Last fall, the Arboretum welcomed its first cohort of Arboretum Research Fellows. With fellowship support, five graduate students conducted projects in forest ecology, wildlife ecology, public engagement in watershed management, and science communication. The Fellows were selected for their potential to advance knowledge and influence their field, and for the relevance of their projects to the Arboretum mission and work.
During the year, Fellows attended educational enrichment events led by Arboretum staff and area professionals, giving them opportunities to discuss their research and foster connections, learn about Arboretum land use, research, outreach to build cultural connections and raise awareness, citizen science programs, and engagement with private landowners.
It was a pleasure to work with Jared, Rachel, Erin, Theresa, and Liz and we wish them continued success and bright futures. We are delighted to share their updates on research and reflections on the value of their Fellowships.
PhD candidate, Department of Botany
Advisor: Don Waller
Contagious trees? Characterizing spatial patterns and ecological factors influencing the local distribution of trees in southern Wisconsin
Beginning in 1956, UW–Madison researchers established a 4.6-acre research plot within Noe Woods in which all trees greater than 10 centimeters in diameter were identified and mapped. In 2019, my field assistants and I resurveyed trees in Noe Woods to characterize changes in forest structure and composition. We also installed permanent aluminum tags to identify individual trees and facilitate future studies. Examining changes between 1956 and 2019 revealed conspicuous changes in forest structure and composition. The number of black oak (Quercus velutina) trees and their total basal area have declined steadily since 1956. While white oak (Q. alba) basal area increased between 1956 and 1999, both the number of white oaks and their total basal area declined precipitously between 1999 and 2019. Meanwhile, boxelder (Acer negundo), red maple (A. rubrum), and black cherry (Prunus serotina) all increased in abundance and basal area. These changes in Noe Woods reflect broader ecological changes in forests and woodlands across southern Wisconsin as shade-intolerant but fire-tolerant species are replaced by more shade-tolerant and comparatively fire-intolerant species. These changes have been accelerated by the spread of diseases like oak wilt (Ceratocystis fagacearum) which have caused high mortality among black oaks in Noe Woods. This research provides insights into the drivers of ecological change in oak woodlands. Furthermore, rapid declines in white oak over the past 20 years suggest the pace of ecological change may be accelerating but this data set also presents a baseline and valuable opportunity to study ecological restoration.
Thank you to the UW–Madison Arboretum for supporting me and this research!
As an Arboretum Research Fellow, I studied threats to urban amphibians and reptiles. I researched effects of invasive Asian jumping worms on American toads by conducting an outdoor mesocosm experiment at the Arboretum. Jumping worms rapidly consume leaf litter, which provides habitat for terrestrial herpetofauna. Our results emphasized the reduction in leaf litter caused by jumping worms but did not show conclusive effects on toad survival. Jumping worms may also alter food webs in areas they have invaded. I assessed feeding behavior of American toads on Asian jumping worms through a series of laboratory feeding trials. We found that toads are potential predators of jumping worms, but their success at capturing jumping worms is inhibited by the worms’ defensive strategies. I also helped members of my lab survey urban pond communities and water quality throughout Dane County. Our data is being used to determine which features of urban ponds and surrounding land are associated with high- and low-quality habitat.
Throughout my research, I learned a lot about designing experiments, overcoming obstacles inherent in ecological research, and analyzing and communicating results. My work sparked new questions about invasive species research and urban herpetofauna that I am excited to pursue in the future. As part of the Research Fellowship cohort, I also learned about diverse projects outside of my field and shared my work among peers. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to grow as a scientist and gain a community through the Arboretum Research Fellowship.
When we think of winter, often we think of dormancy. The all-encompassing, almost eerie silence of a Wisconsin forest in deep winter could easily trick an observer into thinking that very little is happening there. However, the evergreen conifers that live in these forests never completely shut down; instead, they lie in wait for the occasional sunbeam to strike, beginning a complex and interconnected physiological response that has yet to be fully understood. My work as an Arboretum Research Fellow seeks to understand how the strategies used by Wisconsin’s native conifers to survive each winter and navigate mid-winter thaws may mean for their survival in a changing climate. Receiving the Arboretum Research Fellowship allowed me the flexibility and freedom to lay the groundwork for tackling these large questions. This year, I began growing seedlings of seven conifer species native to Wisconsin, and I will be subjecting them to repeated freeze-thaw cycles in specially constructed freezers to gauge their physiological stress. Receiving the fellowship also allowed me to set up a field site in northern Wisconsin at Kemp Natural Resources Station, where I have been tracking the fluctuations of hydraulic, biochemical, and photosynthetic behavior in adult individuals of those species.
Winter in the Northwoods is both brutal and beautiful, and I am in awe of the resilient trees I study. While COVID-19 put much of the research on hold in March, the Arboretum’s support allowed me to spend the winter with some of the hardiest trees on the planet, and I look forward to resuming my work with them in the near future.
Theresa Vander Woude
MS candidate, Department of Life Sciences Communication and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Advisor: Bret Shaw
Opinion leadership and urban water issues in Arboretum neighborhoods
This research project focused on the “human factors” of work to protect our water resources in urban areas, such as neighborhoods surrounding the UW Arboretum. Since so much land in the U.S. and within Wisconsin is owned privately, decisions made by private individuals influence the sustainability of water resources into the future. Social science research tells us that we look to those we are familiar with for cues on how to act.
To learn more about how this process works in neighborhoods in Madison, I spoke with thirteen residents about times when there was an issue affecting their neighborhood that they were able (or not able) to do something about. What factors influenced whether they felt they could act? What got in the way? I used these conversations to inform a larger electronic survey and found that the main factor associated with whether respondents were willing to help do outreach to change three key behaviors (managing leaves, salt, and rainwater) was not their opinions on those issues but whether they thought doing outreach was a meaningful activity in the first place. This reflected what I had heard in interviews: people already care a lot about their impact on the planet, but they are often just not confident about whether their voice matters, or sure how to speak up.
Thankfully, there is actually strong evidence to show that yes, our voices do matter, and that the people closest to us, such as our friends and neighbors, are more likely to pay attention to us than someone they don’t know. With the help of the Arboretum and funding to continue this research, I hope to be able to pilot approaches to sharing this message within Arboretum-area neighborhoods in the coming year.
Without this fellowship, I would not have had the resources to have such in-depth conversations in the community on a topic I think is very important for water sustainability and our shared future on this planet. I learned how much the people I spoke with care about their neighborhoods and the planet and truly do want to know what they can do to help.
As a Science Communication Fellow, I have not so much finished my research as opened countless doorways for ongoing practice as an environmental educator. As an illustrator and communicator, my skills have been and will continue to be useful across the Arboretum’s many permutations of public education. This fellowship exposed me to the practical realities of turning pretty pictures into something useful to an environmental stewardship and education organization like the Arboretum. The Science Communication Fellowship has kickstarted my dissertation project, following the Arboretum’s own mission, to advance restoration ecology through visual public outreach.
Fellow and project portraits by Liz Anna Kozik