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From playing with fire to dancing in trees, researchers find common ground at Tyson Research Center

From playing with fire to dancing in trees, researchers find common ground at Tyson Research Center

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Nestled within a 2,000-acre oak and hickory forest near Eureka, Tyson Research Center is a summer destination for artists, architects, scientists and students.

By bringing together individuals who explore how the environment affects all species, including humans, Tyson creates a space for people to share ideas and work together on large-scale and long-term projects.

Tyson is one of more than 1,200 field stations around the world. While they generally share an overarching purpose of supporting scientific research, each station cultivates a distinct project portfolio, community and culture. Over the past decade, Tyson has developed an interdisciplinary environment. “We’ve worked hard in trying … to push the envelope a little bit on what you can do at a field station,” said Kim Medley, director of Tyson Research Center.

Ecological researchers were joined last summer by environmental humanities fellows, who interviewed and photographed 50 researchers to create a profile of the Tyson community. This year, Tyson launched its first artist-in-residence program.

“Other field stations have a photographer or a painter or a writer-in-residence; we went with a dancer,” said Susan Flowers, education and outreach coordinator at Tyson Research Center.

Field stations typically provide housing and research labs in natural environments. The worldwide network allows researchers to contribute to global projects for which similar data are collected at each station and then compared to uncover regional or worldwide patterns. Stations also give students opportunities to learn outdoors.

Washington University has owned the Tyson property since 1963. Because it’s not affiliated with any university department, the center can be used by students and researchers interested in environmental studies and education.

During summer, scientists conduct experiments in the forest, ponds, fields and glades. Environmental humanities fellows interview researchers to showcase the human side of science. Landscape architects design urban gardens for ecological restoration. Artists explore movement in natural landscapes.

David Marchant, a professor at Washington University, and Holly Seitz Marchant, an adjunct professor at Washington U., St. Louis University and Maryville University, conduct research in somatic ecology. “They are really interested in understanding how both movement affects the body and how our surroundings affect our movement,” Medley said. “They dance in trees.”

Monitoring changeEarly scientific research at Tyson focused, in part, on compiling lists of species on the property. Although there were some gaps in monitoring, historical plant and wildlife lists are important resources for understanding how the composition of species has changed over time and why.

“There’s something really valuable about having these place-based observations,” said Solny Adalsteinsson, staff scientist at Tyson Research Center. “At best, we only get a snapshot any time we sample, but being here all year … gives us more insight to how these species are affected.”

Climate change, habitat destruction, pollution and introductions of invasive species are just a few factors that influence where species live and how well they do in particular environments. While certain animals like the white-tailed deer are rapidly growing, others, including amphibians and bats, are declining at unprecedented rates.

Adalsteinsson and her colleagues monitored deer, amphibians and bats at Tyson this summer, and will continue these efforts throughout the year.

“Deer have a big impact on the research going on here. They eat a lot of stuff and they have a lot of ticks,” said Elizabeth Biro, natural resources coordinator and staff scientist at Tyson.

Using camera traps, scientists estimate the size, sex ratio and age distribution of the deer population at Tyson. This information helps them understand how deer populations are changing over time and how these changes might affect other research projects at the center.

Researchers also conduct amphibian and bat surveys to document which species are present, how they use their habitat, and whether they are reproducing. These data can then be compared to historical records to evaluate whether populations are declining. They can also potentially link these data to historical events, such as the introduction of an invasive fungus in 2006 that has killed more than 6 million bats worldwide.

Watching urban wildlifeUrban development is another key way species can be affected. Tyson researchers are contributing to a project spanning 20 cities to monitor how species move across urban landscapes. “St. Louis is really unique because it goes urban, suburban and then rural very quickly,” said Flowers.

By setting up cameras from the Gateway Arch to Tyson, scientists study animals difficult to observe with the human eye. The first year of sampling was completed July 26 and resulted in more than 10,000 images. So far, they have captured a river otter, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and numerous squirrels.

The researchers are currently analyzing data from these photographs. While they don’t have any conclusive results yet, they have observed some trends. For instance, bobcats occur in more rural areas, whereas the river otter was found at a suburban site. Squirrel species also show differences in habitat preference, with fox squirrels being more common in rural habitats and gray squirrels more common in urban settings.

Because Tyson is privately owned, researchers can manipulate the landscape to test their ideas. One study involves burning forest sites to test how fire affects ticks and the diseases they carry. Using 16 plots in the Tyson woods, researchers monitor ticks and their host populations (primarily deer and birds) in burned and unburned sites. They also sample the host species to screen for tick-borne diseases.

Building a communityDuring the summer, high school and undergraduate students contribute to ongoing projects and conduct independent research through fellowship programs.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to give them a jump start on what it means to be in university-based research,” Flowers said.

Fellows share ideas, design and execute research projects, and give presentations about their work to other Tyson researchers. A weekly colloquium provides training in science communication and introduces students to various career paths. Informal mentorship also “happens on these down times when you’re driving to your plots or doing tedious work, and you’re just talking to your students and getting to know them,” Biro said.

Tyson has grown a large, interdisciplinary community by bringing together individuals interested in science and the outdoors. “It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD, or not even a high school diploma, everybody is sweating when it’s 90 degrees out and you’re hiking up a hill trying to figure out how to stay motivated and excited to be enduring those conditions,” Adalsteinsson said.

A weekly seminar series, which is open to the public, provides opportunities for environmental researchers to learn about ongoing projects in the region and discuss new ideas. Afterward, attendees migrate outside for a potluck dinner. These events grow the community at Tyson and establish the center as a unique environment where people want to spend time and conduct research.

At the end of the summer, Tyson staff seek feedback from students in the summer fellowship programs. “It’s always the community that they reflect on — that has had such a big influence on them,” said Flowers. “That tells me we’re doing something right.

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