Monday, July 23, 2012

Sarah Bisbing - On Trees, Forests, and Landscapes

As spring transitions into summer, there are certain feelings aroused in a field ecologist – those of anticipation, excitement, and fear. Anticipation for the answers we’re seeking, excitement for the many adventures that will surely arise over the course of the field season (grizzly bear charge, anyone?), and fear that we are nowhere near ready to head out and that we have absolutely no clue what we’re doing. And yet, these are the things that keep us coming back. Year after year, field season after field season. Until . . . one day, we find ourselves camped not underneath the blanket of a forest canopy but instead behind the brightly lit screen of a computer. Yes, my friends, at some point the data must be dealt with. That’s where I’m at in this whole, crazy process. And despite the lack of both fresh, mountain air and impending adventure, I come back day after day, still feeling the anticipation for answers and the fear that I have no idea what I’m doing. My own acceptance of this new role begs the question: if a field ecologist is no longer venturing out to the field each summer, does she still remain a field ecologist? Hmmm. Let’s ponder that.

As once stated by my Master’s advisor (Dr. Paul Alaback, University of Montana), the act and art of science is driven by the questions but ultimately lies in the interpretation of the data. Although we are so engrossed in the many hours, many tasks, and many challenges associated with collection of this data, the understanding and advancement of scientific knowledge actually takes place in a completely different arena. The magic happens during the process of interpretation and application. What good is all of this data if it doesn’t provide profound ecological insight (oh, don’t we all wish) or inform management and conservation?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the questions and the act of data collection. I can’t help but find forests and their associated processes incredibly interesting – so much so that I am continually coming up with new questions before answering the questions I’m already in the process of addressing (any of you also fascinated and maybe a little obsessed with the trajectory of the High Park Fire?). Geez, Sarah. This leads me (and now you, loyal reader) to where I stand in my research career: a 3rd (well, nearly 4th) year PhD candidate with four chapters worth of questions and data begging to be assessed, analyzed, and written up. Questions and data related to the how, where, and why behind species distributions. Questions and data related to the connectivity among and relatedness of populations across one of western North America’s most widespread species. Questions and data related to adaptation, plasticity, and species’ response to climatic change. How did I get here?

This madness began on a routine field day in the summer of 2009. I ventured to southeast Alaska to pursue an Army Corps of Engineers-funded research project on tree species distributions across southeast Alaska’s hydrologic gradient. I was an eager, young (okay, new, not young) PhD student with wide eyes and full of excitement for the new world I was delving into. As this eager, new student, I stood amidst the grandeur of southeast Alaska’s dramatic transition from ocean to rugged mountain peaks, amidst its (surprisingly) humbling landscape of wetland ecosystems, and amidst the spectacular forest trees this region’s climate produces. It was awesome (a word I no longer over-use or take for granted after being reminded by my PhD advisor, Dr. David Cooper, of its actual meaning). And yet, despite the splendor surrounding me, I was most captivated by the twisted, stunted, pygmy pines scattered across the peatlands of the region. On that day, I was introduced to shore pine (Pinus contorta ssp. contorta). I stood in awe of this unique, yet somehow familiar, tree. I stood, I stared, and I pondered. I’m an ecologist . . . that’s what we do. At that moment, I had no idea that this was only the beginning of my fascination with this tree.

But, alas, this encounter stuck with me throughout that first day. So, I went home, and I Google-d. Unbeknownst to me until that day, these crazy, pygmy, bog dwellers were (and still are, of course) classified as the same species I had always known to inhabit the dry, fire-prone slopes of the Rocky Mountains (lodgepole pine, ssp. latifolia). I mean, come on. Really? How can a tree that grows in dense, dog-haired stands and regenerates following catastrophic wildfire be related to a bog-dwelling, dwarf tree? But, despite my initial disbelief, turns out they are in fact classified as the same species. Furthermore, this species has two other related subspecies that grow under entirely different conditions in completely different ecological regions of western North America (Sierra lodgepole pine, ssp. murrayana, and bolander pine, ssp. bolanderi). Each subspecies actually inhabits a discrete portion of the species’ range, growing under and hypothesized to be locally adapted to a unique set of environmental and climatic conditions. At the end of that field day, I learned two incredible things that led me to where I am now. I discovered that this curious population had seemingly-unrelated associations with trees I knew well and that it was a part of an exceptionally fascinating species.

The distribution of species and the drivers of these distributions are ecological phenomena that keep me up at night. I’m not kidding. The species and the systems change, but the wondering is pervasive. It was only fitting that my chance encounter with shore pine would lead me down a path of questioning the connectivity, plasticity, and adaptive potential of this widespread species. Now, if only I could spend all of my time wandering around western North America and pondering the ecology of it all. For the time being, though, my computer and I will be spending a lot of time together.

Stayed tuned for some of my miscellaneous adventures into the forest and for a look into my final adventures in southeast Alaska. - Sarah

Sarah maintains a blog for field ecologists. Read about her work and others at

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