Volunteers, like Frank Stowell at left, are essential to the Forest Ecology Lab which relies on lots of helping hands to survey the tens of thousands of trees in our forest plots. Photo: Dawn Miller
Volunteers, like Frank Stowell at left, are essential to the Forest Ecology Lab which relies on lots of helping hands to survey the tens of thousands of trees in our forest plots. Photo: Dawn Miller

This story first appeared in the SERC quarterly Newsletter Winter 2006/2007

What Trees Tell

On the first day of December 2006, two dozen scientists from a variety of Smithsonian offices gathered in the forest at SERC to talk about trees. Their discussions focused on what we know and what we don't know about forests in the temperate zones of the world, and how Smithsonian, with its vast array of researchers and unique outdoor laboratories, could bring many of their questions into better focus.

Under the leadership of SERC's forest ecologist Geoffrey Parker and Joe Wright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the researchers are developing a network of permanent research plots throughout the Smithsonian's forested sites in the region. The intention is to map and track every tree that measures one centimeter or more in diameter living within a combined area of about 150 acres. The survey would be repeated every five years.

Similar projects tracking large forest plots in the tropics were developed many years ago to study how rare species persist in the forest. Scientists have since recognized the value of such permanent plots as the forests revealed surprising information. Researchers have found signals of El Nino weather patterns and clues to carbon storage in the tropical forests. Parker said that the new network could be used by scientists interested in everything from land use and forest structure to soil composition and water movement through the landscape. Using a standard method in the new permanent plots also will allow scientists to compare their results with their findings in tropical forests.

Parker, who has just finished his nineteenth year studying one particular forest plot at SERC, said this new network would establish larger plots and include smaller diameter trees than he has been able to map in the past. The permanent plot network would include one large central plot of about 60 acres and a few smaller satellite plots at SERC along with some smaller plots at the Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, VA, and possibly one in the Piedmont region run by the National Museum of Natural History.

For more information, or to reach Dr. Parker, please contact SERC science writer Kristen Minogue.