For the Birds

Slipping into a patch of woods in western Dane County, Jim Berkelman ignores the swarming mosquitoes and strains to sort through the early- morning chatter of warblers, robins and vireos and the nearby drum of a pileated woodpecker. “I’m hearing something I wouldn’t expect to hear,” says Berkelman, a lecturer in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at CALS and a volunteer contributor to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, a comprehensive, volunteer-powered survey of birds that nest in Wisconsin.

Experienced birders use their ears as much as their eyes to identify species, and Berkelman thinks he hears a northern parula, a small warbler that doesn’t typically nest this far south. Finding a bird, Berkelman explains, is only the start. The point of the Atlas, he notes, is to identify and map where birds in Wisconsin are courting, nesting, breeding and raising their broods.

To be sure of that, “atlasers,” as volunteer observers like Berkelman are called, must find tangible evidence that a species has actually taken up residence. A nest, of course, is the most obvious clue. But most birds are assiduously covert in their nesting and only conspicuous players like robins, herons, orioles, house wrens and bluebirds construct their nests in ways that make them easy to find and identify.

Other definitive hallmarks of breeding birds include observations of birds carrying nesting material or food for nestlings; distraction displays where birds seek to draw animals, other birds or humans away from a nest; and, of course, fledglings. Some bird species are fastidious as well and carry fecal matter away from occupied nests. Such an observation is also a telltale sign of breeding and can be used by an atlaser to confirm breeding activity and provide a new data point that science can ultimately draw on.

Following a rising wooded path to the top of a hill, Berkelman’s rounds on this warm June day encompass two different types of ecosystems: forest, and open fields and prairie. His block is designated as a “priority block,” a specified block within a six-block “quad” on a grid of more than 7,000 three-mile-by-three-mile blocks that covers Wisconsin. Within that grid are 1,175 priority blocks, each of which requires at least a year’s documentation of breeding birds within a five-year period to ensure that the state is uniformly surveyed for the new Atlas. In addition, there are 153 “specialty blocks” that have unique habitat, are of high conservation value or are of particular interest to ornithologists.

Today, Berkelman is recording his data the old-fashioned way: with pen and notebook. Later, he can plug his observations into Atlas eBird, an online checklist program that is a direct conduit to the database that is the bedrock of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.

Data, of course, are the raw material of science. Astronomers gather it by measuring and parsing starlight. Molecular biologists get data by plumbing the sequence of the chemical base pairs that make up a gene or genome. Meteorologists numerically dissect the many variables of weather—temperature, precipitation, wind, clouds.

To be sure, most data collection is a laborious and numbing process—the antithesis of the eureka moment. Harvesting data can be very expensive, too, as the tools of modern science have become bigger, more complex and more powerful in their ability to see farther or smaller, drill deeper, or accelerate particles to higher energies. Indeed, much of what we hear about modern scientific discovery rests on the pillars of sophisticated technology. Think of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and the Human Genome Project as just a few examples.

But while technology is taking science to new heights, it’s also giving a boost to the age-old methods of data gathering like the ones Berkelman uses in his efforts to document the presence of breeding birds. The Internet and personal computing technology are being used like never before to crowd-source traditional observational data collected by a growing cadre of citizen scientists. Groups of people or individuals armed with laptops and app-laden smartphones are collectively logging everything from trash in the ocean and flying ants to cosmic rays and precipitation, giving working scientists access to oceans of new data and the revelations that come from subsequent analysis and interpretation.

In the realm of ecology, citizen science has gained a new standing as researchers have tapped into the potential of an interested public. Citizen science projects, mapping things like the presence and behaviors of bumblebees, manta rays, butterflies and bats, have fueled dozens of published studies.

It’s proven to be a powerful resource for Ben Zuckerberg, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at CALS. North American birds and their distribution on a changing landscape are a primary focus of his research, a significant portion of which depends on data gathered by volunteer observers.

For instance, Zuckerberg and post-doctoral fellow Karine Princé drew on citizen science data to tell us that the cast of characters we see at our bird feeders in the winter is shifting, most likely due to climate change. Their study of wintering songbirds shows that some species, once rare during the Wisconsin winter, are shifting their ranges north, remaking the resident communities of birds that visit our backyard feeders.

The conclusions of the study rested on two decades of data gathered by thousands of citizen scientists through the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch.

