Eyes on the Green

Traveling around the windswept golf course called The Straits, with its massive greens of bentgrass and rumpled, horizon-bound fairways of fescue, it’s easy to see why course manager Michael Lee BS’87 would arrange to keep his own yardwork to a minimum.

“My lawn takes me 20 minutes,” says Lee. It’s a cool spring morning, and we’re bouncing his pickup around the stunning environs of The Straits, one of two Kohler Company 18-hole courses that comprise Whistling Straits on the shores of a steely-surfaced Lake Michigan in Haven, Wisconsin.

“I have mostly mulch and woody ornamentals,” Lee says of his home lawn. “Everything I have to do for weed control I can do while I mow my lawn.”

This is in great contrast to the daunting challenge Lee faces in maintaining what has been deemed one of the country’s great championship golf courses.

And now the task has become almost herculean. The Straits, built and owned as part of The American Club by the Kohler Company, is hosting the prestigious PGA Championship this summer. From August 10 to 16, the eyes of the world will be on that course.

Though Lee will be toiling anonymously that week, guiding a staff of hundreds, his hard-earned skills as a golf course manager will be very much on display. Few, however, will truly understand what Lee and his staff do behind the scenes to maintain fairway and tee and rough and allow the television cameras to create what, in effect, is golf course art on our screens—sweeping vistas of perfectly tended dune and grass and emerald greens, with the big lake shining in the background.

But more than artful views are at stake. Lee, personable and easygoing and quick to smile, stands up well to pressure, those who know him say. And pressure there will be.

The PGA Championship, which dates back to 1916, is one of the most heralded events in golf. Each of the last two PGA Championships played at Whistling Straits, in 2004 and in 2010, drew upward of 300,000 people, and millions of households around the world tuned in to television broadcasts. The Wisconsin economy benefited to the tune of more than $76 million for each of the tournaments.

Lee is the first to say he could not shoulder the responsibilities of preparing The Straits for such worldwide scrutiny without plenty of help. And one of the places he counts on most for guidance in dealing with the course’s fussy turf is his alma mater, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison—and, more specifically, the CALS-affiliated O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility, named for Oyvind Juul Noer, a CALS alumnus and one of the earliest internationally known turfgrass agronomists.

The facility, where scientists use tools ranging from high-powered microscopes to lawn mowers, opened in Verona, Wisconsin, in 1992 as a partnership between the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association, the University of Wisconsin Foundation, and the CALS-based Agricultural Research Stations.

Toiling in its maze of test plots, often on their hands and knees, are researchers who study everything from insects and soil to plant disease. For Lee, they are like a staff of doctors who can, at a moment’s notice, diagnose what is ailing a green or a fairway and prescribe a treatment. The Kohler Company (like many other golf course operators) contracts with the facility annually for these services.

Before and during the PGA championships, that role becomes even more crucial. The university specialists help Lee keep disease and insect problems at bay throughout the year. But in the weeks leading up to the championship they become his urgent care clinic, providing immediate help if something suspicious shows up. During the week of the championship they staff on-site, portable laboratories.

“We’re kind of at Mike’s beck and call,” says Bruce Schweiger BS’84, a CALS plant pathology researcher who serves as manager of the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab housed at O.J. Noer. “If he calls, we’ll be there. We’re CSI Turf! That’s who we are.”

Of course, such high-profile events are just a small—albeit exciting—part of the facility’s wide-ranging mission. And you certainly don’t have to be running a world-class golf course to seek help from the scientists at O.J. Noer.

The turfgrass industry is a $1 billion-a-year business in Wisconsin and keeps about 30,000 people in jobs. Chances are, if you manage a sod farm or a park, maintain an athletic field, try to keep a 9-hole golf course at the edge of town up and running, or just wonder why your lawn looks like a bombing range, you could benefit from expert advice.

Paul Koch BS’05 MS’07 PhD’12, a CALS professor of plant pathology and a UW–Extension turf specialist who once worked as an intern for Lee, says the broad reach of the CALS turfgrass program, throughout the state and the country, is a fine example of the Wisconsin Idea at work.

“Just think of all the mom-and-pop golf courses around the state,” Koch says. “There are all these excellent little 9-hole courses. The owners have to manage their problems within the confines of the budgets they have. They really rely on our experts.”

Lee, preparing his course for the world stage, takes full advantage of the sharing of knowledge upon which the Wisconsin Idea is based. He long ago learned how important the concept is to people in all corners of the state. It was part of his education at UW–Madison, he says. Lee graduated in 1987 with a degree from CALS in soil science, specializing in turf and grounds management. He also worked as a student hourly helping conduct research in the Department of Plant Pathology.

Lee credits that education and several crucial golf course jobs—including five years as assistant superintendent at the Blue Mounds Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa—with equipping him to handle the rigors of managing a course such as The Straits.

It was mostly his work afield at CALS that best prepared him, Lee says. He remembers long days spent crawling around test plots with a magnifying glass looking for diseases with names like dollar spot or nearly invisible insects such as chinch bugs. He literally learned his craft on the ground, he says.

“I learned the technical side of the business,” Lee says. “The need to know what’s going on at deeper and deeper levels.”

The willingness to work hard and learn has long been one of Lee’s most noticeable traits. At age 14, he went to work at the Blackhawk Country Club golf course in the Madison suburb of Shorewood Hills. His boss was Monroe Miller BS’68, now retired but for many years the respected and colorful superintendent at Blackhawk.

“He was a real special kid,” Miller says. “There were two things about Mike. He was smart and he had a great work ethic. He was probably never, ever, ever once, late for work.”

Miller recalls that off-season was always a time for catching up on chores such as painting. Around Thanksgiving in 1982, he told Lee and another young worker that among the jobs on their list was painting the inside of a pump station.

“They went down there on Thanksgiving Day and went to work,” Miller says. “I had to go down and kick them out so they would go home and spend time with their families.”

As for Lee, he says of Blackhawk and his apprenticeship with Miller: “I learned to work. I learned discipline.”

It was apparent even in those days, Miller says, that Lee had a special talent for everything to do with maintaining a golf course, from a love of the machinery to understanding the special care grass needs to become the meticulously groomed stage necessary for the game.

“Mike is one of those guys you could call a turfgrass clairvoyant,” Miller says.

Whistling Straits is a world unto itself, a haunting landscape that seems to have been dropped from the ancient countryside of the British Isles onto the Lake Michigan shoreline. That was exactly the intent of Kohler Company CEO Herbert Kohler and legendary golf course designer Pete Dye when they created both The Straits and The Irish, the other 18-hole course on the property.

The Straits, especially, evokes the rugged environs of renowned seaside courses such as the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, frequent site of the British Open. These are known in the golfing world as links courses, dramatically different from the grassy, intensely manicured courses most Americans are familiar with. Greens are connected less by fairways than by long reaches of rugged, seemingly unkempt terrain pocked by deep, cylindrical bunkers known as pot bunkers. These are another naturally occurring feature of the old courses, terrifying hazards into which unlucky golfers can disappear for long moments before chopping their wayward ball out again.

The old links courses in Ireland, Scotland and England are characterized by a coastal topography of dune and scrub-covered ridges. They evolved as the setting for a terribly frustrating game called golf because they were good for little else other than grazing the sheep that chomped away while early golfers swung away.

Though some may associate the word “links” with linked golf holes, the word actually comes from Old English and predates the game. It is the name given to that particular harsh and scrubby landscape behind a beach.

This is the world that Dye wanted to create with The Straits. He started with a wasteland along the shore of Lake Michigan, a flat and dismal area that had been the site of a military antiaircraft training range. He ordered up 7,000 truckloads of sand and went to work.
What emerged was a course of bluff and dune along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline with holes named Gremlin’s Ear and Snake and Cliff Hanger and Widow’s Watch and Pinched Nerve. Each hole has a view of the lake. There are four stone bridges and a stone clubhouse that looks as though it were transported rock by rock from the Scottish countryside. A flock of Scottish blackface sheep roam the grounds.

“We had to hire a shepherd,” Lee says. “Sometimes one of the sheep gets lost and we all have to look for it. You can spend hours out there looking for that one last sheep. It’s like something straight out of the Bible.”

But few characteristics connect The Straits to the old-style links courses more strongly than the wind. Lee, traveling the course, seemed almost always aware of the wind off the big lake.

“Out of the north today,” he says, during our drive. “Look at those waves.”

The wind gave the course its name. Herbert Kohler was walking the property during construction and, apparently teetering in a steady gale that whistled along the course’s heights and raised whitecaps on the lake, the name came to him very naturally.

The attention to detail in the course’s design, construction and maintenance has impressed the world’s best golfers. Lee keeps a file of comments from professional golfers, and he pulled out one from Tom Lehman, three-time winner of the PGA’s Player of the Year, who was interviewed about the course during the 2004 PGA Championship.

“It’s quite a feat of construction,” Lehman said. “I mean, it’s quite a vision they had . . . This golf course is almost otherworldly.”
Lehman also spoke of the course’s ruggedness. Players and spectators alike generally come off The Straits exhausted, Lee notes. During the 2010 championship he spent part of his time giving rides to exhausted spectators worn out by walking the up-and-down course.

Lee enjoys banging around the course in his truck, sharing its charms and its quirks, especially now as preparations for this summer’s championship are well under way. On one jaunt he points out the paths that are designed like narrow country lanes (no carts here; every golfer walks with a caddy). He pauses at the large staging areas for gravel and sand that will serve as platforms for the big corporate suites and viewing stands.

The course is being set up, Lee says, to make it more spectator-friendly, with better walking areas and viewing locations that place golf fans close to the action.

And Lee shares an interesting and somewhat startling detail that, upon reflection, makes perfect sense for a course owned by the Kohlers of bathroom fixture fame. He stops his pickup truck and points to what looks like gravel along the side of the road.
“We used crushed toilets to make that,” Lee says matter-of-factly, but with a faint smile playing on his face.

On this early spring day, the bentgrass on the greens and the fescue in the fairways has yet to begin changing from winter’s browns to the green of spring. But that green will soon enough begin creeping across the course—and Lee will be paying close attention to any disease or other problems that may try to establish a foothold.

For Lee and his staff, preparation for the PGA Championship has been going on for years: the close monitoring and treatment for disease and insects, the careful maintenance of the course throughout the playing season, when Lee’s crews are out morning and night raking, mowing and grooming.

