Botany & Conservation A newsletter for alumni and friends of UW–Madison Botany and Conservation Biology

Dear alumni,

It has been an honor for me to serve as the Chair of Botany and Director of Conservation Biology for the past four years. As my term comes to an end I find myself reflecting on the ways in which this has been a period marked by both great achievement and despair, but is now one of hopeful transition and optimism. While NASA scientists were successfully testing a drone on Mars for the first time to search for evidence of life, biomedical scientists here on Earth were racing at unprecedented speed to develop a vaccine to save lives. Across the world cutting edge solar and wind farms are being built while coal powered utility plants are being shuttered. Our world is changing rapidly and will look very different tomorrow. This is also true within the Department of Botany. Through retirement over the past few years we have lost the scientific expertise of some of our most distinguished professors: Drs. Joy Zedler, Don Waller, Linda Graham, and Donna Fernandez. Next year Dr. Bret Larget will transfer his partial appointment in Botany fully to Statistics as he assumes a greater leadership role in UW’s new Data Science initiative. We are grateful for their many years of dedication to our shared mission and wish only happiness for these mentors, colleagues, and close friends as they take their next steps forward. At the same time we also offer sincere congratulations to the Botany and Conservation Biology students from the Class of 2021 as they make their own life transitions. Wherever you are today I hope that you keep looking forward, but ask that you also occasionally take a look back to remember where you came from and who you once were. Our personal and professional lives are marked by change and transition, but our experiences and memories are everlasting. Have a wonderful and memorable summer — On Wisconsin!

Professor Ken Cameron,

Chair of Botany & Conservation Biology

Mystified on a mountain

By Dr. Kevin D. Barrett, Botany Department ‘19

The tires on our Jeep barely grip the twin strips of overgrown asphalt. I catch myself asking the battered skid plates underneath to forgive my fondness for potholes. But there is hardly any room for evasion. On our left is an impenetrable green wall of trees, ferns, tree-ferns, and moss. To the right, a truncated grass verge reminds us of the shear 2,000 ft. plunge to the valley below. Rising fog obscures the ledge—and my anxiety. Several yards ahead, the beaten and soggy service road disappears into a cloud. We return to the mist-laden forest crowning Kohala Mountain on the island of Hawaiʻi.

Typical visibility conditions on the Kohala access road

For over two decades, UW-Madison Botany Professor Sara Hotchkiss and her graduate students have been studying the ecosystems that lie within the cloud-covered heights of the Hawaiian Islands. These “cloud forests” contain some of Hawaiʻi’s least disturbed biological communities and provide habitat for countless endemic species. They are also essential to the production and storage of freshwater on islands surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean.

The clouds result from the predominant feature of Hawaiian climate. On Kohala Mountain, as on other Hawaiian peaks, moist ocean air drawn inland from northeasterly trade winds ascends the mountain’s windward flank. The air cools as it rises, causing water vapor in the air to condense and form clouds. Cooled clouds release moisture as rain and fog along the ascent before depleting on the drier leeward side. Kohala’s hydrology is striking because the mountain’s dense foliage intercepts the passing fog which then enters the water cycle as “fog drip” substantially increasing local precipitation sums. And in turn, the moisture subsidy from fog drip supplies the growth of Kohala’s lush plant communities.

Dr. Peter Vitousek (Stanford) with the Botany Department’s Dr. Sara Hotchkiss and graduate students Soo Hyun Kim and Kevin Barrett arranging a boggy Kohala trek

On this visit to Kohala forest, Professor Hotchkiss and I are in search of an alluring ecosystem type that mottles the forest’s wettest zones: the montane bog. The bogs support unique assemblages of plants adapted to flooded soil and low oxygen, such as ericaceous shrubs, sedges, and large swathes of Sphagnum moss. Anoxic conditions slow the decay rate of plant matter resulting in thick deposits of peat that have accumulated beneath surface vegetation. These deposits preserve archives of historical plant and animal life and, therefore, a record of environmental variability that has left an imprint on Kohala’s biosphere.

Our interest is the history of Kohala’s hydrological variability. Water is, and has been, the principal resource motivating management of Kohala forest for at least a century. Between 1910-1950, extensive agricultural ditches and aqueducts were built to transport water from the wet summit to neighboring sugar cane plantations, who also kept meticulous rainfall records. To uncover earlier hydrological patterns, we can look for clues preserved in Kohala’s bogs.

Water canal in Kohala forest overgrown with the carpet moss Sphagnum palustre

Two biological clues that have been useful in the study of Kohala’s hydrology are microscopic members of the testate amoebae and Cladocera. Testate amoebae are moisture-sensitive protists that produce their own shell. Cladocera are freshwater zooplankton sensitive to water depth and nutrients—and the central figures of Edward Asahel Birge’s doctoral thesis on Lake Mendota. Testate amoebae and Cladocera can be utilized as indicator species: organisms whose presence, absence, or abundance reflect an environmental condition, in this instance the surface wetness of Kohala’s bogs. We made detailed surveys of testate amoeba and cladoceran community composition in the bogs and analyzed empirical relationships between community composition and bog wetness. And because the shells of testate amoebae and the chitinous exoskeletons of Cladocera preserve well in these acidic and anaerobic environments, we can use those relationships to infer past changes in relative bog wetness from the composition of subfossil communities in sediment cores.

