The Method Maker

Gerry Weiss BS’67 admits he knew nothing about the steep-valleyed fields of southwestern Wisconsin when, back in 1975, he bought 350 acres in Grant County and started raising forage, row crops, swine, and beef cattle. A native of flatter lands in Dane and Columbia counties, he knew the unfamiliar geography would present a true challenge, perhaps decades of trial and error. But Weiss began farmwork at age five, and he was taught to appreciate an experimental attitude right from the start.

“My father and my two uncles were innovators,” says Weiss, now 72, as we sit at his kitchen table, stacked high with papers, research studies, and farm magazines. “I learned that you advance by being more efficient, more focused. They told me, ‘The answers are in front of you. Keep your eyes open.’”

Following their advice helped him earn agricultural accolades at an early age. He reveals to me that he is still the only FFA member to be named State Star Farmer, State FFA Speaking Contest winner, and State FFA Officer all in one year. That prodigious resume, combined with his incisive nature, propelled him to earn a B.S. (with honors) in animal sciences at CALS and a doctorate from Iowa State University, though he occasionally mocks his Ph.D. as standing for “piled higher and deeper.”

Weiss is intelligent, erudite, and challenging, with an unpredictable, probing sense of humor and a proclivity to pun in English and German — a vestige of his time as a postdoctoral researcher in the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s. He followed his work abroad with a stint as senior meat scientist at Union Carbide and then a job as assistant to the president, focused on technology and science integration, at Dubuque Packing Company

His education and private sector career did not, however, teach Weiss much about permaculture, rotational grazing, humane ways to wean cattle, or a hundred other systems, tactics, and processes that he invented, honed, or proved on his land and in his barns. Thinking of these innovations, I suggest to Weiss that he seems to have carved his own furrow, but he balks at my words. “I have not plowed a single furrow in Grant County,” he says.

What he means is that, in 40 years of farming, he has not used a moldboard plow — the device that John Deere invented in 1837 and is still used today. By turning over the soil and exposing it to rain and wind, the moldboard plow raises conservation questions, at least to a visionary like Weiss.

The seven pastures on Weiss’ terraced farmland converge at this point to promote the easy movement of his herd of Gelbvieh cows. “After five days of grazing in one pasture, they come here to let me know they’re ready to move,” he says. “All you have to do is swing a gate. No trap pens, no catching cattle, no hauling them to the next pasture.” The use of this system of rotational grazing in Wisconsin was cultivated by Richard Vatthauer, an emeritus professor of animal sciences, and Bill Paulson, former superintendent at UW’s Lancaster research station, Weiss says. Rotational grazing keeps weeds in check while stimulating grass growth, which helps prevent soil erosion. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘We Attitude’

Weiss’s sloping farm, located just a few miles from UW–Madison’s Lancaster Agricultural Research Station, sits inside Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The region is known for its exceptionally rugged terrain due to the utter lack of glacial bulldozing (i.e., drift) and for the meandering paths that the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries have slashed through the landscape.

Many Wisconsinites look upon this unique geography — and the adaptations necessary for living within it — with genuine pride. Likewise, many are proud of the connections between CALS and the economic engines of farming and food processing. These linked industries are vital to the state; they employ 413,500 people and generate $88.3 billion in economic activity.

Weiss resides at the heart of all of this — a born innovator who adjusts to the conditions thrust upon him and exemplifies the connection between academic experts and those who make a living raising crops and animals. And it’s a pipeline that flows in both directions. Weiss credits Bill Paulson, former superintendent at the Lancaster station, with valuable suggestions for weed control and a seed mix for improved pastures and other conservation practices, such as waterways, that still thrive today. It was the first of many connections that have benefited Weiss — and CALS — over the course of four decades.

Some of this collaboration pertains to permaculture, that basket of approaches to farming that develops sustainable agricultural ecosystems through thoughtful observation and creativity. Despite the name, permaculture is not, Weiss says, a “set-and-forget” operation. It takes real work to manage acres of permanent pasture. Fortunately, Weiss is energetic — and relentless.

“I have never worked with terraces that have had so much constant maintenance,” says Grant County soil conservationist Kevin Lange, who has worked with Weiss for almost 30 years. “He’ll fix the rodent holes, scrape the soil back to the top.”

Weiss does all of this in addition to testing the soil, fertilizing as needed, winning the war on weeds, and conducting his own research. The last one, according to Lange, is special — most farmers lack the time for it. “If they are interested in research, they are interested in reading somebody else’s work,” he says. “He’s always checking in, always got something new he wants to try.”

Any success he’s had, Weiss attributes to what he calls a “we attitude,” a propensity for collaboration. This mentality has led to fruitful partnerships with two land-grant institutions (UW– Madison and Iowa State University) and their associated extension units and agricultural research stations, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “I don’t know all of the answers,” he says. “And if I don’t know it, I’m on the phone, and I’ll admit that I don’t know it.”

To find the answers, Weiss asks some tough questions. Lange admits that he can be an acquired taste. “Sometimes when he calls, you have to take a certain amount of his guff and give back a little bit of lip of your own,” he says. “But it’s not too insulting. That’s just our thing. Somehow, I got to be his guy.”

 ‘The Animals Taught Us’

Weiss’s agricultural education, and his unusual approaches to the hurdles of farm life, began with his father’s wisdom about “open eyes.” One outcome of that observant nature appears as soon as we enter Weiss’s cattle housing. At first, I wonder whether I’m in a barn or a carnival fun house lightly scented with manure. The floor is nowhere close to level, the gates are built to telescope to different lengths, and odd angles are as common as right ones.

These peculiar features are all designed to get cattle to move where he wants, Weiss says, and they’re built to suit the innate tendencies of a herd. “The animals taught us,” he says. “They like to stick together, to walk along the wall, and to walk downhill. We don’t use sticks or prods to move them. Don’t need to.”

The highway guardrails outside the barn also represent lessons learned from the cattle. They’re part of a humane, common-sense system that started with fence-line weaning, the practice of allowing cows and their young to associate — but not nurse — to ease a traumatic separation. The technique presented itself as the solution to an obvious need if your eyes — and ears — were open, Weiss says.

After weaning, “You could look at the anxiety of the calf and its mother and could tell it was pretty high,” he says. “The calf would stand in the gate area, bellering until it lost its voice, and the cow would stand at the pasture gate somewhere and beller. Nobody was happy. You could bring a baton and direct the orchestra.”

But the whole equation changes if the pair can see, smell, and even touch each other. “They have less stress,” Weiss says. “Baby can talk to its mother, and she can look through the fence [or guardrail] and see that her baby’s okay.” Within days, both sides have quit singing the separation blues.

Decades later, fence-line weaning is gaining acceptance in beef operations. The benefits, Weiss says, are measurable. “We weigh when we wean and again before we sell the calves as feeders. They are gaining 1.8 or 2 pounds per head per day. With high-stress weaning, they are pacing, bellering. They’re pretty woundup little critters, and the gain is more like 0.75 or 1 pound per head per day.”

Defying conventional weaning wisdom led to another example of the “Weiss method,” one designed to address what he calls “another part of the horrible tradition” with calf weaning. “You would jab them with needles for antibiotics and vaccine,” Weiss says. “Talk about making a calf feel great! It would take four to six weeks to get past all that.”

That was the way it had always been done. But Weiss had better ideas, many of them related to vaccinations. In the late 1970s, he helped Norden Labs of Lincoln, Nebraska, demonstrate a protocol designed to prevent E. coli infection and rotavirus in calves, a method that involves no stressful catching or needle pricking. “We administered this to the beef cows two weeks prepartum to generate maternal antibodies for the mom to pass on to the newborn calf,” Weiss says. “Our calf scour [diarrhea] incidence dropped to zero and has remained at zero since our working with this vaccine.”