Staff with the PGA have been on the site for two years, working from a large office trailer and keeping track of preparations, figuring out such details as where structures are going to go and where ropes will be placed to guide and control spectators.

The PGA course conditioning guidelines for championship competition give some indication of just how much attention to detail is necessary—consistent green speeds that are calculated with an instrument called a stimpmeter, mowers that are very precisely calculated to mow greens between .150 and .100 of an inch, the required use of bunker sand with grains that are measured so that no more than 25 percent of them are .25 mm or smaller.

“We go out all day with the guys from the PGA,” says Lee. “We’ve learned to pack a lunch.”

So it’s easy to see why Lee’s relationship with the experts at CALS becomes even more important as the championship draws near. Though Lee is adept at dealing with most of the challenges turf has to offer, the researchers at the Turfgrass Diagnostics Lab can often spot problems that remain invisible to most.

Back at the lab, Bruce Schweiger remembers puzzling over disease samples sent in by another client. To the client, the problem looked like dollar spot, but Schweiger knew that was not the issue. CALS entomology professor and UW–Extension specialist Chris Williamson was working nearby, and Schweiger asked him to take a look.

“Oh,” Williamson said. “Ants.”

It turned out that Williamson had done research on the problem some time before and had discovered that, during the mating season, some ant species go to war. They attack each other by spraying a nerve toxin that contains formic acid. That acid burns the turf and leaves lesions that look suspiciously like dollar spots, Schweiger recounts.

Such are the strange problems that could arise to plague Lee and his crew as they tend the course during the championship.

And those worries are on top of the intense maintenance that requires around-the-clock diligence once the event begins. Most crew members stay on-site working hours on end during championship week, Lee says, sleeping in big shelters set up for that purpose, snoozing in reclining chairs and watching the golf action on television screens.

Plant pathologist Paul Koch worked during the 2004 championship as an intern on one of the two- and three-person green crews that are charged with caring for a particular green and making sure during the week that it is cut morning and night and maintained to the PGA’s exacting specifications.

Sometimes, Koch says, that requires a cut of a mere sliver, no more than the depth of three credit cards or so stacked one upon the other.

One damp early morning during the championship, Koch recalls, Lee dispatched crews to squeegee the dew from tees. Koch was met during the chore by one of the professional golfers, who marveled at what Koch was doing.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe you guys are doing this so that we don’t have to walk in dew,’” Koch recalls.

Through the entire championship, Koch says, Lee remained cool and collected.

Of course, going into the week of a championship, Lee has already made sure there is little that can go wrong. A recent tour of the course included a visit to the maintenance building garage, located just outside the door from Lee’s spartan office (aerial shots of the course being the most elaborate decoration).

Lee walked to one of the 60 big mowers lined up and gleaming in neat rows. He tilted one up and suggested running a finger across one of the blades.

It was razor sharp.

Learn more at the following websites:
O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility: http://ojnoer.ars.wisc.edu
Whistling Straits: www.americanclubresort.com/golf/whistling-straits
PGA Championship: www.pga.com/pgachampionship

The MBA of Dairy

The average age of a Wisconsin farmer is over 56 and rising, and the state has been losing around 500 dairy farms per year. It’s no surprise, then, that experts say it’s critical to prepare young people to step into farm roles in order to keep the state’s $88 billion agricultural economy strong into the future.

But making the transition into dairy farming is complicated, and aspiring farmers often don’t have the capital or the experience to take over an established operation.

Enter the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program, which is working to address the issue by providing support for young people interested in becoming dairy farmers. Started in 2010, the first-of-its-kind program is administered by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit GrassWorks, Inc., with CALS as a key partner.

Earlier this year, DGA received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The funding will enable organizers to improve and expand the program in Wisconsin, as well as explore the possibility of rolling it out to other dairy states.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes program that really takes people up to the level where they can own and operate their own dairy,” says DGA director Joe Tomandl. “It’s the MBA of dairy.”

Program participants complete 4,000 hours of paid training over two years, most of it alongside experienced dairy farmers, and work their way up from apprentices to Journey Dairy Graziers and Master Dairy Graziers. Although most of that time is spent in on-the-job training, there’s also a significant requirement for related instruction. That’s where CALS comes in.

As part of the program, apprentices attend a seminar about pasture-based dairy and livestock through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF), which is co-sponsored by the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course. The seminar involves a 32-hour commitment, which is generally fulfilled through distance education and includes instruction from CALS professors from dairy, animal and soil sciences.

“We believe in the Wisconsin Idea and want to make sure our classes are accessible to people who want more education, but preferably close to where they live and work,” says Nadia Alber, a WSBDF outreach coordinator who helps organize the seminar and also serves on the DGA board.

In 2009, GrassWorks, Inc. turned to WSBDF director Dick Cates PhD’83 for guidance and access to a well-respected educational curriculum to help get the DGA up and running—and the WSBDF team has been involved ever since.

“We were just this little nonprofit with a very small budget trying to compete for a big federal grant,” says Tomandl. “For us, it was important to have UW–Madison as a strategic partner.”

As part of the most recent round of funding, DGA’s partners at CALS will lead an effort to quantify the program’s broader impacts.
“They have already proven that participants are moving along to their own farms after the apprenticeship, so they have an established track record,” says Alber. “This new study will look at some of the program’s other impacts, including economic, environmental and social.”

The Fox, the Coyote­—and We Badgers

Once upon a time during the last few years, a red-haired girl new to the University of Wisconsin–Madison crested Bascom Hill and cast her eyes upon the cozy arrangement of buildings and lawns, the tree-lined city by the fair lake. Her nature and upbringing led her to think: Yes, this is good. I should meet the right boy here. I hope the food is good.

The UW–Madison campus is a well-worn locale for such scouting. Last year 31,676 prospective students scoped out dorms and classrooms. Hundreds of elite athletes measured the environment against their precise needs. Thousands more informal visits were made, all driven by the same question: Can I thrive here?

But our young visitor is in a new class altogether—wild members of the canid clan. As it happens, their food is quite good, and she—technically a vixen, or female fox—did find the right dog. After spending a winter holed up under Van Hise Hall, she gave birth to a litter of eight, and in early March of 2014 began to let the young kits gambol about.

They were a campus sensation—stopping lectures, cars and buses, inspiring a popular Tumblr blog, drawing hundreds of rapt spectators. Their appearance provided a fortuitous teachable moment for David Drake, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology and a UW–Extension wildlife specialist, who was just beginning to delve deeper into studying the foxes and coyotes of Madison.

Coyotes have been intermittent, if secretive, Madisonians for more than a decade. In the last few years reports of coyotes by visitors to Picnic Point have been rising, and people from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve asked Drake if he could investigate. But the rise of the urban fox population is a relatively new canine twist.

“It’s very timely,” says Dan Hirchert, urban wildlife specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. While no comprehensive data have been collected, from where he sits foxes and coyotes are gaining throughout the state. And while the coyotes have been present for a couple of decades, the fortunes of the fox seem to be following the rise in urban chicken rearing.

Because most wildlife research happens in rural areas, we may not know as much as we think about our new neighbors. “Does what we’ve learned about these animals in the wild apply in urbanized settings?” asks Drake. Most major cities employ a forester, but very few cities have a wildlife biologist on staff. Much more common is the pest management paradigm: animal control.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Drake says. “If 85 percent of Americans live in cities, why aren’t we doing more? That’s where people are interacting with wildlife.”

These questions prompted Drake to found the UW Urban Canid Project, a hyperlocal study with far-reaching implications.

“The number of urban canid sightings on campus, primarily red fox and coyote, have been on the rise and have been met with mixed emotions from all different members of society,” notes Drake. “This research aims to understand more about the complex interactions between coyotes, foxes and humans in this urban area—as well as provide information and resources for residents to reduce the potential for conflict with these amazing creatures.”

As morning light seeped into a cold January dawn, David Drake and his grad student Marcus Mueller prepared to lead a small convoy from Russell Labs, winding toward the wild corners of campus to check 18 restraint traps that had been set the evening before.
“Are you feeling lucky today?” Drake asks, climbing into the truck.

“Always,” says Mueller.

“I had a hard time getting to sleep last night,” says Drake. “This is like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Every day you go out to see if you caught something.”

First stop is the old Barley and Malt Laboratory, between the retaining wall of University Avenue and the physical plant. It hardly seemed like habitat, but Mueller traced a clear track laid down by the repeated passage of many small feet. The animals were using the buildings for cover, in transit to someplace else.

Drake is hopeful—he’d already received a call from someone who’d seen a fox at 5:20 a.m. on the football practice field. “They were running through Breese Terrace all last year,” he says. At least one fox was digging in an area under the west side bleachers of Camp Randall for a possible den, notes Drake, but no kits were ever seen there. “It is funny to find these spaces on campus that the animals are using,” says Drake. “I ride my bike by here every day and never really thought about it.”

And in one of the three traps an annoyed raccoon waits impatiently. Donning protective gloves, Drake and Mueller release the coon, who scuttles away, anxious for cover.

Next stop is a small cattail marsh next to Willow Beach, behind the new Dejope Residence Hall. The day before, Drake and Mueller had baited the marsh with parts of a deer carcass. On the short trail we flush an eagle from its perch, perhaps planning its own morning snack of carrion.

This little ecological pocket typifies the habitat opportunities that fox and coyote are exploiting. It’s not big enough to call home, or even to get a regular meal. But link it together with dozens of other nooks and crannies and dumpsters around campus, and the sum total is a complex and productive niche.

Fox and coyote are urban adapters: flexible enough to range across a variety of landscapes, from rural to urban. For animals to survive in a city, they typically need to be this kind of habitat generalist, able to exploit a range of hunting and scavenging environments.

The other part of the equation is habituation—how animals get accustomed to human activities. As a species moves into the city, those who survive realize over time that bad things don’t necessarily happen when they encounter humans. Instead of running at the first sign of people, they sit and watch. This knowledge gets passed down from mother to pup, eventually leading to the Van Hise foxes romping in full view of adoring crowds.

The restraints behind Dejope are set for fox, and this morning there is nothing. Drake looks around and connects the dots in the surrounding environment. West across the ice is University Bay Marsh, where four more restraints await. A few ticks to the north is Picnic Point, and the lake beyond.

