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Published on: Feb. 17, 2011

Botany Crew Member Taking Data Measurements

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their acorns to mature, while white oaks produce mature acorns from their flowers yearly. Given the area’s susceptibility to late frosts that kill or decimate an oak’s flowers and thus its acorn production, this difference in acorn maturity helps to ensure a yearly acorn crop.

MDC resource scientist Randy Jensen has been a part of MOFEP since fieldwork began on the project in 1990. In the years before and after harvests, the trees in all 648 of MOFEP’s half-acre vegetation plots are catalogued. On these plots, Jensen has overseen the assembling of a database that now encompasses 96,000 individuals of 50 trees species.

Predominantly former pine and white oak open woodland, MOFEP areas now contain more densely stocked oaks (72 percent) and hickories (19 percent). In part because of a lack of regular disturbance like fire (which used to be much more frequent), shortleaf pines now make up only 9 percent of MOFEP’s trees, an estimated 30 percent of their pre-1900 numbers. All other tree species in MOFEP’s inventory combined make up less than 1 percent.

Jensen oversees research of MOFEP’s over story. His crew inventories trees, their species, their crown status, their diameter and their wildlife cavities. They also note if the trees are alive, snags (standing dead trees) or lying in the soil, decomposing. On vegetation plot 71 on site 6, just southwest of Ellington, his seven member crew catalogued the half-acre’s trees early in the fall of 2009. The site is lush, a broad upland waterway that opens from the north side of a hill, gently slopes for 100 yards or so, then crosses a dirt road and drains into Paint Rock creek, which, in about a mile, meets the Current River below Paint Rock Bluff.

The crew finds the plot’s stake-marked center, measures 82.8 feet north to the plot boundary and then moves clockwise, inventorying every tree with a trunk above a 4.5-inch diameter (smaller-diameter trees are measured in a plot’s subplots and quadrats). Several crew members identify trees while the crew leader corroborates and enters information in a PDA-like device that updates a vast tree database. Each catalogued tree has an ID tag nailed to its base, corresponding to its database ID. Thus, life histories of single trees play out every three to four years in Jensen’s ever-growing database.

This opportunity to watch the forest change provided the most surprising insight of Jensen’s MOFEP experience so far—the forest is dynamic. Often it changes, he says, tree by tree, in ways he wouldn’t have expected. Sometimes he’s surprised by which trees grow a lot, which not at all, and which die or fall down. Consequently, once assimilated with research from the other 30 studies, the promise of powerful insights in MOFEP appears true.

However, this integration represents the great challenge of the project. As yet, no one has figured out how to synthesize the varied, intricate, simultaneously inventoried forest components into a single, meaningful ecosystem model. No doubt the task is daunting, and a little premature just 20 years into a 100-year study.

But the questioning goes on: How do timber harvests affect whole forest communities, from the Acadian flycatcher that spends its northern life feeding on its insects and breeding in its trees, to the broad-headed skinks and central newts that live in its leaf litter, to the bacteria that live in its soil, to the tick trefoil and goat’s rue that grow close to its ground, to the shortleaf pine seedlings, moth and butterfly larvae, the beetles, mites, millipedes, copperheads, acorns and berries, white-footed mice, chipmunks, sulphur, carbon itself, all which eat, are eaten, reproduce, live, die and otherwise interact in this Ozark forest life?

MOFEP is a good start.

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