Exchange Expertise Globally
Sharing knowledge and expertise across borders is vital for advancing science and finding solutions to complex natural resource problems. Northern Research Station scientists are working with colleagues internationally to stem the tide of an aggressive forest pest, mitigate the effects of invasive species, and better monitor forest conditions in developing countries. In October, we introduce a scientist with a well-worn passport and offer stories on research, a research product and a partnership that illustrate the value of exchanging scientific expertise globally.
The North American Association for Environmental Education’s 30 Under 30 program spotlights individuals from around the world who are leaders in their communities. These inspiring young men and women, all under 30 years of age, create change through environmental education.
30 Under 30 is sponsored by the US Forest Service and the Global Environmental Education Partnership (GEEP).
Passport at the ready, Research Forester Andy Lister travels the globe sharing his forest inventory expertise with developing countries where land managers want to begin measuring and monitoring their forests. His work has taken him to Latin America, Africa and Asia, where he helps local foresters design forest inventories to obtain high quality, science-based information that they can use to make wise stewardship decisions.
Lister works in the Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) group, one of several regional FIA groups across the country responsible for the Nation’s forest census. "What I love about FIA is that the work can be directly applied,” said Lister. “I am personally very motivated by developing tools, protocols, and methods to streamline monitoring and to provide newer, interesting ways of understanding resource data in a more cost-effective way.”
Lister attributes his interest in natural resources directly to watching National Geographic on television during the 1970s and early 1980s. “The incredible beauty and complexity of the natural world filled me with a great curiosity to learn more,” he said. When he had the opportunity to choose an area in which to concentrate his college studies, ecology and natural resources seemed the perfect fit. He found his calling for public service when he served as a Peace Corp volunteer in Panama after finishing his undergraduate degree.
“One task that frequently comes up when I work with countries that want to develop a forest inventory is the design of the inventory plot. Should it be large or small, long or skinny, circular or square?” said Lister. He has recently completed a project that involves simulating different types of forest tree and landscape patterns using models from a branch of statistics called point process modeling, and then experimentally testing the efficiency of different types of plot designs using these simulated forests. The goal of the research is to help countries choose a plot design that will get them the information they need for the minimum cost.
International technology transfer work with the Forest Service can be grueling, unpleasant, and frustrating. Long hours on airplanes, horrible buses, taxis and boats, coupled with some rather unsavory health difficulties associated with exotic foods and impure water, can deter people from offering to serve. “I will say that regardless of the challenges, it is incredibly rewarding to give back to the world and share the knowledge and skills that we have been so fortunate to acquire with those less fortunate than ourselves,” said Lister.
Discovery of new hemlock species (Tsuga ulleungensis) may help in fight to control invasive insect
As a graduate student at Yale University 12 years ago, Nathan Havill was working his way through a genetic analysis of the world’s hemlock trees in search of something that might reveal why Asian hemlocks are able to defend themselves against hemlock woolly adelgid (an aphid-like insect accidentally introduced to the United States more than 60 years ago) while hemlock forests from New England to Georgia are succumbing to the insect. During the course of his work, Havill, now a research entomologist with the Northern Research Station, noticed that something about a sample of the Japanese hemlock, Tsuga sieboldii, taken from a tree growing at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, did not look right.
“In the course of my grad program, I had looked at a lot of hemlock trees,” recalled Havill. “I came to one labeled as a Japanese species, Tsuga sieboldii, but the genetics did not line up with the other Tsuga sieboldii in the analysis. There was something different about it. When we looked into where that tree had come from, we found that it was actually collected on Ulleung Island, a tiny island east of the Korean peninsula.”
A few years after Havill’s initial observation that the hemlock at Arnold Arboretum did not match other Japanese hemlocks, a collaborator on the project, Senior Research Scientist Peter Del Tredici of Harvard University, returned to Ulleung Island to get additional samples. The next steps were headed up by Garth Holman, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine, who compared the genetics and morphology of Del Tredici’s samples with other hemlocks and confirmed Havill’s observation — the hemlocks from Ulleung Island were different enough to constitute an entirely new species. Holman, Del Tredici, Havill, and their colleagues published the description of Tsuga ulleungensis in 2017.
