Monday, April 7, 2014

Scientists Learning from Nature: Oklahoma Academy of Sciences Field Meeting Spring 2014, part one.

When you get these three elements together, something good is bound to happen: First, the minds of people who know a lot about nature and want to know more; second, the minds of people who care about nature and want to talk about how to protect it; third, a beautiful natural ecological community. Such a convergence occurred this past weekend at the field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Science at Lake Murray State Park in southern Oklahoma. I will post two blog entries about this meeting. The first essay is about the two evening presentations.

On Friday, April 4, Jona Tucker from the Nature Conservancy gave a beautifully-prepared presentation about the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, the Blue River, and TNC’s restoration of what had once been a beautiful riverside forest in Oklahoma.

The Oka’ Yanahli Preserve on the Blue River is not what you would think of when you hear The Nature Conservancy’s slogan of “the last great places.” It was until recently a cow pasture where even the very streams had been mashed out of existence, and where a thin layer of trees lined the river. But historical evidence and old maps clearly indicate that it used to be one of those great places. TNC wants to make it back into such a place.

The main impression I got as I listened to Jona’s presentation is that you cannot understand, protect, or manage anything by simply reducing it to its component parts. The Blue River is a perfect example of this. Almost all of its water comes from springs that emerge from the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer, but you cannot understand either the river or the aquifer merely by knowing how much water flows from one to the other. (Alas, governing bodies often do not even correctly consider the amount of water flow when making decisions about how much aquifer water can be pumped and used.) It is a system that changes over time, as when the river itself changes course. Water flow and quality are affected by the riparian forest along the river. If this forest has been damaged or destroyed, it must be restored before you can have a healthy river. But restoring the river is also a complex system. You cannot just go out and ceremonially plant a tree or two; the beavers will chew them down. So what do you do? You could put up a fence to keep the beavers out. But even this does not work; when the river floods, a fence can be knocked over and crammed with debris. The Conservancy, and two graduate students from the University of Oklahoma, are using fences that can be quickly dismantled if a flood is coming then reassembled after the waters have gone down; and you can only hope the beavers aren’t bright enough to recognize their narrow window of opportunity before and after a flood.

But because the river and aquifer and forests are a system, it is not necessary to replant the entire thing. It is important to get a few trees started, but after that, just keep the cows away and most of the plant and animal species will return. This can be seen at the nearby Blue River Public Hunting and Fishing Area, also on the Blue River, which was pretty much just a pasture until a few decades ago. Now it is lined with, among other things, a healthy population of rare seaside alder trees.

And you have to think of the way the entire natural system of the Blue River interacts with the human system. It doesn’t work for a government (e.g. a court or the Fish and Wildlife Service) to impose rules on land owners, rules with which the land owners may minimally comply (or not). Instead it is important to get the land owners to want to protect and improve their land. Humans can be a positive part of the system. Once when I was studying alder trees along this river, a fisherman asked me about the trees. Then he said that maybe fishermen were causing damage by walking around among the trees. I told him that the fishermen were causing no damage at all, and in fact their license fees maintained the state land, which is where most of these rare alder trees survive. We need for people to feel welcome to do harmless things in the natural world, thereby becoming aware of its beauty and being more likely to support its preservation. I believe the fisherman was delighted to hear that rural Oklahoma has a rare subspecies of tree found nowhere else in the world.

I am definitely proud to have served as Jona’s undergraduate advisor when she majored in botany at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. At the same time, it is clear that nearly everything Jona knows she has taught herself, and most of what she does she has figured out for herself. She is one of our best examples of a student whom we got started on a professional path but who has made most of that path herself. Her work is not necessarily what she was trained to do; a lot of it involves talking with and arranging agreements with land owners. This requires the kind of positive spirit that Jona has, and is something you cannot simply learn by taking a public relations course. For example, it was necessary to consider the public impact of choosing a name for the preserve: they chose a Chickasaw name, Oka’ Yanahli, that recognizes the efforts to bring the river back to what it was like in the nineteenth century when the Chickasaws first arrived, and recognizes rural Oklahoma’s increasing pride in its Native American heritage. Now the only problem is that we might get complacent and expect Jona to do the whole job by herself, which nobody can.

On Saturday, April 5, Matt Bolek of Oklahoma State University described his research into all aspects of the life cycle and ecology of hairworms. We did not have a show of hands to see how many of us scientists even knew what hairworms were, especially since they do not live in humans. They live primarily in insects. They are one of those phyla of animals that people seldom see. But they can be quite surprising. A single large tropical roach can be the host of a 4.3-meter-long hairworm tangled up into what looks like a Gordian knot (after which one of the genera is named). They have amazing adaptations for surviving and dispersing from one host to another. Matt is an active member of a very small worldwide group of hairworm experts.

Small and (to us) obscure organisms are also hard to study. One example of this is the swallow bug. Usually, Valerie O’Brien is at our field meetings, but this weekend she and Charles Brown were marking individual swallow bugs to track their dispersal patterns. That is, each bug has to have its own individual mark distinguishable from the others. Now, how do you mark a swallow bug? I assume it cannot be a radio collar or a GPS transponder. I’ll be interested in finding out how to mark a bug.

In the next entry, I want to tell you about the OAS field trips.

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