“Birds have always been important environmental indicators,” Zuckerberg explains. Rapidly declining songbird populations in the 1950s and 1960s, he notes, were used to help ascertain the consequences of widespread use of the chemical insecticide DDT, which was subsequently banned, first in Wisconsin and then nationally.

The DDT story was famously informed by the unintended involvement of ordinary citizens who gathered baseline data in the form of bird eggs. In the 19th century, collecting bird eggs was a widespread hobby, an artifact of the Victorian obsession with the natural world. Many collections ended up in museums where, decades later, CALS ornithologist Joseph Hickey and his students used them to document the thinning of eggshells subsequent to the widespread introduction of DDT into the environment in the 1940s and ’50s.

Today the contributions of citizen scientists tend to be more directed, and the advent of personal computers and smartphones, in particular, are making participation easier, more immediate and more effective. And a prime example of that trend is the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, a collaborative project by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.

This year, the group launched a second iteration of the Atlas. Zuckerberg and other scientists are working with Atlas coordinators and waiting in anticipation of a flood of new data from the project, which recruits volunteers statewide to survey thousands of designated blocks over a five-year period for evidence of breeding birds.

The first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas featured data collected by nearly 1,600 volunteers between 1995 and 2000. As its name implies, the Atlas is a survey that documents the distribution and abundance of birds breeding in Wisconsin. It provides critical baseline information about bird species that live in our state and is an important benchmark in terms of assessing potential changes in bird populations over time due to things like habitat loss and climate change. It also helps document avian diversity, the state of endangered and rare bird species, and habitat needs in Wisconsin.

Such data, explains Zuckerberg, help scientists make sense of a world that involves players ranging from microbes to plants and animals, including birds. There are so many moving parts that capturing a wide snapshot of what exists where at a given point in time can give scientists insightful information about the dynamics, nuances and health of an ecosystem.

“Ecology is necessarily a messy endeavor,” Zuckerberg observes. “But at certain scales, it all becomes very clear.”

Drawing on things like Breeding Bird Atlas data, Zuckerberg and other scientists can get at the scales that matter: geography and time. As the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II effort gets under way, ecologists are laying the groundwork for analyzing the data by formulating hypotheses and ideas about what the data might show and how it will compare to data in the first iteration of the Atlas, which, according to the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, “represented the largest coordinated field effort in the history of Wisconsin ornithology.”

Data collection for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II began in 2015 and runs through 2019. In September the DNR released findings for the first Atlas season. Volunteers submitted nearly 24,000 checklists documenting the location and breeding activity of 229 species of birds. These early data show that wild turkeys are on the move, now populating nearly every corner of our state. And eight species of birds new to the Wisconsin breeding landscape since the last survey—including the iconic whooping crane—have cropped up in the new Atlas data.

“The stories that come out of the data are so robust,” Zuckerberg says. “We go in with our ideas of what we’re going to uncover, and some of the patterns just jump out at us.”

The major advantage of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, according to noted ornithologist Stan Temple, a CALS emeritus professor in forest and wildlife ecology, is that it documents the relationship between birds and the places they require to successfully reproduce. “Habitat affinity is where the Atlas works best,” Temple explains.

Temple cites other long-standing citizen science efforts to document birds. The North American Breeding Bird Survey was officially launched in 1966. Conducted during the breeding season, volunteers traverse by car more than 3,700 randomly selected 24.5-mile road transects in the United States and Canada. Stopping every half-mile, volunteers document every bird seen or heard in a three-minute span before moving to the next observing station. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Temple argues, is the gold standard for measuring population trends among birds.

A more recent citizen science effort—one that capitalizes on personal computing technology and helps inform the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas—is the aforementioned eBird. Taking old-fashioned pen and paper checklists into the digital age, eBird is an online checklist linked to a central database. Used by amateur and professional birders, eBird logs millions of bird observations worldwide in any given month through a simple and intuitive web interface. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II is the first state Atlas effort to employ it.

“We’re in the information age now,” explains Nick Anich, the Wisconsin DNR Breeding Bird Atlas coordinator. “We have eBird. We’re excited to use this new system. The developers have put an awful lot of effort into the checklist input, and they just launched the maps function. And the data update at least every 24 hours, so we can see things in real time.”

But can the information gathered by armies of citizen scientists be trusted? Can it help researchers predict the future of Wisconsin’s environment? How is it validated? Can scientists get over any qualms they might have about data collected beyond the strict parameters of controlled experiments and expert observation?