The last traps of the day are located in the Biocore Prairie, where the research began when a few trail cams confirmed that a group of coyotes were ranging through the preserve, and probably enjoying the fruits of the Eagle Heights gardens as well.
Drake hopes to learn how urban agriculture is influencing canid behavior. Backyard vegetable gardening is flourishing, and each year more city dwellers add chicken coops to their homesteads.

The chickens are an obvious attraction—chickens have probably been preferred canid targets since even before their domestication. Gardens also attract the small mammals that canids prefer. They will even snack on berries and vegetables.

Last year Drake secured four radio collars—two for each species—and, with the assistance of Lodi trapper Mike Schmelling, researchers were able to collar a pair of coyotes and one fox. Among the first discoveries was that the animals are running the frozen lake. The researchers learned this when one collared coyote disappeared. At first they suspected a malfunction, but a citizen report led them to Maple Bluff, where they reestablished radio contact. The coyote had apparently run all the way across the lake, possibly snacking on ice-fishing gut piles along the way. Another ran north and was killed by a car on County M, near Governor Nelson Park.

This year the research hits full speed, with 30 fox collars and 30 coyote collars available. The ambitious work plan includes collaring an entire fox family, kits and all.

And in the snow-covered landscape of the Biocore Prairie, the first glimpse of the third restraint trap offers a rush of hope. The area around the restraint is beaten up, with dark leaves interrupting the white. An animal was clearly held at some point, but all that’s left is a bit of hair and a kinked and ruined cable.

Back in the truck, Drake teases Mueller. “Marcus, I don’t have a good feeling about your luck.”

“Not yet, anyway.”

“You’re not an unlucky person, are you?”

“I hope not.”

“Because I have fired more than one graduate student for being unlucky . . .”

It’s just as dark and even colder the next morning, yet the party adds an undergraduate wildlife ecology student, Cody Lane, and Laura Wyatt MS’87, a program manager with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. John Olson, a furbearer biologist for the DNR, is in town, and has come to check out the project before putting in a day of lab work.

Behind the Barley and Malt Laboratory, Olson kneels down to evaluate the tradecraft of the empty restraint—a simple loop of airline cable noose suspended from a dark length of stiff wire. “They don’t even see these as traps. They see them as sticks,” Olson explains.

These unique cable restraint traps were named and developed with DNR assistance as part of a national humane trap research program in the early 2000s. “The important thing with these kinds of sets is non-entanglement,” he says. The radius of the multistrand wire must be clear of any potential snags. The size of the loop is determined by the animal you’re selecting, while a stopper keeps it from getting too tight. It works much like a choker collar.

During testing they trapped just over 200 coyotes, and only two died. One had a bad case of mange and died of exposure. The other was shot by someone who didn’t realize the animal was restrained. “It’s a very safe tool,” Olson says. “Cable restraints never damaged any coyotes in the three years that we studied them.”

The convoy moved on to Willow Beach—and, finally, success. A young male fox waits suspiciously, huddled in the reeds. The wind probes at his deep winter coat while the party retreats and summons Michael Maroney BS’85, a veterinarian with the UW–Madison Research Animal Resources Center.

Together Mueller and Maroney estimate the fox’s weight at 12 pounds, and draw a mix of ketamine and xylazine. Mueller secures the animal with a catch pole while Maroney injects the cocktail into the rear leg muscle, provoking an accusing glare from the fox. The clock starts. Within six minutes Maroney looks at Mueller and announces: “He’s clearly gorked.”

Everybody laughs at the non-technical yet thoroughly accurate terminology, and the work begins. They figure they have about 40 minutes. Laying the animal out on a white towel atop a blue tarp, Mueller secures a cordura muzzle, then pulls out electric clippers and shaves one dark foreleg to make it easier to find a vein. Maroney watches his technique while the undergraduate Lane records data.
The fox breathes steadily, and the three talk quietly, as if he were only asleep. Without the wind ruffling his coat, the fox seems smaller, more vulnerable. After the blood draw, nasal and fecal swabs are taken, and the mouth examined. Finally, they weigh the animal—a sturdy 13.5 pounds—and affix the radio collar.

Removing the muzzle, they carry him away from an opening in the marsh ice—a gorked animal doesn’t always behave rationally—and lay him out again on the tarp, out of the wind. A few minutes later and a dark ear twitches, as if to displace a fly. A few more minutes, and the ear twitches pick up. Suddenly the fox stands up shakily, and surveys the audience of onlookers. He quickly takes cover in the marsh, where he gathers his wits for a few more minutes, then slips from view.

Mueller and Drake are giddy, ebullient. “We are off and running,” says Drake. “That was pretty cool.” Last year it took forever to catch a fox; this year they begin with one. “Great start,” says Mueller, and then recounts the steps to himself in a low voice, as if to help remember: the sedation, the blood draws, the recovery.

Mary Rice first saw the coyote in her backyard sometime in the summer of 2012. It was getting dark, and first she wondered, “Whose dog is that?”, followed quickly by: “Oh, my god, a coyote.”

“We were a little alarmed,” she says.

Rice canvassed the neighbors, warning them there was “a coyote lurking” about. Some didn’t know, others did, and some even thought they’d seen wolves. She was wondering how to deal with it, who to call, when she saw another one, smaller. “Remove one, there will be another,” she realized.

A graduate coordinator in the Department of Food Science, Rice remained somewhat unsettled for a few months, worrying about her cats and unsure about her own safety. Then one day at work she learned about Drake’s UW Urban Canid Project and decided to give them a call.

“Can you try to track it and figure out what it’s doing here?” she asked. “We can hopefully live with it. If we’re not going to be able to remove it, maybe we can learn from it and learn how to live among them.”

Before long, with the cooperation of another neighbor, a restraint trap was set. This was Mueller’s first solo set: he decided where to put it, and configured and camouflaged it. Within a week, in early March they had a 36-pound male coyote who had been cutting behind a brush pile. On her way to work, Rice stopped to see the animal and help the team record its vitals. She couldn’t wait to tell her coworkers why she was late.

Rice’s coyote experience is a perfect example of how the project can work, says Drake, with outreach engaging members of the public and connecting them with scientists in the field. On most trap-checking mornings Drake’s team has company—each day a new handful of visitors. Sometimes they’re wildlife students or other friends of the program, but often they’re just curious early risers who follow the group’s progress on social media.

And with hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter, public fascination is strong. Because of our strong cultural connection to dogs, our affinity may even be a little hardwired. From Wile E. Coyote and fox or coyote tricksters in folklore to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, these are animals we all know on some level, however mythic.

Still, fox and coyote don’t get quite the same reception. The fox is easy to anthropomorphize. It’s small, cute and generally non-threatening. Coyotes aren’t typically seen as often, and your first thought can be, like that of Mary Rice: Whoa, that’s a pretty big animal.

“Just because you see a coyote doesn’t mean it’s a bad animal, and doesn’t mean it’s going to create problems for you or that you should be afraid of it,” says Drake. The key is to not create, or exaggerate, a conflict. And that’s almost always about food. It’s important to secure bird feeders and outside pet food, and to take care with pets out of doors. If the coyotes become too bold, make an effort to scare the animals away. “We’re really trying to help people to understand how wonderful it is to have these animals here, but also to be vigilant,” Drake says.

“Are you nocturnal yet?” I ask Mueller as I climb into a white UW van at 9 p.m. in early March. He laughs—it won’t be long now. As soon as early-morning trap checks are done, he’ll be swinging full-time on the second shift. These dogs are nocturnal, and if you want to learn where they are at night, you’ve got to get out there with the radio tracker.

The research plan calls for tracking each animal at least once a week. Some nights it’s boring, and Mueller catches naps between hourly triangulations. But the newly collared fox has been a real challenge. He was tracked one night moving from south of Fish Hatchery Road and Park Street all the way up to John Nolen Drive, where he spent time on frozen Monona Bay and eventually made it to Muir Woods on campus. That’s about four miles as the crow flies—never mind the urban labyrinth he had to navigate between those points. He did all that traveling within a five-hour period.

“It truly was a game of cat and mouse trying to keep up with him that night,” says Mueller. Is he a young transient who hasn’t yet established a home range? Is he trying to find a mate? Or can home ranges for urban foxes really be that big?

Some nights Mueller can track only one animal, but on others they are close to each other. On one recent night the fox and the coyotes were all on campus, just a short distance from each other. “I was flying all over campus,” says Mueller. “It was a crazy night of telemetry.”

It was a perfect scenario for answering a really big question. In wilder terrain foxes and coyotes are mutually exclusive, but Madison is different. “We know from the animals we’ve got on radio that the fox and the coyote are sharing the same space, and sometimes they are sharing the same space at the same time,” says Drake. “They are crossing paths.”

Are the foxes using humans and elements of our built environment to protect themselves from coyotes? Or are there simply enough resources that they don’t have to compete as strictly—more rabbits and squirrels, more compost piles and chicken coops?
The scientists are a long way from answering those questions. First they need to relocate the coyote.

Mueller parks around the corner from Mary Rice’s house in a residential pocket south of the Beltline and raises the antenna, a three-element Yagi that looks like a refugee from the old days of analog TV.

The first reading comes from the west, and from the strength of it Mueller guesses we’re a mile or more away. Crossing back over the Beltline, a little under a mile as the crow flies, and another reading: now the signal’s coming from the east. Another three-
quarters of a mile into a dead-end parking lot, and the signal is now east and south. But back over the Beltline.

In quarter-mile and half-mile increments Mueller is in and out of the van, swinging the antenna around, squawk box to his ear, taking compass readings. After a few more readings he finalizes the coyote’s location in a small wetland not far from one of the many bike paths that probe south from the city. He stayed put until 2 a.m., when Mueller called it a night.

“I can’t wait,” says Mueller, thinking ahead 12 months, when he’s got hundreds of hours of data plotted on a map and can begin to see patterns. “The underlying goal of this project is to be able to coexist with these animals more effectively, to avoid conflicts,” he says. “We don’t want to have to remove coyotes from a population because they are too habituated to people.”

As a summer job during college, Mueller used to take calls at a wildlife rehab center in Milwaukee. “A lot of times people just don’t know much about the ecology and life history of these animals, and that lack of understanding leads to fear,” he says. One call in particular stuck with him, a man worried about a turkey walking around in Milwaukee.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to take it back to nature. It’s not supposed to be here,’” Mueller remembers. But the turkey had already redefined nature—and so have coyotes and foxes and deer and raccoons and . . .

“Cities aren’t going anywhere,” says Mueller. “And the way that these animals are adapting, I think it’s only going to allow for more animals to continue this trend.”

