Irwin Prairie Preserve benefits from ecology students’ volunteer, research efforts

May 4, 2012 | Features, UToday
By Feliza Casano

Nearly five acres of invasive plant species have been cleared from the Irwin Prairie Preserve thanks to students in three University of Toledo ecology classes working to improve the local natural ecosystems at the 226-acre wetland preserve.

UT students Kelsey Friemoth and James Miller cut down buckthorn at Irwin Prairie Preserve.

Since spring semester 2011, students enrolled in the Environmental Sciences Department’s General Ecology Lab, Environmental Problems Lab and Environmental Ethics class have volunteered to clear shrubbery in the preserve, located on Bancroft Street about eight miles west of the UT Main Campus.

The classes learned about a major management issue at Irwin Preserve: glossy and common buckthorn, two invasive Eurasian species that create an environment where native species have difficulty surviving.

“Buckthorn reduces a biodiverse community, where 150 to maybe 250 species could flourish, down to about six species,” said Todd Crail, a PhD student who teaches the courses. “Buckthorn has effects on pollinators, birds, frogs and turtles and, in terms of human effects, it reduces wetland function, which promotes flooding and mosquitoes.”

After learning about the invasive species, students expressed an interest in helping to clear parts of the preserve of buckthorn.

“At first, we only planned to work on a small area near the boardwalk to increase the breezes, reduce the mosquitoes, and make a better experience for preserve visitors, but we just didn’t stop,” Crail said.

Students in the classes have logged more than 1,200 volunteer hours at the preserve resulting in about five acres cleared along the boardwalk trail through the preserve. A report on the project said Irwin visitors reported a reduction in mosquitoes and slippery, filmy growth along the boardwalk since the project began.

UT students James Miller and Kelsey Friemoth travel on Irwin Prairie Preserve’s boardwalk, which now is open thanks to UT students removing invasive buckthorn.

In addition to the volunteer hours logged at the preserve, two students have launched research projects based on their experiences at Irwin.

Kirk Zmijewski, a graduate student in the Environmental Sciences Department in the Geology Program, is analyzing satellite images of Irwin Prairie to get a bird’s eye view of the species on different wavelengths of light, each of which tells researchers different things about buckthorn and other plants.

“Buckthorn leafs out earlier in the spring than native plants and keeps its leaves for longer, giving it a much longer growing time than native species have,” he said. “The growing season makes it easier to identify with satellite images both early in the spring and late in the fall, since it’s the only thing leafed out at that time.”

Zmijewski’s research uses images from NASA’s Landsat satellite taken over a number of years to see changes in buckthorn growth patterns over time.

Kelsey Friemoth, a senior majoring in biology with a concentration in ecology and organismal biology, is using Zmijewski’s research as a launch point for her own.

“My research relates the stem density and biomass of the plants on the ground to what he can see from space,” she said. “To calculate that, I’ve been setting up 10-meter by 10-meter plots and cutting down woody species to take samples and counting estimates from buckthorn. My research is tied to management efforts at Irwin and contributes to what they’re already doing — just putting in the man hours to collect data.”

Zmijewski and Friemoth began their research after logging volunteer hours with the ecology classes — something both recognize as important for students and community members alike.

“Volunteering is a very good form of community outreach,” Zmijewski said. “Instead of coming from a scientist, it’s more effective and carries more weight if the layman says that this is important. Citizen science is important, and the community needs to be involved in science. The volunteer efforts can bridge that gap.”

Read more about UT’s efforts at the Irwin Prairie Preserve and how you can volunteer.

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