UF’s Natural Area Teaching Laboratory Initiates 40-Year Plan

Source:
Tom Walker tjw@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu, (352) 392-1901, ext. 125

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—To demonstrate how forests, wetlands and other natural areas evolve or change over the years — a process known as succession — a 40-year plan has been initiated at the University of Florida’s Natural Area Teaching Laboratory.

Located in the southwest corner of the UF campus, the laboratory is a 43-acre outdoor classroom being used to teach students and the public about ecology and biodiversity.

“If we’re going to adequately represent the biodiversity of North Florida, it is important that the outdoor teaching laboratory should have different successional areas, showing how plants, insects and other natural features change over periods ranging from one year to 40 years,” said Tom Walker, professor of entomology with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and spokesperson for the laboratory’s advisory committee.

“For teaching purposes, these changes can only be demonstrated by periodically restarting the natural process,” Walker said. “If we did not restart the process by tilling the land, we would not be able to show the changes in plants and animals as old fields return to their original forested state.”

As a part of the plan, one-acre plots at the laboratory, designated A,B,C,D and E, will have different rotation periods and starting times to demonstrate various successional stages.

“Plants in the plots will be allowed to grow and change naturally for one-, 10- and 40- year periods. After each rotation, the site will be tilled and the process will start over again. Paired 10- and 40-year plots will be started at intervals staggered by five and 20 years,” Walker said.

“Two plots with the longest rotational periods, 40 years, will show the most advanced successional stages while three other plots will be restarted more frequently to show how things change at shorter intervals,” he said. “To ensure that the earliest stages of succession will always be on display, one plot will be tilled every year that no other plot is restarted.”

The laboratory is located on Natural Area Drive across from the department of entomology and nematology. Inside the entrance, a kiosk explains upland and wetland ecosystems. Pamphlets and maps are available.

Walker said the main wetland in the laboratory is a three-acre retention basin that has been transformed by the Stormwater Ecological Enhancement Project (SEEP) of UF’s Wetlands Club. Through SEEP, the basin’s biodiversity, aesthetics and water quality have been improved, thereby enhancing its usefulness for research and education.

Recommendations for the laboratory’s management are made by the Natural Area Advisory Committee, whose 14 faculty and student members represent the nine departments in four colleges that use the laboratory in three or more courses. These and other departments also use the laboratory for special projects and workshops.

Docents from the Florida Museum of Natural History lead groups of K-12 students on field trips through the laboratory. The northern half of the laboratory, including the successional plots and SEEP, is open to the public. Future plans for the public area include a small park just north of SEEP, boardwalk access to SEEP and self-guided nature trails.

To learn more about the laboratory and see photos of old-field succession, visit: http://csssrvr.entnem.ufl.edu/~walker/natl.htm

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