Studying Trees for Clues About Climate Change
Working as a research assistant for SEAS Professor Inés Ibáñez is an experience that SEAS master’s student Ezekiel Herrera-Bevan will remember fondly for years to come—especially since it involved cataloging thousands of trees at the U-M Biological Station.
“There were some big trees, so it was really cool to measure them and think that they must be hundreds of years old,” Herrera-Bevan says.
Herrera-Bevan, along with his research partners—SEAS master’s students Chantalle Vincent and Brian Geiringer and Eastern Michigan University student Jonas Motino—got a close-up view of different trees as part of a tree census for Ibáñez, who is a biologist. Her research focuses on the challenges that plant communities are facing because of climate change, invasive species and landscape fragmentation.
The students spent part of June and July working in research plots in four different forests at the Bio Station (pine balsam, northern hardwood, boreal and aspen) to capture important data about tree growth and the environmental conditions that may be affecting it.
They noted if trees had died, measured the diameter of trees that are still alive and recorded new trees whose growth exceeded two meters. They also collected data on soil moisture and temperature and other environmental variables.
The students’ work was no small feat, given they had to catalog thousands of trees in only a month’s time, Herrera-Bevan says. “We’d constantly be thinking, ‘did I get all the trees, did I miss one?’”
The data that he and the other students collected provides important clues about trees and their ability to adapt to changing temperatures, invasive species, pollution and other environmental factors, says Ibáñez, whose research extends beyond the Bio Station to Sugar Island in the St. Mary’s River between Michigan and Ontario, Canada, and to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
For Herrera-Bevan, whose specialization is Ecosystem Science and Management, the experience reaffirmed his interest in becoming a conservation biologist. It also was an opportunity to study some of Northern Michigan’s common trees and their ecosystems in a way he hadn’t before—something the California native greatly valued.
“It was interesting to see the differences in forest composition and their environments,” Herrera-Bevan says. “In the boreal forest, for instance, it was all conifers, and the ground was swampy and mossy. But in the northern hardwood forest, where there were beech and birch trees, it was very dark because of the huge canopy of trees above us.
“I’m happy I had the opportunity to contribute,” he adds. “It’s something I’m going to look back on and be extremely fond of and appreciate.”