Fire in the Swamp

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. Photo by Jessie Griffen

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. All photos by Jessie Griffen.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Coffee-colored water peels away from our boat, sending ripples across the glass surface of Lake Drummond. The ancient cypress trees begin to dance as our wake bends their reflections. We’re crossing this hidden, undeveloped lake at the center of a once-vast wetland stretching from southern Virginia across a million acres into North Carolina. Now the Great Dismal Swamp is reduced to (a still impressive) 110,000 acres, hemmed in by development. We have this otherworldly, placid coffee lake all to ourselves on an unseasonably warm December day.


As we approach the other side of the lake, the shoreline landscape changes abruptly from dense swamp to a vast swath of burnt toothpicks. In the past ten years, two massive wildfires have swept through the Great Dismal Swamp. The most recent fire in 2011, Lateral West, consumed 6,500 acres and burned for 111 days, despite 12.5 million dollars expended in suppression efforts1. Not even the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene could squelch the fire.

Yet the swamp is inundated for half the year. Its organic soil, peat, is 85-95% water in its natural saturated state, and well known for its ability to retain moisture. How can a peatland burn?

Fire, it turns out, has been a natural process in the Great Dismal Swamp for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. Peat, composed mostly of decaying plants, contains a lot of carbon—read: fuel for fire—compared to other soils. It’s so rich in carbon that high moisture content does not necessarily prevent combustion. Dry it out, and the whole swamp basically becomes a tinderbox. The water table in the Great Dismal Swamp fluctuates seasonally, normally falling below the soil from July through November. Lightning can ignite surface fires that smolder for months in the soil. Many of the plant assemblages in the Great Dismal Swamp actually depend on fires to persist. Lake Drummond likely formed from a massive peat fire1. But that’s not the whole story…

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildlifes that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildfires that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

In May 1763, George Washington visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the first time and saw opportunity where its first colonial discoverer, William Byrd, famously saw a “horrible desert…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists.” Washington invested in the swamp and began a long history of ditching and draining it for agriculture and logging.

Today, 158 miles of logging roads and ditches traverse the swamp, severely altering its natural hydrologic cycle. Parts of the refuge that were once seasonally saturated have been drained, and when peat is left dry for too long, it transforms to a granular, oxidized state that will not re-saturate, even under flooded conditions. Centuries of logging have left a legacy of fuel for fire in the form of slash. Add hotter, drier weather patterns to the mix, a few strikes of lightning, and the resulting blaze will be visible from space.

As climate patterns increasingly shift, what role will peatlands play in the global carbon cycle? In many peatlands, inundation slows the rate of decomposition, and carbon-rich organic soils slowly build up. The organic soils in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, are over 51 inches deep in places. Many scientists view peatlands as an important carbon sink because they store carbon below ground for long periods of time. When peatlands burn, they release the stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and peat fires often smolder for months, reaching deep into the thick peat—the Great Dismal Swamp lost over a 39 inches of organic soil in some areas in the 2011 fire2.

Peat fires are different from forest fires as we’re used to thinking about them. They are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, and the carbon emitted by burning soil can dwarf emissions from aboveground forest. The impact can be massive—Lateral West emitted much higher amounts of carbon per unit area compared to five other fires that burned mostly aboveground plants and trees2. In 1997, massive peat fires in Indonesia released an equivalent amount of carbon to 13-40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels3. And most of that carbon came from the soil.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to restore the hydrology of the Great Dismal Swamp, and balance the benefits and risks of wildfire—an already complex task that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Who knew that draining a swamp could have such dismal consequences?

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.


  1. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. (2006).
  2. Reddy, A. D. et al. Quantifying soil carbon loss and uncertainty from a peatland wildfire using multi-temporal LiDAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 170, 306–316 (2015).
  3. Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–66 (2002).

Additional information gathered from The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Post report on Lateral West, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jessie Griffen is a second year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Dr. William Old and Levi Old for an amazing voyage into the Great Dismal Swamp.

Field Naturalist Alicia Daniel Featured in Burlington Free Press


Alicia Daniel, Burlington’s Field Naturalist, on Long Pond. Photo by Kerstin Lange.

