Things are more exciting when they're rare threatened and endangered aren't they? A lot of people seem to think so. I'm pretty sure that this is the only reason why my research, centered around rare plants in tidal systems draws as much attention as it does. (Well, OK, only other reason than my "rock star" personality.)
Some of you may be saying "Huh? What are you talking about - I don't even know what you're doing. Last thing I knew you said birds and now you're mentioning things that photosynthesize." Others of you may be saying "Photosynthesize? What's that?! Now I'm confused." Anyway, before more confusion occurs let me give some background (but don't worry - I won't use the big p word again):
Fieldwork in class - rocking the waders and nerdy vest
I just finished my second semester as a Master's student in Plant Biology at the University of New Hampshire. While I am a passionate birder, I am also a passionate botanist. I was interested in plants long before birds, mostly because they did not move and were therefore easier to identify (Since then I no longer believe that this makes them easier to identify because for many species of sedge things such as length of seed tail or length of achene beak are the determining factor and it may take weeks to allow species to develop fully. Even then you still may be left in an ambiguous range of overlap.).
Necessary fieldwork equipment: hip-boots and a kayak. Can't beat kayaking for work!
I work in the salt marsh ecology lab and my project centers on understanding rare, threatened, and endangered species in the state of NH. Most of the species I work with are threatened or endangered in other states as well. Currently, I am focusing on five species of plant; four threatened, one endangered. My goal is to quantify the conditions that they grow in to answer questions such as: What salinity's do you find them in? What is the soil like? Is there development around? Is there a certain pH? Do you find them with certain other plants? Do you find them in only certain places..... etc.
Forb panne in salt marsh - common area for rare plants - the out of focus flower is one of my study species: Seaside Gerardia (Agalinis maritima)
One of the beautiful things about science is that there are still so many unanswered basic questions! Answering these questions means that I spend most of my days in a marsh accessed by walking or boating. It means I fall flat in the mud often (which is good because that's pretty much the only way to find one of the species which never grows more than an inch or two high). It means I go through a lot of sunblock, iced coffee, and laundry detergent.
Another one of my study plants - not as striking as the former plant, but beautiful in it's own special way. It's actually related to carrots! (Lilaeopsis chinensis)
Why would anyone want to do research like this, you may ask. Well, I have an answer for you. Knowing the conditions necessary for the growth and development of these species is key to understanding how to protect and conserve the few remaining populations. Additionally, with an understanding of such requirements, it may be possible to use plants that have been salvaged from impacted/developed/altered marshes as a source for restoration and mitigation work. In other words, in a coastal wetland restoration we can use rare plants with alocal genotype in plantings. Restoration in areas of historic occurrence is of increasing concern as most of the species I am studying are probably in decline within the state. There are many areas that they historically occurred which are now over-run with non-natives; prime target areas for a restoration project with a rare plant component!.
Who funds these sorts of projects? Well that's a good question! I spend a lot of my winter looking for funding. I was lucky enough to secure 3 total grants and fellowships to support my summer work (woohoo food and housing!) and am waiting to hear back on one more application. Fortunately, my supplies are relatively cheap (unlike molecular studies) as most of my purchases go to things that can be re-used (such as a salinity meter). My shameless $ plug here must follow: if you know anyone or any organization who's interested in funding research like this, please pass the information on to me! There's a lot of small bits of funding out there but it's scattered all over the place.
Salicornia bigelovii or Glasswort - this NH-endangered species could be a great source of fat for birds during migration in the fall
Having restoration opportunities that go beyond creating "typical salt marsh" provides habitat heterogeneity and diversity which supports a broader array of species... including BIRDS. (Now you birders have one more reason to care!) A lot of restorations these days focus on creating simple salt marsh which may look good but may not support the species that historically occurred in a given area which may have been a tidal mudflat or a brackish riverbank marsh. Learning how to re-create these habitats is critical for more effective restoration plans.
We aren't trying to expand these species into areas they didn't historically occur. We're just trying to make sure that some of the lesser known salt marsh species, which happen to be a bit sexy (in our twisted botanical minds), are preserved in the long term. We're not restoring an area to100% rare plant cover - rather, we're trying to add another conservation component to projects.
So, there's the basics - fire away with any questions. And if you're in the area - keep your ears/eyes peeled next spring for my local presentations and thesis defense!