“That vaccine … which originally goes back to the Norden product, is one of the most, if not the most, commonly used methods to prevent E. coli and rotavirus diarrhea in calves,” says Simon Peek, a clinical professor of large animal internal medicine at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s something pertinent, relevant to the state, and it’s definitely made a big contribution.”

 ‘We Developed Biosecurity Before It Was a Word’

To Weiss, continuous improvement is simply common sense. “You make advances step by step,” he says. “We saw the same attitude at CALS and at Iowa State. Once you do something, you see an opportunity to do it even better.”

He learned this method early through his father and uncles, who were early adopters of farrowing crates for swine. “Originally there was a 5-foot by 7-foot pen, but we transformed that to put mother in a more confined area so it would be harder to lay on her little ones,” he says. “Then we hung a heat lamp to draw them away from mother. Then we raised the farrowing crate to keep the young pigs off the cold concrete floor, and manure would fall through the grate so the babies stayed clean.”

Demonstrating the ingenuity that has helped drive Wisconsin to the forefront of animal agriculture, the Weiss farmers developed a system that involves washing the sows to remove worm eggs and manure and then washing the crates as well. “A clean mom with a clean udder is a whole lot better than a dirty mom,” Weiss says. “We progressed to a much-improved, higher-growth performance with a much lower load of bacteria and worms. We helped develop biosecurity before it was a word.”

Weiss found other ways to focus his creativity on animals. In 1994, he built a specialized pig barn designed for scientific investigation. As proprietor of the on-farm science business Progress Plus LLC, Weiss has used the barn to perform contract research for the late Mark Cook, professor of animal sciences, as well as private firms in the hog industry. The building has five rooms, each with its own feed supply and manure pit, to enable side-by-side comparisons of input and output in swine.

“There are so many variables, so this barn was ideal for conducting complex trials quickly,” Weiss says.

It’s also the perfect place for a data-obsessed farmer-scientist, one who listens to an inner voice and never settles for “good” when “great” is begging to be invented.

The entrance and exit to special swine housing on Gerry Weiss’ farm sits at trailer height for ease of loading and unloading pigs. The ramp has shallow steps that are easier for animals to navigate and makes a 45-degree turn so pigs are urged on by their own curiosity rather than being driven. “They want to know what’s around the corner,” Weiss says. “I have never carried a weaned pig up that ramp.” The system, which he says he borrowed from Madison’s Oscar Mayer plant where he made swine deliveries in his youth, reduces stress for pigs and hassle for farmers and processors.   Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘I Didn’t Know Anything about This Stuff’

As we cruise Weiss’ farm on a tractor road, I notice the ride is exceptionally smooth — no ruts, wallows, or washouts. So he tells me about the 10-inch layer of breaker run and gravel beneath his pickup. The overkill design is not needed on this dry summer day, but when he has to tend the cattle or haul manure in the rain, it prevents wheels churning through the mud, which would translate into erosion.

Even after July’s staggering rainfall, there’s no mud, no hint of a gully, no erosion in sight throughout our drive.

The subject of erosion returns us to the 1970s and to the role of publicly supported science. “I grew up on the Arlington prairie,” Weiss says. “I didn’t know anything about this stuff out here.” From the USDA NRCS, he received advice on filling gullies and constructing terraces, diversions, and waterways to halt soil erosion that had measured 13.1 tons per acre per year on his land. Some of those gullies, he says, were deep enough to hide the bulldozer that he hired to repair them.

A despiser of waste, Weiss was loath to take the waterways out of production, and he figured hay or conservation practices would yield a saleable crop while preventing erosion. And so, unembarrassed by his ignorance, he contacted Bill Paulson, then the superintendent of UW–Madison’s nearby Lancaster experimental station.

“USDA had its own seeding specifications,” Weiss says, “but the difference was that Bill had actually done it. He’d perfected the seed mixture; it was an unbelievably positive addition to what we were doing. Bill knew what would work here.”

Thirty-eight years later, Weiss continues to do soil tests and fertilize as needed, but he has not had to reseed his pasture. “We just take the hay off,” he says. When waterways and terraces are always covered, soil and stream bank erosion are practically zero.

“It may seem obvious, but I’ve never had anybody mention [hay harvest from waterways] to me,” says Dan Schaefer BS’73 MS’75, longtime head of the Department of Animal Sciences, when asked about Weiss’ permanent seeding of these erosion protections. Meanwhile, Weiss is happily hauling hay, which is profitable in today’s market.

This initial interaction with Paulson led to many more collaborations with CALS. Weiss has opened his own land and crops for pesticide trials conducted by the departments of agronomy and entomology. Last summer, the only row crop on the farm was a soybean trial that assessed weed resistance to herbicide. All in all, Weiss has taken part in more than 220 research trials related to animals and crops.

‘People Thought I Was Nuts’

Decades ago, the process of accounting for homegrown organic fertilizer became another element of the Weiss method. Working with UW researchers, he developed systems to track the nitrogen and phosphorus added to the soil by manure and legume crops.

“I was one of the first to utilize manure in a nutrient management plan, working with [Grant County] UW Cooperative Extension agent Ted Bay MS’80,” Weiss says. In two growing seasons, using soil analyses from the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, he cut his fertilizer bill by 70 percent. As with his work with cattle, one improvement begat another. To maximize savings, Weiss bought a manure spreader able to change application rates to supplement nutrients based on variations in soil tests.

But the simple logic in favor of buying only as much fertilizer as you need would have been plowed under had Weiss listened to his neighbors — or his fertilizer dealer. “People thought I was nuts, yes, for 25, 30 years,” Weiss says, “but we were supported by the agronomy and soil science faculty in Madison.”

If you spend enough time with Weiss, you begin to assume that any allusion to conventional wisdom will be chucked to the wayside if not squarely onto the dung heap of history. It’s how he stays ahead of the curve. Today, the “nutrient credits” that can reduce fertilizer use and environmental damage are required on many Wisconsin farms. They’re also integral to SnapPlus, a software program created by experts at the Department of Soil Science.

“SnapPlus solves several problems at once, related to distributing manure and fertilizer efficiently, while meeting guidelines for protecting groundwater and surface water,” says associate scientist Laura Good MS’88 PhD’02, who has led its development and testing. “The program helps to maintain crop fertility without wasting money or endangering natural resources.”

Just like manure, legumes are a critical part of permaculture. Aided by soil microbes, plants like alfalfa and clover absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil to make it more fertile. Decades ago, when most farmers dedicated fields to pasture or row crops, Weiss planted legumes in his permanent pastures and pioneered the use of “rotational grazing.” Moving cattle from field to field not only protects the pasture from trampling and overgrazing but also reduces tilling and hauling of feed and manure. At the same time, it increases fertility and productivity, so any given field can support more animals. The practice of moving cattle is now a mainstay of organic and other low-impact agriculture.

Gerry Weiss surveys his farm from the seat of his pick-up truck while parked at a high point in one of the pastures. Photo by Mark Hirsch

‘You Don’t Need to Do This!’

Weiss’s collaborations with CALS have also involved planting innovations. At a time when planting and cultivating corn entailed at least a half-dozen passes across the field, he teamed up with frequent collaborator Paulson, soil science professor Larry Bundy, and agronomy professor Ron Doersch BS’58 MS’61 PhD’63 to develop a two-pass corn-planting system.

“You disk in manure and cornstalk residue with a heavy disk, doing primary tilling in one pass,” he says. Then, aggressive trash whippers on the planter clear a seven-inch row for the corn as the planter sprays a preemergent herbicide.

“We found that most years, with normal rain, we got such tremendous activity from the preemergent herbicide that we did not need a second pass of spraying, but a very limited number of people have picked that up,” Weiss says. “They are locked into four to seven passes for tilling, planting, spraying, and then spraying again. People, you don’t need to do this! We are reducing labor, soil compaction, and fuel burn, and also recreational tillage.”

