Recently, researchers of Archbold Biological Stations’ Plant Ecology Program joined forces with staff from Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens to implement a new study following the state threatened plant called Hartwrightia (Hartwrightia floridana). This plant species was once known to occur in seepage slopes and along margins between flatwoods and wet, low-lying areas. “We have records from the Florida Natural Areas Inventory that show populations once spread from central to northern Florida and even into Georgia”, recalls Stephanie Koontz, researcher from the Plant Ecology Program. She continues, “However, at the 2018 Annual Rare Plant Task Force meeting of academics, scientists, government agencies and conservation organizations, it became obvious that little was known of the current status of this plant. It was then decided that Archbold scientists would collaborate with Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Conservation Program to update many of these occurrences and collect data on populations in Highlands and Polk counties.”
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Conservation Program seeks to be a change maker for conservation in the southeast. Their mission includes funding conservation research focused on plants, animals and habitats native to Florida. In 2018, Archbold’s Plant Ecology Program was awarded funding from the zoos’ conservation program to update local occurrence records, search for new populations and establish an annual monitoring protocol to determine the status of Hartwrightia. Monitoring protocols could then be shared and distributed to other conservation organizations in order to update population status within the historic range of this species. “The goal of this research is to determine if Hartwrightia populations are stable, declining or increasing. Ultimately, it could change the state listing status of this plant” said Koontz.
A unique requirement of the Zoo’s Conservation Program is for members of their staff to participate with partners by working alongside researchers in the field. Three staff from the Zoo joined researchers at Archbold for three days in October to implement this new project. “They got into the thick of it with us!” exclaimed Koontz. “We worked in ankle deep water one day, marched through knee-high cutthroat prairie for hours another, and dug through thick vegetation another day, all in search of Hartwrightia. They were troopers and always kept a positive attitude!” This melding of field researchers and Zoo staff provided a unique experience for both parties. The field biologists gained insight into public perception and involvement in conservation, while Zoo staff got to experience conservation in action. By the end of their three days, several miles of habitat had been searched, new populations had been discovered and mapped, and permanent plots established to monitor changes in population density over time. “This experience connected my passion for active conservation and the Zoo’s mission of connecting people to nature,” remarked Larkin Johansen, an avian keeper at the Zoo. Heidi Hetzel, who works in guest services, explained “At the Zoo, we strive to educate the public about conservation and it was motivating to be a part of an active conservation project. I’m excited to share this experience and knowledge with our guest and the Zoo community.” Houston Snead, the senior horticulturalist and collaborator on this project expressed “I’m happy to be involved in the first of many rare plant focused projects that the Zoo will support in partnership with Archbold.”
Written by Stephanie Koontz