A world of discovery
A remote area in Highlands County is touted as one of the world’s great ecological field stations.
Founded in 1941, Archbold Biological Station, near Venus, is dedicated to long-term ecological research and conservation.
Staff biologists, visiting scientists, interns and volunteers work continually on studies and projects at Archbold and its divisions the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Center and Archbold Reserve.
During a recent visit to Archbold, three scientists discussed the projects they were working on and in turn answered the questions we had about Archbold.
What is significant or unique about this area of Florida and what in particular is being studied? Have there been any recent breakthroughs or upcoming advances in the study of plants and wildlife?
Entomology (study of insects) Program Director Mark Deyrup said he has been at Archbold for more than 30 years, “And, I still find things I’ve never seen before.”
The new discoveries are not always during planned explorations of the 5,193-acres at Archbold, but can happen right outside the expansive main building that houses laboratories, offices and support services.
Deyrup said, “Sometimes when I am walking down the walkway on the way to the bathroom some beetle will plunk into the wall there and I’ll look at it and say, ‘I’ve never seen that beetle before.’”
The diversity is quite high and its one of the few places where anybody has tried to catalog it, he said.
For example, more than 1,000 species of butterflies and moths live on the station, Deyrup said. There are not very many other places in North America where anybody actually has a list of the names of the butterflies and months that live in that place
There is a small amount of difference in elevation from a low habitat with grasses and lowland vegetation to scrubland, he noted.
“It only takes a few feet and that’s hard to explain to people particularly from the north where elevation is much more extreme than in Florida,” Deyrup said. “They can’t imagine that going up three feet can change the vegetation.”
Walking on one of the station’s visitor’s trails the untrained eye sees natural landscape that appears to be a random area of plants and bushes, but Deyrup sees a complex ecosystem at work.
“We are already in a zone where things have to be able to adapt to drought,” he noted. “All these things that look like azaleas are really oak trees.”
On the ground appears to be small areas of moss about 2 inches in diameter.
That’s a type of lichen that’s often called “dear moss,” Deyrup said. Like other lichens it doesn’t pull anything from the ground; it just sits there and it’s composed of an algae, which is green, and fungus, which makes the structure. They work together making these kinds of mutual communities.
Right here you can see three different kinds of lichens, he pointed out.
So we have a series of these ground lichens that like open places here in the scrub. There are many other kinds of lichens, he said. If you look at any tree or shrub you will see banding on the branches caused by lichens.
Pointing out some of the oaks in the scrub, Deyrup noted, there are hundreds of species, animals and all the lichens and so on, that are associated with oak trees.
“If you want to have a single plant that provides room for a lot of wildlife you should plant an oak tree,” he said.
Currently Deyrup is doing a lot of work on ants.
“They are important ecological organisms,” he said. “They are the major predators in this system. Ants are running a lot of things here.”
Pointing to an area of sand with small burrow holes, Deyrup said, this is where an ant called “solenopsis pagandei” emerged last night. So the queens came out here.
This is a species that spends all its time underground and they are probably one of the reasons why the regular fire ant can’t survive in the scrub because there are so many things underground moving around catching them and the queens burrowing in.
Above ground at Archbold, and in areas of Highlands County, Avian Ecology Program Director Reed Bowman focuses on birds and the threatened scrub jay in particular.
Bowman said his career at Archbold has focused on endangered birds by studying population biology and behavior and how they interact.
“We are really interested in all the factors that are influencing their endangerment,” he said. “What is causing these populations of birds to decline and what are the mechanisms through which that happens. Is it affecting their birth rates or their survival rates or altering their behavior and causing shifts in their distribution and things like that.”
Despite all the conservation that has been done for the scrub jays, their numbers continue to decline, he said.
The natural conditions cause fluctuations, for example, every year the scrub jay population produces young that survive until about July. In 2011 that number was 129, but in 2012 they only had 12 juveniles that survived until July.
“Before we can understand how humans are affecting these ups and downs, we have to understand how the environment naturally affects those ups and downs,” he said.
This particular scrub jay study dates back to 1969.
“I’ve been here since 1991 so not only are the studies long-term, but the people are long-term, too,” Bowman said with a laugh.
Have technological advances helped your studies?
It’s only been within the last 10 years that the human genome project has sequenced the entire gnome of humans, Bowman said.
“We are now months away from having completed that for the Florida scrub jay,” he said. “That will allow us to not only identify how these families [of scrub jays] have differed in terms of their relative success over the years, but are there certain genes that are associated with successful lineages or unsuccessful lineages.”
The genome (DNA) research is being done by Cornell University.
Plant Ecology Program Director Eric Menges studies the ecology of Florida’s scrub plants and their conservation and management. He’s been at Archbold since 1988.
“We do a lot of work trying to figure out whether populations of rare plants are declining or not and if so why?” he said. “Does it have to do with herbivore [animal or organisms that consumes plant material] or drought or fire?
At Archbold, they do a lot of work with fire, which is the natural ecological disturbance in Florida, but also land managers can apply fire, Menges explained. It turns out that some plants are very sensitive to fire and some don’t care how often they are burned.
They work on plants that are only found in Highlands or only in Highlands and Polk counties because there are many rare plants on the Lake Wales Ridge, he said.
“We are really excited about some introductions we’ve done - propagating plants and then putting them out in the field to try to create new populations or increase population sizes,” he said. This is done in protected areas owned by the state or federal government or in nature conservancies.
For example they have worked with a very rare plant called the Avon Park harebells, which has been found in only three sites: two in Highlands County and one in Polk County in an area of development, Menges said.
It is a little plant in the bean family, a legume, he said. It’s about two or three inches tall with yellow flowers, which produces pods with very hard, shiny, black seeds.
“We took material, cuttings and seeds, from the area of development and worked with Bok Tower Gardens to propagate them and introduce them into a nearby protected site called Silver Lake in northern Highlands County,” Menges said. “Those plants are doing really well.”
Also, with the same plant, they are cooperating with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in studies using tissue culture technology to grow plants, he said.
The cuttings from tissue cultures plants are the ones that did the best in this introduction, he said, which was exciting because its usually a difficult horticultural thing to do in Florida, but with this particular experiment things went a lot better.
A sticker on the outside window of an Archbold lab sums up the biologist’s endless quest to understand the world them, “So many species, so little time.”
For more information check: http://www.archbold-station.org.