Suppose you were a mink in need of breakfast in Burlington.  Where would you go?

Alicia Daniel, Field Naturalist for the city of Burlington and 1988 graduate of the FNEP program, could probably tell you. Follow Alicia (and the mink) in the recent Burlington Free Press article “Burlington’s wild heart,” written by FNEP graduate Kerstin Lange.

Shadows and Sex


Red Squirrel / © Bryan Pfeiffer

YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents now begin a season of foreplay.

No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds erupting into song on sunny mornings.

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Black-capped Chickadee / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs revive from a state of dormancy. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.

February 2 is indeed significant. It falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period celebrated in various ways in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. And early February is when we start to get 10 hours of daylight – February 6 this year. It seems to be a turning point for wildlife.

But why the groundhog? Couldn’t we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? As it turns out, this rodent is indeed a worthy messenger of spring. In February, woodchucks begin to emerge from hibernation on the prowl. They need to breed soon so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. Males emerge from their burrows to find and visit with females. But many of these early encounters are merely courtship visits, which pay dividends, research suggests, when it comes time to breed a bit later. It’s sort of like another February ritual – Valentine’s Day.

Squirrels aren’t so tactful. Female red squirrels are in estrus, receptive to males for breeding, for about eight hours on only a single day during this season. And male squirrels outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. The consequence of this skewed gender ratio and hard-to-get females is that life during the breeding season can be, to say the least, challenging for the male. He’ll spend lots of time following her in the days before she is in estrus. Should the male be too forthcoming, too eager before she is ready, she will rebuff his advances with a swat to the face or a painful bite. (I hate it when that happens.)

And when those precious eight hours finally arrive, a male is hardly alone in this drama. He often must compete with or fight other males for her affections – actually for a copulation that might last only about 20 seconds. Out there in the trees, it’s a free-for-all. “To the casual observer, what ensues is probably best described as pure and unadulterated chaos,” write biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski in their fantastic book, North American Tree Squirrels.

So let’s recognize the real significance of Groundhog Day. This isn’t a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It’s a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be unadulterated, chaotic rodent romance.

Bryan Pfeiffer teaches writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs.


By Sean Beckett

winterization_bear_SB-3038One good thing about a mild winter is we avoid that familiar experience of leaving a warm house to enter the arctic interior of a frosty, morning car. Imagine sitting down in that frigid seat: Your shoulders tense and tighten like old taffy, you shiver spontaneously, and the chill leaks into your soul at the space between your pants and socks. Your heart accelerates and your blood pressure spikes. Eventually, either your mental resolve or your car’s heating system recalls you from distress.

Your rational mind knows that things could be a lot worse, so why does our very evolution invoke this intense response anyway? When hit with cold, skin receptors tell the brain to dump a hormone into our system that forces all these unpleasantries. And being cold is so intensely unpleasant because the same chemical, norepinephrine, also floods your body in times of fight-or-flight-style crisis. According to your system, this is an emergency, so your body reacts by pulling out all the stops to maintain core temperature. Veins constrict, shunting your warm blood away from the skin and extremities to prevent heat loss. Your muscles tense to double metabolic heat production, or you shiver to increase it tenfold.

This response is handy for someone freezing to death on a mountainside, but is a supreme overreaction to sitting in a cold car. The reaction is the same because an uncalibrated nervous system doesn’t know the difference between chilly air and certain death, so it plays it safe by overreacting to everything. The body is trying everything it can to maintain homeostasis (that magic core temperature of 98.6 degrees).

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

Fortunately, like any good piece of hardware, the human body can “winterize.” Regular and sustained exposure to cold trains the body to react more measuredly. After a couple weeks, the brain no longer pays as much attention to unhappy skin receptors. The norepinephrine dose attenuates, and with it the body’s response: Vasoconstriction diminishes, circulation is maintained to the hands and feet for longer, and body temperature can dip before shivering commences. When these responses are really needed (when it gets really cold), they feel less psychologically distracting. This is ultimately why we can wear a t-shirt on the first nice day in April, but need a jacket at the same temperature in September.

