MC biology students work to improve health of College Woods

MC biology students work to improve health of College Woods

Feb. 27, 2014

During the fall of 2013, the Forestry Division of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture recertified the 140 acres that make up the Maryville College Woods as a “Stewardship Forest.”

Because of the Woods’ importance, maintaining its acreage and keeping it healthy is one goal of the College’s “Renewing our Strength” strategic plan, and the MC Woods Committee recently developed a 100-year Woods Plan to outline management of the area for the next 100 years, addressing future land and resource use and woods security.

The most critical recommendation in the College’s stewardship plan for the College Woods is management of invasive and exotic plants, which are some of the biggest threats to the health of the woods, according to Maryville College Professor of Biology Dr. Drew Crain.

The plants’ presence lowers the biodiversity of the woods and hinders forest regeneration by shading the forest floor and outcompeting native species. The harmful plants include English ivy, bush honeysuckle and Chinese privet.

“Complete removal of the invasive/exotic plants in the College Woods is not possible, but active management can improve the health of our 140-acre woods,” Crain said.

The recertification of the Woods motivated Crain and Dr. David Unger, assistant professor of biology, to collaborate and integrate management of invasive and exotic plant species activities into their classes.

This semester, Crain’s SCI150: Vertebrate Zoology class and Unger’s BIO222: Ecology and Evolution classes are actively involved in a Chinese privet removal experiment. This experiment will provide data on how to most efficiently and effectively remove both Chinese privet and bush honeysuckle from the forest.

Unger’s class is involved in the experimental design of the plots and responsible for quantifying the results and producing a formal written report. Crain’s class is using the privet experiment to expose non-science majors to the methods and techniques used by scientists for conservation.

The project is similar to a recent experiment conducted on campus by Joseph Thomas, a graduate student in the University of Tennessee’s Plant Sciences Department. Thomas, who had previously conducted highly controlled greenhouse experiments with English ivy, conducted field experiments in isolated areas of the College Woods during the spring and summer of 2013 to determine the best method for managing the invasive plant. He enlisted the help of Crain, UT undergraduate students and MC undergraduate students for the field experiments and found a safe herbicide, Metsulfuron, to be the most effective.

“Metsulfuron only kills plants when applied to the leaves of a plant, so trees around the ivy are not affected,” Crain explained. “Thus, we can kill the ivy and not harm the other plants in the area.”

Staff members in MC’s Physical Plant will apply the herbicide to the English ivy in the College Woods this summer.

Due to the extent and height of the privet and bush honeysuckle, Crain said that only physical removal techniques are being considered for those plants at this time. This included the participation of both science classes in either ground-level removal or root removal of privet in a total of 16 4-by-4-foot plots in the Woods. Later in the spring, the professors and students will determine whether ground-level or root removal is a more effective method for the extrication of the privet.

According to Crain, all of the data from the privet experiment conducted this year by the two classes will aid in the development of a “privet removal protocol” that will be used over the next decade to manage the College Woods.

“Both Dr. Unger and I are very happy with the progress so far,” Crain said. “We feel that both biology majors and non-majors are learning a great deal about restoration ecology from this project, and the forest is getting healthier.”

Story by Mary Moates '14, Communications Assistant

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.