Conserving and restoring Missouri bladderpod, a US Midwestern endemic

Matthew Albrecht is a Scientist in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development at Missouri Botanical Garden. Here he describes a recent fieldtrip to the Ouchita Mountains to study outlying populations of the federally threatened Missouri bladderpod, Physaria filiformis.

Situated between Rocky Mountains to the west and the Appalachians to the east lies the often overlooked Ouachita (pronounced WAH-shi-tah) Mountains of central and western Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma. Unlike the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, the Ouachitas are a relatively small mountain chain that trends primarily east-west. Despite occupying a relatively small area, the Ouachitas harbor a large proportion of the region’s plant diversity and represent a remarkable center for endemism including many rare plants species with extremely narrow distributions.

On a recent spring afternoon, Christy Edwards and I had the opportunity to visit the relatively rare and poorly studied shale outcroppings of the Ouachitas with botanists Brent Baker and Diana Soteropoulos of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. In the Ouachitas, shale formations outcrop on gentle to steep south- or west-facing slopes and occasionally on gently sloping drainages. Upon first glance, these outcroppings with exposed fragments of thin, black shale and patches of sparse vegetation cover appear somewhat other worldly. Upon closer inspection, one finds tucked between shale fragments a number of xeric-adapted herbaceous species capable of surviving in this harsh environment, where the dark, sun-scorched shale at the surface creates extreme ecological conditions.

Ouachita shale glade and barrens. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.
Xeric-adapted species specialize on the thinnest soil portions of shale outcrops. Photo by Christy Edwards.

Shale barrens and glades are mosaic plant communities consisting of a remarkable number of endemic, rare, and narrowly-distributed species. According to NatureServe, 36 plant species of state conservation concern and more than 20 globally critically imperiled, imperiled, or vulnerable species occur in this system. New species are still occasionally discovered and a few species remain undescribed in the Ouachita shale barrens. For example, we saw a striking purple-flowered undescribed species of wild hyacinth (Camassia sp. nova) during our visit.

An undescribed wild hyacinth (Camassia sp. nova) growing in a shale glade and barren complex owned and managed by the Ross Foundation. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

The star of the show that day and the focus of our research expedition to the Ouachitas was the federally threatened Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis).  Many members of the genus Physaria – commonly known as bladderpods due to their inflated seed pods – are recognized for their narrow distributions and edaphic endemism, or restriction to unusual soils. As a small-statured winter annual, Missouri bladderpod showcases brilliant yellow flowers in early spring and specializes on thin-soiled calcareous (dolomite and limestone) outcrops in northern Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. However, at its southern range limit in the Ouachitas, Missouri bladderpod is known from just a few isolated shale glades and barrens.

A profusion of flowering Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis). Photo by Christy Edwards.
Missouri bladderpod (Physaria filiformis) displaying inflated fruits on a shale outcropping. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

Prior to visiting the Ouachitas I wondered how a presumed calciphile like Missouri bladderpod existed on shale formations, which typically produce acidic soils. Perhaps like a few other species of rocky outcrops in the region – such as Sedum pulchelum (widow’s cross), and Mononeuria patula (lime-barren sandwort) which occur on both acidic and calcareous substrates – I surmised MO bladderpod may also tolerate a broader range of edaphic conditions than previously thought. However, I soon learned the shale outcroppings we visited were interbedded with limestone and supported other calciphilic indicator species such as Ophioglossum engelmannii.

A case of cryptic speciation in the Ouachitas

Once known only from limestone glades in southwestern Missouri, botanists over the years have discovered populations of Missouri bladderpod on limestone, dolomite, and shale outcroppings in scattered locations throughout Arkansas, denying Missouri’s claim of its only endemic species. A recent study led by Christy Edwards at the Missouri Botanical Garden examined range-wide (Arkansas and Missouri) genetic variation in Missouri bladderpod and the degree of genetic differentiation among populations on limestone, dolomite, and shale. Interestingly, genetic data showed isolation by distance – meaning that as geographic distance increased among populations so too did genetic differentiation. Most strikingly, the geographically isolated shale populations in the Ouachitas were highly genetically divergent from dolomite and limestone glade populations further north in Arkansas and Missouri. This strong pattern of genetic differentiation points to a possible cryptic speciation event in the Ouachitas and a previously unrecognized extremely rare species. On one hand, the genetic data was somewhat surprising given there are no obvious morphological differences among Ouachita shale populations and P. filiformis. Conversely, the data do support the remarkable pattern of narrow-endemism observed throughout the Ouachita Mountains. 