But having a motive to disbelieve can overpower the evidence of open eyes, he adds. “I’ve had salesperson after salesperson come here to look at a field after the soybeans have been drilled and shake their heads,” Weiss says. “The field is still relatively rough, which I want for rain erosion prevention. I’ve had many of these guys come back at harvest, and say, ‘This is really a tremendous plant environment.’ When I respond, ‘But four months ago, you told me this was a disaster,’ they get real quiet. But it always seems easier to criticize than to try to understand why I keep doing it.”

A different attitude, both positive and more open-minded, prevails at UW–Madison and the other land-grant institutions, Weiss says, and the attitude is mutual. “He has always been respectful of faculty, though he will speak out if someone has a loony idea,” Schaefer says. “He’s principled, all about accurate data, accurate communication. There’s no varnishing, no window dressing. ‘Tell it to me the way it is.’”

In this way, Weiss has managed to survive in the ever-changing farm economy for 40 years. Today growing forage is profitable, so hay is what he sells, usually delivered to horse owners in small bales.

The swine barn is now empty — another victim of harsh market conditions — so the Gelbvieh cows that Weiss collaborated to import from Germany in the 1970s are his only livestock. Having grown to understand (so I think) the many labor-saving and cow saving innovations on the farm, I ask why he has only 60 head. As the question hovers above the kitchen table, I immediately realize that I have plunged into the manure pit called conventional wisdom. Bigger is not necessarily better, and the answer is in front of my face, though Weiss is kind enough not to mention that.

“I match the cow herd to the rotational grazed pasture program,” he says. “Sixty head is my carrying capacity with my current 68 acres of permanent pasture, but we have plenty of room for more pasture here.”

Such an expansion, Weiss says, would best be carried out by the next generation of stewards of his land. He is now on the hunt for a “very special person or people” to continue where he leaves off. When students of the agricultural sciences visit his farm to learn from its innovations, he tells them his successor just might be among their ranks.

“I also tell them,” Weiss says, “that I haven’t made all of the mistakes yet, but I’m getting close.”

‘The Barbs Are Quite Dull; They Are Just Gerry Weiss’

Thinking back, Weiss’ meticulous attention to the land and his characteristic dry wit are both on display the moment we first meet. I drive onto the farmstead with my road bike racked behind my economy Honda and approach a weathered, white-haired guy pitchforking Canada thistles from the back of a white Ford pickup.

By way of introduction, I ask, “Aren’t you too old for that?” He responds, “Oh, I think we’re going to get along just fine. You can give it back.”

Later that day, as we tour the fields, I tease Weiss about a lone Canada thistle proudly blossoming above a pasture. Even a city fellow knows that those splendid purple flowers are one of Wisconsin’s premier pasture pests, and Weiss immediately promises to annihilate it to block it from reseeding.

I mention the thistle to Lange, the Grant County conservationist, and he remarks, “I’m surprised that he did not write down the location. If he was younger, he would have put it on GPS, but I’m sure it’s gone by now.” Indeed, when Weiss later meets me for lunch in Spring Green, he hands me a thorny, withered thistle. “Some salad from the farm!” he says.

“He’s very conservation conscious,” says weed expert Jerry Doll, professor emeritus of agronomy. “He once called after an 8-inch rain, happy that his grass waterways and terraces had no visible erosion, while his neighbors were looking at gullies.”

“His mind is always churning,” Doll adds. “I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I know his power of observation. When he sees something he can’t explain, he’s on the phone.”

Like Doll, others who have worked with Weiss typically cite his inquiring mind and diligence, as well as his devotion to conservation. They also like to mention his low-grade combative nature.

“Gerry is very bright and quite self-deprecating,” Schaefer says. “He can be prickly and takes pride in barbed comments, but he does that mostly for effect. He wants to know if he’s getting through to you. The barbs are quite dull; they are just Gerry Weiss.”

But underneath Weiss’ thorny exterior, Schaefer sees the embodiment of a precept of the great Midwestern public universities. “He’s a land-grant creation. To me, he epitomizes the application of science to agriculture.”

Winter Awakens Spring Flowering

Rick Amasino
Photo by Frederic Bouche

It’s springtime in Wisconsin again. Home gardeners and farmers are busy tending to their beds and fields, relishing the fresh sprouts of flowers, vegetables, and crops. It begs the question: What happens in the inner workings of plants as they prepare for spring? What’s the science that governs the growing season for different flora?

Rick Amasino, a plant biochemist and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, may have the answers — or at least some of them. He studies plant development and, specifically, how and when plants produce flowers. In 2016, his expertise earned him a place on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee tasked with investigating the impacts of genetically engineered crops.

Many plants have effectively evolved a way to avoid flowering prior to winter. Instead, they use the cold season to help activate flowering when the weather warms. Amasino’s research sheds light on what conditions a plant must experience in order to flower. In particular, he focuses on unraveling the genetic basis of the effects these conditions have on plants as they stimulate or repress flowering. His findings may allow other scientists and plant breeders to develop crops that are more efficient and have higher yields of food or energy.

How do plants respond to spring?

There are a wide range of responses. For example, some plants need to be exposed to winter cold to flower in the spring, whereas others form spring flowers as a result of being exposed to the decreasing hours of sunlight during the fall season. Apple and cherry trees are in this latter category — their flowers are actually formed in the previous fall in buds that become dormant. Then, when it gets warm the following spring, everything that was crammed into those buds in the fall just unfolds. Other plants like lilies, for example, require exposure to cold in order to flower. When they are growing in the fall, flowering is blocked. But over winter, the block is removed and they flower in the spring. The underlying processes for this involve a lot of biochemistry, and that’s what we’ve studied in my lab. Specifically, we study how flowering is blocked in the fall and how exposure to cold results in the removal of this block. The block removal process is known as vernalization; this word is derived from vernal, which means “relating to spring.”

Are there any more examples of plants that need winter to flower?

Some common examples include many of the vegetables we plant in the spring, such as cabbage, carrots, and beets. We don’t usually see these particular vegetables flowering because they will not flower until they experience winter, and we harvest them before they have a chance to flower. Many grasses go through this process as well.

Why should we be interested in this process?

This requirement to go through winter in order to flower is important agriculturally; food plants keep growing without flowering all summer long and, therefore, the part which we consume can get very large. However, if you left a carrot in the ground after the summer, it would flower the next spring, and the underground part of the carrot we eat would become shriveled as it provides the nutrients for flowers to form.

If it gets warmer earlier, is that a problem?

An early warming trend in itself isn’t problematic if it continues into spring, but our climate is likely to be more variable than that. So, if we have unusually high temperatures late in the winter and cherry blossoms in Door County open, but then we get a blast of cold afterward, the flowers will be destroyed and fruit cannot form.

What’s going on on the inside of the plant that determines whether or not it flowers?

In the plants we study that require winter, there is a gene encoding a repressor protein that is expressed in the fall that prevents the plant from flowering. Then, over the winter, control of the repressor gene is altered in a way that the repressor is no longer expressed. Consequently, plants can flower when it gets warm, and they resume growth in the spring in the absence of the repressor protein. We’ve recently published research specifically on the small Mediterranean grass called Brachypodium. Previous work has shown that a gene called VRN1 is responsible for activating flowering in these grasses after the winter. But what’s the repressor gene keeping VRN1 in check in the fall? That was previously unclear. We did genetic screens and found several of the genes that repress the VRN1 gene prior to winter. We just published a scientific paper on one of these, calling it RVR1, for its role in repressing VRN1.

Why are gene discoveries like this important for this area of research?

Scientists that breed cereal grains may find this newly identified gene interesting. However, we think it could also impact biofuels research. I am part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) here on campus. Although switchgrass, which can be used to make biofuels, doesn’t go through the vernalization process, there’s a good chance that taking the RVR1 gene from Brachypodium and putting it in switchgrass will delay switchgrass flowering. Delaying switchgrass flowering to various extents may improve yield.