Spend enough time in the cold, and the body acclimatizes in extraordinary ways. Instead of vasoconstriction, blood vessels in an Inuit’s hands dilate: His hands receive extra warm blood so he doesn’t lose manual dexterity. Australian aboriginals, who experience near-freezing temperatures every night, can comfortably sleep nude— and actually enter a mild hypothermia to conserve energy— at temperatures that make most people shiver uncontrollably. Some of us even develop special heat-generating fat deposits (called brown fat) around the organs that we recently assumed were only found in human infants and cold-hardy wildlife. Cold temperatures activate brown fat production, and subsequent cold activates its metabolism— the body’s equivalent of stacking firewood to burn for warmth later.

We will never be able to weather the cold like a polar bear, or even like the chickadee chirping delightedly on a bird feeder at -20F. After all, we are a species of naked apes that crawled out of Africa’s tropical rift valley. So how do some of us live perfectly happily in conditions cold enough to freeze snot? Perseverance and willpower, the traits we often find backing most impressive human endeavors, are again the assets that carry us to our biological limits. So while we wait for winter to truly hit, prepare yourself with some light suffering. In a rude example of literally “no pain, no gain,” our affinity for hot cocoa and wood fires during the holidays just prolongs our discomfort once we actually make it outside. A little chill today will winterize your body for the months ahead.

Sean Beckett is a naturalist, guide, photographer, and graduate student in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs at the University of Vermont. See more of Sean’s writing and photos at

For more on winterizing yourself, check out:

The space between humans and cougars

Lions_painting,_Chauvet_Cave_(museum_replica) (1)

Panel of Lions, Chauvet Cave. Museum Reproduction. Licensed under Public Domain.

Two hundred feet above the lush Ardèche River in the south of France lies the barely visible entrance to a cave slotted between massive limestone cliffs. Narrow passageways connect multiple chambers that, once illuminated, reveal the unmistakable walls of Chauvet Cave, used 32,000 years ago by early humans who adorned this cave in paintings. The most famous panel: sixteen lions pursuing a herd of bison.

While the culture that painted these walls is long gone, and the species of lion depicted extinct, Chauvet Cave displays Paleolithic evidence of fascination with large feline predators. Did these people revere the formidable cave lion, fear it, or consider it sacred? Why did they feel compelled to illustrate these creatures in such lifelike detail when simply staying alive required most of their effort?

As we contend with the possible re-colonization by cougars, Puma concolor, of the eastern half of the United States, these ageless questions rise again. Why is our relationship with big cats so fraught, and why do we find them so captivating?

Underwater Panther, National Museum of the American Indian. Licensed under Public Domain.

Underwater Panther, National Museum of the American Indian. Licensed under Public Domain.

Native American tribes had specific and varied perceptions of cougars, ranging from fear to worship. Hopi tribes, dwelling in high Arizona desert, considered cougars fierce guardians of their people. Cheyenne tribal mythology tells the story of women suckling cougar cubs like children so that they would grow up and kill deer for the tribe to consume. Pueblo tribes historically boasted a band of hunters called “cougar men,” who used a cry that mimicked the cougars’ caterwaul. Tribes living in the Great Lakes region feared the underwater panther, a mythical monster with the body of a panther, the scales of a snake, deer antlers, and feathers of birds of prey. The underwater panther was a harbinger of death in some cultures; in others, its tail had healing powers. The skill and beauty of this animal inspired vivid stories and traditions in native cultures, casting the cougar as a fierce hunter, a strong guardian, and a worthy opponent.

While many Native American cultures respected cougars, European settlers took a more singular opinion of the animals, steeped in religious mistrust and a fear of large predators. When exploring Florida in 1565, M. John Hawkins wrote that, “there are lions and tygres as well as unicorns; lions especially.” In 1634, William Woods recounted to the New England Prospect that “some likewise being lost in the woods have heard such terrible rarings, as have made them much agast; which must eyther be Devills or Lyons.”

