Coyotes, Water Quality, and the Decline of Northern Tree Natives:

Undergraduate Research at Black Rock Forest


If you go to Black Rock Forest in the summer, you expect to find hikers enjoying the fresh air, classes of kids on nature walks, and American toads hopping across trails.  You might also expect to find Forest staff maintaining the network of gravel roads and trails, and scientists measuring trees or checking camera traps. 
But there’s one more demographic you’d be missing: undergraduate students venturing into the world of ecology research.
Each summer, Black Rock Forest is home to students working on projects under the direction of faculty members who are part of a consortium of Forest researchers.  These students examine everything from the tops of trees to the debris on the trails while learning about the scientific research process and enjoying a few weeks away from the crowds and noise of New York City.
This year three undergraduates, all rising seniors at Barnard College, completed field work for their senior theses – myself included. I am a biology and English major at Barnard, and I studied energy investment in deciduous trees and shrubs.  Ellery Vaughan, an environmental science major, investigated the diet of the forest’s coyote population. And Kiran Singh-Smith, also an environmental science major, studied acid rain recovery in the lakes of the Hudson Highlands.
My project focused on Black Rock Forest’s trees.  Through tree surveys in the many decades since the Forest’s establishment as a research site, ecologists have noticed that some species native to the northeast U.S. are in decline, while species native to the southern U.S. and aggressive, weedy species from other countries, known as invasives, are becoming more established in the preserve.  Under the tutelage of Dr. Kevin Griffin, the recent board president of Black Rock Forest, I sought to examine species decline by comparing how different tree species use stored energy to grow biomass.  
For this study, I collected leaf samples from over twenty different kinds of trees and shrubs.  If you were in the forest this June and saw a girl hiking around in long jeans, carrying a bunch of tree branches on one shoulder and a long, red pole saw in her other hand – that was me.  Now I’m back in New York City, doing lab work that will allow me to turn those leaf samples into data points.
While I wandered the forest looking up at the trees, Ellery was looking down at the trails.  She spent the summer looking for scat: coyote scat, to be precise.  The coyote population in the northeast U.S. is a topic of interest for ecologists because these animals migrated from the Great Plains region and hybridized with gray wolves, which are native to the area.  Ellery and her mentor, Barnard scientist Dr. Peter Bower, wanted to find out how coyotes are regulating the local deer population.  So Ellery collected sample coyote scat from the forest in each season, and is now identifying the sample contents (i.e. looking through hair and bone preserved in scat) to determine how many deer the coyotes are eating, and when.  This work is far from glamorous, but Ellery has embraced the title of “poop lady” and loved all the hiking she got to do in the name of ecology this summer.
My project and Ellery’s both focused on field work within Black Rock Forest’s boundaries. Meanwhile, Kiran ventured out to 26 lakes and ponds throughout the Hudson Highlands.  She worked with Black Rock Forest’s executive director, Dr. William Schuster, to compare lake and pond water chemistry to measurements from 1985, when a previous study was done on the same bodies of water.  Because of legislation to improve air quality, Kiran predicted that these lakes will be less acidic and will have higher alkalinity, rendering them safer environments for the fish and turtles that live there.  Six of these lakes are in Black Rock Forest, but the rest have required Kiran, with the help of forest manager Matt Brady, to take Black Rock Forest’s paddleboat around the region to collect water samples.  So far, her results are promising: three lakes which had a critically low pH in 1985 are now at safer levels.
The Forest is a perfect site for an early research experience, as it has the resources and the encouragement students need to run their own projects.  Forest staff helped show me where to find tree specimens for each species and helped show Ellery where to find scat.  Ellery, Kiran, and I encouraged each other to keep to an intense, but manageable research schedules, and we also explored the forest together on weekends.
A summer of field work at Black Rock Forest is definitely more exciting than working in a lab on Columbia’s campus, but it can also be more hazardous.  I got lost in the swamp near Sphagnum Pond while searching for the elusive silver maple.  Ellery was spooked by rattlesnakes.  And during one of Kiran’s expeditions with forest manager Matt Brady, they had to carry the paddleboat on their backs for half an hour when a trail through Harriman State Park wasn’t wide enough for their truck.
Still, even that story has a happy ending: “We got ice cream afterward,” Kiran told me.
-- Betsy Ladyzhets, undergraduate researcher, Barnard College