Why is understanding this process important?

In basic research like ours, we often don’t know where exactly it’s going, but it often ends up having practical relevance. Our goal is to understand the biochemical pathways that plants have evolved to flower at certain times of the year. But in crops, in which the timing of flowering is important, this research can be applicable. For example, we share our unpublished work with wheat breeders who can translate some of the knowledge into increased efficiency in a breeding program. Also, our work has revealed basic principles of how genes are regulated, which has implications for many areas. Another example of applicability, although not directly from our research, was useful for sugar beet farmers, who plant in the spring. A spring cold spell will trigger some of the sugar beets to flower, and flowering plants do not produce the part of the beet the farmers harvest. Scientists in Europe modified genes involved in the flowering response to cold and came up with a sugar beet variety that doesn’t flower if it is exposed to cold. Now farmers can plant their beets in the fall rather than the spring to allow them to have a much longer growing season and to grow bigger — and they don’t have to worry about the beets flowering. This has significantly increased the yield per acre of sugar beets.

What’s your next step in this research?

We are going to continue to work with other GLBRC researchers to study Brachypodium and how different varieties of the plant live and persist in winters that have varying temperatures and lengths. How did one variety evolve a system tweaked to require 16 weeks of cold? Why does another one require just two weeks of cold? In other words, what’s the genetic and biochemical difference between the requirement for a short winter versus a long winter? Grasses are really important crops, and this model for studying flowering can tell us a lot about how they work

“Legacy Phosphorus” and Our Waters

For decades, phosphorous has accumulated in Wisconsin soils. Though farmers have taken steps to reduce the quantity of the agricultural nutrient applied to and running off their fields, a new study reveals that a “legacy” of abundant soil phosphorus has a large, direct and long-lasting impact on water quality.

The study, published in the journal Ecosystems and focused on southern Wisconsin’s Yahara watershed, may be the first to provide quantifiable evidence that eliminating the overabundance of phosphorus will be critical for improving the quality of the state’s lakes and rivers.

For example, the results indicate that a 50 percent reduction in soil phosphorus in the Yahara watershed’s croplands would improve water quality by reducing the summertime concentration of phosphorus in Lake Mendota, the region’s flagship lake, by 25 percent.

“If we continue to apply phosphorus at a greater rate than we remove it, then phosphorus accumulates over time and that’s what’s been happening over many decades in the Yahara watershed,” says Melissa Motew, the study’s lead author. Motew, working with CALS agronomy professor and co-author Christopher Kucharik, is a doctoral candidate at the UW–Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Phosphorus seeps into soils primarily by way of fertilizer and manure, and what crops and other plants don’t use to grow then leaks into waterways with rain and snowmelt runoff. Scientists have long believed that excess soil phosphorus is a culprit behind the murky waters and smelly algal blooms in some of Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers.

Conventional efforts, like no-till farming and cover crops, have tried to address nutrient runoff by slowing its movement from soils to waterways. However, the study shows that simply preventing runoff and erosion does not address the core problem of abundant soil phosphorus, and this overabundance could override conservation efforts.

“Solutions should be focused on stopping phosphorus from going onto the landscape or mining the excess amount that is already built up,” says Kucharik.

Using newly advanced computer models, the study shows the watershed has about four times more phosphorus in its soil than is recommended by UW–Extension, which writes the state’s nutrient management recommendations based on what crops need and a landscape’s potential for nutrient runoff.

Currently, the only method known to draw down soil phosphorus is harvesting crops, but Kucharik explains that plants take up only a small amount of the surplus each year.

“It is unlikely that any cropping system will quickly draw down the excess,” he says.

It will require working with farmers to practice better nutrient accounting and counter the tendency of some to apply more fertilizer, as an insurance measure, than is needed.

Food production need not be compromised by potential solutions, Kucharik says. There is enough excess phosphorus in our soils “to support plant nutrient needs for a long time.”

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of UW–Madison’s Water Sustainability and Climate project.

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.

Age-Old Traditions, New Media

There is no better place to begin this story than on an August morning in the remote reaches of the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation, afloat on Lake Superior’s shining Chequamegon Bay beneath an expansive, cloud-filled sky.

Several flat-bottomed boats are lined up gunwale-to-gunwale, bobbing in the gentle waves. They’re filled with students—a mix of UW–Madison undergraduates and tribal youth—on a field project run through UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute. They are listening to Dana Jackson and Edith Leoso, Bad River tribal members and elders, talk about wild rice and the windswept, watery landscape around them, the sloughs and the tamarack stands, the distant islands and the shimmering headlands.

It is all ancestral home to the Ojibwe, and Jackson and Leoso bring it to life with their words. They tell the Ojibwe creation story of how their tribal forebears came to the land so many years ago from the east, seeking, as they had been told in visions, a place where “the food grows on top of the water.” They speak of the chiefs who signed treaties to protect this homeland and of the warriors who fought to protect it and of the threats that come with modern times.

The students, armed with video cameras and recorders, soak it all up. The land seems to take on new depth and meaning, peopled now with the ghosts and the place names and shrouded in the mystery and the magic of the old stories.

It’s an ideal classroom for the CALS professor who is the guiding hand behind this floating, open-air lecture session.

Patty Loew, a professor of life sciences communication, has brought these students here to share with them the lives and the culture of a people she knows well.

Loew is a tribal member of the Bad River Ojibwe. She can trace her family back to ancestors who were among the tribal leaders signing the tribe’s historic treaties in the 1800s. When she looks out upon the waters of Lake Superior and the winding sloughs of the reservation, she sees her own family’s history. These places are as special to her as to any other member of the Bad River community.

Two years ago, in a column in the Wisconsin State Journal about the importance of this place to the Ojibwe, Loew wrote, “You won’t see any stained glass or church spires in the Bad River or Kakagon Sloughs, but those wetlands are as holy to us as any temple or cathedral.”

A noted television journalist and the author of several acclaimed books on Wisconsin’s Native Americans as well as an accomplished scholar, Loew could easily be resting on her many successes.

Instead, she is deeply involved in a number of teaching and media projects that are not only bringing the stories of Wisconsin’s Native Americans to life, but also are providing new ways for those stories to be shared by tribal members themselves. Since 2007, she has led efforts to teach tribal teenagers digital storytelling and technology skills. Working with colleagues as well as tribal leaders, she has helped young people create documentaries sharing Native American issues and culture. In a 2012 project, for example, eight St. Croix Ojibwe students created a tribal history told through the life stories of five St. Croix elders.

In this work Loew has also partnered with the UW–Madison Global Health Institute. She’s currently in the midst of a project—the one that has us floating on Chequamegon Bay—in which global health students from a wide range of majors work alongside tribal youth to bring the power of digital media to bear on reservation health issues such as nutrition and childhood obesity. The Bad River reservation has some of the highest diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates in the United States, according to a 2008 Wisconsin Nutrition and Growth Study.

Loew’s projects can already boast some impressive successes. In 2013, three 14-year-old Bad River participants in her tribal youth media workshops produced a documentary, Protect Our Future, that detailed the potential environmental threats posed by a proposed iron mine in the Penokee Range above the Bad River reservation.

The video was an award-winning hit. It played to large audiences at film festivals throughout the Great Lakes region and was screened at the Arizona State University Human Rights Festival. The teens were on hand to introduce their film, which they also shared at the nearby Salt River Tribal High School.

The project followed a unique blueprint developed by Loew that melds traditional knowledge from tribal elders and leaders with the use of digital media skills now being deployed by tribal youth.
It is, in effect, an artful and sensitive blending of the old and new. Loew, not one to think small, says she sees the work in the context of a larger and more powerful dream. Oblivious to the breeze and splashing water from Lake Superior, she speaks from her seat in one of the boats as it motors through the reservation’s famed Kakagon Sloughs. In between her answers to questions, she patiently works with students as they learn how to use video cameras. She helps one of them frame a shot and assists another who is figuring out how to program a video card.

