We hope you enjoy the spring edition of our e-newsletter. It was nice to get back to something closer to normal compared to the previous year. While remaining cautious about the pandemic, we began to open up a bit and had more people coming through the Center. It was especially refreshing to see the typical summer influx of graduate students and seasonal employees. In that spirit, we’ll start off by sharing a few vignettes from some of our graduate students.
This time of the year is full of activity at the Center, especially for our graduate students. The academic calendar for students, and the seasonal cycles of many of their study subjects, make this a prime time to conduct field and lab work. We have asked four of our graduate students to give you a brief overview of their projects and what they’ve been working on lately. Our graduate student program is one of the Center’s greatest impacts, with approximately 145 individuals receiving advanced degrees from collaborating universities since the founding of the Center in 1993. Most of these folks continue to work in natural resources in the Southeastern US and beyond with a variety of universities, agencies, and organizations, representing a significant legacy of the Jones Center.
My work aims to understand how longleaf pine seedlings survive on sandy soils. These soils do not hold water very well but are typical across the range of longleaf pine. While adult trees have large root systems that provide reliable access to water, seedlings must compete against the surrounding plants for water and other resources. During a drought, the upper layers of soil are the first to dry out, and most of a seedling’s roots are in this upper layer. It is not always life or death though; seedlings may become stressed from a drought, endure it, and recover. Preliminary results have shown that seedlings growing on soils that hold more water (loamy soils, the upper layers dry out slower) experience drought differently than seedlings growing on very sandy soils, whose upper layers dry out quickly. The seedlings on the loamy soils react more quickly to drought: they “shut down,” or slow and stop their water use more quickly. The seedlings on sandy soils become more stressed than the seedlings on loamy soils but continue to use small amounts of water over the course of a drought. This interests us because it is showing us what strategies the seedlings use to endure drought. Some seedlings may shut down altogether and wait out the drought, others slow down and use a lot less water.
To test seedling water use, we set up treatments that block rainfall, block root-water deposition (water deposited by nearby roots with access to groundwater), and combinations of the two. We also installed soil moisture sensors on these plots at two depths to capture how quickly the soil dries out. We did this on the sandy soil because these seedlings seem to endure drought and we want to push their limits. By eliminating water sources to these seedlings, we hope to understand which source is most important, and what the seedlings do to cope with less water availability. This information will help us better predict the effects of droughts on our planted and naturally regenerated longleaf pine seedlings.
My work asks the question, how do changes in the abundance of predators affect the abundance and presence of dung beetle communities?
Dung beetle communities in longleaf pine forests offer a glimpse of the incredible biodiversity within the system. Not only do some of them exhibit stunningly magnificent coloration, but they also play important roles in nutrient cycling, suppression of human and livestock pathogens, seed dispersal, and soil aeration. We know that species of dung beetle found in longleaf pine woodlands differ from those found in surrounding agricultural areas, but we do not understand how they respond to the removal of mammalian meso-predators. In 2019, as part of my MS degree, I started a project examining how dung beetle communities differ between our meso-predator exclusion plots (which are surrounded by electrical fences to keep out coyotes, foxes, and bobcats) and controls. I also tested the attractiveness of different types of dung (bobcat, coyote, and deer) to these beetles. We found a very clear pattern early on – more dung beetles in general are attracted to bobcat and coyote dung compared to deer. Further, we found that some species were almost exclusively found in controls or exclosures and some were found equally distributed. We also trapped every month for two years to give a better idea of when certain species are most active. Be on the lookout for more results from this project!
In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, our Landscape Ecology Lab is working to understand how windstorms disturb our forests in the southeastern United States. An expected increase in hurricane severity in the coming decades may pose threats to the region’s primary timber species. I am working on a mechanical winching study in which we are toppling 120 longleaf and slash pine trees to measure wind-firmness under varying levels of soil moisture. By manipulating soil moisture levels using experimental wetting methods, I hope to develop an understanding of the susceptibilities of two pine species, and how they vary with soil conditions. This information will help landowners and forest managers understand and estimate the risk of wind under differing levels of wind and rain. My early results suggest that longleaf pine is more windfirm than slash pine. I am also observing, contrary to expectations, that larger trees with wetter soils demonstrate more wind-firmness. Please visit our Lab’s website for more information.
Geographically isolated wetlands are ecologically important features within longleaf pine ecosystems of the southeastern United States. Surrounded by uplands, these wetlands lack surface water connections but are connected hydrologically, biogeochemically, and biologically to surrounding waterways and uplands. Unfortunately, these wetlands have little protection and are threatened by pollution from runoff, filling from development, and fire suppression. In the Coastal Plain of southwestern Georgia, there are three main types of isolated wetlands: grass-sedge marshes, cypress savannas, and cypress-gum swamps. Each type varies in hydroperiod, biogeochemical processes, and biological communities. Within types, studies have shown differences among invertebrate and amphibian communities; however, few studies have focused on how bird and mammal communities use the wetlands.