Confirming the length of a Kohala peat sediment core

We are beginning to find that during the early 19th century in Kohala, when irrigation canals were being constructed, bogs had some of their wettest conditions of the past few hundred years. The implication is that the bogs have been drying for the better part of the last century. And other water resources in the region continue to thin. Stream flows and rainfall in Kohala are both reduced in recent decades. And contemporary threats, such as development, municipal water demand, and biological disturbance compound the challenges for a sustainable watershed.

Fortunately, Kohala’s native bogs and forested watershed enjoy elevated protection from Hawaiʻi’s Natural Area Reserve System (NAR). The NAR has identified that the primary environmental threat to Kohala’s watershed is damage from feral pig populations. Non-native pigs devour and trample fragile forest components causing disturbance to ground cover, creating openings for non-native species, and degrading the quality of the forest and the local hydrological cycle.

Michael Peyton posing with one of Kohala’s numerous feral piglets

My colleague, PhD candidate Michael Peyton, along with NAR partners, is quantifying the densities of pig populations in Kohala forest and their influence on plant communities. Michael is using an array of trail cameras distributed broadly around Kohala forest to understand the movement and behavior of pigs in different habitats. Quantifying native and non-native plant functional traits shows Michael how certain plants, such as non-native grasses and herbs, excel in the presence of pig activity, while others, such as slow-growing native understory trees and shrubs, wane. Michael is also isolating fragments of ancient pig DNA preserved in Kohala’s many bog sediments to piece together the history of pig activity in the forest.

The idiosyncrasies of Kohala forest and its denizens dance around my mind on the drive back down the mountain road, our crew wrapped in soaked clothes we pretended were “waterproof”—veterans wear a trash bag. The descent escapes the fog and opens our view of the coastline and ocean. Dizzying ecological questions become muted. It is impossible not to appreciate the watershed-thinking that permeates Hawaiian cultural memory. Ancient land divisions honor the interdependence of subsistence living in lowlands with the care of forests in uplands through wedge-shaped contours that follow natural watershed boundaries. I think of our Jeep tracing the flow of water from the forested summit, wao akua, realm of the spirits concealed in clouds, down through streams and springs to the fields of human industry below. I should really pay better attention to the road. More potholes.

In appreciation of Donna Fernandez

Professor Donna Fernandez writes, “I’ve always felt privileged to be in a department where you can be a plant geek unapologetically, in whatever form that takes.” And the unapologetic plant geeks of the Department of Botany have been privileged to have Donna as a member of its faculty for the past 30 years. Donna retires this May and leaves behind a legacy of many great contributions to the department and the University at large since her start in January of 1991.

As an educator and mentor she has introduced undergrads to the world of Botany with a total cumulative enrollment of over 15,000(!) students in 100-level courses. She has also been heavily involved in graduate education co-teaching Plant Cell Biology and Regulatory Mechanisms in Plant Development. Over the course of her career, Donna has been the major advisor for 8 graduate students and 7 postdocs or visiting scientists and has provided research opportunities for 45 undergraduates in her lab. She has served on 113 thesis/dissertation committees for M.S. and Ph.D. students in a variety of different graduate programs.

Dr. Fernandez’s research contributions have been extensive, but one of the most significant has been to better define the role that non-floral MADS domain transcription factors play in the regulation of plant development. These genetic factors help control the timing of plant flowering, to make sure that the plant does not flower at an inappropriate time. Her lab group’s work has been published in highly respected journals, including Plant Cell, Plant Physiology, and the Journal of Experimental Botany.

Donna has also devoted a significant amount of her time to university service over her career. She served as Botany Department Chair for four years (2004-2008) and played a central role on the administrative team charged with reorganizing the Biology Major in 2013. Most recently Donna served as Co-Chair of the campus-wide Biology Major Program for eight years (2013-2021).

After retirement Donna plans to continue working in the lab for another year to finish up a current genetic research project. But it won’t be all work: COVID permitting, Donna plans a celebratory trip to Chile, South Georgia Island, and Antarctica in the Fall. We certainly hope those plans come to fruition and wish a happy retirement to our valued colleague, teacher, mentor, and fellow unapologetic plant geek.

Mark Wetter receives Judith Craig Distinguished Service Award

Each year UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science recognizes a single member of the L&S Academic Staff with the Judith Craig Distinguished Service Award. The recipient must have at least 15 years of service and a record that demonstrates outstanding service to the College and University throughout his/her career. This year that recipient is our very own Mark Wetter, Senior Academic Curator of the WI State Herbarium. Like most museum curators, whether they specialize in the fine arts or natural history, Mark’s efforts take place primarily behind-the-scenes, but these highly skilled and detail-oriented individuals are almost always the backbone of such institutions and help to shape their legacies.

