Forest Ecology

Maine’s forests are a foundational component of the landscape, valued resource, and inspiration for residents and visitors alike. Visionary conservation efforts more than 100 years ago helped protect key areas of this landscape such as Acadia National Park.

Maintaining these forests requires continuous and evolving research and management in response to emerging stressors. The region’s dynamic forests are affected by multiple global change stressors, including climate change and non-native plants, pests, and diseases. The Forest Ecology Program addresses ongoing and rapid changes through scientific understanding, education efforts, and stewardship guidance developed concurrently, iteratively, and collaboratively in diverse partnerships.

Core Program Areas

Science

We address science needs through interdisciplinary field-based forest research, designed experiments, and computer modeling. Core science efforts examine how environmental changes affect biodiversity and functioning of Maine’s forest ecosystems. This includes current and future forest dynamics and changing interactions among valued tree, plant, and animal species. Science partners include Acadia National Park, universities, and other non-profit organizations.

Interested in doing forest research with Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park? Contact us at nfisichelli@schoodicinstitute.org.

Education

The best way to understand our forests is to get out in them and see what is happening. Furthermore, this activity isn’t just for professional scientists. Discovery and observation of plant and animal species by citizen scientists, through Forest Ecology Program projects, fosters awareness and interest in the natural world and simultaneously expands our local scientific knowledge.

Stewardship Outreach

Situated within Acadia National Park, the Schoodic Institute’s Forest Ecology Program is uniquely positioned to catalyze effective resource stewardship through science and decision-making support. The program’s understanding of forest management decision processes enables us to provide relevant and robust science. This goes beyond just forest science and includes climate science and cutting-edge climate adaptation decision-making approaches. We are interested in working with forest managers across the region to design landscape conservation projects that meet the evolving needs of our communities.

Support Our Forests

Through the Schoodic Institute’s Forest Ecology Program, we have the opportunity to recognize, appreciate, and work with the dynamism of nature to foster healthy forests today and for future generations. This is an opportunity to understand ongoing change, utilize conservation areas for climate change adaptation, and work with partners across the region. This is an opportunity to value rather than discount the future, and continue the work begun by conservationists a century ago. Please join us in preserving our natural heritage.

Current Published Research

February 6, 2017 – Same ecosystem management, different climate – results may vary from the past

A new study published in Restoration Ecology and co-authored by Schoodic Institute Forest Ecology Director, Nick Fisichelli, examines the challenges of ecosystem management under continuously changing conditions and provides a decision-making structure for resisting, accommodating, and directing change. Land managers have sets of trusted approaches to achieve their conservation and resource extraction goals. Changes to ecosystem conditions, such as climate, presence of non-native species, and habitat fragmentation, mean the outcomes of management actions may differ from those of the past.

For example, drought conditions, salt water intrusion in freshwater systems, and dammed rivers are likely to impede management actions aimed at promoting the regeneration of desired native plant species and restoring past ecosystem conditions. Today, managers must assess not only current conditions but also projections of likely future conditions and the types and magnitudes of uncertainties about how the future will play out.

Forward-looking land management processes need to take into account these continuously changing conditions, to develop and reassess strategies and actions that achieve near-term and long-term goals. Changing conditions can mean both challenges and opportunities – some past goals may not make sense for future conditions but new conservation opportunities may arise that were not possible in the past.

Journal article website. Please contact N. Fisichelli for a copy of the article: nfisichelli@schoodicinstitute.org.

October 6, 2016 – Spring beginning earlier in Acadia and across National Park System

US national parks – from Alaska to Maine and the Caribbean – are already experiencing climate change. A new study co-authored by Schoodic Institute Forest Ecology Program Director, Nick Fisichelli, finds that spring is also beginning earlier across the National Park System. Of 276 parks examined, spring is advancing in three-quarters, and half are experiencing “extreme” early spring exceeding 95% of historical conditions. This is based on leaf out and bloom timing from indicator plant species. Acadia National Park is one of the extreme early spring parks, with both leaf out and flowering occurring earlier than 95% of historical conditions. No parks are experiencing extreme delays in spring onset.

The study was published October 6, 2016 in a special feature of the journal Ecosphere(Science for our National Park’s Second Century).

A project brief on Phenology and Climate change, published by the National Park Service can be found here.

September 5, 2016 – Beneficial here – detrimental there: European earthworms decrease species diversity in North America

Burrowing invaders conquest North American forests.