“My ultimate goal,” Loew says as she works, “is to help Bad River become the media center for Indian Country. We want to combine really strong media skills with a really strong sense of culture.”

Loew’s work has drawn praise from many quarters, from tribal leaders to academic colleagues.

Joe Rose is an elder with the Bad River Ojibwe and has watched young tribal members embrace Loew’s teachings. He describes the pride that the video Protect Our Future brought to the reservation.
“We were fighting against the mine then,” Rose recalls. “That was a very serious threat to us. We were very concerned about our wild rice. That was exceptional work that Patty did with the young people. She taught them how to use the media, how to do the photography and the interviewing. They even did the music. And it was all done by students, only 14 or 15 years old.”

Don Stanley, a CALS faculty associate in the Department of Life Sciences Communication who specializes in social media, has worked alongside Loew on the reservation, served as her co-investigator, and, Loew says, sparked the original idea for much of their tribal youth media work.

There are few better examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action, Stanley says, when it comes to sharing the department’s communication expertise and scholarship with a broader audience.

And, in this case, that sharing is with a community that few can reach as effectively as Loew. Loew has the ability to connect in a special way, Stanley notes, because of her deep tribal roots and connections. People know her and see her knowledge and respect for tribal life and culture. That understanding and empathy is not always common among academics.

“A lot of time in academia, we don’t understand that,” Stanley says. “Researchers come in, extract what they want and leave. But people you are working with relate on a scale that is much more real and visceral when they’re dealing with somebody who gets it.”

And Loew gets it.

“She’s got incredible street cred,” Stanley says of Loew’s work on the reservation. “It’s a blast traveling with her up there. Everybody is a family member. Everybody is ‘Hey, Patty!’ and big hugs. I also think that because she doesn’t take herself so seriously, she’s really approachable.”

Indeed, Loew is quick to laugh, and a talker. She will enthuse equally about her work or a Green Bay Packer game (she is a devoted fan). She evokes laughter from her students when, passing by a reservation boat flying a Packer pennant, she says, casually, “Oh, look. The tribal flag!”

Loew is quick to point out an important caveat when it comes to her work with the Bad River community as it relates to the Wisconsin Idea. This is not about just transferring knowledge from the campus to the reservation, she says. In fact, she prefers the phrase “knowledge exchange.”

The tribes, Loew says, are a rich and unrecognized source of information about the natural world. The elders and others on the reservation have much to share, and that traditional knowledge can inform and extend science and natural resource management in the non-Indian world, notes Loew.

In the Ojibwe, Loew sees a people who have valuable lessons for us in how to combine culture with a respect for the natural workings of the planet.

“Over the past 25 years, I’ve seen a real need for scientific information that has cultural relevance,” Loew says. “Native communities may be poor in an economic sense but they are rich in natural resources. And the culture is attached to those resources in a way that can’t be separated.

“So it’s a two-way street,” Loew continues. “We don’t necessarily have the scientific capacity. But what we do have is storytellers and people who know and embrace the culture.”

Loew did not come to these understandings suddenly. They are the result of a slow and gradual awakening on her part to her own Native American heritage and a lifetime spent learning the communication skills that would one day allow her to bring the power of story to bear on sharing the history and culture and struggles of not only the Ojibwe but all of Wisconsin’s tribes.

Loew’s path has led her to a very professorial office in Hiram Smith Hall on the UW–Madison campus, home to the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) and just a stone’s skip from Lake Mendota.
But Loew, as her colleagues will point out, seems to have trouble staying in that comfortable office. Everyone who works with her in Hiram Smith Hall has had the pleasant experience of meeting a wide-eyed Loew in the hallway and being greeted by the phrase “Hey! I have an idea I wanted to try out on you.”

It is more than a charming aspect of her character. It is how she works, bringing to life the cherished Wisconsin ideal of “sifting and winnowing.”

Loew is an idea factory. In recent months, her friends and co-workers have listened and watched as Loew has worried about the many employees who will be out of work when Oscar Mayer’s Madison factory closes. Perhaps, she muses as she talks with her colleagues, there is a way one of her video classes can help provide video resumes.

More often than not, those ideas become reality.

“She’s phenomenal at taking ideas and making them come to fruition,” says Stanley.

Professor and LSC department chair Dominique Brossard says Loew heightens the department’s effectiveness at giving students a more global perspective on the intersections of culture and science in the natural world. Her courses in ethnic studies and Native American issues and the media are very popular, she notes.

And with her extensive background in television and video production, Loew is a key player in achieving another of the department’s goals—providing foundational communication skills to students.
“She’s uniquely positioned to do this kind of thing,” Brossard says.

Loew has traveled a long road to reach this stage in her career. She grew up on Milwaukee’s north side, little aware of her Native American background and the important role it would play as her life unfolded.

“I didn’t know I was Indian until I was 13,” Loew recalls. “I was just a kid growing up in a housing project in Milwaukee.”

Looking back, Loew believes her mother, who was born on a reservation, and her grandfather, who lived with the family, were trying to shield her from the discrimination frequently faced by Native Americans. Her grandfather, Edward DeNomie, was raised in the Tomah Indian Boarding School. Life in such schools was harsh, and children were often punished severely for speaking their native language or clinging to other aspects of their culture.

Even so, Loew heard and relished the stories of her ancestors. And by the late 1960s, she had become well aware not only of her rich cultural heritage but also the ugliness of racial prejudice. She recalls a growing sense of outrage, especially in the 1970s as Native American rights became a prominent news story.

Loew pursued a career in broadcast journalism. She earned a degree from UW–La Crosse and started her broadcasting career working in the city as a TV and radio reporter.

Eventually Loew moved to Madison, where she worked her way up to the anchor’s desk at the ABC affiliate, WKOW–TV. Her awareness of Native American culture and her desire to tell the stories of Wisconsin’s tribes grew. In the 1980s, she earned awards and gained respect throughout the state for her coverage of the fierce legal battle and sometimes ugly boat-landing confrontations as the Ojibwe fought to reestablish off-reservation hunting and fishing rights that had been included in the treaties.

Loew would go on to make dozens of documentaries telling the stories and covering the struggles of Wisconsin’s Native American communities. After moving on to Wisconsin Public Television, she made reporting on the tribes a regular part of her job as host of the show Weekend.

In a 2006 interview in the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Loew described the important connection between her rediscovered culture and her professional life.

“As a journalist, a researcher, you have questions,” Loew said. “You realize you are struggling for answers about yourself. So you want to be open, to make connections to people. You find yourself being very relational, and that’s very Native.”

That willingness to be up-front about her debt to her past, and to be outspoken about the indignities that Native Americans have had to endure, have sometimes landed her in interesting, if not difficult, positions.

After she gave a talk about some of the more unpleasant truths of the first Thanksgiving, she earned the ire of none other than radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. He accused Loew of being part of a “multicultural curriculum which is designed to get as many little kids as possible to question the decency and goodness of their own country.”

Few of Loew’s documentaries received more attention than Way of the Warrior, an exploration of the role of Native American soldiers in the U.S. military that aired on PBS in 2007. During her research, she stumbled across a film about her grandfather’s World War I outfit. Her quiet Ojibwe grandfather, it turned out, had fought in seven of WWI’s major battles as part of the 32nd Red Arrow Division.

Later, in another serendipitous discovery, she would find his diary. She describes how touched she was and how she is still so taken by the idea of Edward DeNomie raising his hand to take the oath and enlist in the U.S. Army—even though he had been denied citizenship in the country for which he was willing to give his life. Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States until 1924.