Elusive as unicorns and howling like devils, cougars did not stand much of a chance in the face of settlers imaginations. The Damned Thing, a short story written by Ambrose Pierce in 1893, casts the cougar as an invisible killer, unseen to the human eye, detectable only as it passes through grass. Aggressive hunting of cougars and their prey, along with deforestation of cougar habitat, decimated cougar populations in the eastern United States, extirpating them by 1881. Like exorcising an evil spirit from the body, European settlers eliminated what they could not comprehend.

Referenced as a “glamorous killer” by The New York Times in 2013, we now know much more about how these true carnivores live. Contributing to its near-mythical status, a single cougar once took 15 sheep overnight from one ranchers’ flock in Wyoming, seizing an opportunity for easy picking. When hunting, they use ultrasonic hearing, stalking prey and pouncing from close range. They aim to break the neck of their target from behind. If unsuccessful, cougars will literally go for the jugular. Cougars do not eat all of their prey at once—rather, they cache it, cover it in leaves and duff, and come back to feed intermittently. Family or pack cooperation while hunting is rarely observed, with the exception of mothers hunting for their young. That telltale grimace captured in photographs on many a cougar indicates the use of their “vomeronasal” organ on the roof of their mouths, an olfactory adaptation that helps them track prey. Surprisingly, there have only been around 100 attacks on humans, and 20 fatalities in the U.S. and Canada since 1890.

After a long absence, some evidence points to a resurgence of cougars in the Northeast. Sue Morse, a naturalist who studies predators in Vermont, proposes that the cats making the push eastward are transient tomcats and younger males, looking for a home territory as populations increase in the west. Reforestation and the reestablishment of a prey base in the Northeast over the last 400 years has enabled cougars to return. Since the late 1990s, cougar sightings, scat, and paw prints have been recorded in multiple eastern states and provinces, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Brunswick, West Virginia, Vermont, and Quebec.

Many conservationists remain thrilled about the return of this fabled predator, once the most widely dispersed animal in the Western hemisphere. General understanding of cougars in the east remains limited and dominated by curiosity, but Clary Nielsen of Cougar Net, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying cougars, thinks that with an influx of cougars, attitudes are probably going to change. It is difficult not to worry for them, foolish as it may be to worry for an animal perfectly adapted to kill. What if what happened in the 19th century happens again, and the tides turn from fascination to vengeance?

Cougars, at a glance, are everything that humans are not. Silent, graceful, and agile, they pass through the world largely unnoticed until it is far too late for their quarry. Does our fascination with big cats stem from a desire to understand something truly wild, both frightening and beautiful? Or does our imagination, lacking in details, turn the cougar into something mythical, and ourselves into its prey? Human beings, so culturally different today from our ancestors 32,000 years ago, display an easy dominance over the animal kingdom. And yet, predators unseen still possess a certain unpredictable allure.

Photo: K Fink - NPS. Licensed under Public Domain

Photo: K Fink, NPS. Licensed under Public Domain

Chris Bolgiano, a nature writer who has written and contributed to multiple books on cougars, suggests that we anticipate their arrival because it would exonerate us from the guilt humans feel from abusing the natural world and extirpating animals like the cougar. But perhaps it is our own primal desire, carried through millennia, that longs to see cougars and their inimitable power. Both magnetic and frightening, the presence of the cougar might be the closest that we come to redemption.

Information gathered from: Keeping Track, Vermont Public Radio, Cougar NetThe New York Times, Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas and People, by Chris Bolgiano, and The Eastern Cougar, edited by Chris Bolgiano and Jerry Roberts.


Lyra Brennan is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning Program

Snapping Turtles Meet Their Match

snapping-turtle-bryan-pfeifferAt first I thought the big black shape in the lane was a piece of burst tire. Then the tire held out a slow, prehistoric foot and took a step. Its long neck shifted into view as I drove by, and I realized it was a huge snapping turtle. In the few seconds I’d been watching, several cars had already whizzed past, missing it by inches. It was halfway across the first of eight lanes of traffic it would need to traverse to reach the other side of I-93.

I don’t normally cry over road kill. But a mile down the road I pulled into the breakdown lane and burst into tears. I imagined a cop stopping to help with the emergency and discovering, inside the Subaru Forester with, of course, Vermont plates, a young woman sobbing over a turtle who last she saw was unharmed.

