I am very excited to publish a fantastic blog post this week by Dr. Vanessa Beauchamp. Dr. Beauchamp is an Assistant Professor at Towson University working on invasive species, especially the wavyleaf basketgrass. In this blog post, Vanessa is sharing with us her knowledge (and pictures!) of the current research she is doing and the latest citizen science she is working on.
Guest blogger: Dr. Vanessa Beauchamp
Sometimes it can seem hopeless. Why am I doing this again? I was out with my research students several summers ago at Liberty Reservoir taking data on the habitat preferences of one of the newest invasive species in the mid-Atlantic region, wavyleaf basketgrass (Oplismenus undulatifolius). A woman on a hike stopped and asked what we were doing (you'd be surprised at how many people just look at us like we're crazy to be crawling around in the grass and then keep on going). One of my students explained that we were a research team from Towson University and were studying the grass that was quickly taking over the understory. She replied "I know that grass. It's so pretty! I dug up a bunch last year and planted it in my yard." Ouch. Several weeks later, after conducting some sampling for a study on wavyleaf seed production and germination, I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck in Patapsco Valley State Park. In the late summer and throughout the fall wavyleaf basketgrass produces tall spikes studded with seeds covered in sticky goo. And they stick to everything. Absolutely everything. I was painstakingly using duct tape to pull the seeds off of my pants and boots so I wouldn't spread them to other sites. There were hundreds of seeds. Everywhere. As I worked I heard a commotion at the trailhead and looked up just in time to see a dog bounding into the parking lot. The dog was covered in seeds. Thousands of them. Like a chia pet. Here I had spent at least 20 minutes carefully decontaminating myself and now I was imagining this dog getting seeds all over the car he was about to jump into and then spreading them each time he and his owner went to explore a new trail. Sigh. Why am I doing this again?
I'm doing this because I'm a plant ecologist with a particular interest in invasive species. I want to know how a species comes to dominate a new environment and to figure out what can be done about it as fast as possible. My lab consists mainly of undergraduates and my wavyleaf basketgrass research is funded with the small grants they can get from the University. It's hard to get big money to study something no one has heard of; something no one cares about. To get federal funding you first have to show that the exotic species in question has the potential to become an invasive species, meaning, according to the USDA, it is a “non-native [species] …whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." And so we crawl around on the forest floor on hot summer days and wade through oceans of grass topped with goo covered seeds. We're starting to get a picture of what this species has the potential to be, and it doesn't look good.
One of the first things you want to know about any newly introduced species is: Where did it come from and how did it get here? Wavyleaf basketgrass was first discovered in Patapsco Valley State Park in 1996. The genus Oplismenus is largely tropical and has a wide native distribution throughout Asia. Based on work by Sharon Talley and colleagues at the USDA, we know from DNA analysis that the grass we have originated from Caucus Mountain region of Russia. We may never know how it ended up in Maryland.
Another question to ask is: Where is it going to be able to invade? I recently collaborated with John Schanse of the NASA Goddard Space Center on a remote sensing project to predict where wavyleaf is likely to spread. Our regional level model suggests this grass can potentially establish over large areas of the mid-Atlantic, particularly in lower elevation, warmer areas. Other modeling work by the USDA suggests that the entire southeastern third of the United States is potential habitat for wavyleaf basketgrass. At the local scale, wavyleaf basketgrass is very shade tolerant and does well in forest understories. I've never seen it growing in full sun. It dies back to the ground every winter, but as a perennial it's capable of pushing through deep layers of leaf litter in the spring. This gives it access to vast tracts of forest inaccessible to Japanese stiltgrass, another forest understory invader. Stiltgrass is an annual species can only germinate through shallow leaf litter. Oddly, wavyleaf doesn't grow well under beech trees, which may be due to some sort of alleopathy or a decrease in light levels past what wavyleaf can tolerate. That's a project for another day.
Another key question is: What impact does it have on native flora and fauna? Our preliminary research into habitat preferences showed that wavyleaf seemed to grow best in areas of very low species richness. This could mean one of two things. Wavyleaf basketgrass may be a poor competitor and only capable of invading areas where agricultural legacies or deer have removed the native understory and seed bank. Alternatively, it may be a very good competitor and is actively in the process of invading species rich areas and quickly converting them to species poor areas. We have data from a greenhouse study that suggests, at least in the first year after introduction, it's a terrible competitor and grows very slowly in the presence exotic stiltgrass and native grass species. But it still grows. And sets seed. This could mean that wavyleaf has the capability to sit and wait as small patches in the understory until some disturbance like drought or a bad winter weaken the surrounding vegetation, allowing it to take over and form a monoculture. Again, another project for another day. This monoculture, as far as we know, is not eaten by anything living in our forests. The implications of an inedible forest understory on the rest of the food chain are potentially catastrophic.
So we're getting to know quite a bit about wavyleaf basketgrass. One of the questions we have yet to really address is perhaps the most important: How much of it is there and how fast is it spreading? The answer is – we have no idea. We have reports from many parks and natural areas throughout central Maryland and there have been multiple sightings along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, including Shenandoah National Park. But my sense is that this is a vast underestimate. This is bigger than what I can accomplish with student researchers, for this I need an army.
Citizen science is all about manpower. The concept involves working with the public to collect scientific data, often over a wide area. Other similar projects involve regional bird or reptile surveys or seasonal records of plant phenology. I'm recruiting volunteers for Project Wavyleaf, a citizen science effort to map wavyleaf basketgrass in Maryland and Virginia. With my colleagues in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences and a grant from the Towson University School of Emerging Technologies, we’ve developed a cell phone app for Android and iPhone that is freely available for download. Just search your app store for "wavyleaf." The app allows users to submit both presence and absence points, data on infestation size and control measures taken, as well as photos and notes. The system is set up to take information at a single point (your yard or favorite picnic lunch spot) or to remind you to take a series of points was you hike your favorite trail. The app is easy to use and all the direction you need is at www.towson.edu/wavyleaf. The time commitment is minimal. The idea is that you simply look for wavyleaf as you take the hikes, birding trips, fishing trips and orienteering outings you've already planned.
Project Wavyleaf is about both scientific data collection and heightened awareness. If we can get the word out fast enough, if we can really document how much of a problem it is, and if we can figure out how much of it we're dealing with and where, we may still be able to beat wavyleaf basketgrass. With vigilance we can quickly eradicate it from areas where it invades. With education we can keep people from digging it up and planting it in their yards, or letting their dog romp in it and spread it somewhere else. If we can raise awareness enough in the local and scientific communities we can get sufficient funding to really make a difference. With funding we can start to tackle it in areas where it has become established. We may just beat this thing. That's why I'm doing this.
For more information on wavyleaf basketgrass and Project Wavyleaf, go to:
or email Dr. Vanessa Beauchamp at firstname.lastname@example.org