As TU’s resident ghosts, goblins and zombies prepare for the revelry of All Hallows’ Eve, the TU Field Station (located 19 miles north of campus in Monkton, Md.), has been invaded by a swarm of eerie and mysterious creatures.
The tiny aliens are not otherworldly, however. They’re the nymphal stage of the woolly aphid, a common insect pest. Field Station director Don C. Forester observed them next to an experimental plot where TU biologists are studying the impact of deer browsing on the forest ecosystem.
According to Professor Emeritus Forester, a behavioral ecologist, “The nymphs completely covered a two square-meter segment of the forest floor. Each insect was waving its conspicuous furry abdomen in the air, and as I approached, their activity became increasingly frenetic. Apparently this is a genetically controlled, synchronized anti-predator response.”
Instead of warding off predators, Forester says the nymphs’ ghostlike fluttering alerted him to their presence. He reports that many were inadvertently crushed as he lay on the forest floor trying to film them with his iPhone. “They became unintentional collateral damage in my exuberant practice of scientific inquiry,” he adds.
Founded in 2010 through a partnership with Al Henneman ’66 and his wife Suzie Henneman, TU’s Field Station provides a place for faculty and students to investigate and research the natural world. Adjacent to the Gunpowder Fall State Park and protected from development by a conservation easement, it is one of the largest natural preserves in central Maryland.
The TU Field Station is used for field trips and as an outdoor laboratory for student and faculty research To support long-term ecological research, the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics has funded the construction of 11 fenced plots called deer exclosures. Each plot is paired with an adjacent, unfenced control plot. TU scientists and students monitor the plots throughout the year to determine the impact that deer browsing has on the forest vegetation, leaf litter, soil invertebrates and salamanders.
A portable weather station installed this year will enable TU scientists to monitor the influence of climate change on the health of the forest ecosystem. There are also plans to study honeybee populations as well as dung beetles.