UNC Asheville, Appalachian State partner as part of NSF-funded study of plant life

There are those who would say that the Southern Appalachian region is the most beautiful area in the country. In order to preserve that beauty, the delicate ecosystem and plant-life of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee must be studied and catalogued.

That’s why the University of North Carolina at Asheville has partnered with three academic institutions – Appalachian State University, Warren Wilson College and East Tennessee State University – to earn a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to both study the region’s flora and turn the forests into a large research space for undergraduate students.

The project is called CEREUS – Consortium Exchanging Research Experiences for Undergraduate Students – in which the four institutions will train undergraduates to help study regional environmental issues pertaining to plant life including phenology, the study of periodic plant life cycles and how they are influenced by climate and other factors.

Jennifer Rhode Ward, an associate professor of biology at UNC Asheville, is the project leader for the grant and said CEREUS will cover a broad spectrum of topics.

“The overall goal of the project is to look at how global change affects plant communities in the Southern Appalachian region,” she said.

Plant Population

One aspect the teams are investigating is the introduction of non-native plant species to the region, and how those plants mix with native plants. Several species of plants that have been introduced from all over the world, especially Asia, are having negative effects on local flora. One example is Oriental bittersweet, which is outcompeting and interbreeding with native bittersweet plants.

“We’ve been trying to see how the introduction of foreign species is affecting native plant communities,” Ward said.

Another aspect of the study includes examining changes to the genetic structure of plants, and why it is occurring. As native plant species get overused, their genetic diversity can decline. An example of this is American ginseng plants, a major export of the area because plants from this region are valued on the Asian market for their size and shape.

“We’re using those results on diversity to make recommendations about which populations should be protected, or ways we can better cultivate it so that there’s less pressure on the local wild-grown ginseng populations,” Ward said.

A third piece of the study measures rates of carbon exchange in forests – how much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can be absorbed by the forests and if it is changing over time. Factors such as the age, size and plant species within the forests are also taken into account.

While many of the studies being conducted are still in the early stages, Ward said researchers have learned a few things, such as removing non-native plants from an area should be done every three years rather than annually.

“It’s a little weird, but if you remove them annually, you disturb the native plants more,” she said. “This is a big deal, because people put a lot of money into non-native plant removal and control. If you wait to remove the non-native plants, then the native plants can bounce back on their own.”

The final piece of the study is the phenology aspect, cataloguing the changes to the plant species over time. As part of the study, each institution donated 10 different plant species to the other colleges to create community gardens where the plants can be studied in different climate zones. The studies will allow researchers to figure out if the “nature/nurture” argument of whether a plant’s genetics will make it behave in a certain way regardless of where it grows, or if the plant can adapt to a different climate on its own.

“If the plants are adaptable, then it doesn’t matter when we try to do restoration, because the plants have their own genetic legacy where they mimic the genetic patterns of their source population,” she said. “We set up phenology cameras aimed at existing forests on the campuses and are continuously recording. The data from our studies and the cameras is going to the National Phenology Network, which is tracking worldwide changes in climate.”

Educational component

The broadest goal of the project is to increase students’ research and educational opportunities. Within the next year, the four institutions seek to create a curriculum designed around the study.

“We know that some of the best ways to increase learning is by authentic, hands-on research experiences, particularly in the first few years of undergraduate education,” Ward said. “We try to tie in as many students as possible. We’ve created classroom modules that are linked to each of those four goals – native and non-native plants, carbon exchange, genetic diversity and phenology – and we’re using those research modules in undergraduate and graduate classrooms. That way, every student that goes through the biology and environmental studies department at the different colleges get a chance to participate in an authentic research experience.”

Tesa Madsen-McQueen, a second-year master’s student studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Appalachian State, has gotten the opportunity to supervise undergraduate students while working on the project in setting up the gardens.

“It’s been good for me to be in a supervisory role. There has been a lot of interdisciplinary communication between departments,” she said.  “But I’m most excited about the actual curriculum development – letting the students into the driver’s seat and giving them this hands-on experience.”

Madsen-McQueen said her particular classwork this fall will focus on phenology and monitoring the gardens. She plans to pursue her doctorate once she finishes her graduate program in May.

“I think this is particularly valuable, especially at Appalachian, because we have a lot of unique and rare species here,” she said. “Opening the students’ eyes to the diversity we have and allowing them to demonstrate the significant changes that are happening to these communities is beneficial. It’s a special situation, because we’re experiencing a lot of change at a really rapid rate that needs to be recorded.”

When determining if the program is having an effect on students’ attitudes toward science, Ward said the modules seem to be having a positive effect on students’ learning at all four institutions.

“What we’ve seen so far is statistically significant increases in reversal of ‘plant blindness,’ in which students come in with a good understanding and appreciation about animals, but much less when it comes to plants,” she said. “After exposing students to these four research tracks, we’ve seen a big reversal in plant blindness and an increase in students creating their own learning experiences and understanding the role research plays in science.”