Ecological composition and health of the forest at the DePauw Nature Park
Kyra Reed and Vanessa Fox
Biology Department, DePauw University
DePauw University’s Nature Park contains a variety of habitats, including deciduous forests, early successional meadows, wetlands, a river, several freshwater ponds, and a large abandoned limestone quarry – all of which have been affected by human activity. However, in creating optimal use of the park, it is important to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and perhaps promote forest recovery. Previous studies on forest composition have been done at the Nature Park, but research on the relative health of the forest, in comparison to older, less disturbed forests, had not been analyzed. We hypothesize that some of the forest at the Nature Park will display characteristics of a less healthy, younger forest as a result of recent human activity. We assessed vegetation characteristics at several forested sites using randomly selected plots. The forest at the Nature Park varied extensively in vegetation composition and structure, despite the relative closeness of our sites. Shrubs and non-native plants were prevalent in the understory and may be outcompeting native species of tree seedlings. Also, oak and hickory, typical overstory trees in the region, were uncommon or absent. Our data suggest that some of the forest is in relatively poor health when compared to other forested sites. Options for improving the health of the forested areas are to actively remove non-native plant species and excess shrubs to reduce competition in the understory. Another suggestion is to limit fragmentation of the forested areas in the Nature Park as much as possible. We should, however, proceed with caution as we implement management strategies within the forest to minimize effects on native plants and animals such as the Cerulean Warbler. Potential options also include continuous gathering of more data. Over time and with continued monitoring, the forest may resemble that of a more mature, healthy forest. Whether or not management strategies are implemented, constant monitoring is essential in understanding forest succession and health.