Five Unity College students made the trip to the 13th Northeast Natural History Conference (NNHC) in April, each offering scientific research to the predominantly professional audience.

Held in Springfield, Massachusetts from April 13 – 15, the NNHC is the largest regional forum for researchers, natural resource managers, students, and naturalists to present current information on the varied aspects of applied field biology (freshwater, marine, and terrestrial) and natural history for the Northeastern United States and Canada. It serves as a premier venue to identify research and management needs, foster friendships and collegial relationships, and encourage a greater region-wide interest in natural history by bringing people with diverse backgrounds together, according to the conference web site.

Among the five Unity College students who presented their projects at the conference poster session were three who were advised by Professor Amy Arnett: Taylor Noble ’14, an Environmental Biology major from Dracut, Massachusetts; Zachary Mann ’15, a Wildlife Biology major from Oakham, Massachusetts; and Elizabeth Orcutt ’15, a Wildlife Biology major from Dixmont, Maine.

These three pursued research as part of the Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study (HEMS) project at Unity College, which investigates the impact of logging on biotic and abiotic variables in hemlock forests. It also investigates the effects of the invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, and of recommended forestry practices within the north woods. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program, data is collected annually from research plots on four sites in central Maine.

Orcutt and Noble gathered data for the HEMS project during the summer of 2012 in the Unity, Maine area.  Mann began participating during the fall 2012 semester.  Two of the three will be working full-time during the summer of 2013 on the HEMS project, based at Unity College.

The focus of the HEMS research that Noble, Mann and Orcutt presented at the NNCH conference was differences in ant biodiversity in logged and unlogged Hemlock plots in Waldo County.

The whole HEMS project encompasses many things in the Hemlock ecosystem, we are focusing on just the ant portion right now,” Noble said. They noted differences in species between logged and unlogged Hemlock plots.

The title of their project is “Ant Biodiversity Changes Associated With Land Management and Environmental Factors.”

Research has given the three Unity College students new research skills, including a robust appreciation for the importance of statistics to the research process.  They have also come to appreciate the importance of ants.

“Until I participated in the HEMS project, I never realized how beneficial ants are to the ecosystem,” said Orcutt.

Taylor Follette ’15, a Biology and Wildlife Biology double major from Talmadge, Maine, presented research characterizing environmental gradients of Eastern hemlock dominated forests using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  The research allows scientists to predict where hemlock can be found in any given track.

“The hemlock woolly adelgid is an invasive species travelling up the eastern coast and is projected to arrive in the mid-coast region by approximately 2025,” noted Follette.

The conference presented Follette with exceptional opportunities to meet scholars from across the United States. There were different sections of the conference, one of which focused specifically on part of the HEMS research the student are doing.

“It was nice to see everyone in the same room who put their minds together about the Hemlock woolly adelgid,” said Follette.

Follette was assisted in her research by Unity College Instructor Kathleen Dunckel, and she hopes to pursue graduate study and a career in wildlife pathology.

On May 13 at the Unity College Student Conference, Follette will once again offer her research for public review along with all of the other Unity College participants in the NNHC.  The Student Conference will be held at the Unity Center for the Performing Arts, located at 42 Depot Street in Unity.

Jennifer Wiacek ’13, a Wildlife Biology major from Gorham, Maine, presented her senior thesis at the NNHC conference.  Advised by Unity College Assistant Professor Brent Bibles and Associate Professor Erika Latty, Wiacek presented research on Saltmarsh sparrows.

Her senior research project developed from a summer 2012 job researching Saltmarsh sparrows with a University of Maine graduate student at the marsh in Scarborough, Maine.

“My study looked at factors that influence bill size in the Saltmarsh sparrow,” Wiacek explained.  She compared bill surface data from Maine, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  She also searched for instances of sexual dimorphism, a phenotypic (the composite of an organism’s observable characteristics) difference between males and females of the same species.  Finally, she examined species because in Maine, there has been hybridization—two different species mating together and producing viable offspring—observed with Nelson’s sparrows.

The information from these three areas helped Wiacek to draw conclusions about factors affecting bill size of the Saltmarsh sparrow.

Wiacek says that Saltmarsh sparrows are vulnerable to global climate change because they only nest in salt marsh areas on the East Coast.  Their nests are sometimes flooded due to rising sea levels caused by global climate change.

“It is important to study them (Saltmarsh sparrows) to see if they are adapting or not,” Wiacek said.

Sometimes research runs counter to assumptions, and this was the case with her research.

“What I found was that Saltmarsh sparrows in Maine and Connecticut have larger bill sizes than in New Jersey,” she said.  “That was the opposite of what the literature suggested.”

“One hypothesis that could explain larger bill sizes in Maine and Connecticut is increased seasonal stress at higher latitudes,” Wiacek said. “A larger bill would be more beneficial in high stress environments because it helps the sparrow to conserve energy which can be put into breeding activities.”

In recent years Unity College has gained national attention for a variety of achievements including its focus on sustainability science, the leading-edge of 21st century ecological problem solving and the vanguard in the fight for the mitigation of global climate change; its ground-breaking “green” innovations such as the award-winning TerraHaus, the first student residence on a college or university campus built to the Passive House standard, the most energy efficient building standard in the world; and for being the first college in the United States to divest from investments in fossil fuels, igniting a growing national movement in higher education.

Unity College is a private college in rural Maine that provides dedicated, engaged students with a liberal arts education that emphasizes the environment and natural resources. Unity College graduates are prepared to be environmental stewards, effective leaders, and responsible citizens through active learning experiences within a supportive community.

Friday, May 10, 2013