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ECU students to study campus wetlands

GREENVILLE, NC   (July 12, 2004)   —   A $60,000 grant from the National Science Foundation is allowing ECU students to explore the ecological composition of the land at East Carolina University's West Research Campus.

Under the guidance of ECU biology faculty Carol Goodwillie, Lisa Clough and David Knowles, biology students will conduct research next semester on a two-acre tract at the West Research Campus at the former Voice of America site. The research will be compiled each semester in a database that will track, for example, the effect of nutrients in soil on the growth of plant species, said Goodwillie.

"All of our biology students have to take ecology, which is why we wanted to make it meaningful and applied research that will draw them in," Goodwillie said. "We ended up here out of a desire to create an ecology lab. There is plenty of land waiting to be investigated."

The ECU project is modeled in part after the famous British Park Grass experiment, which has surveyed the same parcel of land since 1856.

In August, ECU students will have a chance to experience the outdoor lab firsthand during an intensive upper level field sampling techniques course. Twelve undergraduates will work to collect the complete annual data set on plant communities. In the fall, students enrolled in ECU's Biology 2251 will visit and collect data at the site, as part of the course's required laboratory practicum. Students will be able to add to the database and use information collected from previous semesters to formulate hypotheses and conduct their own research on the land.

"It's real data; it's not just a cookbook lab," said Clough. "The students are collecting actual data and they don't know what the results will be."

In 2002, a controlled burn cleared away the existing plant life, enabling researchers to track and record the development of the land from the soil up. The land was then sectioned off into eight sets of four treatments. With help from Johnnie Turner, the West Research Campus' grounds supervisor, each section is treated in one of four ways: fertilizer and annual mowing; fertilizer only; mowing only; and left untreated. The students will be asked to survey and consider how does a disturbance, such as mowing or fire, and soil nutrient availability, affect the extent of species diversity in the plant and animal communities.

"Why are some plant communities more diverse than others and why are the different species in some communities more evenly distributed?" Goodwillie said. "The students will be able to come out and do actual vegetation sampling and collect data on the species. As the long-term data accumulate, students can do a variety of analyses on the data set."

A small section within each block of land serves as the designated data collection site. Beth Chester, an ECU biology graduate student, has spent the past year identifying and cataloguing as many as 250 plant species on the land. Already, she has found orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants and other species unique to the region. In addition to creating a catalogue of the plant species, Chester's work will assist the undergraduate students as they begin to explore and survey the area.

The aim of the project is to provide undergraduate ecology students with a hands-on laboratory experience. But Goodwillie, Clough, and Knowles, who have spent the past two years preparing the land for study, hope it will also provide insight on the plant and animal life that exists at the former Voice of America site. Ever since ECU leased the 600-acre property, its buildings have been used for laboratories, offices and storage facilities. While much of the land is not currently being used, Goodwillie said it is important for ECU to know what flora and fauna thrives in its own backyard.

"If ECU manages this area, what are they going to be managing?" s


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