Dissertation focus: Will Carpenter’s woodland ecology project

Will enjoying a spot of lab work...

Will enjoying a spot of lab work…

For my dissertation, I wanted to test a plant bioindicator system devised by Ellenberg (a German biologist, botanist and ecologist) based on the environmental requirements of each species within a community. This system uses plant communities to indicate the abiotic conditions of the location, as plants (like most species) have a preferred niche and an actual niche where they grow. Thus by identifying plant species within the community and then sampling (some of) the abiotic conditions I hoped to test whether the idea of the Ellenberg system was actually sound (i.e. test whether plant communities could indicate abiotic conditions) and whether the Ellenberg system, designed for use in central Europe, could be used “as is” without any amendments for the UK.

My interest in the dissertation project came about through one of my lectures in second year module, Ecological Impact Assessment and Monitoring. My original idea was to conduct empirical testing in two different environments, woodland and in heathland.  Early planning was essential and it quickly became obvious that the scale of testing one community would be a large undertaking for one person let alone two different environments.

The project was a fantastic opportunity to use practical skills that I had picked up on different field trips as well as in laboratory practicals. There was a lot of preparatory work before setting foot in the field to collect data. For the study to be robust, random woodland sites within the Gloucestershire County boundary had to be identified. To do this British Grid map data was utilised to identify the County boundaries and then a random number generator was used to create grid locations within the County boundary. Over 300 grid locations were produced in order to gain 50 random sites that contained woodland communities. These communities were diverse, from currently managed plantations, through to abandoned man-made plantations through to the ancient woodlands of the Forest of Dean.

Dissertation sites 070

Each of the 50 sites was visited twice, once in the spring and then again in the summer. A 10m by 10m plot was established as close to the coordinates identified as possible. Sketches were completed, photographs taken and a lot of time was spent on my hands and knees identifying plants within the plot. Then samples from the “A” horizon of the soil profile were taken from each site for further laboratory analysis looking at the nitrates, pH and moisture of each sample.  The best feature of this project was that I had the best of both worlds, I was able to be out in the field collecting data, and then I was able to use a variety of laboratory equipment to collect even more data!

That was the fun part, the next part to me was the scariest part – analysing the data statistically. The University has excellent lecturers who were available for guidance: my dissertation supervisor, Dr Anne Goodenough, has a number of specialist skills, which luckily for me included stats. Although, guidance and support were available it was down to me to complete the statistical analysis and interpret the results.

Part way through our final academic year we presented our projects at a poster presentation. This was marked and we had to be able to “defend” our work and explain (with confidence) why we conducted the project the way we did. The feedback from my dissertation supervisor was very encouraging.

After many, many drafts I was happy to submit my dissertation. A few months later I was approached by Anne who asked if I was willing to undertake more work on the project in an effort to submit it as a journal article. We completed this work and submitted the study in 2013 and after completing a few “tweaks” from peer-reviewers, it was accepted. It will be published mid-2014 in the international journal Community Ecology with the title ‘How robust are community-based plant bioindicators? Empherical testing of the relationship between Ellenberg values and direct environmental measures in woodland communities.

Will Carpenter, B.Sc. (Hons)

[Students working with staff on research is a key feature of our Bioscience courses – each student gets the opportunity to conduct original research in the final year, and these projects often lead to scientific publications, a great CV booster! – Ed.]

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