Zuckerberg, who has published on the use and value of crowd-sourced data, believes that many scientists are coming around to the idea that the data indeed represent an accurate picture of the natural world. “There has always been some skepticism about it in ecology. But studies show it is valuable data that are relatively accurate for picking up ecological patterns and processes,” Zuckerberg says.

“There are entire subfields of ecology dependent on these data. Theories in macroecology and how species respond to widespread environmental changes, such as pollution or climate change, for example,” Zuckerberg observes, referencing the study of relationships between living organisms and their environments at large spatial scales. “We wouldn’t be able to do anything like that without citizen science.”

That kind of insight is essential, Zuckerberg stresses, as broad-scale environmental change due to pollution, deforestation, reforestation and climate change will have significant and possibly lasting effects on birds in many different types of ecosystems.

According to Temple, the power of citizen science lies in the sheer numbers of observers. As a new CALS faculty member in 1976, Temple launched the Wisconsin Checklist Project. “The Wisconsin Checklist Project did in the predigital age what eBird does now,” Temple explains. “It is a rigorous way of engaging lots of bird-watchers in a very systematic way.”

For the most part, Temple says, the data are trustworthy. “Bird-watchers are used to keeping records, so you’re not asking them to do anything that already isn’t part of the culture. Mistakes in observing and recording happen, but it is safe to say those few errors become insignificant noise in comparison to the strength of the signal: the overwhelming number of accurate observations.”

For atlasers like Florence Edwards-Miller, a 31-year-old communications specialist from Madison, the chance to go into the field and gather data blends neatly with her deep-felt appreciation of the natural world.

Trekking through the prime birding habitat of Madison’s Nine Springs E-way on a rainy midsummer morning, Edwards-Miller is on a mission. An experienced birder, she knows she can confirm any number of breeding birds that use the settling ponds of Madison’s Metropolitan Sewerage District to raise their broods. And she is eager to contribute those little bits of data to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas effort.

“You can’t make good decisions unless you know what’s out there,” says Edwards-Miller. “I believe in science. I believe in the importance of the data.”

In a little more than an hour, she confirms the presence of breeding mallards, Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds—all pedestrian wetland species—by noting offspring and, in the case of the blackbirds, a cantankerous distraction display.

It takes a little longer to find the killdeer fledglings, but at the end of our circuit around the pond, there they are: little puffballs on stilts trailing behind their foraging parents. It’s a beautiful sight. And another valuable data point for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.

Bees and Beyond

Over the past 10 years or so, massive die-offs of the European honeybee—a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD)—have sparked increasing concern about the fate of agricultural crops with the loss of these important pollinators. At the federal level, a White House Pollinator Health Task Force was formed and in May 2015 released a national strategy for pollinator protection.

In support of that effort, a number of states are following up with plans of their own. In Wisconsin, professor Claudio Gratton and postdoctoral research associate Christina Locke PhD’14 from the CALS Department of Entomology were invited to partner with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in leading a broad array of stakeholders to create a state pollinator protection plan.

The goal of the plan is to provide best management practice recommendations and educational materials for beekeepers, growers, pesticide users, homeowners and landowners who want to improve the health and habitat of managed and wild pollinators. A draft of the plan was open for public review as of this publication’s press time in early 2016, with the final report expected soon thereafter.

How bad is the bee situation in our state?

Locke: We have had very few reports in Wisconsin of colony collapse disorder, a phrase I don’t like to use because it refers to a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease. One identifying characteristic of CCD is the disappearance of worker bees. Beekeepers go out to their hives and have a healthy queen and healthy brood cells, but the worker bees have somehow disappeared. That is not happening much in Wisconsin as far as we know.

What we do have are elevated annual losses and over-wintering losses in honeybee colonies. Wisconsin beekeepers averaged around a 60 percent colony loss for 2014–15, which is very high. Beekeepers will tell you that a sustainable loss is between 10 and 20 percent every year. These high losses are due to a combination of things. We’ve had a couple of really hard winters, and the honeybees aren’t necessarily adapted to our Wisconsin winters. So there are some efforts to breed queens that are cold-adapted.

The biggest thing that correlates with colony loss in the U.S. overall is the introduction of the Varroa mite in the 1980s. That correlates with steeper declines more than any other single factor we know of. The Varroa mite doesn’t just weaken honeybees, it also spreads pathogens that cause diseases. Those pathogens can spread from managed honeybees to wild bees, too, so it’s something we’re concerned about.