The futility of its journey had overwhelmed me. The turtle, moving with the confident plod that has served its species for 40 million years, had looked so out of its element on the highway. It had completed only a fraction of an impossible crossing. This creature, steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, was utterly screwed.

Early each summer, snapping turtles leave the water to lay eggs on land, traveling up to four miles from home. The one I saw last June may have been a mother looking for a good spot to dig a nest, or a young turtle dispersing from its original home range. Unlike most animals, female snapping turtles disperse over greater distances than males and keep similarly sized home ranges (eight acres on average, in the north). Some nomadic females have no home range at all; others return to the same nest site annually. Since they can retain sperm in their bodies and use it over multiple seasons, they do not need to mate every year.

This strategy has worked well for Chelydra serpentina—so well that it is the ancestor of 80 percent of all living turtles. In fact, snapping turtles have hardly changed in appearance from the earliest turtle, which evolved over 200 million years ago. In other words, proto snapping turtles had already been around for 150 million years when Tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the scene.

Having survived two major extinction events in close to their current shape, modern snapping turtles faced virtually no predators once full grown until a century ago, when the automobile was invented. Now most females living in developed areas die on roads after only a few nesting seasons. Their natural life spans, although they average 30 years, can last over 80 years. In other words, the individual I saw on I-93 could have been older than the highway itself.

This time of year, snapping turtles have buried themselves in the mud of a pond, swamp, or slow-moving stream and begun hibernation, deep enough that the mud around them will not freeze. While they often do spend the winter within their home range, they can travel up to two and a half miles away to hibernate and then return to their territories in the spring. Individuals sometimes stay faithful to a few particular hibernacula, rotating between them year after year. If a site becomes popular, turtles can end up stacked on top of each other for the winter. This group hibernation makes them vulnerable to occasional predation by otters.

Still, I think a turtle stands a better chance unconscious against an aquatic carnivore than crossing an interstate highway. I can only hope that my turtle had already laid her eggs and was on the way back to her pond. Perhaps her hatchlings, if not she herself, now lie safe in the mud, waiting till spring.

Sonia DeYoung is a second-year student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Information gathered from “Snapping Turtles” by Susanne Kynast on The Tortoise Trust website, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland, and Animal Diversity Web.

Giving Thanks For Nature: A Meditation

solidago-550x764Despite the concrete, compelling realities of pine-cone gall aphids, winter buds, and migrating waterfowl, I head indoors as Thanksgiving approaches, trading adventures afield for the familiar comforts of food and friends. Chopping squash and garroting cabbage, I’m preoccupied with the wonders outside, even as I think about the purpose of this holiday—gratitude.

What do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? Family, of course. Not to mention food, football, and Black Friday shopping—maybe not quite precisely in that order. But something is missing for me, something that doesn’t neatly fit into that cozy human narrative. What else gives meaning to my life? Sunflowers and snow buntings, mourning cloak butterflies and polygonia orchids, mysterious fungi peeping from the trunks of trees. How can I bring them fully into the folds of my celebration? Where are they in all of this?

Across the waters of Lake Champlain, the Haudenosaunee people of upstate New York begin every gathering by thanking all of the beings of the world in a prayer they call “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” — literally,“The Words Before All Else.” Although it is often called “The Thanksgiving Address” in English, it was not limited to one day of the year. Sacred and holy, yet simultaneously woven into the fabric of everyday life, the words thanked everything in the universe for being exactly as it was and supporting life. The human folk, the earth, the sky, the winds, the animals, the food plants, medicinal herbs, trees, birds, the sun—the list seems exhaustive. Yet, at the end, anything still left unnamed is incorporated into the fold. Even the mysterious and unknown is worthy of honor and recognition. And every section ends the same way:Now our minds are one.”

So it can be done. We can bring all of the wonders outside into our kitchens if we want them there, whenever we want, by naming them and appreciating them as they are. But it’s not enough for me to see the world and appreciate it on my own; I want to share it with others and hear their own words in turn. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that level of connection every day, but on Thanksgiving, of all days, it feels more doable. We’re already gathered together, already here. Why not venture a few steps further in the outdoors and make the connection with a wider, marvelous universe?

