Category Archives: Forest Ecology

Ways and Means: Attitudes Toward Methods of Restoring American Chestnut Trees

“The Christmas Song” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé is an iconic song in American culture, but most Americans will never experience a chestnut roast (at least not with American chestnuts).

A mighty blight

The American chestnut was a widespread North American native tree that covered nearly 200,000 miles of Appalachian forest. In 1904, the American chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo were dying from a then unknown disease, Chestnut Blight. In the next forty years, Chestnut Blight spread across the estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees. Now American Chestnut trees are seen only as giant stumps, juveniles never reaching maturity, and rarely, adult fruit-bearing trees.

Since the decline of the American chestnut, Appalachian forests have changed. Chestnuts have been replaced by oaks, and it is likely that many organisms that relied on the chestnut trees for food or shelter have had to adapt to new conditions or have been displaced. The loss of the chestnut also led to the loss of financial income for many Appalachian people. In addition to chestnuts as a food source, the American chestnut provided decay resistant timber and tannins for tanning hide. The American chestnut and its decline is remembered through oral and written history. Members of older generations from Appalachia tell stories of enormous trees and later forests of white wooden chestnut skeletons.

Restoring the chestnut

Josh skiing in the mountains of Big Sky, Montana.

The restoration of the chestnut is an active project that faces many challenges. First, few Americans have seen an American chestnut tree, and few are familiar with their decline via Chestnut Blight. Since the restoration of the American chestnut would require policy changes and action across 200,000 miles, spanning multiple state governments, it is necessary to assess the extent the public might disfavor or favor this restoration. Our guest this week,Josh Petit from Forest Ecosystems and Society, is seeking to understand the attitudes of Americans toward the chestnut restoration. In particular, Josh is surveying a sample of the US population to compare attitudes toward a controversial method of chestnut restoration,  the use of genetic engineering.

Ways and Means

You may be familiar with genetic engineering to modify the genome of an organism to achieve a specific goal. Many of the crops we eat have in some way been modified to aid harvest, growth, and/or resistance to pests and disease. The methods for restoring the American chestnut are:

  • Selective breeding with related, blight-resistant Asian chestnuts
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with Asian or other related chestnut genes (cisgenics)
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with foreign genes or genes from wheat (transgenics)

Josh conducting research during a study abroad program in tropical North Queensland, Australia.

It is important to assess the attitudes of the public to transgenics because the introduction of  genes from wheat has been the most successful method at enhancing resistance toward chestnut blight. Recently, negative media has led to the misunderstanding that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have adverse effects on consumers (humans) and ecosystems. However, these claims are not based in sound science and have been refuted. Although GMOs are being supported as alternatives to crop and forest species extinction, ultimately chestnut restoration relies on majority vote in favor or against a specific strategy. Thus, assessing attitudes toward restoration methods is tantamount to restoration efforts.

The Guy for the Job

A native of Ohio, Josh Petit attended Xavier University and majored in Political Science. He credits a Semester at Sea for broadening his world view and exposing him to different cultures. He learned that culture is important in all aspects of daily life. In retrospect, perhaps it is no surprise that he is currently studying an iconic tree and how culture has driven attitudes toward its restoration.

Josh participating in a Fijian traditional village celebration and homestay–taking turns playing guitar.

Josh became interested in ecology, biology, and the interface of the two with humans while working for Q4 International Marketing an ecotourism company in Panama. This lead him to pursue a Master’s in Natural Resources with a marine ecology focus from Virginia Tech. However, his most recent work withOregon Parks and Recreation Department lead him to pursue a PhD at Oregon State University. With the State Parks, Josh conducted surveys in Oregon Parks and sought to connect behavior, impacts, and social science to ecology and recreation. Now at Oregon State University, Josh is working with Mark Needham andGlenn Howe to understand the drivers of attitudes toward using biotechnologies for restoring American chestnut trees.

Hear more about Josh’s research and his journey to now this week on Inspiration Dissemination. Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM on Sunday July, 30 at 7 pm, or live stream the show.

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds

Panorama of the whitebark pine seedling at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center (USFS)

Did you know that whitebark pine is the highest elevation tree here in the Pacific Northwest? If you have driven the Rim Road of Crater Lake National Park, you may have noticed a huge gnarly tree lovingly known by few as the “Grandmother” whitebark pine. These trees withstand harsh winds and cold temperatures, giving them a krummholz or “crooked wood” appearance. Some grow nearly horizontal.

Zolton’s favorite whitebark pine at the rim of Crater Lake

As one of the few tree species that grow at high elevations, whitebark pine acts as an ecosystem foundation species, making it possible for other plants, fungi, and animals to utilize higher elevation environments. Growing together, a population of whitebark pines form ecological islands and promote biodiversity in subalpine areas. For example, the Clark’s Nutcracker and whitebark pine have been coevolving for eons. The Clark’s Nutcracker is the only bird that can break open the pine cones of whitebark pine. While the bird eats some of the seeds, it also cashes them and can disperse the seeds many miles away. Other species such as rodents and bears eat the seeds as well.