European earthworms are responsible for the decline in  species diversity in North American Forests. Scientists from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the  Leipzig University, together with colleagues from the United States  and Canada have now been able to demonstrate this pattern for the  first time. The introduced worms are invading the forests of North  America. With dire consequences, as the researchers have reported  in the journal Global Change Biology, because the vegetation on the  forest floor has changed dramatically: The species diversity of  native plants is declining, yet the amount of non­native (exotic) plants is increasing, and so is the amount of grasses.  

In Europe, they are classified as beneficial organisms, but many North  American ecosystems are not adapted to these subterranean burrowers.  This is because almost all earthworms became extinct there during the last  ice age, which ended about 12,000 years ago. When the ice retreated, new ecosystems that are adapted to soils without earthworms emerged. But by  now, several earthworm species live again in North America. They were  introduced by European settlers and spread by anglers. An earthworm  invasion is making its way through the forests at approximately five metres  per year and is altering the physical and chemical properties of soils. Earthworms mix soils and build extensive burrows, which interrupts the  symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi (mycorrhiza). The mixing  also affects soil pH: the best ­known earthworm in central Europe, the  Lumbricus terrestris, carries alkaline soil upwards from deeper layers. On  the forest floor, the leaf litter vanishes as it is eaten up by the worms and  turned into humus. As a result, the nutrients stored in the leaves become  quickly available to the plants. Furthermore, the soils dry out easily as water  drains away readily.  

Many native plants cannot thrive under these unusual circumstances,  which is why the species diversity of the forest understory is decreasing.  Wherever the worm creeps, the goblin fern (Botrychium mormo), for  example, has become rare. Other plants are also threatened by the  earthworm invasion, such as the largeflower bellwort (Uvularia  grandiflora), the Japanese angelica tree (Aralia elata), the forest lily  (Trillium spp.), the Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) or the tormentil  (Potentilla erecta).

Grasses grow well in invaded forests because their fine roots can  quickly absorb soil nutrients, particularly nitrogen, and can tolerate  summer droughts. Moreover, earthworms eat small seeds of certain plant species and thus directly influence the composition of the forest  understory. Because earthworms live in different soil layers and their  effects are cumulative, the more types of earthworms that live together  in one location, the more plant species vanish.  The researchers brought together and evaluated data from 14 studies. Their  results demonstrate, for the first time, a general pattern between the decline in species diversity in North American forests and the spread of  European earthworms. “The earthworm invasion has altered the biodiversity  and possibly functioning of the forest ecosystems, because it affects the  entire food web as well as water and nutrient cycles”, says Dylan Craven,  lead author of the study. “The long-­term impact could be massive and be  exacerbated further still by climate change”, adds director of studies,  Professor Nico Eisenhauer. Both are scientists at the German Centre for  Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and at the Leipzig University. [Tabea Turrini]

Journal article website.  Publication co-author, Nick Fisichelli

July 28, 2016 – Soil warming history affects temperate and boreal plant species and associated soil biota

Climate change affects not only what is happening aboveground, but also what is happening belowground – to plant roots and the animals, fungi, bacteria, and other microbes living in the soil. Recent research published in the Journal of Plant Ecology and led by Schoodic colleagues at Leipzig University in Germany and the University of Minnesota found that the legacy effect of warming soils resulted in changes to the performance of temperate and boreal plants establishing in this soil. Additionally soil animals (microbial-feeding nematodes) were also affected by the soil warming history.

 Ecosystem responses to climate change are complex and this research found that soil moisture influenced how organisms responded to warmer conditions. Dry soils resulted in negative responses (poor germination and establishment) of warm-adapted plants whereas positive responses (high germination and establishment) were only detectable under moist conditions.

 The above research is based on forests within the temperate-boreal transition zone – forests very similar to those found around the Schoodic Institute. This transition zone has the overlapping range limits of warm-adapted temperate species and cool-adapted boreal species and thus is likely extremely sensitive to climate change. Conducting observational studies and designed experiments, such as the research reported here helps scientists under the complex changes that climate change brings to our forests. The Forest Ecology Program at Schoodic Institute works on this type of research to shed light on our dynamic world and bring insight to conservation actions of our parks and other protected areas.

 Journal article website. Please contact N. Fisichelli for a copy of the article: nfisichelli@schoodicinstitute.org