But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start by expressing our gratitude for the natural world on this day of all days, for just one day. Let’s eat our turkey and pumpkin pie, and head outside for a walk. Or even a glance out of the window. There’s so much to see. The naked silhouette of sugar maples against the morning sky. The full moon on fallow fields burned by the frost. The rabbit skittering into the bushes, the chipmunk that skirts our path, the red-tailed hawk on the telephone wire. Look around. Try it out. See how it feels. Speak out, to family and friends on this one day, about all the things we experience and value in the natural world throughout the whole year. And maybe from those experiences will come new traditions—not dictated by some outside authority but welling up organically inside our own hearts.

Whether you’re spending Thanksgiving ensconced in the kitchen, up to your elbows in entrails, counting down the hours until Black Friday, or wandering afar in fields foreign or familiar, I hope your day is a joyous one. Wherever you are, find a way to stay connected to what truly moves you. The world is so big and rich when we take the time to stop for a moment and see it as it is. And complete the circle by sharing what you see with others and seeing the world through their own eyes in turn. Our minds may not be one, but we’ll be closer to being on the same page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Evergreen and Everlasting: The Long March of the Lycophytes

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

In the murky, humid forests of the Carboniferous Period, organisms grew to remarkable size. Dragonflies as big as Cooper’s hawks ruled the air and three-foot-long scorpions prowled the earth. The swampy water concealed beasts like the dawn tadpole, a predatory amphibian as long as a pickup truck. The canopy showcased elegant tree precursors: spore-bearing lycophytes a hundred feet tall.

Today, dragonflies are rarely any bigger than a clothespin. Tadpoles are tiny and harmless, and scorpions could fit in your palm (not that you’d want them there). This widespread diminution may be related to a dramatic decrease in atmospheric oxygen concentration since the Carboniferous. Even the lycophytes have had to shrink to survive. Yet three hundred million years after their age of supremacy, lycophytes persist in forests from the poles to the tropics. We call them clubmosses. They are usually less than four inches tall.

In early November, clubmosses leap into view on the forest floor, bright green runners in a matrix of brown. These evergreen plants are not actually mosses, but true vascular plants more similar to ferns and horsetails. At first glance they are easily mistaken for conifer seedlings; hence the common names ground pine and ground cedar. Lateral stems called rhizomes carry them across the ground. Periodically they send up vertical shoots, which emerge out of the leaf litter to capture sunlight. Having evolved before the seed, clubmosses disperse by means of spores, which most species carry in tiny kidney-shaped pouches packed together on a club-like appendage called a strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Wind-borne clubmoss spores are easily dispersed, but they have a long road and two life phases ahead of them. After germination, spores develop into tiny, often subterranean organisms called gametophytes. The gametophyte phase is responsible for the production of sex cells, which join at fertilization to form embryos. The embryos develop into the second life phase: sporophytes, charged with the production of new spores. This is the more familiar life phase we see above ground. Note, however, that not every clubmoss has a club: years may pass before sporophytes are capable of manufacturing new spores. Development from the gametophyte to the mature, strobilus-endowed sporophyte can take between six and fifteen years.

Clubmoss spores ripen in the fall, when a light tap to the strobilus is enough to release them. If you stroll through a miniature forest of lycophytes at this time of year your feet will stir up a cloud of gold. This fine powder has been put to use in a litany of applications: as a wood-filler in violins and guitars, a lubricant on condoms and surgical gloves, a hydrophobic coating for pills, and a homeopathic remedy for intestinal disorders. Crime scene investigators once used the spores to dust for fingerprints. The powder is highly flammable; early flash photography relied on the ignition of clubmoss spores. We have incorporated the spores into fireworks and magic tricks, theatrical productions and military operations. For more routine combustion, we turn back to the clubmoss’s progenitors: the giant lycophytes that ruled the swamps of the Carboniferous are burned today as coal.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Vermont’s woods can seem a little dull this time of year. Perhaps it will enliven your walk if you pause to remember that you are in the presence of prehistory. The tiny clubmosses at your feet have thrived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. With every step you are releasing spores that could have sealed a violin or cured a stomachache or solved a crime. Instead, because of you, they’ll go on to form a new generation of this enduring lineage.

