Long-term Research in Forest Ecology in Stebbins Gulch

By David Burke, Ph.D. Vice President for Science and Conservation for Holden Forests & Gardens

We began our long-term climate research in Stebbins Gulch in 2006. Our goal was to monitor how plants and soil fungi that associate with plant roots (called mycorrhizal fungi) respond to changes in air and soil temperature and moisture. This shows one of our two weather stations in the old-growth beech-maple forest in Stebbins. The beech tree in the background that toppled over in 2015 was more about 219 years old when it fell based on tree ring data – the tree began to grow in 1796.











Since 2007, we have observed large seasonal fluctuations in some wildflower populations such as wild leek. The cause of these fluctuations is still unclear. We have found that over 5 years soil fungal communities responded strongly to soil moisture but were unaffected by soil temperature. This suggests that soil fungi will respond more to changes in rain and snow fall than temperature as the climate warms.











We began our work in 2006 and this large, old beech collapsed after a high wind event in April 2007. The process of tree death is closely linked to growth and recruitment within forests. The collapse and death of this tree created a light gap that other, younger plants can grow into and fill. The plants that replace this beech tree may be of another species, such as oak or tulip poplar. This process of gap creation and tree replacement means our forest are always changing and evolving.






After 13 years the tree that fell in Stebbins is still visible, but it has decayed considerably. The fallen tree has been home to fungi that have begun the process of wood decay and in turn have become food for myriad insects. Those insects support other animal life, such as woodpeckers and small mammals. The nutrients within the wood are also released as a part of this decay process and return to the soil to fuel future plant and tree growth.











David Burke is a research scientist and Vice President for Science and Conservation at Holden Forests and Gardens which includes the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden. David received his PhD in Biology in 2001 from Rutgers University, and holds a Master’s degree in Biology from East Stroudsburg University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science also from Rutgers University. His research focuses on the interaction between plants and microorganisms.