Keep up on all the latest information from the UW Urban Canid Project at their new website, http://uwurbancanidproject.weebly.com/, as well as on Facebook and on Twitter: @UWCanidProject. If you have any questions, or are interested in observing or volunteering, please email: uwurbancanidproject@gmail.com.
To see more campus fox photos by E. Arti Wulandari, visit: http://go.wisc.edu/campusfoxes.

Second Life for Phosphorus

Phosphorus, a nutrient required for growing crops, finds its way from farm fields to our food and eventually to our wastewater treatment plants. At the plants, the nutrient causes major problems, building up in pipes or going on to pollute surface waters.

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest. Photo courtesy of Phil Barak

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest.
Photo by Rick Wayne

But soil science professor Phil Barak has an idea about how to retrieve the nutrient from wastewater in a valuable form—and it started from a basic lab experiment. “I was doing some work on crystallizing phosphorus, just out of pure academic interest,” explains Barak. “That led me to crystallize a mineral called struvite. Then I realized it was forming in wastewater treatment plants as a nuisance.”

If he could form crystals in the lab, he reasoned, why couldn’t it be done in the wastewater treatment plants in a controlled way? It could. And, even better, if he collected the phosphorus early on in the treatment process in the form of a mineral called brushite, he could harvest even more of it.

Beyond removing phosphorus from wastewater, brushite can serve as a nutrient source for growers. While Barak will do further testing to prove its utility, brushite is a phosphate mineral that’s actually been found in agricultural fields for years.

“When conventional phosphorus fertilizers are added to soil, brushite forms. I maintain that we’ve been fertilizing with brushite for decades, but nobody’s been paying attention to it,” says Barak.

Being able to remove phosphorus from wastewater and supply it back to growers is a win-win situation, Barak notes. “We’re collecting phosphorus where it’s localized, at really high concentrations, which is the most economical place to collect it,” says Barak. “This works out in just about every dimension you can consider, from the treatment plants to the cost of recycling phosphorus as opposed to mining it new.”

Graduate students in Barak’s lab suggested that he commercialize the technology and start a company. After the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) passed on the patent, Barak and his students sought help from the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. They received two federal Small Business Innovative Research grants, and, with some additional funds from the state, including the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, their efforts have turned into a spinoff company: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling, LLC (NRU).

The company’s next step was a big one. This summer, a phosphorus recovery pilot plant is being implemented in a wastewater treatment plant in Illinois. The pilot project will test the research ideas on a larger scale.

Additionally, the NRU team will participate in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s granting system to determine if a pilot project would be a good fit in Milwaukee. They hope to start collecting and analyzing data from Illinois by September, using that pilot system to lay the groundwork for others in Milwaukee and beyond.

Uganda: The Benefits of Biogas

Generating enthusiasm for a new kind of technology is key to its long-term success. Rebecca Larson, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, has already accomplished that goal in Uganda, where students at an elementary school in Lweeza excitedly yell “Biogas! Biogas!” after learning about anaerobic digester systems.

Larson, a UW–Extension biowaste specialist and an expert in agricultural manure management, designs, installs and upgrades small-scale anaerobic digester (AD) systems in developing countries. Her projects are funded by the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison and several other sources. Community education and outreach at schools and other installation sites are an important part of these efforts.

Children get excited by the “magic” in her work, she says. “It’s converting something with such a negative connotation as manure into something positive,” Larson notes. In an AD system, this magic is performed by bacteria that break down manure and other organic waste in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting biogas, a form of energy composed of methane and carbon dioxide, can be used directly for cooking, lighting, or heating a building, or it can fuel an engine generator to produce electricity.

Larson’s collaborators in Uganda include Sarah Stefanos and Aleia McCord, graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who joined forces with fellow students at Makarere University in Kampala to start a company called Waste 2 Energy Ltd.
Along with another company, Green Heat Uganda, which has built a total of 42 digesters, Waste 2 Energy has helped install four AD systems since 2011.

“Most of these digesters are locally built underground dome systems at schools and orphanages,” Larson explains. Lweeza’s elementary school is a perfect example.

The AD systems use food waste, human waste from pit latrines and everything in between. The biogas generated by the digester is run through a pipeline to a kitchen stove where the children’s meals are prepared. Compared to traditional charcoal cooking, the AD systems greatly reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Larson and her team are now focusing on enhancing the efficiency and environmental benefits of these systems. Their goals are to improve the digester’s management of human waste, reduce its water needs, increase the amount of energy it produces and generate cheap fertilizer to boost food crop yields.

“Our overall goal is to create a closed-loop and low-cost sustainability package that addresses multiple local user needs,” Larson says.

The beauty of the project is that all these needs can be met by simply adding two new components to the existing systems: heating elements and a solid-liquid separator.

To help visualize the impact of the fertilizer, Larson set up demonstration plots that compare crop yields with and without it. Down the road, a generator could be added to the system to provide electricity in a country where only 9 percent of the population currently has access.

As a next step, Larson hopes to replicate the project’s success in Bolivia. She is finalizing local design plans with Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, her postdoctoral fellow in biological systems engineering, and their collaborators at the Universidad Amazonica de Pando in Cobija.

Give: Hands-On Fieldwork

Before last summer, Vera Swanson’s only exposure to plant sciences had been through classes in introductory biology. That changed big-time when Swanson, a junior majoring in environmental sciences and Russian, signed on to intern at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station as a crop scout.

Crop scouts are used in agricultural management to diagnose stress factors in a field—such elements as potentially negative soil and climate conditions, the presence of pests, and threatened crop performance—and determine which management practices are appropriate for the goals of a specific plot. As part of her training, Swanson spent copious hours learning to identify weeds by walking through the fields and the Weed Garden, which displays dozens of invasive plants accompanied by their names.

Swanson paired her internship, which was run through the Department of Agronomy, with an independent research project involving biofuel crops being tested at Arlington. For that work Swanson drew on her growing knowledge of weeds to test the effect of three biofuel crop systems—native prairie, switchgrass and continuous corn—on the soil’s weed seed bank, or the viable seeds present in the soil and its surface. The project involved working one-on-one with research scientists in Randy Jackson’s grassland ecology lab. Jackson is running the crop trials through his affiliation with the UW’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, housed in the Wisconsin Energy Institute.

The intense focus on plants got Swanson thinking a lot more about soil. “It is such a finite resource, yet so much of what we depend on comes from it—our food, clothing and the materials that we build with,” says Swanson.

It also got her more interested in food systems, to the point where she chose to make horticulture a disciplinary focus within her major and a possible new career direction. “I’d love to work for an organization where I would be able to complement my interests in agriculture, development and language within a global context,” she says.

Swanson’s path exemplifies the power of “beyond classroom” experiences to dramatically shape, and in many cases transform, a student’s education and career goals. These experiences—which include internships, research projects, study abroad, honors thesis stipends, field courses and more—are the hallmark of a CALS education.

“They’re a big part of what makes CALS CALS—and they offer our students a major advantage in both their personal and professional development,” says Sarah Pfatteicher, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs. “Our goal is to ensure that each student can participate in at least four of these important opportunities.”

To help support the CALS Student Experience Fund, visit: http://go.wisc.edu/student-experience

Plant Prowess

It may look jury-rigged, but it’s cutting-edge science.

In a back room in the university’s Seeds Building, researchers scan ears of corn—three at a time—on a flatbed scanner, the kind you’d find at any office supply store. After running the ears through a shelling machine, they image the de-kerneled cobs on a second scanner.

The resulting image files—up to 40 gigabytes’ worth per day—are then run through a custom-made software program that outputs an array of yield-related data for each individual ear. Ultimately, the scientists hope to link this type of information—along with lots of other descriptive data about how the plants grow and what they look like—back to the genes that govern those physical traits. It’s part of a massive national effort to deliver on the promise of the corn genome, which was sequenced back in 2009, and help speed the plant breeding process for this widely grown crop.

“When it comes to crop improvement, the genotype is more or less useless without attaching it to performance,” explains Bill Tracy, professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy. “The big thing is phenotyping—getting an accurate and useful description of the organism—and connecting that information back to specific genes. It’s the biggest thing in our area of plant sciences right now, and we as a college are playing a big role in that.”

No surprise there. Since the college’s founding, plant scientists at CALS have been tackling some of the biggest issues of their day. Established in 1889 to help fulfill the University of Wisconsin’s land grant mission, the college focused on supporting the state’s fledgling farmers, helping them figure out how to grow crops and make a living at it. At the same time, this practical assistance almost always included a more basic research component, as researchers sought to understand the underlying biology, chemistry and physics of agricultural problems.

That approach continues to this day, with CALS plant scientists working to address the ever-evolving agricultural and natural resource challenges facing the state, the nation and the world. Taken together, this group constitutes a research powerhouse, with members based in almost half of the college’s departments, including agronomy, bacteriology, biochemistry, entomology, forest and wildlife ecology, genetics, horticulture, plant pathology and soil science.

“One of our big strengths here is that we span the complete breadth of the plant sciences,” notes Rick Lindroth, associate dean for research at CALS and a professor of entomology. “We have expertise across the full spectrum—from laboratory to field, from molecules to ecosystems.”

This puts the college in the exciting position of tackling some of the most complex and important issues of our time, including those on the applied science front, the basic science front—and at the exciting new interface where the two approaches are starting to intersect, such as the corn phenotyping project.

“The tools of genomics, informatics and computation are creating unprecedented opportunities to investigate and improve plants for humans, livestock and the natural world,” says Lindroth. “With our historic strength in both basic and applied plant sciences, the college is well positioned to help lead the nation at this scientific frontier.”

It’s hard to imagine what Wisconsin’s agricultural economy would look like today without the assistance of CALS’ applied plant scientists.

The college’s early horticulturalists helped the first generation of cranberry growers turn a wild bog berry into an economic crop. Pioneering plant pathologists identified devastating diseases in cabbage and potato, and then developed new disease-resistant varieties. CALS agronomists led the development of the key forage crops—including alfalfa and corn—that feed our state’s dairy cows.

Fast-forward to 2015: Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries, is third in the nation in potatoes and has become America’s Dairyland. And CALS continues to serve the state’s agricultural industry.

