Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, a 2016 Schoodic Institute Research Fellow has recently been awarded the prestigious David H. Smith Fellowship. McDonough MacKenzie will begin a new 2-year project in Acadia National Park. To learn more about her research, we invite you to read her post below. Congratulations Caitlin!
Guest Post by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie
Over the past six years, my Boston winters have been spent planning springs in Maine. I conducted the field work for my PhD in Biology at Acadia National Park from 2011- 2016. And though I am defending my dissertation this spring, I’m happy to report that I’ll be back in Maine as a post-doctoral researcher! I received a David H. Smith Fellowship from the Society of Conservation Biology to work with Dr. Jacquelyn Gill at the University of Maine and Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing at Acadia National Park. My tradition of planning Maine field seasons continues…
As a PhD student, I studied species loss and shifts in spring flowering and leaf out in Northern New England plant communities. I considered some of this to be ‘historical ecology’ work because I combed through archives and pressed plants of herbarium specimens, and decoded the 19th century penmanship of botanists in their field logs to trace changes in the abundance of plant species over the last 125 years. But my Smith Fellowship research proposes some extreme historical ecology. I will be collecting sediment cores from lakes at and above treeline in Maine to track shifts in the relative abundance of pollen associated with alpine and subalpine plant communities over the last 12,000 + years. These sediment cores are ecological archives: pollen and plant fragments preserved in the lake-bottom sediment layers record vegetation changes through time.
The mountain cranberry and three-toothed cinquefoil we recognize today on the open ridges of Acadia represent communities of plants we consider relicts of the tundra vegetation that first colonized post-glacial Maine. Katahdin and the high peaks of the Appalachians support the largest and highest alpine areas in Maine. But, we know very little about the deep history of the plants at tops of these peaks — how did they respond to warming events in the past? Did tree line shift much higher than its current position? Sediment cores from Lakes of the Clouds below the summit of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington reveal consistent fossil evidence of a subalpine habitat at that site: seeds of three-toothed cinquefoil (a species that loves open habitats), open-ground mosses, and few spruce needles. But what happened in Maine? Filling in these knowledge gaps can help us predict how the mountain communities of Maine will respond to anthropogenic climate change.
Conservation practitioners in Maine are grappling with how to protect alpine and subalpine vegetation in a changing climate. The islands of alpine and subalpine habitat above treeline in Maine are scattered across mountains that are owned and managed by several federal and state agencies and non-government organizations with varying conservation mandates and resource. As a Smith Fellow, I will collect the management positions, policies, and challenges for alpine and subalpine vegetation scattered across federal, state, and other conservation land in Maine and bring together resource managers from across New England to collaborate on conservation planning for the “sky islands” of alpine habitat. Reconstructing the history of tundra habitat on these mountains from pollen cores will provide a new perspective as we work to protect these vulnerable communities in the face of anthropogenic climate change.