Homegrown Research: Students Investigate Campus Biodiversity

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Natasha Schwade (left) and Kristin Barton examine exotic invasive plant species found on campus.

Kristin Barton spent her summer wrenching weeds out of the ground, hacking through tangled overgrowth with machetes, and crawling through thorny shrubs—all while conducting undergraduate research vital to the understanding and preservation of biodiversity on campus.

“When I think of Appalachia and this area, I think of high biodiversity,” Barton said. “Everyone always says that, as a botany student, I’m in a perfect place. And that’s true; but as exotic invasive plants spread, biodiversity is decreasing. That’s not good.”

Exotic invasive plants, like the infamous kudzu vine, are notorious for competing with native plants for resources to survive—and winning.

“Oriental bittersweet, for instance, is a woody vine that can contribute to tree fall,” explained Jen Rhode Ward, associate professor of biology. “It winds around trees and connects them, so if one tree falls down in a wind or snow event, it drags other trees down with it. Because oriental bittersweet makes so many berries, there’s a seed bank of oriental bittersweet. When it knocks down trees suddenly there’s sunlight, and more oriental bittersweet comes in.”

UNC Asheville’s campus is home to several rare native species, such as shooting star, black cohosh, and several types of orchids. Many of these plants have medicinal properties. But when exotic invasive plants like oriental bittersweet take over an area, the biodiversity of that area decreases, and the native plants that naturally provide better wildlife habitat and healthier soil dynamics die out.

Experience In the Field

Students and faculty in the Biology Department began research on how best to deter exotic invasives on campus six years ago. They observed plots in two areas on campus: Pisgah Forest, near the chancellor’s residence, and Chestnut Ridge, near Lookout Observatory. They’ve experimented with various combinations of mechanical removal—pulling the exotics up by hand—and chemical treatments.

Barton found her hands-on work in this research presented different challenges and opportunities than work in the classroom.

“It differed tremendously,” Barton said. “Being out there, you’re not only doing the research and getting that experience, but you get the hands-on aspect and an understanding of the process. You have an idea and you try to execute it, you’re going to run into problems. You have to problem solve constantly.”

The findings by the undergraduate researchers also are used by students in botany classes, Ward said, allowing more students to participate in data collection and analysis.

“This is such a good teaching resource,” Ward said. “Every student gets to contribute to data that makes a big difference in how we choose to manage our land.”

Continuing to Grow

While the student and faculty researchers have already learned a lot about effectively dealing with exotic invasive plants, the project has plenty of room to grow.

“We wrote a 20-year plan for this project,” Ward said. “One weakness in current research is that everyone does the study for one year. The strength of our previous study was that it lasted for five years.

“In our new plots, we actually have some that are supposed to be treated every year for the next 20 years, some that are supposed to be treated every three years, and some that are not supposed to be treated at all, so we can see the differences in that.”

They’re also contributing information to the Global Invader Impact Network (GIIN), a project operated by Virginia Tech’s invasive plant ecology lab.

“That compares sites from all around the country and the world to try to determine the best principles for controlling invasive exotics,” Ward explained. “Our long-range goal is to get a bigger picture and to collaborate on these big data collection efforts.”

Barton has big plans for her future, as well, which she’ll kick off with a trip to work in a biological research station in Central America with her fellow student researcher, Matt Jasper.

“I’m hoping to go to grad school, get a Ph.D., and do research,” Barton said. “I think I’ve pretty much fallen in love with research.”