The college’s robust program covers a wide variety of crops and cropping systems, with researchers addressing issues of disease, insect and weed control; water and soil conservation; nutrient management; crop rotation and more. The college is also home to a dozen public plant-breeding programs—for sweet corn, beet, carrot, onion, potato, cranberry, cucumber, melon, bean, pepper, squash, field corn and oats—that have produced scores of valuable new varieties over the years, including a number of “home runs” such as the Snowden potato, a popular potato chip variety, and the HyRed cranberry, a fast-ripening berry designed for Wisconsin’s short growing season.

While CALS plant scientists do this work, they also train the next generation of researchers—lots of them. The college’s Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program, with faculty from nine departments, has trained more graduate students than any other such program in the nation. Just this past fall, the Biology Major launched a new plant biology option in response to growing interest among undergraduates.

“If you go to any major seed company, you’ll find people in the very top leadership positions who were students here in our plant-breeding program,” says Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture.

Among the college’s longstanding partnerships, CALS’ relationship with the state’s potato growers is particularly strong, with generations of potato growers working alongside generations of CALS scientists. The Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), the commodity group that supports the industry, spends more than $300,000 on CALS-led research each year, and the group helped fund the professorship that brought Jeff Endelman, a national leader in statistical genetics, to campus in 2013 to lead the university’s potato-breeding program.

“Research is the watchword of the Wisconsin potato and vegetable industry,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the WPVGA. “We enjoy a strong partnership with CALS researchers in an ongoing effort to solve problems and improve crops, all with the goal of enhancing the economic vitality of Wisconsin farmers.”

Over the decades, multi-disciplinary teams of CALS experts have coalesced around certain crops, including potato, pooling their expertise.

“Once you get this kind of core group working, it allows you to do really high-impact work,” notes Patty McManus, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and a UW–Extension fruit crops specialist.

CALS’ prowess in potato, for instance, helped the college land a five-year, $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help reduce levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, in French fries and potato chips. The multistate project involves plant breeders developing new lines of potato that contain lower amounts of reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and asparagine, which combine to form acrylamide when potatoes are fried. More than a handful of conventionally bred, low-acrylamide potato varieties are expected to be ready for commercial evaluations within a couple of growing seasons.

“It’s a national effort,” says project manager Paul Bethke, associate professor of horticulture and USDA-ARS plant physiologist. “And by its nature, there’s a lot of cross-talk between the scientists and the industry.”

Working with industry and other partners, CALS researchers are responding to other emerging trends, including the growing interest in sustainable agricultural systems.

“Maybe 50 years ago, people focused solely on yield, but that’s not the way people think anymore. Our crop production people cannot just think about crop production, they have to think about agroecology, about sustainability,” notes Tracy. “Every faculty member doing production research in the agronomy department, I believe, has done some kind of organic research at one time or another.”

Embracing this new focus, over the past two years CALS has hired two new assistant professors—Erin Silva, in plant pathology, who has responsibilities in organic agriculture, and Julie Dawson, in horticulture, who specializes in urban and regional food systems.

“We still have strong partnerships with the commodity groups, the cranberries, the potatoes, but we’ve also started serving a new clientele—the people in urban agriculture and organics that weren’t on the scene for us 30 years ago,” says Goldman. “So we have a lot of longtime partners, and then some new ones, too.”

Working alongside their applied colleagues, the college’s basic plant scientists have engaged in parallel efforts to reveal fundamental truths about plant biology—truths that often underpin future advances on the applied side of things.

For example, a team led by Aurélie Rakotondrafara, an assistant professor of plant pathology, recently found a genetic element—a stretch of genetic code—in an RNA-based plant virus that has a very useful property. The element, known as an internal ribosome entry site, or IRES, functions like a “landing pad” for the type of cellular machine that turns genes—once they’ve been encoded in RNA—into proteins. (A Biology 101 refresher: DNA—>RNA—>Protein.)

This viral element, when harnessed as a tool of biotechnology, has the power to transform the way scientists do their work, allowing them to bypass a longstanding roadblock faced by plant researchers.

“Under the traditional mechanism of translation, one RNA codes for one protein,” explains Rakotondrafara. “With this IRES, however, we will be able to express several proteins at once from the same RNA.”

Rakotondrafara’s discovery, which won an Innovation Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) this past fall and is in the process of being patented, opens new doors for basic researchers, and it could also be a boon for biotech companies that want to produce biopharmaceuticals, including multicomponent drug cocktails, from plants.

Already, Rakotondrafara is working with Madison-based PhylloTech LLC to see if her new IRES can improve the company’s tobacco plant-based biofarming system.

“The idea is to produce the proteins we need from plants,” says Jennifer Gottwald, a technology officer at WARF. “There hasn’t been a good way to do this before, and Rakotondrafara’s discovery could actually get this over the hump and make it work.”

While Rakotondrafara is a basic scientist whose research happened to yield a powerful application, CALS has a growing number of scientists—including those involved in the corn phenotyping project—who are working at the exciting new interface where basic and applied research overlap. This new space, created through the mind-boggling advances in genomics, informatics and computation made in recent years, is home to an emerging scientific field where genetic information and other forms of “big data” will soon be used to guide in-the-field plant-breeding efforts.

Sequencing the genome of an organism, for instance, “is almost trivial in both cost and difficulty now,” notes agronomy’s Bill Tracy. But a genome—or even a set of 1,000 genomes—is only so helpful.

What plant scientists and farmers want is the ability to link the genetic information inside different corn varieties—that is, the activity of specific genes inside various corn plants—to particular plant traits observed in the greenhouse or the field. The work of chronicling these traits, known as phenotyping, is complex because plants behave differently in different environments—for instance, growing taller in some regions and shorter in others.

“That’s one of the things that the de Leon and Kaeppler labs are now moving their focus to—massive phenotyping. They’ve been doing it for a while, but they’re really ramping up now,” says Tracy, referring to agronomy faculty members Natalia de Leon MS’00 PhD’02 and Shawn Kaeppler.

After receiving a large grant from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in 2007, de Leon and Kaeppler decided to integrate their two research programs. They haven’t looked back. With de Leon’s more applied background in plant breeding and field evaluation, plus quantitative genetics, and with Kaeppler’s more basic corn genetics expertise, the two complement each other well. The duo have had great success securing funding for their various projects from agencies including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“A lot of our focus has been on biofuel traits, but we measure other types of economically valuable traits as well, such as yield, drought tolerance, cold tolerance and others,” says Kaeppler. Part of the work involves collaborating with bioinformatics experts to develop advanced imaging technologies to quantify plant traits, projects that can involve assessing hundreds of plants at a time using tools such as lasers, drone-mounted cameras and hyperspectral cameras.

This work requires a lot of space to grow and evaluate plants, including greenhouse space with reliable climate control in which scientists can precisely measure the effects of environmental conditions on plant growth. That space, however, is in short supply on campus.

“A number of our researchers have multimillion-dollar grants that require thousands of plants to be grown, and we don’t always have the capacity for it,” says Goldman.

That’s because the Walnut Street Greenhouses, the main research greenhouses on campus, are already packed to the gills with potato plants, corn plants, cranberries, cucumbers, beans, alfalfa and dozens of other plant types. At any given moment, the facility has around 120 research projects under way, led by 50 or so different faculty members from across campus.

Another bottleneck is that half of the greenhouse space at Walnut Street is old and sorely outdated. The facility’s newer greenhouses, built in 2005, feature automated climate control, with overlapping systems of fans, vents, air conditioners and heaters that help maintain a pre-set temperature. The older houses, constructed of single-pane glass, date back to the early 1960s and present a number of challenges to run and maintain. Some don’t even have air conditioning—the existing electrical system can’t handle it. Temperatures in those houses can spike to more than 100 degrees during the summer.

“Most researchers need to keep their plants under fairly specific and constant conditions,” notes horticultural technician Deena Patterson. “So the new section greenhouse space is in much higher demand, as it provides the reliability that good research requires.”

To help ameliorate the situation, the college is gearing up to demolish the old structures and expand the newer structure, adding five more wings of greenhouse rooms, just slightly north of the current location—out from under the shadow of the cooling tower of the West Campus Co-Generation Facility power plant, which went online in 2005. The project, which will be funded through a combination of state and private money, is one of the university’s top building priorities.

Fortunately, despite the existing limitations, the college’s plant sciences research enterprise continues apace. Kaeppler and de Leon, for example, are involved in an exciting phenotyping project known as Genomes to Fields, which is being championed by corn grower groups around the nation. These same groups helped jump-start an earlier federal effort to sequence the genomes of many important plants, including corn.

“Now they’re pushing for the next step, which is taking that sequence and turning it into products,” says Kaeppler. “They are providing initial funding to try to grow Genomes to Fields into a big, federally funded initiative, similar to the sequencing project.”

It’s a massive undertaking. Over 1,000 different varieties of corn are being grown and evaluated in 22 environments across 13 states and one Canadian province. Scientists from more than a dozen institutions are involved, gathering traditional information about yield, plant height and flowering times, as well as more complex phenotypic information generated through advanced imaging technologies. To this mountain of data, they add each corn plant’s unique genetic sequence.

“You take all of this data and just run millions and billions of associations for all of these different traits and genotypes,” says de Leon, who is a co-principal investigator on the project. “Then you start needing supercomputers.”

Once all of the dots are connected—when scientists understand how each individual gene impacts plant growth under various environmental conditions—the process of plant breeding will enter a new sphere.

“The idea is that instead of having to wait for a corn plant to grow for five months to measure a certain trait out in the field, we can now take DNA from the leaves of little corn seedlings, genotype them and make decisions within a couple of weeks regarding which ones to advance and which to discard,” says de Leon. “The challenge now is how to be able to make those types of predictions across many environments, including some that we have never measured before.”

To get to that point, notes de Leon, a lot more phenotypic information still needs to be collected—including hundreds and perhaps thousands more images of corn ears and cobs taken using flatbed scanners.

“Our enhanced understanding of how all of these traits are genetically controlled under variable environmental conditions allows us to continue to increase the efficiency of plant improvement to help meet the feed, food and fiber needs of the world’s growing population,” she says.

Sidebar:

The Bigger Picture

Crop breeders aren’t the only scientists doing large-scale phenotyping work. Ecologists, too, are increasingly using that approach to identify the genetic factors that impact the lives of plants, as well as shape the effects of plants on their natural surroundings.

“Scientists are starting to look at how particular genes in dominant organisms in an environment—often trees—eventually shape how the ecosystem functions,” says entomology professor Rick Lindroth, who also serves as CALS’ associate dean for research. “Certain key genes are driving many fantastically interesting and important community- and ecosystem-level interactions.”

