Vassar Stories

Taking a Botanical Census at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve

Three Vassar students are spending the summer counting and identifying trees, shrubs, grasses, and soil in the forested portions of the college’s 415-acre Ecological Preserve. Fate Syewoangnuan ’18 and Dylan Finley ’17 are measuring the trees and chronicling other vegetation, one 20-by-20-meter grid at a time. Jeremy Middleman ’18 is helping Syewoangnuan and Finley with those tasks, but he’s also charged with documenting any new plant species that have shown up at the preserve since the last botanical census was completed in 1997.


The eight-week study, under the auspices of the college’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), will help ecologists understand what’s been happening on the property over the past two decades. Biology prof. Mark Schlessman and Ecological Preserve manager Keri Van Camp are overseeing the project. It is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2017.

“We are conducting an intensive monitoring and inventory of the entire preserve to determine the variations that have taken place in the last 20 years and to devise ways to ameliorate things that have had a negative impact on the property,” Van Camp says.

Syewoangnuan, an environmental studies major from Seattle, WA, says he’s enjoying the work. “Many of the courses I have taken have given me an understanding of the theory of land management, but this summer I’m putting that base knowledge into practice,” he says.

Not all of the information the students are gathering is encouraging. In many parts of the property, invasive vines are choking trees and otherwise impeding the health of the forest. And most, if not all, of the ash trees on the property are expected to die in the next several years when the emerald ash borer, an insect that has devastated ash trees throughout the Northeast, arrives on the campus. The insects have already killed numerous ash trees only a few miles from Vassar, and they are expected to begin damaging trees here before the end of the summer.

The death of the ash trees will affect the forested portion of the preserve in many ways, says Finley, an urban studies major from Airmont, NY. “About 12 percent of our tree canopy is ash, and they’ll soon be gone,” he says. “When the blight arrives, birds will loose habitat, the soil will change – the impact will be widespread.”

Middleman, a biology major from Philadelphia, PA, says that in his first four weeks in the field, he found four new species of plants that were not growing on the preserve when the last census was taken 20 years ago. “I took a class with Dr. Schlessman last year, but this summer has been plant-identification boot camp for me,” he says. “Identifying new plants makes you feel a little like an explorer, discovering things where they don’t belong. “

A typical day for the three URSI students begins at 9am when they gather the tools they use for their study – measuring tape to lay out the grid, devices that enable them to measure the height and diameter of trees, and shovels and containers used to gather soil samples. “We battle the heat and humidity and tics and other insects, but I love being out there,” says Syewoangnuan.

Schlessman says he’s impressed by how quickly the students acquired the expertise required for their daily work. “An important component of URSI is providing our students with marketable skills they can use in the future,” he says.

Other advisors on the URSI project are Ellie Opdahl, a post-baccalaureate fellow for Vassar’s Conservation and Environmental Cooperative, and Jamie Deppen, coordinator of the Hudson Valley Environmental Monitoring Management Alliance. Deppen says the work the students are doing with Van Camp and Schlessman will help ecologists address similar issues elsewhere in the region. “We’re viewing what’s happening here at the Ecological Preserve in a larger context,” she says. “Mapping what’s happening at Vassar will benefit other forests and preserves all over New York State.”

Finley says he’s grateful to have the opportunity to work with such dedicated environmentalists. “It’s inspiring to be working with a group of people who are passionate about what they do,” he says. “This project has been a truly rewarding experience.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos: Karl Rabe

Posted Friday, July 15, 2016