How are our wild pollinators faring?

Gratton: It’s really hard to track populations of our wild pollinators. We manage honeybees. We move them around, we keep track of numbers, we can open up the hive and see what’s going on. With the native bees, there are more than 500 species in Wisconsin. In any one system like apples or cranberries, we may have 100-plus different species that visit them. But many of them are solitary and sometimes rare. We haven’t really been tracking their populations very well. So to know if they are declining, we need a reference point and we don’t have one. As a consequence, we actually don’t know that much about how populations of the native bees are doing.

The few studies that do exist have looked at historical data and suggest that for the most part, most native bees probably haven’t changed that much over time. The few native species that we do have better data on are the bigger, more iconic pollinators like bumble bees. There is some good evidence that these species are declining in North America. And you can point to a couple of species that really have shown dramatic declines compared to midcentury distributions. There may be reasons for those declines—again, having to do with pathogen spread, competitors and declines in flowers in the landscape.

So, is this a crisis for wild pollinators? I think the jury is still out on that. I think there are lots of reasons to be concerned. But I’m not seeing the data out there saying that there is a massive die-off of native bees that we need to be immediately guarding against. This means we may have some time to start helping them out.

We think the way we have approached the plan is helpful because all of the things we talk about in terms of making life better for honeybees are also going to make life better for the native bees. As one example, reduction and judicious use of pesticides.

Also, when you talk to beekeepers and they say, “My bees back in the ’50s and ’60s used to give me 60 pounds of honey per hive every summer. Now I’m only getting 30”—there is not enough food in the landscape out there for honeybees. Food for honeybees—that is, flowers—is the same as food for the native bees. So all of our discussion about habitat management—getting more flowers out on the landscape, making sure those flowers are blooming throughout the entire summer—those are all things that are going to help native bees as well. I think the plan is going to be able to help a lot of other pollinators that can ride on the coattails of honeybees: bumblebees, butterflies and many of the solitary species that we never pay attention to.

What are some of the more surprising or important points in the plan thus far?

Gratton: You can do some relatively simple things and potentially have a big impact. It’s not like you need to transform the world in order to have an effect. Some really common-sense, small things can go a long way.

Locke: For example, in the agricultural recommendations there is a range of simple to more difficult practices. You can reconfigure your entire farm and make sure everything is really diverse and use blooming cover crops and all of that—and then at the other end of the spectrum, there are suggestions like leaving woody debris if a tree falls. Leave some wood so that bees can nest. That’s an example of a beneficial practice that only requires not doing something.

Based on your scientific expertise, what things would help the most?

Locke: For me, it’s habitat. We used to have a landscape in the Upper Midwest that was dominated by oak savanna and prairie. Now it’s not. That’s a lot of acres of habitat to compensate for.

Gratton: And second, as a home gardener or as a farmer, being judicious about killing bees through insecticides. I have to say that most of the farmers that we work with, cranberry and apple farmers, know this. They don’t want to kill off their bees. They are very sensitive to that, so they know the things to do to maintain their bee populations. Also, the beekeepers that they’ve rented bees from would get very mad if you sprayed insecticides during bloom. The farmers, especially of pollinator-dependent crops, know this. They are not necessarily the ones for whom we have to emphasize the importance of not spraying insecticides at especially sensitive times for bees.

What’s the overall hope in doing this work?

Gratton: I hope that people will read this and recognize that insects—in particular bees, but insects in general—play really important roles in our lives. And that, rather than follow our first instinct to squish them or want them to go away, we appreciate them and try to do things that encourage the beneficial ones in the environment. I hope even in a general sense that anyone can read the plan and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that these little insects, these joint-legged things that fly around, do so much for us that we benefit from. And here are a couple of easy and practical things that I can do to make their lives a little better.” That’s my immediate goal for the plan.

You can view the protection plan at http://go.wisc.edu/pollinator

PHOTO—Entomologist Claudio Gratton and research associate Christina Locke in Gratton’s lab, examining part of a vast collection of pollinators. A new state plan they helped create is aimed at better protecting them.