Information gathered from Cathy Paris, Bernd Heinrich’s The Trees in My Forest, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious, Encyclopaedia Britannica (retrieved from, and Biology of Plants by Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn.

Julia Runcie is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning program.

Measuring Sense of Place

Looking west toward Hunger Mountain - a popular hiking destination. Recreation, as well as many other activities, increases the amount of time we spend in a particular place, which may lead to stronger environmental concern.

Looking west toward Hunger Mountain – a popular hiking destination. Recreation and other activities increase the amount of time we spend in a particular place, which may lead to stronger environmental concern.

Take a moment and think of the place in which you find yourself right now. No matter the location, there are seemingly infinite ways to develop a connection to a particular place. For example, you may depend on your surroundings to provide basic needs, or maybe the connection has developed from an emotional attachment or your identity. It seems reasonable to assume that if you’ve developed a strong connection to a place, you’d be more concerned about environmental issues specific to that area, and more willing to act on that concern. But how can we quantify something that is as complex and contextual as “sense of place”?

Researcher Asim Zia from the University of Vermont and his team of colleagues set out to answer that question with a grant funded by National Science Foundation. Their study focused on potential relationships between strong sense of place, environmental concern, and citizen action.

Measuring sense of place can be approached objectively or subjectively. Zia and his colleagues point out that pure objectivity and pure subjectivity lie on either end of a continuum. There’s no clear answer as to which approach would more closely represent an accurate measurement of sense of place (see table below for an example of a simplified framework describing these two approaches). They set out to find an integrative approach that falls along this continuum and is based on measurable reports of observable phenomena.


To better understand a person’s environmental concern, the research team used a conceptualized version of ambit. Ambit represents an individual’s periphery of their movements measurable over a period of time in relation to a home place. For example, over the course of a week, a UVM graduate student’s ambit may be focused mostly around their apartment in Burlington, then emphasis is given to school campus, favorite coffee shop, Lake Champlain, City Market, a friend’s house, etc. The particular places outside of the home can be quantified in terms of distance, weighted with time spent and frequency of trips.

In an attempt to measure ambit, the researchers surveyed 74 residents of Silicon Valley in California.  The survey aimed at eliciting respondent’s memory of trips taken over the course of a year. The resulting data suggested 5.07% less time spent for every 10 miles distance away from home. Even though respondents spent more time closer to home, the amount of time per distance from home varied greatly. This led to the rejection that concern is an objective function of weighted distance alone. Therefore, it is also inherently subjective, for example, through long distance trips to visit family or coral reefs.

Survey respondents also reported on their level of activism and attendance at community meetings. Zia used this information to explore the relationship between ambit-based measure of sense of place and community action. The data suggested respondents who spend a higher weighted average of time closer to home (i.e. higher sense of place) are more likely to participate in community action. The researchers point out that these findings are not necessarily generalizable, however future empirical research could shed more light on ambit-based sense of place. For example, GPS data or agent-based modeling – in addition to surveys – would provide a more robust set of data regarding individual movement between particular places, and shifting environmental concern as a function of such mobility.

Zia and his colleagues provide clear insight into the importance of proxies, such as their proposed ambit-based, sense of place theory: “As we work to develop new formal and informal institutions for dealing with problems that both exist in places and cross the boundaries of established spaces, it will be increasingly important to know something about people’s contours of meaningful place attachments as experienced on the ground.”

Sam Talbot is a second year student in the Ecological Planning Program. 


Zia, Asim, et al. “Spatial discounting, place attachment, and environmental concern: Toward an ambit-based theory of sense of place.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 40 (2014): 283-295.

Predicting Fall’s First Snowstorm

Here in Vermont, the passage of fall foliage marks the arrival of stick season. For a smaller group of birding enthusiasts, it also marks the triumphant return of the snow geese. Every year, thousands of snow geese descend upon the Dead Creek Wildlife Refuge in Addison, seeking respite and fuel on their journey south from the Canadian arctic to the mid-Atlantic coast. This year, though, things might look a bit different.