As we trekked across Arkansas for a few days – along with Brent and Diana who generously shared their time and expertise – collecting fresh material of Missouri bladderpod for a deeper research dive into whether morphological traits differentiate this previously unrecognized cryptic species in the Ouachitas, the need to conserve and restore glade habitat became ever clearer. At present, there are only three known Ouachita populations, making this cryptic species extremely rare and vulnerable to extinction. Many shale glade and barrens systems are now severely damaged or have been destroyed by mining activities. Fortunately, the largest population we visited consisted of thousands of plants scattered across a shale glade and barrens complex that has been restored and managed with fire and woody thinning by the Ross Foundation. In the absence of periodic, appropriately-timed prescribed burning, glades and barrens slowly become encroached with woody species that eventually choke-out sun-loving plants like Missouri bladderpod.

A large, restored shale glade and barrens complex in the Ouachita Mountains.

Other populations of Missouri bladderpod eek out an existence on small stretches of outcrops on roadsides or private property maintained as cattle pasture. These sites prove challenging to conserve and restore. Sadly, we did visit some sites where populations were barely surviving due to degraded habitat conditions. However, two sites we visited gave us a glimmer of hope that Missouri bladderpod will continue to survive and thrive. First was a newly discovered dolomite glade population on private property in north-central Arkansas. The property owners recently thinned woody vegetation and began prescribed burning to restore their glade and woodland ecosystem. When we visited, Missouri bladderpod was thriving after a recent prescribed burn. Similarly, the second site we visited on public property had been thinned and burned in recent years, resulting in a diverse plant community and flourishing Missouri bladderpod population. These success stories illustrate the importance of restoring degraded habitat to conserve our rarest components of biodiversity.

Population of Missouri bladderpod growing on a roadside dolomite outcropping and pasture in north-central Arkansas.
A degraded site with woody encroachment and a small, declining population of Missouri bladderpod.
A restored hillside glade with a thriving population of Missouri bladderpod.

To learn more about the Missouri bladderpod, read the new, open access paper by Christy Edwards, Matthew Albrecht and others.

A ten-year woodland restoration trajectory

Leighton Reid describes a long-term ecological research project at Shaw Nature Reserve (Franklin County, Missouri, USA). To learn more, read the new research paper (email the author for a pdf copy – jlreid@vt.edu) or tune in for a webinar from the Natural Areas Association on April 21 (register here).

In 2000, the Dana Brown Woods were dark and dense. Brown oak leaves and juniper needles covered the sparsely vegetated ground, and invasive honeysuckle was creeping in around the edges. Biologically, the woodland was getting dormant.

In contrast, the woods today are lit by sunlight everywhere except the lowest-lying streambanks, and the ground is hardly visible beneath a green layer of diverse, ground-level foliage. These changes were most likely caused by two actions: burning the woods, and cutting out invasive trees and shrubs.

Many practitioners have seen woodlands recover to some extent when they are burned, but few have documented the recovery as thoroughly and over so long a period of time as Nels Holmberg and James Trager.

IMG_0101-001

Nels Holmberg (left) discussing the finer points of Rubus identification with Quinn Long in the Dana Brown Woods.

Nels is an ecologist and sheep farmer in Washington, Missouri. He has inventoried the plants at several state parks and natural areas. In 2000, Nels teamed up with Shaw Nature Reserve’s resident natural historian, James Trager, and together they designed a study to describe how ecological restoration was changing the woodland flora at the reserve. They picked the Dana Brown Woods as their study area.

In a nutshell, Nels and James chose 30 random points on a map. They divided the points evenly across three ecological communities. They placed 10 points in mesic woodlands – the gently sloping parts of the property where white oak and shagbark hickory were most prevalent. Ten points were in areas dominated by eastern red cedar – mostly thin-soiled ridgetops that faced the south, and ten points were in forest – the lower, thicker-soiled toe slopes where northern red oak and Shumard oak were dominant in the canopy with paw paws and spicebush down below.

Fig_RevisedHabitats_HiRes_v2.3

Three ecological communities in the Dana Brown Woods: (A) red cedar dominated areas which, after removing red cedar, looked more like dolomite glades in some parts; (B) mesic woodlands with lots of oak and hickory in the canopy; and (C) forest – which had a much darker understory.

At each point, Nels hammered in a t-post, then walked 50 m in the steepest direction and hammered in another t-post. This was his transect. Every year for more than a decade (2000-2012), Nels walked the transects and recorded every stem of every species that was inside of 10 0.5-m2 study plots. Actually, he did this twice per year – once in the spring to capture the ephemeral plants, and once in early summer. Over the course of the study he spent more than 200 days in the field.

Canopy Cover

Dana Brown Woods before (left) and after (right) red cedar removal, with Nels’s 30 transects. The horizontal axis of the image is about 0.9 km. Imagery is from Google Earth.

