I spent the first half of 2012 wandering Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge, an elevated, sandy spine that runs for 115 miles through the center of the state. A million years ago when peninsular Florida was largely underwater, higher elevations on the Ridge resulted in a series of islands which, now landlocked, are home to a diverse and largely endemic flora and fauna. The fine beach and dune sands laid during the Pliocene underlie a number of distinctive upland habitats on the Ridge and give a desert-like appearance to parts of this strange ecoregion, whose initial harshness belies the beauty and wonder it contains. Exploring the ridge one will cross between these habitats quickly, walking through a field of Hypericum edisonianum in a dry seasonal pond, then fighting your way through a stand of saw palmetto in the mesic flatwoods, and if you brave the near-impenetrable oak thickets of scrubby flatwoods you just might emerge in the delightfully navigable rosemary scrub. Florida scrub is characterized by a paucity of large trees and a dominant shrub layer, with very hot temperatures, quick-draining sandy soils and low nutrient levels creating very trying conditions for any plant and animal life. But it is precisely because of these harsh living conditions that the scrub’s flora and fauna have adapted in such fascinating ways.
The Florida scrub is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country, with urban development and agriculture encroaching on all sides. One of the largest undeveloped tracts on the Lake Wales Ridge is Archbold Biological Station (ABS), a 5,200-acre preserve which retains a variety of Ridge habitats in pristine condition. But ABS is much more than a preserve — for over 70 years the station has been at the forefront of ecological research, most renowned for their long-term studies in population ecology, conservation biology and pyrogenic system dynamics. Seven research laboratories conduct a number of projects each year (with some data sets extending more than 30 years!) and are headed by top scientists in the field. One of the most phenomenal aspects of ABS is their long-running internship program, which gives aspiring young scientists a chance to work at a top field station while also conducting their own research project, which is a very rare form of employment! I was fortunate enough to have this opportunity, and in February I headed south to begin work in Archbold’s Plant Ecology Lab.
The ABS plant lab has more ongoing projects than I could list here, but some of the more prominent research areas include long-term demography of scrub endemics, population viability analyses, fire ecology and habitat restoration. From demography of an endangered scrub mint, to germination experiments, to scrub restoration and working to save what is likely the rarest plant in Florida (Ziziphus celata), my internship allowed me to participate in a range of ecological inquiry greater than that experienced by many in grad school! As in all ecology jobs, field work ran the spectrum of exciting to monotonous (counting hundreds of Lyonia stems certainly fell toward the latter), but all of the projects addressed interesting questions, stimulated discussion amongst labmates and made me think about environmental processes at multiple scales. Living and working at a field station like Archbold is a complete immersion in science, and being surrounded by so many brilliant people in such a unique ecosystem for six months was an invaluable period in my ecology career.
Well, it was hard to condense six months of life into one blog post, but then again, this post isn’t all that condensed, is it? Thanks for reading; next we’ll head to the Southwest and climb some trees!