Powdermill Nature Reserve, already a trusted name in avian research, is positioning itself to become an authority on Appalachian ecosystems.
State workers participate in an aquatic insect workshop at Powdermill.
English Poet William Blake famously desired the ability to see "a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower." John Wenzel, director of the new Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, wants to discern the health of the Appalachian ecosystem on a similarly minute scale—in something as small and seemingly unremarkable as a water bug.
Wenzel and his team are using Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum's 2,200-acre environmental research center located 60 miles east of Pittsburgh in Rector, Pa., to conduct innovative, longitudinal research on the regional ecosystem's trees, plants, animals, and insects. Building on the reserve's internationally renowned avian research, Wenzel sees a unique opportunity for Powdermill to become a think tank for examining the living landscape not only of western Pennsylvania, but the entire Appalachian region.
The waterways and temperate forests of Appalachia—mountainous swaths that extend more than 800 miles from Alabama to central New York—are biologically important but not well understood or studied in a holistic way. Located in the heart of that region, Powdermill "is a typical Appalachian woodland, and typical is good for scientists," Wenzel explains. "And we have the assessment resources and expertise at our museum: Our invertebrate zoology staff makes us the best general identification facility in the United States outside of government."
Thanks to a $730,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the center Wenzel heads is forming national and international partnerships with the goal of making Powdermill a premier field station in ecology. This past May, a dozen scholars from Mexico's Instituto de Ecología visited as the vanguard of the effort; this summer, several American graduate students will conduct field research on forest entomology and soils.
Over the past 50 years, Powdermill's Avian Research Center has banded more than 600,000 birds to analyze the health and migration of nearly 200 species. It has also advanced understanding of nighttime migrations through bioacoustics, which tracks birds solely by recording their calls. Studies of the Louisiana Waterthrush and the mottled sculpin, both dependent on clean water, have shown correlations between habitat and species' health.
The Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems aims for similar depth in studying other organisms. Investigating specific questions, from how deer affect forest growth to how changes in water quality affect insects, Wenzel's team hopes to draw connections that illuminate the overall health of the Appalachian landscape.
A powerful tool will help make that possible. Capturing data on vegetation types, canopy density, species, streams, and wetland boundaries, a massive geographic information system (GIS) coordinates hundreds of categories of information with exact points of latitude and longitude to create a smart map of Powdermill. Data from other sources, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), can be loaded into the system as well. "Most areas of research will have a locational component," says Powdermill's GIS manager James Whitacre. "Hopefully, we'll be able to build different layers over time," allowing researchers to inventory ecological resources and observe change to the landscape.
As an entomologist, Wenzel has studied social insects such as ants, bees, and wasps, and says insects are "critical partners" in our ecosystem. Aquatic macroinvertebrates, like the caddisflies beloved by trout, have proved particularly useful for predicting water quality. Clemson University's John Morse, who recently led a certification class for state DEP workers at Powdermill, explains why. "Every state in the U.S. under the guidance of the EPA has protocols that use aquatic invertebrates," says Morse. "These animals are living in the water all the time, with hundreds of potential species in any one stream or sample, variously sensitive to pollution. So when we sample and ID the animals, we make a pretty good assessment of water status."
Questions about regional water quality—concerning acid mine drainage, new development, and the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling operations—can only be answered with careful science. "Citizens are more aware, and corporations are more responsible about pollution," says Wenzel. Providing training for the Pennsylvania DEP staffers, he notes, helps the state respond to citizen concerns.
Insects also offer clues to forest health. This summer, Pitt grad student Michael Chips will investigate the diversity and abundance of insects in forest sites near Powdermill where white-tailed deer have been prevented from browsing. "Exclosure studies are like fine wine—they get better with age," he laughs. "As a young scientist, it's really fun for me to see how ecological communities are responding over decades. It's almost like a scavenger hunt to see what we'll find." Wenzel, who led a popular insect fair at the Columbus Zoo while a professor at Ohio State University, says he was drawn to his new post for the opportunities in "applied ecology," with relevance to public concerns. He plans to expand Powdermill's elite, experiential programs to appeal to the growing sophistication of the Carnegie Museums audience.
"Our public is different compared to 10 or 20 years ago," he asserts, citing an unexpected reason: the high quality of science programming on cable television. With a deeper appreciation for the natural world, he says, those viewers are eager to interact with real scientific researchers.
"People trust museums and museum scientists," he notes. "The element of wonder has not diminished."