The popular, eye-opening documentary told the stories of many such Native American soldiers. And, later, after earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in journalism and joining the Department of Life Sciences Communication, Loew would continue telling the stories of Wisconsin’s tribes and of her own people at Bad River. She’s written several popular books, including Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal—which has been adapted for children and is now widely used in public schools—and, most recently, Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, a collection of biographies about 12 Native Americans who were key figures in environmental and cultural sustainability.

Sitting in the stern of one of the boats winding through the reservation sloughs, Loew reflects on her storytelling past and connects it with the ancient tradition of the Ojibwe and other native cultures.

“We are oral storytellers,” Loew says. But she is lending a new twist to the revered tradition. By adapting digital media to the old stories, the power of their message is amplified and made more accessible, especially important when it comes to lessons regarding nutrition and health among tribal members.

For example, some of the young tribal videographers have scoured the reservation collecting information from elders about age-old gardening and cooking skills. They hope to use that information at some point, Loew explains, to create “teen cuisine” cooking shows focused on healthy eating.

It makes so much sense to combine the old and the new, Loew says. After all, she adds, by the year 2020, 80 percent of content on the World Wide Web is expected to be video.

“These are new tools to help us be who we are, to help us capture the essence of who we are,” says Loew. “It’s a way to preserve our stories and a really unique approach to documenting life on the reservation at this particular time in history.”

Students from the Global Health Institute class, traveling with Loew on weeklong field trips, have worked side by side with tribal youth to gather information for the health and nutrition project and to create videos.

Cali McAtee, a CALS biology major who went with Loew to Bad River in August, wrote in her journal about not only establishing close relationships with tribal young people, but also of gaining valuable insight into another culture. She recalls in her writings the feeling of traveling through a sea of rice at the edge of Lake Superior.

“I have seen a lot of wild rice in my life, but from far away. I probably assumed it was a field because you can’t really see the water in between,” wrote McAtee. “I liked hearing about the importance of rice to the Ojibwe because I don’t think I necessarily have anything as important or meaningful in my life as rice is to theirs.”

Loew has felt the power of story in her own life and in her own search for connections. Researching one of her books, Loew found herself reading the classic book Kitchi-Gami: Life Among the Lake Superior Ojibway, by Johann Georg Kohl. In the book she came across a story in which Kohl brings to life a meeting he had with a tribal elder.

That elder was none other than Loew’s great-great-grandfather, Loon’s Foot. Kohl wrote how, during his conversation with the old man, Loon’s Foot stepped back into his lodge and came out with a smoky, stained birchbark scroll. Unrolling it and speaking in French, Loon’s Foot showed Kohl the story of his family told on the scroll and the dots and lines that denoted the passing years and decades. The story reached back to the year 1142.

“Here I was just reading Kohl, and then holy smokes!” Loew recalls. “Not bad for an oral culture.”

Loew firmly believes it is possible to capture that same kind of magic today with new approaches to traditional storytelling.

Don Stanley has watched as Loew has found a way to navigate between two worlds—the quickly receding years of the elders and the fast-paced, media-rich present of the tribal young—to create a new way to tell and preserve story and tradition, and then apply their lessons to modern-day problems.

As an example, Stanley describes how, as part of the nutrition project, he has seen Loew work with Native middle school students, teaching them how to videotape an elder speaking about traditional foods and health. While Loew is helping the teens develop communication skills, she knows full well that she is also preserving the knowledge of that tribal elder for future generations.

No less an expert on Ojibwe tradition than tribal elder Joe Rose admires and respects Loew’s ability to bridge old and new worlds. He says that with the passing of the generation that experienced the assimilation policies of the boarding schools, it’s important that the young be able to hear the elders’ voices—to see their faces, lined and carrying the weight of the years, but still alive with the resilience and strength and wisdom of their ancient heritage.

“It is very important, since we do come from an oral culture,” Rose says of Loew’s task. “But you’ve heard the expression that a picture is worth a thousand words? Well, there’s truth in that, too.”
As for Loew, she says that the girl growing up in the Milwaukee projects has found her place.

“I’m doing what I was supposed to do,” Loew says. “I’m incredibly grateful that Don and I have found such a dedicated, caring community—our students, our volunteers, the Bad River kids and their families—with whom to pursue this work. They’re the ones who make it possible.”

New Frontiers for No-Till

New Frontiers for No-TillWhen Jason Cavadini, assistant superintendent of the CALS-based Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, first started working at the station in spring 2013, he was told that no-till wouldn’t work in the area, with its heavy, poorly drained soils. But he still wanted to give it a try.

“Here in central Wisconsin, a big concern is, what do we do with the water? How do we get it to drain better? If no-till allows the soil to do that naturally, in our opinion it’s the best way,” says Cavadini. His interest in the method stems from experience on his family’s farm near La Crosse, where they have successfully used no-till planting for nearly 20 years.

Conventional tillage often involves turning and pulverizing the soil before planting with multiple passes of a tractor to chisel-plow, disk and smooth out the field. There are many advantages to this approach, including setting back weeds, helping the soil to dry and ensuring good seed-to-soil contact. However, it’s also fraught with issues such as soil compaction and erosion.

No-till, on the other hand, involves the use of a planter that seeds directly into the soil without the complete disruption and inversion of the surface. This alternative option, which has been shown to work well in other areas with other soil types, has reduced environmental impacts and helps build long-term soil structure. There’s also an economic benefit. “Fewer trips across the field with equipment means less fuel used,” notes Cavadini. “We have cut fuel usage and labor associated with spring planting by more than 50 percent since implementing no-till.”

Making the switch to no-till, however, involves some trial and error. Cavadini thought, “What better place to give it a try than the Marshfield station?”

“We started a group we’re calling Central Wisconsin No-Tillers,” Cavadini says. “We set a planter here on the station with different combinations of no-till tools. After we finished planting in the spring of 2014, we invited people to the station and told them what we found with our research planter. About 10 farmers showed up, but it was a very productive meeting, and we tried to address things that they were questioning.”

When Cavadini held a meeting for the group the following year, 46 farmers appeared.

So far, the no-till approach is working well at Marshfield, and the research station has expanded its use to include more crops. Corn was the starting point—“We experienced some of our highest corn yields ever on the station this year in no-till fields,” notes Cavadini—and now about 80 percent of the station’s plantings are done with no-till, including soybeans, wheat and alfalfa.

“A long-term, no-till soil that is firm at the surface but takes in water readily is what we are really trying to achieve here,” Cavadini says. “If we are successful, that will solve a lot of the challenges that central Wisconsin farmers face here every year.”

PHOTO—Jason Cavadini has had success with no-till on crops at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

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.

Bitten

There’s no ignoring it. Some of the students enrolled in this medical entomology class are far more attractive than others. They know it, their classmates know it, and so does Susan Paskewitz, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology.

Paskewitz describes herself as “relatively unattractive,” and she proceeds to prove it using the same test her students have just performed. She fills a small vial with warm water, rubs it between her palms to coat it with volatile compounds from her skin, then places the vial on top of a thin membrane stretched over the top of a plastic container akin to an economy-sized ice cream tub. She invites a visitor to do the same.

Waiting on the other side of that membrane are 20 blood-starved specimens of Aedes aegypti, commonly known as the yellow fever mosquito. Hungry as they are, the insects don’t show a lot of interest in Paskewitz’s vial. They hover near where it touches the membrane, but only two or three land. The visitor’s vial, on the other hand, is a busy spot. At least a dozen have landed and are testing the surface with their needle-like proboscises.

“Wow,” says Paskewitz. “You’re really attractive!”

In another context, those three words could make your day. But not here. Nobody wants this kind of animal magnetism. Nobody wants to be the person who’s cursing and slapping and reaching for the DEET while others are calmly eating their brats and potato salad.