Today, Havill’s research focuses on understanding interactions among invasive forest pests, their natural enemies, and the trees that they impact, to develop knowledge that will ultimately help land managers control the spread of invasive species.
“It’s exciting to have been part of the discovery of a previously unknown species of hemlock, but it is even more exciting to be involved in research that aims to mitigate the effects of invasive species like the hemlock woolly adelgid on forest ecosystems,” Havill said.
Nonlethal Method of Defining White-nose Syndrome (WNS) Infection Proves Effective
Northern Research Station Research Wildlife Biologist Sybill Amelon, University of Missouri scientists, and scientists in the Czech Republic began with a research question: why is white-nose syndrome (WNS) decimating hibernating bat populations in North America but causing low mortality for bats in Europe? The first challenge was to create a universal grading system that would allow a researcher to determine the severity of skin lesion samples from a small biopsy sample of a bat’s wing.
Previously, the standard testing procedure required an entire bat’s wing to be used when searching for the WNS fungus. This could only be done on a bat that had succumbed to the disease or had been euthanized, and after losing millions of bats to WNS, researchers were eager to find a nonlethal method to assess diagnostic pathology and scoring of WNS infections.
“Some bat species are being considered for federal listing as threatened or endangered entirely due to the numbers of bats killed by white-nose syndrome,” Amelon said. “Losing more bats in the course of research is something that we all want to avoid. The method that we developed gives scientists an alternative that does not require a great deal of expensive equipment, does not require extensive training to use, and is accurate.”
Amelon and her colleagues used ultraviolent light to trans-illuminate bats’ wings. Trans-illumination of a wing membrane with ultraviolet light elicits a distinct orange-yellow fluorescence that corresponds directly with WNS fungal erosions in affected areas of a bat’s wing membrane and allows a small biopsy to be taken of the WNS affected bat wing. Photographs of trans-illuminated wing membrane provide lasting documentation of WNS damage and severity, so scientists can use it to track an individual bat’s recovery from WNS as well. To demonstrate how easy it is to score the severity of WNS using photographs, researchers asked veterinary students in the Czech Republic to score the severity of WNS based on photographs of 30 bat wings with just 45 minutes of training; their scores aligned with scoring by seasoned pathologists 95 percent of the time.
“Our comparison of bats infected with the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in North America and in Europe is showing differences in the prevalence, fungal load, and effects on bats’ skin,” Amelon said. “The development and validation of a nonlethal method for comparing WNS severity is enhancing our ability to research WNS and we think it is something that can be used by scientists worldwide.”
Spruce budworm atmospheric transport model
Together, the United States and Canada are engaged in research that aims to help both nations respond to an array of forest health issues that know no borders. The partnership, which includes scientists from the Northern Research Station, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Canadian Forest Service, has developed a model that taps into weather data to forecast mass exodus and immigration of an aggressive forest pest, the spruce budworm. A native insect, the spruce budworm is considered the most damaging forest insect defoliator in North America.
For the last 2 years, the model has informed Canadian agencies and Maine forest managers about likely deposition zones for budworm moths emanating from a massive 20.3-million-acres outbreak north of the border in Quebec. That zone has shifted southward through New Brunswick and is threatening the most forested state in the United States.
“Sharing knowledge and expertise is vital,” said Yan Boulanger, a research scientist in forest ecology with Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service. “While impacts may seem very local, insect outbreaks are inherently an international problem that demands international cooperation.”
Brian Sturtevant, a research ecologist with the Northern Research Station based in Rhinelander, Wis., and a collaborator on the spruce budworm modeling research, previously worked with colleagues on a spruce budworm dispersal model that was first applied in Minnesota. Canadian partners used their vast datasets of spruce budworm observations to improve it. Sturtevant and his partners compared results from this next-generation flight model with moth flights documented by weather radar and found that integrating data on budworm flight behavior with high-resolution weather data produced detailed and highly realistic flight trajectories and deposition patterns across large landscapes.
“In addition to being a great advancement for predicting spruce budworm outbreaks, this modeling approach can also be applied to a wide array of important forest and agricultural pest species to understand the spatial dynamics of outbreaks and potentially forecast risk of damage and model the spread of invasive insects,” Sturtevant said.