Snow geese erupt in flight over Lake Champlain in 2013

Since the mid 1960s, the raucous arrival of thousands of honking snow geese (Chen caerulescens) through the gray October clouds has been a spectacle worthy of a field day. The geese descend from their 2000-foot cruising altitude in smooth uniformity, applying the brakes dramatically in “falling leaf” formation as they approach Dead Creek below. Landing en masse on the shore and in the creek, the air fills with a cacophony of what seem to be triumphant shouts: “Glad we made it!”

As celebrated as their arrival is in Vermont, snow geese are anything but rare. In fact, they have the distinction of being one of the most abundant waterfowl in North America[i]. Once they arrive here in Vermont, they’ll chow voraciously on the region’s finest assortment of grass and sedge roots. Or, at least they used to. Murmurs in the birding community suggest snow geese dietary preferences are changing, and their migratory patterns are changing to follow their taste buds.

This change in forage is purely out of necessity. Populations have increased dramatically over the last one hundred years, the result of a hunting ban imposed in 1916 to allow a dwindling population to rebound[ii]. And rebound they did. Although hunting reopened in 1975, snow geese are now so plentiful that food is proving hard to come by; they must find food, or they’ll starve. So, what’s on the menu? Agricultural plant remains – the most abundant food around. Some geese have become so reliant on agricultural fields for food that they are now adjusting their migratory routes to stopover in prime farmland.

Despite plentiful agriculture in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, our forage is proving inferior to that in New York. Here, nearby farmers typically harvest their corn for cow silage, which leaves little waste material left for munching. Across the lake in New York, farmers often harvest corn as a commodity, leaving the stalks behind[iii]. As a result, the number of geese visiting Dead Creek each year has declined dramatically. In 2005, ten thousand snow geese stopped over; in 2006, that number dropped to five thousand[iv]. Since then, number have held steady at three to five thousand each year, with around two thousand geese already reported for this fall[v].

A Ross's goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

A Ross’s goose sits amidst snow geese in Lake Champlain in 2013.

Is the geese’s absence necessarily concerning? If you’re one of the many visitors who make the annual trip to Dead Creek adorned with binoculars, puffy coats and neck warmers, their absence may make you feel as empty as Thanksgiving spent without the chattering, bickering, well-loved guests. And, if you’re a wildlife biologist, keeping the wildlife management area an attractive stopover spot for geese helps minimize damage to neighbors’ crops, increases public interest in wildlife and increases the potential for hunting (another solution to limit population growth). There is incentive to keep the birds close.

Snow goose biologists have planned for just this scenario[vi]. What to do if the snow geese disappear: plant crops to lure them back to Addison. Vermont officials have already converted upland portions of Dead Creek to agricultural fields featuring a rotating crop of corn and hay, although the geese have yet to find it[vii]. It’s a crop artillery race against New York, and the winner is by no means fixed.

While a visit to Dead Creek this fall may not yield the same giddying barrage of honking that it has in past years, that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. If you’re in need of a weekend excursion, hop in your car, drive down to Route 17 in Addison, and train your eyes to the sky. Bring a snow-globe for good luck – perhaps a good shake will prompt a flock of one thousand geese to flutter through the clouds in the first big snowstorm of fall.

Hannah Phillips is a first year student in the Ecological Planning Program.

[i] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012). “Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens).” The Birds of North America, No. 514 (A. Poole, Ed.). Retrieved from The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York:

[ii] Mowbray, T. B., Cooke, F., & Ganter, B. (2012).

[iii] Alfieri, A. Personal Communication, Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. (2015, October 26).

[iv] Alfieri, A. (2015, October 26).

[v] Pfeiffer, B. (2015, October 25). “The 2015 Snow Goose Scoop.” Retrieved from

[vi] Snowgoose, Swan, and Brant Committee of the Atlantic Flyway Gamebird Technical Section. (2009). “Management Plan for Greater Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway.” Retrieved from

[vii] Alfierio, A. (2015, October 26).


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