How can tree genes have such broad impacts? Scientists are discovering that the answer, in many cases, lies in plant chemistry.
“A tree’s chemical composition, which is largely determined by its genes, affects the community of insects that live on it, and also the birds that visit to eat the insects,” explains Lindroth. “Similarly, chemicals in a tree’s leaves affect the quality of the leaf litter on the ground below it, impacting nutrient cycling and nitrogen availability in nearby soils.”

A number of years ago Lindroth’s team embarked on a long-term “genes-to-ecosystems” project (as these kinds of studies are called) involving aspen trees. They scoured the Wisconsin landscape, collecting root samples from 500 different aspens. From each sample, they propagated three or four baby trees, and then in 2010 planted all 1,800 saplings in a so-called “common garden” at the CALS-based Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

“The way a common garden works is, you put many genetic strains of a single species in a similar environment. If phenotypic differences are expressed within the group, then the likelihood is that those differences are due to their genetics, not the environment,” explains Lindroth.

Now that the trees have had some time to grow, Lindroth’s team has started gathering data about each tree—information such as bud break, bud set, tree size, leaf shape, leaf chemistry, numbers and types of bugs on the trees, and more.

Lindroth and his partners will soon have access to the genetic sequence of all 500 aspen genetic types. Graduate student Hilary Bultman and postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Riehl will do the advanced statistical analysis involved—number crunching that will reveal which genes underlie the phenotypic differences they see.

In this and in other projects, Lindroth has called upon the expertise of colleagues across campus, developing strategic collaborations as needed. That’s easy to do at UW–Madison, notes Lindroth, where there are world-class plant scientists working across the full spectrum of the natural resources field—from tree physiology to carbon cycling to climate change.

“That’s the beauty of being at a place like Wisconsin,” Lindroth says.

Want to help? The college welcomes your gift toward modernizing the Walnut Street Greenhouses. To donate, please visit: supportuw.org/giveto/WalnutGreenhouse. We thank you for your contribution.
Continue reading

The Shocking Truth

It is well known that a certain kind of fish swims the world’s waters protected, as it were, by its very own stun gun.

Unknown, until now, is how electric fish evolved such a defense. A team of researchers led by CALS biochemistry professor Michael Sussman has established the genetic basis for the electric organ, an anatomical feature found only in fish. It evolved independently half a dozen times in environments ranging from the flooded forests of the Amazon to murky marine environments.

“These fish have converted a muscle to an electric organ,” says UW Biotechnology Center director Sussman, who began this research almost a decade ago. The study, recently published in the journal Science, provides evidence to support the idea that the six electric fish lineages used essentially the same genes and developmental and cellular pathways to make the electric organ, which fish use to communi- cate with mates, navigate, stun prey, and as a shock- ing defense. The jolt from an electric organ can be several times more powerful than the current from a standard household electrical outlet.

Worldwide, there are hundreds of electric fish in six broad lineages. Their taxonomic diversity is so great that Darwin himself cited electric fishes as critical examples of convergent evolution, where unrelated animals independently evolve similar traits to adapt to a particular environment or ecological niche.

The new work includes the first draft assembly of the complete genome of the South American electric eel. “A six-foot eel is a top predator in the water and is in essence a frog with a built-in five-and-a- half-foot cattle prod,” says Sussman. “Since all of the visceral organs are near the face, the remaining 90 percent of the fish is almost all electric organ.”

Electric fish have long fascinated humans. The ancient Egyptians used the torpedo, an electric marine ray, in an early form of electrotherapy to treat epilepsy. Much of what Benjamin Franklin and other pioneering scientists learned about electric- ity came from studies of electric fish. In Victorian times, parties were organized where guests would form a chain to experi- ence the shock of an electric fish.

All muscle cells have electrical potential. Simple contraction of a muscle will release a small

amount of voltage. But at least 100 million years ago some fish began to amplify that potential by evolv- ing from muscle cells another type of cell called an electrocyte—larger cells, organized in sequence and capable of generating much higher voltages than those used to make muscles work.

The “in-series alignment” of the electrocytes and the unique polarity of each cell allows for the “sum- mation of voltages, much like batteries stacked in series in a flashlight,” says Sussman.

In addition to sequencing and assembling DNA from the electric eel genome, the team produced protein sequences from the cells of the electric organs and skeletal muscles of three other electric fish lin- eages using RNA sequencing and analysis.

“I consider exotic organisms such as the electric fish to be one of nature’s wonders and an important gift to humanity,” says Sussman. “Our study dem- onstrates nature’s creative powers and its parsimony, using the same genetic and developmental tools to invent an adaptive trait time and again in widely disparate environments.”

And the findings may be useful to humans. “By learning how nature does this, we may be able to manipulate the process with muscle in other organ- isms and, in the near future, perhaps use the tools of synthetic biology to create electrocytes for generating electrical power in bionic devices within the human body or for uses we have not thought of yet,” says Sussman.

Sussman’s collaborators include Harold Zakon of the University of Texas at Austin and Manoj Samanta of the Systemix Institute in Redmond, Washington. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Costa Rica: New trail in paradise

This past January a group of CALS students found themselves bushwhacking through a dense mountain forest in Costa Rica, crossing paths with monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and strange-looking frogs along the way.

But no worries: They weren’t lost.

As part of a service-learning course offered by the Department of Landscape Architecture, they were scouting out a new hiking trail for the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual, environmentally focused K–11 school located just outside the majestic, fog-shrouded cloud forest reserves of Monteverde and Santa Elena. The reserves are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth, serving as home to more than 2,500 plant species, 400 kinds of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians—and thousands of insects.

“We hiked through the most wild parts of the mountain to collect GPS points of potential new trails,” says Lyn Kim, a landscape architecture senior who spent two weeks in Costa Rica as part of the Cloud Forest Studio course, as it’s called.

CALS students helped plan, map and build a five-kilometer trail through the school’s extensive grounds, which include both pristine and previously harvested cloud forest. The path, which includes resting points of special ecological interest, was designed for Cloud Forest School field trips as well as for the school’s annual fundraiser run. Creating it, however, was just one piece of a much larger effort.

“The long-term goal is to help develop some kind of meaningful forest restoration plan for the property,” says landscape architecture professor Sam Dennis, who co-leads the course along with department chair and professor John Harrington.

“We also want to help support the school’s environmental education efforts so their students can go on to jobs in the local ecotourism industry,” he adds.

Dennis and Harrington made a five-year commit- ment to the school and so far have led two groups of CALS students to conduct work there. In addition to building the trail, students have also started develop- ing classroom curriculum materials, nature guides for the property and interpretive trail signage.

The trips expose CALS students to landscape architecture’s vocational variety. “People tend to think of landscape architecture as putting plants onto landscapes, but that’s very little of what we actually do,” explains Harrington. The course gives students
a taste of environmental restoration work, commu- nity development work, and the creation of outdoor educational spaces with community input.

Kim, for one, was thrilled with her experience last January, and not just because she got to see an active volcano and zipline down the side of a mountain on her day off.

“At school we always design on trace paper and in the computer, but we never get to see our designs built,” she notes. “During our trail-building project, we got to see our work come to life.”

Kazakhstan: Dam monitoring protects water supply

Unpredictable flooding and droughts, which scientists predict will intensify with climate change, elevate the importance of dams for managing and storing water, even in places that normally receive adequate rainfall. Maintaining the world’s existing dams helps ensure that farmers will have the water they need to feed the planet’s burgeoning population.

To aid that effort, graduate students Charles Chang and Andrew Schreiber, both in agricultural and applied economics (AAE), have created software that can quickly and inexpensively determine a dam’s structural integrity using their algorithm and data from easily installed fiber-optic sensors, such as those already in use at the Koksarai Dam in Kazakhstan.

“Our system gives water managers a more cost- effective way to monitor the overall integrity of dams than any other technology,” says Chang. He is col- laborating with a team of engineers who developed the sensors, led by Professor Ki-Tae Chang at South Korea’s Kumoh National University of Technology. The sensors, which measure water seepage through a dam, provide real-time data the researchers are using to locate areas of erosion that could eventually under- mine the dam’s capacity.

“We’re targeting dams in developing countries, most of which are used as reservoirs for agriculture. Many of them have no solid core and are easily moved by high water pressure, or they are older dams that need maintenance,” says Chang. “We can give water managers the information they need to decide whether repairs are required.”

Up to now, notes Schreiber, “Earth dam monitor- ing has required considerable amounts of capital and labor, leaving poorer communities at a loss.”

Chang and Schreiber drew on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team to create their product. The team includes civil engineering professor Chung R. Song of the University of Mississippi and Jesse Holzer, a UW computer science graduate student. AAE professors Tom Rutherford and Corbett Grainger serve as project advisors.

“Some models of dam sustainability measure the effects of sedimentation in the reservoir, but our project goes farther by looking at the erosion factor,” says Chang. “For example, if Kazakhstan were to experience less rainfall due to climate change in the coming years, we would want to maintain a higher reservoir level in the dam for future agricultural use. But we also know that higher water levels can trigger more erosion.”

As economists, Chang and Schreiber want to help governments predict how much they need to invest in a dam to increase its capacity. And because different climate change scenarios can affect both sedimentation and erosion—the main causes of dam failure—the team will model the returns toinvestment in dammaintenance or aban-donment. “What is thebenefit to society tohave that dam rein-forced or allowed to collapse?” Chang asks.

After implementing erosion detection algorithms for earth structures in Korea and Kazakhstan, Chang andSchreiber now collaborate with pH Global,a start-up venture that creates inference algorithms for a variety of geotech- nical public amenities, such as tunnels and dikes.

“A fifth of the world’s population lives in water- scarce regions, and most dams lack monitoring capability,” says Chang. “With our algorithm and sensors, water managers can minimize costs by using less hardware and more software.”

The students may have a viable commercial product on their hands. It has drawn some attention in South Korea and France, Chang says, and several contracts for using it are already in place.

To the Ends of the Earth

In April 2011, James Bockheim led a small team of researchers to a rocky spit of land called Cierva Point, a habitat protected by the Antarctic Treaty as a “site of special scientific interest.” Home to breeding colonies of bird species like Gentoo penguins, as well as a remarkably verdant cover of maritime plants, Cierva Point is also one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.

