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Ecosystem Research: From Roots to Wolves
It has quickly become one of the largest research centers at Michigan Tech, totaling more than $2.5 million in expenditures its first year of existence.
It helps to have some high-profile projects under your umbrella, like the Isle Royale wolf-moose research and the Aspen FACE facility studying the effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels on forests.
But when you discuss the Ecosystem Science Center (ESC) with director Kurt Pregitzer, he doesn’t talk only about the research.
“We want to bring visibility to ecosystem science that extends beyond the university,” he said. “And we really are focusing on students.”
Pregitzer, a professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, ticks off examples:
- travel grants for graduate students.
- sponsored research grants for both graduate students and undergrads.
- a graduate research forum, in which 40 students presented their work.
- a lecture series featuring internationally known ecologists.
- awards for a regional middle school and high school science fair.
The ESC also brings together scientists from both Michigan Tech and the adjacent US Forest Service lab. “We have 17 Michigan Tech faculty and Forest Service scientists as members of the center,” Pregitzer explained. “Plus, we have staff members hired through our research programs.”
The ESC research programs cover a wide range of ecosystem science, from studying root systems of trees to the interaction of predators and prey on Isle Royale, an island national park in Lake Superior.
A number of scientists focus on belowground processes in forests, which is becoming increasingly important in climate change research. They look at the cycling and storage of carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients. These projects will help scientists understand forest productivity and how forests can reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Members of the Ecosystem Science Center played key roles in founding the world’s largest open-air climate change research facility in Rhinelander, Wisconsin: Aspen FACE (Free Air Carbon dioxide Exchange). Michigan Tech’s Dave Karnosky is the facility’s director, involving 55 scientists from seven countries, producing more than 30 research papers each year.
The site includes instruments and huge blowers that replicate various levels of carbon dioxide and ozone, allowing scientists to study the impact of these greenhouse gases on forest ecosystems.
Rolf Peterson, another member of the center, continues to conduct the world’s longest running ecological studies involving predators and prey. Peterson’s laboratory is Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. He studies the relationship between wolves and moose on the island, as well as their impact on the ecosystem.
“We are all driven by the quality of our work,” Pregitzer says, “which is powered by ecosystem science. Our goal is to promote science and education in this field.”
Underground Lab to Reveal Trees' Secrets
If you’re a plant, chances are at least half of you is buried in dirt. That’s made it very difficult for scientists to study a sizeable chunk of the forest ecosystem—the realm of roots. The US Forest Service lab in Houghton is building two eight-foot tunnels, each 75 feet long, providing a mole’s-eye view of this underground world.
The tunnels will include windows with devices ranging from microscopes to webcams, using time-lapse photography to track seasonal ebbs and flows from a different perspective. The facility may also be used to better understand carbon sequestration, the process through which forests soak up the atmospheric greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The tunnels will be among a tiny number of such facilities worldwide.
Grant Will Support Tree Growth Studies
Victor Busov, assistant professor of forest resources and environmental science at Michigan Tech, has received a grant from the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research. The funds will support his tree growth and modification studies that could result in stronger paper and wood products.
“We are looking at increasing the fiber length in trees, for stronger paper and structural wood products,” Busov explained. “Such modifications of wood properties can also improve the ability to pulp the wood and decrease the need for use of expensive and environmentally hazardous chemicals.
Busov is part of Michigan Tech’s Plant Biotechnology Research Center, which focuses on the molecular make-up of trees and tree properties that contribute to improved wood production and conscientious forest stewardship.
Looking to Grow CO-2 Hungry Trees
Researchers at Michigan Tech have received funding from the US Department of Energy to develop poplars that can take up more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Professor David Karnosky and Associate Professor Chung-Jui Tsai, of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, received a three-year, $916,231 grant to test several varieties of hybrid poplar trees. The trees will be grown in carbon dioxide-enriched atmosphere at the Aspen FACE site in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and at the POPFACE site in Viterbo, Italy.
The researchers aim to analyze trees that thrive in a CO-2-rich environment, hoping to isolate the genes responsible for acquiring and storing carbon. Scientists could then use this knowledge to develop a new generation of trees that could help mitigate global warming.
The award is the latest in a series of DOE grants supporting global-change research at Aspen FACE. A number of groundbreaking discoveries have resulted, along with numerous publications in leading scientific journals.
Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study Report
Wolf numbers are up and moose are down at Isle Royale National Park, the home of a 46-year study of predators and their prey conducted by Michigan Tech researchers. Rolf Peterson, professor of wildlife ecology, believes a global warming trend may be behind the shift.
The moose population has slid to 750, down from 900 last year and 1,100 in 2002. In the meantime, the number of wolves has seesawed upward over the past decade and is now up to 29, as many as the park has seen since 1980 and 11 more than last year.
“What we think is happening is that wolves are cashing in on moose vulnerability that’s been induced by a warmer climate,” Peterson said. The warmer temperatures make it more difficult for moose to feed. Peterson’s study is funded by the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation and Earthwatch.
Food Fight: Wolves Pack Up to Out-Eat Ravens
New research on the wolves of Isle Royale may shed light on a mystery that has long puzzled biologists: Why do some predators band together to hunt?
In his observations of wolves and ravens, John Vucetich may have found the answer. The research assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Tech believes predators that hunt in groups lose far less meat to scavengers.
In his studies on Isle Royale National Park, he determined that wolves couldn’t waste energy chasing ravens away, but forming packs allows them to out-eat the ravens. Vucetich’s work is supported by the National Science Foundation, Isle Royale National Park and Earthwatch.