Photo by James Runde/UW-Madison Wisconsin Energy Institute

The New Old Forest

Jodi Forrester got the call while she was in the forest. The loggers were ready to go. So on a cold winter day in northern Wisconsin, she found herself riding shotgun in a harvester. Forrester, a research scientist in forest and wildlife ecology, watched as the loggers cut down the trees she and her team had carefully selected in the Flambeau River State Forest. Another huge vehicle, a forwarder, clambered behind, pinching the cut trees in its claw and moving them to where they were needed. All the while, the loggers played a little game, dodging between laundry baskets placed around the forest floor to catch leaves and falling debris. In the end, they managed to avoid all but a few.

It was not a typical job for the loggers. Instead of harvesting trees for timber, they were taking part in an experiment—the second phase of a research project on a large scale. Under the supervision of CALS forest and wildlife ecology professor David Mladenoff, Forrester and her colleagues had already been working for years to plan a forest experiment that would stretch over almost 700 acres. The loggers were there to implement that plan. Because all the wood they were cutting was going to be left in the forest as part of the experimental setup, the loggers were not able to remove any of it. It went against their nature.

“Every once in a while, the loggers had to cover their eyes,” says Forrester with a smile. “There are a lot of beautiful, valuable trees in that forest, and I think they weren’t too sure about what they were being asked to do.”

But the loggers had agreed to the job because they knew it was part of an experiment that would push the science of forest management in Wisconsin forward. All the work, including the tough job of watching the wood get left behind, was being done in the name of science—specifically, in the name of bringing the characteristics of old-growth forests back to the state.

Old-growth forests have been a scarce sight in Wisconsin since the early 20th century. Clear-cutting in the late 1800s and early 1900s left few old-growth stands. In the Upper Midwest, most big trees had been cut down by the 1930s. In the place of those stands, younger second-growth forests emerged.

Starting in the 1980s, a push to promote and protect old-growth forests picked up steam. It started in the Pacific Northwest, where obligate species, such as the spotted owl, live only in old-growth forests. As the interest in these forests moved east, people in the Midwest began recognizing the valuable ecosystem services provided by old-growth forests, such as storing carbon, maintaining soils and fostering biodiversity in plants, animals and microbes by offering needed habitats.

In Wisconsin it wasn’t a matter of protecting old-growth forests, it was a question of creating them again, or at least some of the functions they provide. And that was no small task. Creating old-growth forests requires defining them, and even that can be difficult. It’s not just a matter of age—and age doesn’t always mean the same thing. A 40-year-old aspen forest would be old, notes Mladenoff; a 40-year-old sugar maple forest, on the other hand, would be quite young.

“It’s not always the age that matters,” says Mladenoff. “Sometimes what really matters are the characteristics and features of the forest.”

With the features of Upper Midwestern old-growth forests unclear, Mladenoff and scientists at UW–Madison, other UW campuses and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1992 started Phase 1 of what was dubbed the Old Growth Project.

Phase 1 was a comparative study. The researchers looked at forests of various ages and histories—a total of 46 different areas—to determine what was unique to the older, unmanaged forests. They considered features like plant and tree species and sizes, woody debris on the ground, snags or standing dead trees, soil characteristics and forest wildlife. Different scientists looked at different aspects, the collaboration creating a complete picture of the forests.

After a decade of collecting and comparing enormous amounts of data, Mladenoff and his colleagues found that many of the features of old-growth forests had to do with two structural elements: the size and distribution of gaps in the forest canopy and coarse woody debris—sizable logs—on the forest floor.

Gaps are openings in the forest canopy caused when large trees fall. With sunlight able to reach the forest floor, these areas become places of regeneration and growth, and the diversity of understory plants is often higher in gap areas than in the surrounding forest.

Coarse woody debris, meanwhile, provides shelter for salamanders, insects and other small animals as well as food for fungi, insects and even other trees like hemlock and yellow birch. Logs also sequester carbon on the forest floor and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide returning to the atmosphere.

“We wanted to explore the importance of those two elements in more detail,” explains Mladenoff. “We wanted to know if creating those structural elements in second-growth northern hardwood forests could restore functional old-growth characteristics.”

Phase 2—The Experiment

Mladenoff, Forrester and their colleagues—including Craig Lorimer and Tom Gower, emeritus and former CALS professors of forest and wildlife ecology, respectively—wanted to address that question using an experimental setup. Phase 2 of the Old Growth Project, the Flambeau Experiment, was born. The first step of that phase, however, was not a trivial one. They had to find a piece of land on which to conduct the experiment. They needed a site that was big enough for all the treatments they envisioned and that would otherwise be undisturbed for a long period of time—50 years, in fact.

