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Research Examines Evasive Plant Impact

An invasive shrub that is crowding out native species of plants and animals across the United States is being investigated this summer by three Valparaiso University students, whose research findings could help protect the native environment. Valpo is a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research.

The students – junior biology majors Courtney Soley of Buchanan, Mich., and Dustin Houghton of West Lafayette, and sophomore civil engineering major Kaylene Boroski of Wakeman, Ohio – are studying the environmental impact of autumn olive at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, an ecological field station in southwestern Michigan.

“The spreading of invasive species in America is becoming an increasingly big problem,” said Houghton, who is working with Soley to examine how autumn olive affects the behavior and nesting success of American robins and northern cardinals.

Houghton said invasive plants frequently alter the ecosystem of new environments they enter and can devastate native species. While autumn olive was initially introduced at PCCI to help bird populations, it has since spread across the entire 661-acre reserve.

The research of Houghton and Soley is supported by a $3,500 grant from PCCI’s Undergraduate Research Grants for the Environment program, which helps undergraduate students gain experience planning and conducting environment-related studies. Their study builds upon research by another Valpo student, who last summer found that some birds seemed to avoid autumn olive, while others did not.

Houghton and Soley selected one bird that appeared to stay away from the shrub (the northern cardinal) and one that appeared to have no preference (the American robin), then tracked which trees and shrubs each species used for perching or nesting, and how successful the species were nesting in autumn olive versus other trees and shrubs.

The students’ observations indicate both species tend to avoid placing their nest in autumn olive.

“Only one nest from either species was found in autumn olive, and this nest was depredated,” Houghton said. “As for bird activity, early in the breeding season we found that only one of the 34 birds documented spent any time in autumn olive. This is significant evidence that these birds are avoiding autumn olive.”

While the students have yet to complete their analysis, if the data confirms that the shrub does indeed have a negative effect on bird breeding success, than the continued spread of autumn harvest could damage native bird populations.

“Our research is helping determine whether more effective invasive shrub management strategies need to be developed in order to maintain healthy bird populations,” Houghton said.

Boroski also received a $3,500 PCCI grant to help identify what makes autumn olive such a good competitor to native plants by looking at the impact of the shrub on the availability and cycling of nitrogen in the surrounding soil and water.

“As a nitrogen-fixing plant, autumn olive likely fertilizes itself, giving it a significant advantage over the other native plants around it,” she said. “In addition, if this shrub is altering the soil chemistry, it is likely having a harmful affect on the native plants which are adapted to thrive in their native soil chemistry.”

Boroski will continue collecting soil samples through the middle of August before completing her analysis.

She decided to pursue the project after being approached by Dr. Zuhdi Aljobeh, a civil engineering professor who knew she was interested in undertaking an independent research study and learning about the research process. The summer at PCCI has provided an excellent introduction to research, Boroski said, and she’s looking forward to taking part in other research projects in the future.

“I have learned that research doesn’t always go according to plan and, probably most importantly, how to adapt to situations as they develop and use the resources available to obtain the results I need,” she said.

Valpo’s two studies are among 11 research projects involving 17 undergraduate students at PCCI this summer. In addition to the $3,500 stipend for students, the URGE program provides faculty mentor stipend of up to $3,500 that can be used for equipment purchases, general expenses, travel or training needed for conducting the research project, as well as up to $4,000 in room and board expenses for the student and faculty mentor.

Valpo joined PCCI in 2005, and students have previously won grants to support summer research projects involving methods for controlling invasive plants, air pollution in the Midwest, plant genetics and the impact of development on water quality. In addition to their research, Valpo’s students attended weekly seminars on a variety of environmental topics.

Valpo is one of 13 colleges and universities belonging to the consortium that operates the PCCI biological field station – a 661-acre site with forest, wetlands, fields and lakes. The Institute, located south of Hastings, Mich., is open to the public and includes a visitor center, education building, trails and housing facilities for researchers and guests. More information about the Institute is online at

Dustin J. Wunderlich | Newswise Science News
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