Authors: Scott Ward and Aaron David
It may be hard to believe, but biologists still do not know many of the details of where individual plant species occur. Mapping these occurrences, or ‘species distributions,’ is particularly important for threatened and endangered species, to ensure they receive the management needed for their protection. Biologists document the occurrence of plant species in several ways including collecting specimens for local herbaria and reporting species as part of statewide inventory lists. For extremely rare species, of which Highlands County has an extraordinarily high number, documenting their distributions at regular intervals can help biologists understand how populations change over time.
Here in the botanically diverse Lake Wales Ridge, Archbold Biological Station’s Plant Ecology Program documents the species present in the Carter Creek tract of the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area near Sebring. Research Assistant Scott Ward has led the project since 2019, diligently exploring nearly every corner of the property for species that are previously unknown to occur there or are not represented in the Archbold Herbarium.
“Various generations of field biologists at local agencies, including Archbold, have documented where the rarest known species occur at Carter Creek,” says Ward. “But with any complete floristic inventory, it’s the species that are or aren’t ‘supposed’ to be there that make these projects interesting.”
The Carter Creek inventory project directly informs land management. Declining or disappearing populations of certain, often rare, plant species can indicate lacking or unsuccessful management. Conversely, these types of plants tend to persist or thrive when the habitat is managed well, which, on the Lake Wales Ridge, often involves prescribed burning.
“Herbarium collections and floristic inventories, such as the one Scott Ward has compiled for the Carter Creek tract, are important components used to evaluate habitat management activities and inform future management plans,” says Matt Vance, the Lead Area Biologist of the property for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Good habitat managers know the value of these records and how they speak to habitat quality.”
“Without an active prescribed fire program at Carter Creek, there are many species that we would likely not be observing in their current state,” says Ward.
In total, Ward has added over 600 vouchered collections from Carter Creek that will be housed in Archbold’s herbarium.
“Maintaining and updating collections is a critical aspect of biological research,” says Dr. Aaron David, Program Director of Plant Ecology at Archbold. “Our collections, which focus on the Lake Wales Ridge and nearby areas within the region, are especially important for documenting the high plant diversity we find here.”
As taxonomic science progresses, collections are increasingly being used for novel research techniques such as describing new species, measuring morphological traits, delineating species distributions, and sequencing DNA. They also are critical for training and teaching new biologists the flora of the region. Most importantly, collections help to provide as best of a snapshot as possible of a given natural area at a given time. The addition of these plant specimens into Archbold’s herbarium represents a glimpse into the state of Carter Creek in 2021.
“Hopefully in 2121, people will still be able to walk around Carter Creek and document some of the same unique plant species I’ve observed,” Ward concludes.