With help from the DNR, Mladenoff and his colleagues used geographic information systems—GIS—to look at forests at different sites to find one that would fit the bill. After two years of looking, the researchers, including a postdoctoral student dedicated to the project, finally chose the site in the Flambeau River State Forest—a hardwood stand around 100 years old, dominated by sugar maples.

Before the experimental treatments were applied to the newly found forest, pretreatment data were collected. Scientists could then compare the data collected after treatment to this baseline information. Forrester and her colleagues, including several graduate students, used grids that they laid on the forest floor to count and catalog understory plant species such as trout lilies, wild leeks, nodding trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits. They also observed and measured tree species and diversity, leaf litter that fell in the forest, nutrient cycling, activity of soil microbes and more.

Finally, after spending two years looking for a site and two more years collecting pre-treatment data, the Flambeau site was ready for treatment in January 2007. In came the loggers and machinery to create the canopy gaps and coarse woody debris. The researchers also put up fences surrounding some of the plots to exclude deer and remove their influence from those treatment areas.

For five years after Forrester first rode shotgun in the harvester, she, graduate students and other scientists worked year-round to collect data. In the winter, researchers made the four-hour trip from Madison to Flambeau to check equipment, take measurements, replace batteries and mend fences. Once the spring thaw came, their work ramped up.
A typical summer day in the forest lasted about 10 hours. The scientists would ride from their rented cabins to the Flambeau Forest, walk about a half-mile to the research site and start collecting data. These days would last until October or November, when the researchers would start to see the orange vests of hunters.

“We’d head out in the morning and take our lunch and everything we needed for the day,” says Forrester. “We’d walk into the site, do our work, then head back to the cabins and crash.”

Their work included collecting a huge number of plant and soil samples. Without any university buildings at the Flambeau site, Forrester and her colleagues had to transport all of those samples back to Madison in their vans. Once back on campus, the samples and data needed to be analyzed and entered into spreadsheets.

“We have gobs of soil and wood samples, and we employed a lot of undergrads to help us,” says Forrester, laughing. “Some folks would help in the field in the summers and then continue working in the lab in the fall while they took classes.”

Ten years into Phase 2, Forrester, Mladenoff and their collaborators are just now beginning to shape a picture of the effects of their treatments. While a decade seems like a long time for research, they have another 40 years ahead of them. Such is the course of a 50-year experiment. And researchers have a vast array of forest components to consider and measure.

At this point they have some preliminary data and even some surprising results. One of the unexpected outcomes has been in the plots with coarse woody debris. While the researchers were expecting that the effects of woody debris would take years to recognize as the wood decayed, they are already beginning to see changes in the carbon dynamics. The woody debris affected rates of decomposition and what kinds of microbes were present in the soil, for example, within just a few years after being left on the forest floor.

“I thought someone else would be seeing what happens to the wood in the future, that I would just be seeing the effects of the canopy gaps,” explains Mladenoff. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”

The researchers are also seeing more expected results. Saplings and understory vegetation are growing more quickly in areas with canopy gaps and more light, for example. Also, the deer exclusion fences make a difference. In areas without the fences, the deer are eating all of the sprouts growing from the stumps of harvested trees, which can change the composition of the forest, leaving more of the less palatable and lower value trees such as ironwood.

After five years of intense sampling after treatment, the researchers are now spacing out their measurements and sampling to allow the forest time to grow, settle, decay and cycle. With such a long-term experiment, some of the time must be spent waiting.

That time will also be spent securing funding for the project as it goes forward. The DNR provided money both for Phase 1 of the project and to get the experimental Phase 2 going. That initial funding for Phase 2 allowed the researchers to do the preliminary work, after which other funding started flowing in.

“The DNR was really helpful in getting this project started,” says Forrester. “They provided all that base funding for us to get established, and only once we started were we able to get other money.”

The USDA has provided a five-year grant, and Mladenoff and his colleagues have also received funding from the Department of Energy and USDA McIntire-Stennis grants for graduate students. Forrester is now working to secure funds for the years ahead.

The USDA grant afforded Forrester and her colleagues an unexpected benefit—the opportunity to teach a new generation of forest ecologists. The grant was awarded based on their proposal to integrate an educational component into their research, and to fulfill that aspect, Forrester created a summer internship program. Undergraduate students from around the country and the world, most with little experience in forest research, joined the scientists in the Flambeau.