If you’re that person, take heart. Paskewitz can tell you a little bit about why you might have more than your share of interspecies charisma and offer some suggestions on how to scale it back. But first, let’s talk about why this matters.

An average American adult outweighs an average-size mosquito by about 30 million to one. Ounce for ounce, that’s like the USS Nimitz vis-a-vis a good-size duck. But while it’s a safe bet that a 100,000-ton aircraft carrier won’t change course to avoid a six-pound mallard, it’s almost certain that, on a regular basis, you change your behavior to avoid being bitten by a 2.5-milligram mosquito.

Mosquitoes cause us to do things we’d rather not, like dosing ourselves with a repellent that’s sticky and smelly and comes with a sobering warning label (you can apply it to your kids’ skin, but keep the bottle out of their reach), or pulling on long pants, long sleeves, a hat and maybe a head net on a sweltering midsummer day.

Mosquitoes keep us inside when we’d much prefer to go out. In the summer of 2009, Paskewitz and environmental economist Katherine Dickinson, of the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, asked a sample of Madison residents how they coped when mosquitoes got fierce.

The second-most-common answer (right after applying repellent) was to stay indoors. About two-thirds of the respondents said they had curtailed outdoor household activities—gardening, yard work, sitting on the deck—in the past month because of mosquitoes, especially in the evening hours, which, for working people, may be the only time available to get a little fresh air. About a third said they had avoided outings, and a similar share said they had avoided outdoor exercise.

Nobody wants to be outside more than John Bates, of Manitowish. An author of seven books about Wisconsin’s north woods and a naturalist by trade, Bates leads interpretive hikes year-round—except in June: “We just kind of throw the month out. The mosquitoes cause too much discomfort for people to listen to interpretation. All we can do is keep walking. People hire me because they want to learn more about the place than they knew before they came. If they can’t stop to listen, what’s the point?”

If we do venture out when mosquitoes are massing, we may not get the experience we were hoping for. Andrew Teichmiller, an outfitter of bikes and paddling gear in Minoqua, recalls mountain biking in 2014, arguably the area’s worst mosquito year ever. “You had to ride the complete trail without stopping, all the way back to the parking lot, and jump in the car, quick, because if you stopped there were 15 or 20 mosquitoes on you immediately.” As for camping: “It’s a different type of experience when you can’t sit by the fire at night and tell stories. You’re forced to run for your tent. It definitely affects the feel of the trip.”

But let’s be clear: A ruined camping trip is far from the worst possible consequence of a mosquito bite.

Mosquitoes transmit diseases that kill nearly a million people every year and sicken hundreds of millions. Tropical and subtropical areas bear the brunt of this, but no place is immune, including Wisconsin. Malaria plagued the immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the 1800s, and various types of encephalitis are diagnosed on a regular basis.

But today the biggest concern is West Nile virus (WNV). Wisconsin has been relatively lucky since the first case arrived here in 2002, with a total of 230 cases reported through 2014. But all four adjacent states have had bigger outbreaks—notably Illinois, with 2,093 cases total and 884 in its worst year, most of them just across the border in the Chicago area. Wisconsin’s worst year brought 57 cases.

Most cases of WNV bring no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but about one in five can involve a fever, headache, body aches, vomiting and a fatigue that can last for weeks or months. Fewer than 1 percent of WNV victims display severe neurologic symptoms, including disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures or paralysis, and of those, about 1 percent die.

Nevertheless, Wisconsin residents are bothered much more by the nuisance of biting mosquitoes than they are worried about West Nile virus. The Madison residents responding to Katherine Dickinson’s 2009 survey said they’d be willing to pay an average of $149 for a hypothetical program to control nuisance mosquitoes, but wouldn’t pay anything for one targeted at mosquitoes carrying WNV when risks were as low as they were at the time (about one case per year in Madison with a population of 250,000).

It’s not surprising to find that attitude in Wisconsin, where mosquito-borne disease is relatively rare, but Dickinson says that people tend to think the same way in places where mosquito bites are often fatal. She observes that in Tanzania, biting mosquitoes were a major factor motivating people to use bed nets. “It was a similar situation to ours,” she says. “Some mosquitoes are more noticeable and more of a nuisance, but those that transmit malaria are kind of sneaky; people don’t feel them biting as much. In areas where mosquitoes were more of a nuisance, people used the bed nets more.”

Biting-wise, there’s an important distinction between nuisance mosquitoes and the ones that transmit WNV. The former come at us aggressively, in such staggering numbers that they’re impossible to ignore. They remind us to protect ourselves. Culex pipiens, the WNV vectors, are more subtle and harder to notice.

Nuisance mosquitoes and the WNV carriers also show up at different times. The most annoying biters—Aedes vexans in particular—are floodwater species that breed after a stretch of wet weather. Culex breed in water that stagnates during a dry spell.

“When it’s been really dry, the water just sits in the stormwater catch basins that are the biggest sources of the WNV vectors,” says Paskewitz. “There’s not enough rain to flush them. Things get more fetid, stinkier. That’s the year when we see a ton of Culex.”

The take-home message: If you only grab the DEET when the biting is so bad that you can’t stand to be without it, you’re not protecting yourself against West Nile virus.
“You need to protect yourself against bites even if you’re not getting a lot of them,” says John Hausbeck, director of environmental health services for Dane County and the City of Madison. “We’ll see summers where it’s really dry and the floodwater mosquitoes are very limited, but we still have plenty of small pools that the Culex can breed in.”

That “biting pressure” is something that Hausbeck needs to stay on top of, and Paskewitz helps with that. She and former grad student Patrick Irwin PhD’10 were able to characterize the types of sites where Culex are most likely to breed and identified alternatives for treating them—for example, introducing fathead minnows to feed on Culex larvae. She and her students analyze the mosquitoes trapped in the area to see how many are Culex and whether they’re carrying WNV. Their data tell Hausbeck whether he needs to issue a public alert.

It’s important to remain vigilant. “When West Nile first came into the country, people doubted it would make it through the first winter,” Paskewitz says. “Well, it did persist, and in a very short period of time it whipped across the whole country. We’ve had a lot of cases in new places. First it was really bad in North and South Dakota. Then Colorado and Arizona. Then Texas, Illinois. It’s really hard to predict. And given the vagaries of climate, we just don’t know whether the next year it might be Wisconsin.”

Maybe WNV hasn’t changed Wisconsin residents’ ideas about why to guard against mosquito bites, but it certainly has spurred a lot of questions about how. There is a seemingly endless list of products and strategies, that, according to somebody, will eliminate mosquitoes or repel them—and since WNV arrived, Paskewitz has been getting questions about pretty much all of them.

“They call me to ask, ‘Would this work or wouldn’t it?’ There is a lot of misinformation out there and not many good sources of information, so I realized I needed to get a better idea of what the science was behind these things,” Paskewitz says.

As she comes up with answers, she posts summaries online. Her website, http://go.wisc.edu/mosquitoes, gets plenty of visits (55,000 last year) and triggers a lot of calls from media from across the nation.

A few of her findings:

• Repellents can be very effective, but comparing them is tricky. There are lots of products with varying active ingredients offered in different concentrations and combinations. Generally speaking, DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus have good track records. There are also a number of other plant-based compounds—garlic, catnip oil, vanilla and oil of cloves, for example—for which there’s less research and conflicting results. The website sums all this up and gives links to more information.
Yard traps get a thumbs-down. “We tested those and didn’t get any positive outcome,” Paskewitz says. Yard traps lure mosquitoes by releasing C02, light or octenol, a compound contained in our breath and sweat. Sure, they can catch mosquitoes by the hundreds, Paskewitz says. But does this significantly reduce the numbers that bite you? Properly controlled studies say “no.”

• “Sonic” devices—wristbands, smartphone apps, etc.—do better at extracting your money than keeping mosquitoes off your deck. “You can test them yourself,” Paskewitz says. “Sit at the picnic table and count how many mosquitoes land on you, then turn on the device and count again. Or you can trust the research and save your money.”