During this time the stewards at Shaw Nature Reserve were busy restoring the woods. From 2001-2012, they burned the woods five times. This amounted to about one fire every three years. In 2005-2006, they brought in a logging crew to remove all of the eastern red cedars.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-24,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-ve

James Trager lights a fire in a woodland at Shaw Nature Reserve.

BigJuniperStump_20151104

One of several thousand red cedar stumps from trees that were harvested from the Dana Brown Woods in 2005-2006.

Plot R8

One of Nels’s sampling quadrats in the Dana Brown Woods. Photo: Nels Holmberg.

I met Nels and James in 2014. I had just joined Missouri Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development as a postdoc, and I was looking for a local research project. I heard that Nels Holmberg had a giant dataset about woodland restoration, so I called him and asked if I could look at it. Nels said “Sure!”. I imagined he would send me an Excel file. Instead he brought in a giant cardboard box full of yellow legal pads where he had recorded his data.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of hundreds of datasheets where Nels recorded his detailed observations.

It took a long time to digitize all of the data. There were more than 50,000 data points. But once we had it all together, this is what we learned:

After eleven years of restoration, the number of native plant species in Dana Brown Woods increased by 35%, from 155 species in 2001 to 210 species in 2012. This increase was linear. That is, the number of native species was still increasing at the end of the study. If we repeated the study today, we expect the number of native species would be even greater than in 2012.

The number of native species increased at different speeds and to different degrees in different ecological communities. In the lower and wetter forest areas, the numbers didn’t really shift very much. They jumped around but not in one direction. In the woodland areas, the number of native species increased by about 23% in the first three years and then leveled out. But in the higher and drier areas where red cedars had been dominant, the number of plants increased linearly by 36%.

Native Species Richness

Changes in the number of native plant species recorded over time in the Dana Brown Woods. On the left are overall changes for the whole management unit. On the right are changes for different ecological communities within the management unit. The management interventions are shown in gray.

The plant species that benefited from the restoration were mostly forbs and grasses. A couple of the biggest “winners” were black snakeroot (Sanicula odorata) and nodding fescue (Festuca subverticillata). There were also some “losers”: Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quenquefolia) and spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) both declined over time. Relatively few of the species that became more common were “conservative” – i.e., dependent on intact habitat. Mostly they were more widespread and tolerant species.

IMG_0049

Co-author Olivia Hajek demonstrates a hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) – a good representative of the type of species that benefited most from the restoration. Hog peanut is an herbaceous legume that is common in many woodlands, including disturbed ones.

Our study did not include a control treatment, but counterfactuals exist at Shaw Nature Reserve (although they are becoming fewer and fewer with the excellent stewardship of Mike Saxton and many others). There are still thick patches of eastern red cedar covering remnant glades on parts of the property. Woodlands that have not been regularly burned are now filled with bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), and other invaders. And low-lying forest that has not been restored is very dark with fire-intolerant sugar maple (Acer saccharum) casting much of the shade. If we had included a control treatment in our experiment, these are probably the trends we would have found – definitely not a spontaneous resurgence of diverse native plants.

IMG_0099

Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) was present at the outset of restoration and remained relatively stable.

Why does this work matter? The biggest value of this study is that it shows a relatively long-term restoration trajectory, and it does so in fine botanical detail. Many managers and scientists already have data to show that fire and tree thinning increase woodland plant diversity. This study adds another dimension. It shows how quickly plant diversity recovered. It also shows how the speed and shape of the recovery varied across the landscape. We hope that other scientists and practitioners will compare the recovery trajectories in the Dana Brown Woods to their own natural areas. To facilitate that, we have made all of the underlying data freely available online.

IMG_0029

Buffalo clover (Trifolium reflexum) is a conservative species that is present in Dana Brown Woods but was not detected in any of the survey plots.

One of the next steps for this research is to figure out how and when to re-introduce some more conservative plants. Although the Dana Brown Woods became much more diverse as it was being restored, most of the plants were early successional or generalist species. We found very few habitat specialists that cannot tolerate disturbance, which suggested to us that some of these species may have been lost from the site at some time in the past. To learn how conservative plants might be re-introduced, we have started a new experiment testing the effects of soil microbes, competition, and time since the start of restoration on the success of introduced seedlings from seven conservative plant species. In the next year or two, we hope to have new information and recommendations for restorationists looking to add more specialized biodiversity to their woodlands.

WP_20150502_004

Freemont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a restricted species occurring on dolomite glades in southeastern Missouri. Although it is present at Shaw Nature Reserve less than one kilometer from Dana Brown Woods, it has not colonized the restored glade habitats there. This photo is from Valley View Glade near Hillsboro, Missouri.

To learn more about this research, you can read the original research paper in Natural Areas Journal. Email me for a pdf copy (jlreid@vt.edu). You can also tune in on April 21 for a webinar on this work. Register here.