My project objectives are to determine how wetland characteristics such as time and duration of flooding, size of wetland, and distance to other water sources influence bird and mammal use. Additionally, I want to determine if mammal survival is affected by wetland water levels, wetland type, and duration of flooding. To determine bird and larger mammal use, I am using cameras to survey wetlands and surrounding uplands. Additionally, I am live trapping small mammals to determine survival rates and where they occur within wetlands and how that changes due to wetland characteristics. I am monitoring bird use by recording bird songs with acoustic recorders in the wetlands during the spring to determine community composition. Our results will strengthen our understanding of the importance of geographically isolated wetlands within longleaf pine forests and help in developing conservation strategies for wetlands and wetland adapted species.
In early June, the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council (GPFC) held its 3rd annual north Georgia meeting virtually. Jones Center and Georgia Wildlife Federation staff led the collaborative efforts of the GPFC’s leadership team to organize the virtual event. The 6-hour program was hosted by the Jones Center, and approximately 300 people tuned in to participate in the event.
The North Georgia venue has been beneficial to GPFC’s efforts to expand its advocacy and outreach in the most populated areas of the state. The organization is able to develop a program that specifically addresses critical issues for prescribed fire practitioners and advocates with a special emphasis on north Georgia and its unique terrain, forest types, and demographics. This year’s meeting began with a welcome from Governor Brian Kemp, who gave recognition and appreciation to the GPFC and the Georgia Forestry Commission for being a national leader in prescribed fire implementation. Other highlights covered a wide range of topics including use of drones, use of fire in managing oak forests, shortleaf pine restoration, fire history of north Georgia, smoke management tools, community fire protection, and bobwhite quail management above the Fall Line.
The GPFC is now focused on efforts to organize and host its 19th annual statewide meeting. This virtual event will be held on September 30th. Visit www.garxfire.com for more information.
Kevin McIntyre and Brandon Rutledge participated in the Suwannee River Water Management District’s (SRWMD) Land Management Review Team meeting in Live Oak, FL. The Center has worked with the Review Team since 2009. SRWMD owns approximately 160,000 acres and holds conservation easements on another 125,000 acres in the Suwannee River Basin in north central Florida. The District manages their lands for the mutually compatible goals of ecological restoration and the protection of water resources. The majority of these lands are located along rivers and streams, springs, headwaters, and water recharge areas. The SRWMD does an exemplary job of restoration and management of native forests at large geographic scales.
In June, we hosted 30 people from the prescribed fire and land management staff of the USFS National Forests in Mississippi. The group included personnel from the state office as well as individual national forests. There are six National Forests in Mississippi that comprise approximately 1.2 million acres of land. The field tour focused largely on prescribed fire, but also included topics related to longleaf pine restoration and management, understory diversity, and management of at-risk wildlife species.
In 2018, we released “Ecological Restoration and Management of Longleaf Pine Forests,” a 427-page hardcover volume that synthesized much of the Center’s work on longleaf pine ecosystems since our research program began in 1993. The publisher, CRC Press, has recently released a paperback version of the book. We are really pleased that the book is now more affordable, thus making it accessible to a wider audience. For more information, please visit the CRC website.
We recently completed timber harvests in the entrance slash pine stands (as mentioned in the previous newsletter) and Larke Field area of Ichauway. Along with the 213 acres treated in the entrance slash pine, we thinned 275 acres of natural pine and 29 acres of planted longleaf on the southern end of the Larke. Loggers were on-site from January through mid-March and harvested 2,793 tons of material (15.2 tons per acre). Harvested material was merchandized as 60% saw timber, 33% pulpwood, and 7% pole timber. The majority of the pulpwood was harvested from first thinnings of planted longleaf stands. Objectives of this harvest included: the improvement of wildlife habitat, release and encouragement of longleaf regeneration, enhancement of native ground cover, and removal of hurricane damage. Interestingly, 2 red-cockaded woodpecker recruitment clusters located within the harvest area became active within weeks following the harvest. These clusters were installed in 2015 and had not been active prior to timber management.
Prescribed fire remains the most important tool used to manage Ichauway’s natural resources. This year has proven to be one of the Center’s most successful burn seasons with a preliminary estimate of 16,179 acres burned to date – the largest annual acreage burned since 1992 (17,761 acres; pre-Jones Center). Our objectives for burning additional acreage included an increase in frequency for areas with remaining hurricane debris, and a restoration of a 2-year fire return interval in other hurricane-impacted units. The trend of an increasing percentage of growing season burns continued as well. We will have final burn acreages for 2021 at the end of the calendar year.
Congratulations to Austin Hargrove and Miranda Wilkinson who are both finishing their terms as the Jones Center at Ichauway’s first Conservation Fellows. Austin recently moved to Kentucky and is working for the United States Department of Defense on Fort Knox as a Wildlife Technician. He will graduate from the University of Florida at the end of 2021. Miranda will be working as a Wildlife Biologist II with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and will graduate from UF with her Master’s degree on August 6th. We are proud of Austin and Miranda and excited to see them pursue successful careers in natural resource conservation and management. We are also excited to welcome Ty Paul, from Alabama A&M, in mid-August as our next Ichauway Conservation Fellow.