• Bats are busted. The idea that a colony of bats can consume millions of mosquitoes per night came from a study in which someone put a bat in a room full of mosquitoes and estimated how many it ate. The question is, given the choice, is that what bats eat in the wild? Researchers who examined the stomach contents and fecal pellets of bats have found bigger insects, like butterflies, moths and beetles, but very few mosquitoes. “Bat houses are great for conserving bats,” Paskewitz says, “but not for mosquito control.”

• Avoiding bananas—When she first heard the idea that eating bananas makes you more attractive to mosquitoes, Paskewitz raised her eyebrows. “I thought, okay, we’ll debunk that,” she says. She was teaching medical entomology at the time with 24 students—enough for a robust sample—so she made it a class project. For several weeks, each student ate a banana and then performed an attractiveness assay at prescribed intervals. “We were really intrigued. It did look like we were getting an increase a couple hours after eating the bananas.”

Paskewitz repeated the trial the next two times the course was offered, with a few tweaks to the methodology: Half the students ate bananas, the other half grapes. “The third trial was the best of all—the strongest statistical evidence and the most repeatable,” Paskewitz says. “We did it three times and saw a strong difference between the groups. Grapes didn’t matter, bananas did. At that point I was convinced. I think it’s real,” she says. Does that mean you if you leave bananas out of your picnic fruit salad, you can skip the bug spray? Probably not, Paskewitz says.

Because “less attractive” is not the same as mosquito-proof, Paskewitz gets plenty of mosquito bites, probably more than her share, because she spends a lot of time around mosquitoes—in the woods doing field research, in her garden, and in her lab. When you’re a mosquito researcher, getting bitten comes with the job.

What Makes You Attractive?

It sounds like the topic of an article in Seventeen magazine—and, interestingly, some of the same general categories apply whether you’re talking about your appeal to a mosquito or to a certain someone of your own species.

Your breath. If you breathe, you’re mosquito bait. Every breath adds to a plume of carbon dioxide (CO2 levels in your breath are 100 times that of the atmosphere) emanating from where you stand. “That’s the big signal,” says entomology professor Susan Paskewitz. “Insects are very sensitive to chemical cues. They’ll zigzag to pick up the chemical as it gets stronger and stronger, circling to narrow in on you.”

Your aroma. Once they find you, mosquitoes use chemical cues to decide whether to land and dig in. They have a lot to sort through: You emit roughly 400 different compounds from your skin and 200 in your breath. Many mosquito species won’t land on humans, even if they’re starved for blood. Others will bite us in a pinch but prefer other hosts, Paskewitz says.

Your genes. Perhaps you were born to be bitten. A pilot study at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that identical twin sisters were significantly more alike in their attractiveness to mosquitoes than were non-identical twins. Since identical twins are closely matched genetically, this suggests that some of your Culicidae charisma is inherited. Some volatile compounds on our skin are produced by skin cells (others are produced by bacteria), which would be gene-regulated, the study’s authors note.

Your jeans. What color you wear matters. This is based on a series of studies in which researchers draped different colors of cloth on human volunteers or on robots heated to simulate human body temperatures, then counted mosquito landings. For the most part, darker colors were more attractive. White was least attractive, followed by yellow, blue, red and black.

Your smelly feet. “The malaria mosquito is really attracted to the smell of funky feet,” Paskewitz says. “It’s a classic story in medical entomology. The compound that makes feet smell funky and attractive to mosquitoes is the same one that causes Limburger cheese to smell the way it does.” That compound is produced by bacteria that can accumulate in the moist spots between your toes, and are kin to those used to culture Limburger.

Your drinking habits. A number of researchers speculate that drinking alcohol makes you more attractive to mosquitoes. A team in Japan put this to the test. They asked some volunteers to drink 350 ml of beer while a control subject did not. The percentage of mosquito landings after alcohol consumption increased substantially. Why this happens is unresolved, although some have speculated that people who have been drinking are easier targets because they move more slowly.

Getting Under Your Skin

Maybe you don’t get more mosquito bites than other people. Maybe your body just makes a bigger deal of it. The swelling, redness and itching are signs of your immune system kicking into gear, explains Apple Bodemer, an assistant professor of dermatology at the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. And some people’s immune systems kick harder than others.

A mosquito bite involves give and take. Before drawing out up to .001 milliliters of your blood, the mosquito injects a bit of its saliva, which contains anticoagulants to prevent clotting. You can spare the blood, but the saliva is a problem. That’s how disease gets transmitted. And the saliva contains foreign proteins, or antigens, that spur your immune system to create antibodies, Bodemer explains. “When antibodies bind to the antigens, it initiates an inflammatory response, which includes the release of histamine, which causes the blood vessels to dilate, which brings the swelling and redness and the inflammatory mediators that are responsible for the itching.”

This doesn’t happen the first time you’re bitten. It’s the second time, when your body has built up the antibodies, that your immune system engages. If you get bitten enough times by the same strain of mosquito, you may become desensitized and have either a very mild reaction or no reaction at all to the bites. “People often have more vigorous immune responses early in the season and then, as the summer goes on, they don’t have as much swelling and redness and itching,” Bodemer says. “But when you go a winter without any exposure, you often become resensitized.”

For the same reason, younger kids tend to have more aggressive reactions. Once they’ve had several years of mosquito exposure, their response tends to die down, Bodemer says.
As for scratching? Doctor’s orders: Don’t! “Scratching really promotes the full inflammatory reaction. It causes more irritation, causing the blood vessels to be more dilated and further dispersing the inflammatory mediators. It initiates a cycle of swelling, redness and itching. If you can avoid scratching, a lot of times the bumps will disappear.”

Antihistamines can ease the itching, she says, or you can try a home remedy: “I paint a little clear nail polish on the mosquito bite. That will stop the itching to some degree and allow the inflammation to clear up more quickly,” Bodemer says. “Some people cover the bite with Scotch tape for two to four hours. The tape stops you from scratching and when you peel it off, it removes some of the mosquito saliva.”

Wisconsin’s Pestilent Past

Wisconsin’s 19th-century settlers knew that mosquitoes were biting them, and they knew that something was making them sick—but they didn’t put the two together.

Their doctors blamed the ailment on “malarial vapors” emitted by decaying vegetation in the swamps, according to Peter T. Harstad, a UW–Madison educated historian who authored several articles on the health of Midwestern settlers. Harstad used reports by military and civilian doctors as well as immigrants’ diaries and letters to chronicle the devastation caused by what was sometimes called “intermittent fever” because the symptoms—chills, aches and a general fatigue—often recurred over a period of months or years.

“I became sick as soon as I came here and have been sick for eighteen months with malarial fever, which is very severe and painful and sometimes fatal,” reads one letter excerpted by Harstad, written in 1941 by a resident of Muskego. “My wife and I are now somewhat better, but far from being well. This year seventy or eighty Norwegians died here … Many became widows and fatherless this year.” About 13 percent of Muskego’s population died that year, Harstad estimates. The town was hard hit because of an abundance of marshes, a relatively warm climate, and the fact that Norwegian immigrants had no resistance to the disease.

Soldiers also suffered. Harstad cites army reports of malaria outbreaks as far north as Ft. Snelling, near present-day St. Paul. Hardest hit was Ft. Crawford, located amid miles of Mississippi River wetlands at Prairie du Chien. In the fall of 1930, there were about 150 cases reported among the 190 soldiers stationed there. To treat the disease, army surgeons were directed to “extract from twelve to twenty ounces of blood, an operation which it is sometimes required to repeat once or twice.” Wisconsin was mostly malaria-free by the end of the 19th century, as farmers drained wetlands and better housing shut out mosquitoes.

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.

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.
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