Bockheim and his crew were beginning another field season on the Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of rock and ice that snakes past Palmer Station, the United States’ northernmost Antarctic research station, and curls out in the Southern Ocean (see map, page 25). They’d been deposited onshore, along with their gear, by the Laurence M. Gould, a research vessel that wouldn’t return until late May. As the ship sailed back into the frigid sea, Bockheim turned his attention not to penguins or polar grasses, but to the ground beneath his feet.

Every year there was more and more of that ground as glaciers drained into the Southern Ocean, revealing soils and bedrock that had been covered in ice for millennia. Bockheim wanted to know what was going on underneath the newly exposed surface and had brought along a soil and bedrock coring tool, a device that looks like a cartoonishly oversized power drill, to get to the bottom of it.

His crew fitted the drill with its two-meter-long impact hammer bit. Graduate student Kelly Wilhelm pointed the drill at the ground and pulled the trigger.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Antarctica caught Bockheim by surprise. Bockheim, a CALS professor of soil science, has spent his career studying polar and alpine soils. From field sites north of the Arctic Circle to mountain passes in the Andes and the dry valleys of Antarctica, Bockheim has worked to classify and understand how soils are formed in the Earth’s coldest climates.

Bockheim first set foot on Antarctic soil in 1969 as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. Although his dissertation was on alpine soils in the Cascades, his advising professor had a project in Antarctica and invited him to come along.

“And that was it,” Bockheim recalls. “It just got in my blood.” Startled by the “peace, solitude and stark beauty,” he knew he would have to return.

Six years after that first trip, Bockheim got his chance. He had recently accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when a call came in asking if he’d like to join a glacial geologist from the University of Maine on a multiyear research project in Antarctica’s dry valleys. Bockheim’s reply was succinct: “Absolutely.”

Over the next 12 years, Bockheim returned to Antarctica each year for a two-month stint of digging out soil profiles, collecting samples and boring holes into the continent’s surface, especially in the largest ice-free region of Antarctica, the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

It was during this time that Antarctica presented Bockheim with its first riddle. The dry valleys are a “polar desert,” a system that rarely gets above freezing and, even when it does, contains precious little water.

As in other places with permafrost—soils that stay at or below freezing for two or more years at a time—soils there are primarily formed by cryoturbation. Also called “frost churning,” cryoturbation is a process by which what scant ice there is freezes and then thaws year after year, breaking up bedrock, working surface particles down into the ground and bringing buried particles up. Such mixing is never a quick process, but in the dry valleys of Antarctica it occurs at an especially glacial pace.

The resulting material didn’t exactly fit what Bockheim knew to be the generally accepted definition of soil. While the weathered substrate had been eroded and deposited in layers over millions of years, it often looked more like a combination of loose pea gravel and sand. What’s more, only lichen and mosses were found growing in it, not the “higher plants” usually considered a prerequisite for soil status.

But to Bockheim, that requirement was a relic of soil taxonomy’s tendency to classify soils based on what human uses they could sustain, like crop production or road building. In Antarctica, such endeavors were a moot point.

In a 1982 paper published in the journal Geoderma, Bockheim made his first mention of these polar soils in the scientific literature. The journal’s editor, anticipating pushback from other soil scientists, urged him to first define the word “soil” for his readers. Bockheim produced a definition similar to the existing one, with one small change— “higher plants” were nowhere to be found. It was the opening salvo in a scientific debate that would simmer for more than a decade.

By 1987, after 12 uninterrupted years of spending field seasons in Antarctica, Bockheim decided he needed a break. He was tired of leaving his wife and five young daughters back in Madison for two months at a time and wanted to stay closer to home. While the move shifted his focus to the forest soils of northern Wisconsin, Bockheim continued to publish papers on his research on Antarctic soils.

Then, in 1992, the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) took note of Bockheim’s argument that the existing classification system didn’t do polar soils justice. He was asked to lead a committee discussing the need for a new order of soil. The result, after a few years of lively debate, was the addition of Gelisols, or “permanently frozen soils,” to the USDA catalog of soil types.

“These soils were far away, poorly researched, and people thought they might be insignificant because we couldn’t grow anything on them,” says Bockheim’s colleague, CALS soil science professor Alfred Hartemink. “But with time came knowledge, and it was recognized that this is a large part of the world, and soils were being classified there incorrectly.”

The soil classification system had been set at 10 distinct orders of soil for so long, Hartemink says, that the change “was a bit like adding another month to the year. But Jim was able to build that body of knowledge, consolidate it and pull it off. That was an immense deal.”

It was an impressive first half of a career. In fact, it would be an impressive list of accomplishments for any scientist’s entire career.

But Bockheim isn’t just any scientist. He has spent 20 tours of scientific duty in Antarctica, 19 field seasons in the Arctic Circle and several in alpine ecosystems across the world’s mountain ranges. He recently returned from a two-month trip to South America, where he’d received a Fulbright grant to teach classes on Antarctic soils in Chile and a special invitation to teach a similar class in Brazil. During that visit he took a side trip to the Andes, where one of his graduate students deployed tiny temperature probes, called thermistors, into the frigid soils.

Even in more domestic climes—say, the stairwells of King Hall, home of the Department of Soil Science on the UW–Madison campus—Bockheim bounds down the stairs from his office to his lab. “Fit college students sometimes have a hard time keeping up with him in the field,” says Kelly Wilhelm, who has spent two field seasons with Bockheim in the Antarctic.

That energy carries over into the more cerebral part of his profession. Bockheim has authored 170 scientific articles, and his work is cited by other scientists at a rate almost unheard of in soil science circles.

“Jim wrote three books in two years,” notes Hartemink. “Who does that? Most scientists write one every five, maybe 10 years. I can’t think of anyone else who could do that.”

The books—Soil Geography of the U.S.A., Cryopedology and The Soils of Antarctica, the latter two coming from the publishing house Springer within the next year—promise to serve as definitive works in the field.

So it’s not just fit college students who can’t keep up. Bockheim is considered by many to be one of the top cryopedologists—scientists who study frozen soils—in the world.

Ironically, after all of his painstaking work describing how polar soils had come into their ancient, frozen state and, quite literally, putting them on the map, many of the Gelisols Bockheim had worked to have reclassified began changing—their defining characteristics melting away.

“We’re literally losing these soils,” says Hartemink. “There are soils disappearing just like there are species disappearing.”

The question now is: What happens when the world’s “permanently frozen” soils begin to thaw?

Bockheim first began asking that question nearly 20 years ago, when he again received an offer he couldn’t refuse. This time, however, it was an invitation to study the opposite pole.

In 1995, after several years focused on his growing family and the soils of Wisconsin, Bockheim returned to polar soils, assuming command of a project focused on permafrost 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Barrow, Alaska. Knowing where different soil types were located and how they’d gotten there, Bockheim knew, was the first step in trying to predict what they’d do as they warmed.

Understanding the fate of permafrost in a warmer world may be one of the most crucial pieces of the climate change puzzle. For millennia, the hard layer of frozen soil has contained vast amounts of carbon and methane, which contribute to greenhouse gas levels when they are released into the atmosphere. As Earth warms, so does this soil, pushing the permafrost line deeper and freeing up more and more soil to release carbon and methane via processes like erosion or microbial activity.

In 2004, the New Zealand Antarctic program was starting a mapping project and wanted Bockheim’s expertise to help add Antarctic soils to their efforts.

Bockheim jumped at the chance to reconnect with the continent he’d first fallen for, but Antarctica surprised him again. The place he returned to looked nothing like the one he remembered.

Handheld GPS devices didn’t exist during Bockheim’s first foray into Antarctic fieldwork in the 1970s. Scientists instead relied on landmarks like mountain peaks, glaciers or snowbanks to lead them back to their annual field sites. Bockheim’s team relied on snowbanks that dotted the dry valley landscape, set down in distant, less arid eras. Using aerial photographs and topographic maps, the team could work out roughly where each site was located.

But 30 years after those pictures had guided him, they’d been rendered obsolete by more than updated technology. “I had taken a picture of snowbanks from the helicopter in 1975,” Bockheim recalls, “and it’s just by chance that, when I went back in 2004, I took a picture from the exact same spot in the air. But the snowbanks were gone.”

Of course Bockheim wasn’t caught completely off guard by these developments. Like any scientist studying the poles, he knew that temperatures over the last four decades had been rising. In fact, at Antarctica’s Palmer Station, the mean annual air temperature was up three and a half degrees Celsius. In winter, the mean temperature during that span had risen nearly 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Even so, the magnitude of the observed changes was startling. “There was water everywhere,”

Bockheim remembers. “I’ve got a whole shelf of field books and I take notes on things like the weather and conditions. In December it would always still be extremely cold.”

During his first 12 years working in Antarctica, he says, “there was always a stream in one of the valleys and maybe some smaller lateral streams that would run in the warmest time of the year, from mid-December to mid-January. But when we went back in 2004, it was so warm that there was just water everywhere, even on the high mountain slopes. There were wet patches of snowmelt coming down the slopes.”

Where areas on the Antarctic Peninsula had once thawed for two months of the year, they were now above freezing for up to five months. That warmth and the water had rejuvenated processes like the pattern of ground freeze from cryoturbation, Bockheim recalls. There was highly developed soil becoming exposed.

The only thing that was as he had left it 17 years prior was Bockheim’s own energy and enthusiasm for Antarctic fieldwork.

Malcolm McLeod, now a soil scientist with the New Zealand–based institute Landcare Research, spent three field seasons on the project mapping Antarctic soils with Bockheim. Bockheim soon became McLeod’s doctoral advisor. “Because of his wealth of Antarctic experience, he was able to focus on the important bits of the soils puzzle that told a story,” McLeod recalls. “He worshiped data, and he had this line—‘Soils never lie.’”

During their project, that mantra led Bockheim to make what McLeod calls “big advances” in scientists’ understanding of how Antarctic soils form. Antarctic glaciers are “cold glaciers,” meaning they don’t melt. They advance when large chunks break off the leading edge, and they retreat by ablation, or evaporating straight from their frozen state into the cold, dry air. As a result, the Antarctic landscape has none of the usual telltale signs glaciers leave behind to provide a history of the region’s geology. Bockheim showed that soils could tell the story.

Bockheim’s wealth of experience also carried over into field camp. “His breakfast bacon and hash browns couldn’t be beat,” says McLeod. “I also remember his ‘hot towel’ dispensed airline-style each morning by dipping a paper towel into a billy of hot water.”