Much more research is needed to fully understand the ecological importance of whitebark pine in its characteristic ecosystem. However, recently whitebark pine research is focused on another interaction, that of whitebark pine with an invasive plant pathogen, white pine blister rust. Since the 1900s, this pathogen has dramatically reduced populations of whitebark pine and other 5-needle pines of North America. This means that whitebark pine populations and the biodiversity islands it forms at high elevations are in trouble.

Zolton with his experimental seedlings at Dorena.

Fortunately, some populations show natural resistance to the pathogen, and our guest, Zolton Bair from the department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is comparing the transcriptomes, the collection of genes expressed as RNA, of resistant and susceptible trees to understand tree defense against white pine blister rust. Be on the lookout for his dissertation defense this year!

As a teenager, Zolton loved collecting and identifying mushrooms. Through a class called magical mushrooms, mischievous molds he realized that fungi are very important to humans as food, medicine, and can be problematic for farmers. He became interested in plant pathology after conducting undergraduate research in a mycology lab that focused on the spread of fungal spores between agricultural fields.

Experimental plot: Keep off!

You do not want to miss this week’s episode of Inspiration Dissemination with our guest Zolton Bair. Tune into KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM this Sunday January, 22 at 7 pm to hear about Zolton’s journey from barefoot mushroom hunting in Virginia to studying plant pathology here at Oregon State, and we promise you won’t be disappointed to learn more about the awesome tree story of whitebark pine.

Not a local listener? Follow this link to stream the show live.

Mosquito soup in the Brazilian rainforest

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Deforestation in Brazil due to cultivation of monoculture crops, such as soybean, has profoundly impacted wildlife populations. In the lab of Taal Levi in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, wildlife biologist Aimee Massey has adopted a quantitative approach to studying this impact. During her first and second year of graduate school, Aimee traveled to Brazil for fieldwork and data collection, collaborating with researchers from Brazil and the UK. During this trip, she collected 70,000 biting flies, including mosquitoes and sandflies, by engineering 200 fly traps constructed from 2-liter soda bottles, netting, and rotting beef. Aimee installed biting traps throughout 40 individual forest patches, which are regions delineated by their physical characteristics, ranging approximately in size from the OSU campus to the state of Rhode Island.

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Subsequent DNA analysis on biting flies provides a relatively unbiased source of wildlife tracking, since mosquitoes serve as a repository of DNA for the wildlife they have feasted upon. DNA analysis also provides information regarding diseases that may be present in a particular patch, based on the bacterial and viral profile. For example, sandflies are carriers of protozoa such as leishmania, which cause the disease leishmaniasis. To analyze DNA, Aimee uses bioinformatics and metabarcoding, which is a technique for assessing biodiversity from an environmental sample containing DNA. Different species of animals possess characteristic DNA sequences that can be compared to a known sequence in an online database. By elucidating the source of the DNA, it is possible to determine the type of wildlife that predominates in a specific patch, and whether that animal may be found preferentially in patches featuring deforestation or pristine, primary rain forest.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Aimee completed her undergraduate studies at University of Maine, where she quickly discovered she wanted to study biology and chemistry in greater depth. She planned to attend med school, and was even accepted to a school in her junior year; however, an introductory fieldwork course in Panama spent exploring, doing fieldwork, and trekking made a deep impression on her, so she decided to apply to graduate school instead. Aimee completed a Masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Michigan, during which time she spent 4 months at the Mpala Research Centre in the middle of the Kenyan plateau, just north of the Masai Mara. Following completion of her Masters degree, Aimee spent a year as a research assistant at the University of New Hampshire working with small mammals. Before beginning her PhD studies at OSU, Aimee spent two months in Haines, Alaska doing fieldwork with her future PI, Taal Levi. After she finishes her PhD, Aimee plans to focus on conservation work in New England where she is originally from.

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Tune in on October 23rd, 2016 at 7PM on the radio at 88.7FM KBVR, or stream live, to hear more about Aimee’s adventures in Brazil, and why her graduate work is shaping our understanding of how deforestation impacts biodiversity.

 

Forestry Forensics 101

Look out tropical tree thieves! Beware, Pacific pine pilferers! Kristen Finch is on the case!

Sunday April 26, Kristen joined the hosts of Inspiration Dissemination to discuss her study of wood chemistry in Douglas Fir. Kristen’s love of leafy things began in 7th grade when she realized that polyploid strawberries with more than two sets of chromosomes are really big and juicy. This amazed her, because whereas the strawberries benefit from this genetic disposition, a human being would probably die from it!

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Kristen’s admiration of the plant kingdom led her to study Ponderosa Pines with her undergraduate mentor and OSU alum, Dr. Ann Willyard. After completing her degree in biology at Hendrix College in Arkansas, Kristen took some time to find out what kind of research she wanted to do in botany by interning at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. Extracting DNA from Caribbean Mahogany, a process that can take up to ten days, gave her a sense of appreciation for other potential methods of analysis.

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