If you have trouble imagining what it’s like to be an ecologist, try thinking of it like this: The job of an ecologist is like putting together a giant puzzle, only all the pieces are hidden and the puzzle keeps changing.
I love the idea that doing science is like solving a puzzle. Ecologists are scientists that study the giant puzzle – the complex web of life on our planet. Each discovery is like finding another piece and fitting it into the right place. Some of the scientists that research at Archbold Biological Station have been working on the puzzle for a long time and have fit many pieces together.
Ecologist Dr. Warren “Abe” Abrahamson lives in Pennsylvania, but has regularly visited Florida for over 40 years to study plants and prescribed fire. Some of his projects take years to complete. To figure out how fast Saw Palmettos (Serenoa repens) grow in the Florida scrub, Abe and his assistants measured the same 120 palmettos every year for four years. From those observations they figured out that Saw Palmetto growth is extremely slow, only about a ½ inch each year. After a 19 year study, Abe found that hardly any new Saw Palmettos ever grew from seeds, but instead most branched off of nearby palmettos using underground stems. After even more observations, Abe found that Saw Palmettos can take 200 years to mature into an adult! Each of Abe’s discoveries gives him better understanding and the chance to ask more challenging questions. For example, here is my favorite Abe discovery: Recently, Abe and a partner used his decades of research on hundreds of Saw Palmettos to combine the 1/2 inch growth rate, the 200 year maturity rate, and newly collected DNA samples, to discover that Saw Palmettos live for thousands of years. Abe thinks that many are likely 10,000 years or older!
Like other ecologists, Abe publishes his results in scientific journals for others to see and compare with their own findings. His work uncovers the mysteries of how plants survive in the Florida scrub, but he also hopes his discoveries can help people make better choices about how to live with Florida’s wildlife. He told me, “Now that I’ve had almost 70 years to view things, I have seen the resilience of nature, but I’ve also seen a lot of loss of nature. The curse of our short lifetime is that we think short term.” Abe believes in thinking long-term. He respects the Native American philosophy of the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) who say that we should always consider how our choices will affect the children of the future, born seven generations from now.
If thinking about the well-being of people born 200 years from now seems silly or pointless, remember that somewhere in Florida there is a Saw Palmetto starting life today that will only just become an adult in 200 years and keep on living for another 9,800 more.
Learn to observe Saw Palmettos and measure their age in section 4 of the Discovering the Florida scrub curriculum.
Learn more about Dr. Warren Abrahamson here.
You can learn more about the Haudenosaunee on their website.
Written and photographed by Dustin Angell, Archbold’s Education Coordinator