Nearing the two-decade mark of fieldwork in the Antarctic, Bockheim had become both an accomplished scientist and a veteran polar explorer. But after so many years in the polar desert, his mind began to wander to greener pastures.

“I’d done all my work in Antarctica in the dry valleys in the interior mountains, and I kept hearing that the peninsula was quite a different environment,” Bockheim says. “On the peninsula, it’s a whole different world. You have rain, whereas, historically, no one has ever experienced rain in the dry valleys. That rain causes accelerated soil formation and there are plants, a lot of lichens and mosses, but also there are two higher plants, one a grass and the other a member of the pink flower family.”

What would this greener landscape mean? Was Antarctic soil seeing an increase in the “active,” or unfrozen, layer of soil? Was the permafrost being pushed deeper below ground? Bockheim knew that the peninsula would be the best place to study how the warming he was witnessing was impacting Antarctica.

“So I wrote a proposal and decided to strike out on my own rather than being under someone else’s research priorities,” he says. That proposal led Bockheim to Cierva Point with a gigantic power drill in 2011. It was the reason Kelly Wilhelm was bent over the soil driving a two-meter-long bit into the ground. And it was the beginning of addressing yet another Antarctic riddle.

“We are trying to be one cog in looking at how climate change is affecting the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Wilhelm. “There are people looking at air temperature and changes in weather patterns. Other people are looking at how far south the vascular plants grow, or migration patterns of seals and penguins. But permafrost—on the peninsula, at least—has pretty much been one of the last things to be examined.”

When Bockheim headed to the Antarctic Peninsula, the only prior information his team had to go on was a soil survey conducted in the 1960s during April, the warmest month of Antarctica’s short summer. On that survey, researchers dug 40 centimeters into the soil, or less than half a meter, before hitting hard permafrost.

Bockheim’s team knew that the permafrost would now be deeper, as surface soils warmed with the surrounding air temperatures. They had prepared for the change by bringing drill bits that would bore into the soil more than four times deeper than the last known permafrost.

It wasn’t enough.

“Not one of our holes hit permafrost,” Wilhelm recalls. What’s more, the temperature at the bottom of every hole was well above freezing, suggesting that the permafrost was located several meters beyond the reach of their drill.

If soils never lie, what is the unexpectedly warm peninsula trying to say? “That is the grand unsolved question,” Bockheim says. “Based on the latitude, we expected the active layer to be thinner,” which would have meant a much shallower permafrost table. Bockheim says that the distribution of sea ice and westerly flows of air and sea- water may play a role, but—so far—they can’t explain it.

“It’s what we’re writing papers on right now,” says Wilhelm. “People don’t even know about this. It’s a pretty new thing.”

Whatever the answer, one fact is undeniable. The seasonal thaw, or “active” layer of polar soils, is increasing. That means that more and more soil near the Earth’s poles is being grown over with plants, worked over by microbes and eroded by wind and rains. In the Arctic, this activity will undoubtedly lead to the release of carbon and methane, making it a huge source of those greenhouse gases.

In the Antarctic, though, the picture is still fuzzy and may in fact produce an effect that is, well, the polar opposite. The plants beginning to carpet Antarctic soils could end up pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere instead of adding to the problem like the Arctic’s melting permafrost.

“In the Antarctic, with its increased land mass, increased plant cover and, presumably, increased photosynthesis, one could easily argue that it could become a sink for atmospheric carbon,” says Bockheim. And, in fact, that’s exactly what Bockheim thinks will occur—at least temporarily.

Beyond that, the man who wrote the book on Antarctic soils is content to wait and see. The soils don’t lie, but they may yet have one more surprise in store.

Keeping Track of Wolf Deaths

Tim Van Deelen, a CALS professor of wildlife ecology, specializes in the management of large mammals, including population estimation and dynamics, hunting, interaction of deer life history and chronic wasting disease—and, not least, the growth of Wisconsin’s wolf population and its effects on white-tailed deer.

As this year’s wolf hunt season opens in Wisconsin, we talked with him about a hidden and disturbing topic: illegal killing, which Van Deelen says may have increased in recent years. Much of the data on this subject, he says, comes from work by his former doctoral student Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, who is now a wildlife researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Can you give us an idea of how wolves die?
As we know from radio collaring data, wolves die for a variety of reasons. Wolves in Wisconsin have relatively high mortality rates, and that probably has to do with the fact that they’re living on a landscape that’s much more highly impacted by humans than, say, northern Canada or Alaska. We have higher levels of wolves getting hit by cars, especially as they begin encroaching parts of central and southern Wisconsin where we have higher road densities.

Wolves are also territorial, so on the margins of their pack territories or where there are territorial disputes between packs, wolves will kill each other.

Wolves die of disease. We’ve had deaths due to parvovirus and mange. Wolves sometimes starve to death if they can’t get enough prey or if they’re old or injured and otherwise inefficient as hunters.

There’s also a fair amount of unexplained mortalities that we have from radio tracking data.

Can you elaborate on that?
We have radio-collared wolves that outlive the radio collars—that is, they outlive the battery that powers the collar—so you have a record that starts when the animal is radio-collared and ends when you stop getting signals. Understanding mortality rates at the population level requires you to make some decisions about how you’re going to treat those animals once the record stops.

Research that my graduate student has been doing suggests that a fair number of those animals are dying.

Do you suspect illegal killing?
Well, the problem with illegal killing is you don’t observe it. You can’t point to something and say, “That wolf died from illegal killing,” but you need extra mortality in the system once you explain everything else in order to reconcile the mortality rates that we’re seeing with the reproductive rates that we get from the pup counts and the growth rate that we see from the annual population counts.

So there’s a missing gap in the data of why some animals disappear.
Right. The basic population dynamics equation is very simple. It says that the number of animals born minus the number of animals dying is the net addition or subtraction from the population. If we have a population that we can count every year like we do with wolves—we count them every winter—then we can mathematically fit an equation to that growth using things like observed deaths and estimated reproduction.

When we can’t get that to reconcile, then we need some additional deaths that are unobserved to make the growth rate that we see agree with the mortality and the reproductive rates that we’re measuring.

The suspicion is that many or some of those unobserved deaths are due to illegal killing. Because from our radio tracking data we do have good estimates on the relative amounts of deaths that are due to other things, like being killed by other wolves or dying of disease or being hit on the road.

What would prompt illegal killing?
Human dimensions research done at the Nelson Institute suggests that people living in wolf range have a sense of frustration that many people think traces back to this on-again, off-again listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

We went through a period where the wolves would be de-listed, or there would be movement toward de-listing, and then somebody would step in, the courts would intervene, and the wolves would become listed again.

There’s good human dimensions research in wildlife that says that attitudes toward wildlife tend to degrade when people feel like they have no options for dealing with the problems that those wild animals are causing.

When wolves are put “off limits” because of the Endangered Species Act, then people who are experiencing problems with wolves, real or imagined— their attitudes toward wolf conservation begin to degrade.

That aligns with some of the research that’s been done on this campus suggesting, among other things, that people who are interviewed in the
north say they’d be more willing to illegally kill a wolf if the opportunity presented itself. More people are saying that now than in the early 2000s. That time period aligns with the growing frustration people have experienced over de-listing.

How many unexplained wolf deaths are there?
About 20 to 30 per year, in our best estimate. That’s been from the period 1980 to 2013, where we fit the models. There’s evidence that it’s been increasing recently. By “recently,” I mean within the past five or 10 years.

Can you please elaborate?
During the early part of the growth phase of wolves in Wisconsin (1996– 2002) the wolf population averaged about 200 wolves during midwinter counts. We estimated that about 43 of these would die during the year, and unobserved deaths were likely not needed to reconcile observed popula- tion growth. During the latter part of the growth phase (2003–2012), Wisconsin’s wolves averaged about 600 wolves, and about 138 of these would be expected to die during the year. However, you would also need another 24 dead wolves to reconcile the rate of population growth observed. These 24 would include a mix of natural and human-caused subtractions, including an unknown level of illegal killing. The change from 1996–2002 to 2003–2012 suggest that illegal killing may have increased.

What kinds of conflicts do people have with wolves in Wisconsin?
Probably the most important right now are conflicts with livestock producers. We have a handful of areas in Wisconsin that are hot spots where there’s been sort of long-term chronic depredation by wolves on livestock.

That’s a real problem—and fortunately in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources has a partnership with USDA Wildlife Services. They have professional USDA trappers who can go in, verify whether a calf or a cow was killed by wolves, and then help the landowners either by excluding the wolves from the territory or by trapping and euthanizing the wolves that are causing problems. They’re very professional, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re very successful.

Another problem in Wisconsin is wolves depredating hounds. These are mostly hounds used for hunting bears and smaller carnivores. If you’re running hounds late in the summer, that’s when the wolves are provisioning their pups at rendezvous sites.

The wolves probably interpret that incursion as an invading pack, so they would attack and kill those hounds. That happens, that’s an issue to deal with. DNR has been proactive with trying to identify those areas where depredations have occurred and might be more likely, and warn people to avoid those areas with their hounds if at all possible.

There’s a lot of talk about wolves having impacts on deer in the north. In some places, that’s probably a reality. In some places it might be more perception than reality. At a statewide scale using the harvest statistics, we just haven’t seen a real impact of wolves, but that’s sort of a coarse-filter approach.

We have two deer research projects going, one in eastern farmland and one in the northwest. We actually don’t find a whole lot of wolf predation on adult deer, which would be the mechanism by which wolves would have the most impact on the deer herd. Still, if you’re the unlucky individual whose hunting spot happens to be sitting right on top of a wolf rendezvous zone, you might not be seeing very many deer.

What would you like to see done with wolf management going forward?
One of the unique things about wolf management in Wisconsin is that we’re managing this population now at a pretty high exploitation rate—meaning that we’ve got heavy harvest seasons. Those are designed explicitly to reduce the wolf population.

Harvest management theory would suggest that there’s some danger of long-term instability. I think the most important thing that managers of Wisconsin’s wolf population need to do is keep putting efforts into monitoring the wolf population—tracking population trends, tracking the extent to which wolves live on the landscape. Those are the measurements you can use to identify some sort of instability and then be able to deal with it.

To be fair to the managers, they know that, they’re working on that. We’re collaborating with them to come up with more cost-effective ways to get the sort of information they need to track population trends.