Our Latest Research

Climate Change Responses of Plants and Lepidoptera Across Mountain Gradients

Catherine M. Hulshof, Assistant Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University

The proposed study will, first, establish long-term vegetation monitoring plots to determine the factors (dispersal, survivorship, growth, and fitness) that lead to plant species migrations across mountain gradients. Second, this study will establish long-term monitoring of insect populations to record their present-day distributions across elevation and distributional shifts relative to the distribution of their host plants. This study will emphasize Lepidoptera communities due to their role as herbivores (with contributions to ecosystem level nutrient cycling), pollinators (with implications for plant fitness), and environmental indicators (due to their sensitivity to temperature).

Distribution and Habitat Use of Eastern Spotted Skunks (Spilogale putorius) in Western Virginia Research

Emily Thorne, doctoral student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech

The key questions assessed by this study was to (a) determine the distribution of spotted skunks throughout central Appalachia and particularly in western Virginia, (b) determine how current forest and landscape conditions in Virginia potentially influence their distribution, and (c) assess how spotted skunks are selecting habitat and to develop 3 predictive models that provide landscape/habitat-specific probabilities of occurrence for land managers. In addition to habitat conditions, interspecific interactions and competition with other carnivores could influence spotted skunk populations similar to other mesocarnivore communities.

History of A Long-Lived Fern, Osmunda Claytoniana Project

Janet C. Steven, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator, Christopher Newport University

Interrupted ferns (Osmunda claytoniana) are native to northeastern forests in North America, and have horizontal, underground stems called rhizomes. At the tip of each rhizome, a plant sends up a clump of about 8 – 12 leaves. The rhizomes sometimes branch, resulting in a large number of leaf clumps in an area of the forest that are a single clone. Estimates of rhizome growth rates suggest that ferns grow about one to two centimeters a year; therefore, a patch of ferns in the forest has the potential to be hundreds of years old. Because connections between plants rot over time, we are developing genetic markers to use in determining the age and size of clones. The markers will also be used to describe patterns of genetic diversity within and among populations of interrupted fern. These investigations will provide important conservation information for this long-lived and slow-growing plant species.

Native American Archeological Project

Carole Nash, Ph.D., RPA, Associate Professor, School of Integrated Sciences, James Madison University

The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen and archaeologists from the School of Integrated Sciences at James Madison University began a multi-year program to identify and record archaeological sites on Wintergreen property. The Virginia Blue Ridge has a long cultural history that is much in evidence at Wintergreen. Known archaeological sites date from the time of early Native American hunter-gatherers (ca. 10,000 years ago) to camps for the settled Monacan towns below to Euro- American farmsteads and narrow gauge railroad grades of the early 20th century. This program began in spring of 2003 and continues throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains. Directed by Carole Nash of JMU and developed as a volunteer-based program, several foundation members have been involved in archaeological fieldwork and related programming.

Orchid Research At Wintergreen

Melissa McCormick, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

In 2003, Melissa McCormick with the Smithsonian Institution, started a project to identify and describe the diversity of fungi associated with several of the fringed orchids (genus Platanthera) found in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Working with biologist intern Stephanie Pimm, the Nature Foundation staff and volunteers, leaf and root samples from several species at a number of different sites were obtained at Wintergreen. From these samples DNA of each plant and its associated fungus was extracted. Using DNA sequences is the only way to accurately identify these fungi, which are cryptic and do not produce easily identifiable mushrooms. 

McCormick and Pimm found that certain groups of closely related species of Platanthera rely on particular groups of fungi. Some of the species sampled appear to always associate with one particular species of fungus. Because orchids so strongly depend on their fungi, this type of one-on-one relationship means than identifying and culturing the fungi will be essential to orchid conservation and restoration efforts. 

The researchers have grown fungi from many of these species in the lab and these cultures may prove useful for propagating orchids from seed as well as possibly reintroducing the fungi and, in turn, the orchids to areas where they have become locally extinct. This project was useful in preserving some of the most beautiful and fascinating plants in the Blue Ridge.