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By Kristen Cole   Date: 7/26/10 Bookmark and Share

When Science Offers More Questions than Answers

Can relocation save some plants from extinction? Maybe. But should we?

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Numerous species of flora have already become extinct because of global warming but whether humans should relocate endangered species to safer grounds is controversial, said one recent Smith alumna who researched the practice for nearly a year.

Kaila Matatt ’10 conducts research at the MacLeish field station in Whately, Mass.

Last fall, Kaila Matatt ’10 joined Jesse Bellemare, assistant professor of biological sciences, on a five-year investigation into the success of relocating one plant, the Umbrella Leaf, to cooler climes.

The native of southern Appalachia met the typical criteria of plants that are most in danger of extinction – those with small geographic ranges and limited ability to disperse, she said.

When Bellemare began the investigation in 2008, he sought and received approval to temporarily transplant the Umbrella Leaf to areas within state forests in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. He also identified three “control” sites within the native range to provide a comparison.

After the initial two years, Matatt and Bellemare measured the growth and survival rates of the plants and found mixed results. Although the growth rate for the relocated plants was significantly higher than those in the native areas, the survival rate was lower over all.

Matatt recently shared those initial findings during a daylong showcase of work by student Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF).

Until the end of the project in 2013, the plants will continue to be monitored for germination and growth, as well as monitored for flowers and seeds, she said. After that, all of the transplants will be removed.

“Assisted migration is a new conservation method,” said Matatt, who will be looking for another research position when her SURF ends in August. “It is controversial because some believe it will disrupt the ecosystem—it is considered to be a tool of last resort.”

Matatt noted another, much less significant factor in the survival rate of the test plants —the difficulty of conducting the growth rate measurements.

Growth was determined by the size of the leaves, which they calculated largely without harming the plant by tracing a leaf onto paper then doing the math. They were careful not to damage the leaves while tracing, said Mattat, although “there were some mortalities.”


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