In addition to his curatorial duties, each year Mark Wetter trains a dozen or so undergraduate students and works closely to assist graduate students with their research. In the 1980s museum curation mostly involved traditional techniques of pressing plants between newspapers, gluing them to acid-free paper, and typing (yes, on a typewriter) the label information. Hundreds of budding botany students learned these skills directly from Mark. Some of these methods remain the same, of course, but the herbarium curator today also is approving requests for DNA samples, applying vinyl barcodes to specimens, databasing, geo-referencing with Google Maps, and using high resolution digital photography to fully digitize the museum collections; archival labels these days are prepared with a laser jet printer! Mark has kept up with the times by embracing new methods and passing these on to the next generation. Many of the students who were trained by Mark have gone on to assume prestigious curatorial positions themselves (e.g., Dr. Matt Pace is now Assistant Curator of the New York Botanical Garden Herbarium, largest in the Western Hemisphere) thanks to his educational efforts.

But, Mark Wetter has not simply been a supervisor or technician who manages incoming/outgoing specimen loans. He is also a highly trained botanist. Among his most notable scientific contributions is authorship of the “Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Wisconsin.” This reference (continuously updated and now in electronic form) serves as the definitive list of all native and introduced plants within the Badger State. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is one of the few states that lacks a comprehensive published flora, so “The Wetter Checklist” is used instead by government biologists, students, and amateur naturalists who need to identify and apply the correct name to plants. He was instrumental in taking that checklist and developing it into the first online database with individual species pages known as “wisflora” back in the early 2000s. Today that project has grown into a statewide consortium of more than a dozen contributing herbaria and a nucleus for the Consortium of Midwest Herbaria. Since joining the staff in 1985 Mark also participated in several plant collecting expeditions to Mexico with the late Professor Hugh Iltis that resulted in a series of publications in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Guadalajara.

Finally, one can’t overlook the service that Mark Wetter has provided outside of the WI State Herbarium. Within Botany he has become a legend for his culinary prowess – each spring he prepares grilled brats for our departmental picnic and each winter his holiday punch is featured front and center at our holiday reception (if you want the recipe, just ask, he will gladly share it). It’s no wonder that Mark is always asked to serve on our Social Committee! Also, Botany asks its academic staff to elect a representative liaison to the faculty who is granted voting privileges. Every year Mark has been elected unanimously every year by his peers. His commitment to shared governance is further reflected in having served as a Representative to the Academic Staff Assembly (District 36 then 406) for 29 consecutive years from 1987 to 2016. He stepped down a few years ago in order to take part as an officer within the East Madison Community Garden Association. Mark gives 100% to everything that he does.

Mr. Mark Wetter truly embodies the spirit of the Judith Craig Distinguished Service Award with his tireless effort and dedication to science, outreach and public service since 1985. Throughout history stories are told of heroic museum curators who would risk their own lives to save priceless artifacts from fire, flood, vandalism or theft. Fortunately, Mark Wetter has not had to do that, but he would if necessary – his commitment, passion, and 36 years of devotion to the care of our irreplaceable collection and the people who use it has been unparalleled. There should be no doubt that Mark has earned this most distinguished award.

Gardening without Gravity

Plants don’t need much to thrive: sunlight, water and some soil, but how do you garden on the International Space Station (ISS) where even the air has to be shipped from the Earth and a watering can simply doesn’t work? View Professor Simon Gilroy discussing the challenges for the UW-Madison Science Expeditions

Notes from the Field -Shelby Weidenkopf

One of the most influential opportunities I’ve had at the University of Wisconsin was being selected as one of the 2020-2021 Hilldale Undergraduate Research Fellows. For those unfamiliar, this program rewards funding to students with proposed research ideas to work with research faculty. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Adena Rissman, the Principal Investigator of the People, Institutions, and Ecosystems (PIE) Lab.

My particular research explored Kirtland’s warbler conservation in Wisconsin. More specifically, how and why private landowners have invested in conservation, and what policy tools/cost share programs have enabled these efforts. In my research, I aimed to better understand ways to incentivize and encourage landowners to conserve Kirtland’s warbler and other fire obligate species in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. To explore my research questions, I created a case study of private landowners, held interviews with different conservation practitioners and stakeholders, as well as completed a media and document analysis to better understand the dialogue surrounding this complex topic. This project was incredibly special to me, as the majority of my research took place in Adams County, Wisconsin, where I’m from. My experience in the lab provided me with a much needed perspective about the unique challenges and opportunities of private land conservation in Wisconsin. I will forever be grateful for the mentorship from Dr. Rissman and her graduate students.

In addition to my research, I have had the honor to serve two terms as the President of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chapter of the Wildlife Society, a professional organization aimed to network students passionate about conservation.. I have also had the privilege to work for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and have interned at Midwest Environmental Advocates and the University of Wisconsin Zoology Museum.

After graduation, I will be working as a park ranger at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota until mid-October. After serving as a ranger, I hope to travel around the country and complete various seasonal jobs in conservation before ultimately returning to graduate school. On, Wisconsin!

We depend on you

Your support helps maintain the level of world-class research and education for which we are known. You can donate directly to Botany or Conservation Biology through the UW Foundation.