“Initially we taught them the basics of forest ecology measurements and had them help us with our measurements,” explains Forrester. “As summer rolled on, we helped them focus on a topic and develop an independent study project.”

Around 40 students participated in the program over the four years it was available. At the end of each summer, they’d hold a symposium to allow the students to present their work and interact with the scientists. The graduate students gained valuable mentorship experience. It was a beneficial experience for all involved, and one that both Forrester and Mladenoff discuss with pride.

“It was an important part of the project, and it turned out to be a really great component of those summers,” says Forrester.

DNR Collaboration

In addition to providing funding, scientists at the DNR are also long-term collaborators with CALS researchers. They are working on a parallel 50-year project called the Managed Old-Growth Silviculture Study, or MOSS. Silviculture is the practice of managing forests to meet various needs or goals.

Having worked with Mladenoff and his team from Phase 1 of the project and into Phase 2, the DNR wanted to look at many of the same elements of old-growth forests, but with a more operational spin. They wanted to find out how to create the characteristics of old-growth forests while also allowing for economically beneficial harvesting of timber.

“There were three objectives for the MOSS project,” says Karl Martin BS’91, a former wildlife and forestry research chief at the DNR who is now with UW–Extension as state director of the Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development (CNRED) program. “We wanted the study to be applicable to the forest industry, we wanted to do something on a large scale so we could look at impacts on wildlife, and we wanted to show this was economically viable from a commercial standpoint.”

Martin worked closely with Mladenoff and other CALS and UW scientists to collaborate on the parallel MOSS project. One of the three MOSS sites is just north of the CALS site in the Flambeau River State Forest, with the two other sites located in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest and the Argonne Experimental Forest.

Many of the treatments used on those three tracts of land are the same as those the CALS team is using in their experiment—canopy gaps, coarse woody debris and deer exclosures. The MOSS project also considered snags, or standing dead trees, which are another feature of old-growth forests.

Before establishing the treatments, Martin and his team spent several years surveying and measuring the trees. Because they wanted to harvest timber, they had to carefully consider which trees would be cut down and which would be left behind. Yellow birch trees were rare in the sites, so those were immediately off the table for harvesting. They also wanted to avoid cutting down the largest trees in the stands. To establish snags, the researchers chose crooked or highly branched trees that were of low economic value. While such trees make good habitat for wildlife, they are most likely to be used for low-valued pulpwood or firewood if harvested.

“We took three or four years before treating to really get things in place,” says Martin. “The problem with a 50-year study is that if you rush into it, you’re going to look back and wish you’d done something differently. We really wanted to cover all our bases.”

As with the CALS study, MOSS is in the early stages of gathering data and there are many angles to consider. The economic viability of silviculture that encourages old-growth characteristics is one of the main questions MOSS aims to answer, and Tom Steele MS’83 PhD’95, director of the Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff, has been instrumental in finding that answer. Early data suggest that treatment cost of traditional harvests and the MOSS harvests is similar. In addition, the difference in timber revenue that a landowner would receive is quite minimal—just a few percent.

With years ahead to uncover the economics of such a system, MOSS is well positioned to understand and implement silviculture systems that are both economically and ecologically viable. That, in the end, is what the CALS–DNR collaboration is all about. It’s a partnership that brought about an otherwise unlikely project.

“The idea behind the collaboration is to leverage the resources of both organizations to help the citizens of the state,” explains Martin. “The scale of this study would not have been possible without the partnership of the university and the DNR. You need those resources, both intellectual and financial, to come together in a cohesive project.”

The size and scope of the Flambeau Experiment and MOSS are what make the projects so powerful—and so promising. There are decades of study ahead for researchers, and many of the original scientists will have to pass the project on to new researchers before it’s over. But the goal is clear: To determine if diverse ecosystems of old-growth forests can be developed through management while allowing for sustainable timber harvests. The outcome of the projects will have major impacts on forest management and harvests as well as on property owners, residents and visitors.

“With long-term studies, we work in the present, build on those that came before us, and count on colleagues in the future to continue the work,” says Mladenoff. “This research will be essential for long-term sustainable ecosystems and the services they provide.”

Forestry technician Donald Radcliffe BS’15, who graduated with CALS degrees in forestry and life sciences communication, contributed to reporting this piece.

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.
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