local and global vegetation.

While the majority of BRIT’s bryophyte collection has been scanned and the packet label information entered into the Symbiota database, little had been accomplished in terms of publishing more detailed, qualitative data. Under BRIT Research Associate and bryophyte specialist Charles Gardner’s guidance, I began my internship tackling this project by evaluating each of the 144 individual moss specimens collected in Tarrant County and contained in BRIT’s herbarium. Reports were made on each specimen regarding their overall quality, the presence and stage of reproductive structures, and whether enough material was enclosed for an exchange with another institution, as well as the presence of other types of bryophytes, lichens, or unrelated organisms in the packet. While documenting this information using a recently devised rating system for these parameters, I also worked to validate and complete any missing label information and correct any misplaced data.

Label on a moss specimen packet.

Label on a moss specimen packet.

The goal of the project is to provide various database portals with useful, updated data about the contents of our collection, making the information more accessible and allowing researchers around the world to evaluate which specific specimens they may be interested in. In conjunction with this effort, high definition photos of the internal contents of each of the packets will be provided to the portals, as well as close-up pictures of critical structures. Ultimately, these efforts benefit the herbarium by solidifying our knowledge of what exactly the collection includes.

This project has also been an educational experience, allowing me to learn and examine the morphological characteristics of the bryophytes and any other organisms found in the collection. My exposure to this largely misunderstood area of botanical study occurred both on site at BRIT and in fieldwork conducted at a local ranch near Bowie, Texas (see video at bottom of post). Over the course of this project, I studied the 46 unique taxa included in the collection, learned the different techniques and tools used in collecting, processing, and observing bryophytes, and discovered the endearing quirks and beauty of working with these smaller plants. Along the way, I have noted interesting differences from studying higher plant specimens. For example, the necessary inclusion of substrate in the collection packet, the delicate notes (sometimes scribbled on the backs of receipts) enclosed with measurements and illustrations of sporophyte structure and size, and of course the abundance of accessory mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi found in each collection packet. On occasion, these surprising findings included insect remains as well.

Opening the origami-like folds of each moss packet under the microscope unfolded rich microenvironments and landscapes full of interlaced organisms. To work with herbarium specimens on this scale and nurture an appreciation for their tiny structures and characteristics has been an unexpected learning opportunity, and I am glad to have spent this time with them.

Thus far, the project has revealed that BRIT’s collection of local mosses includes packet material ranging from generous to minimal, the majority of which were collected in various stages of reproductive development, and with extensive species diversity for one county.

 

 

“Mysterious and little-known organisms live within reach of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.”

E. O. Wilson

 

Below: moss specimen collecting with Charles Gardner (left) and Dale Kruse of Texas A&M (right)

 

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Best. Paper. Ever.

I’ll admit it. I’m biased toward brevity. It’s hard to write succinctly, though. Blaise Pascal knew it (“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter”). Shakespeare knew it, too (“Brevity is the soul of wit”). You can imagine, however, how additionally difficult it is to succinctly write for science, a field defined by its details.

So when I come across science writers practicing an economy of words, I’m doubly impressed. But none can surpass the joy elicited from what I’ve deemed The Best Paper Ever. This paper, published in the journal Madroño, is from a scientist in the fields of taxonomic botany and floristics, fields that document what plants grow where.

Full Title: Cneoridium dumosum (Nuttall) Hooker F. Collected March 26, 1960, at an Elevation of about 1450 Meters on Cerro Quemaz, 15 Miles South of Baha de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, Apparently for a Southeastward Range Extension of Some 140 Miles

Full Text: I got it there then (8068).

Seriously? That’s brilliant! Of course, the author then follows with a hilarious lengthy Acknowledgments section in which he thanks everyone under the sun, including his parents and the person who took the manuscript to the post office for mailing.

The whole affair is a bit tongue in cheek, but the message is clear. Tight, precise prose can be powerful. It takes practice, though, and a bit of humility. How many words does one really need anyway?

*********************************************

The full paper can be viewed here:

Moran, R. 1962. Cneoridium dumosum (Nuttall) Hooker F. Collected March 26, 1960, at an Elevation of about 1450 Meters on Cerro Quemaz, 15 Miles South of Baha de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, Apparently for a Southeastward Range Extension of Some 140 Miles, Madroño, 16 272-272.

 

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