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UW-Madison Study Signals Hope For Future Of Species

Ellen Damschen
Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and thousands of other species of plants and insects are associated with longleaf pine savanna. Researchers wanted to see if they could improve the odds for species by experimenting with a savanna habitat.

As habitats shrink and the climate changes, animals and plants are facing challenges across the globe.

But a group of scientists, including from UW-Madison, is finding signs of hope through a research project in South Carolina. They wanted to see if they could improve the odds for species by experimenting with the longleaf pine savanna in South Carolina.

"We created these openings; in the center there's square opening and then it's connected to another square by 150 meter by 25 meter corridor that's also this savanna habitat. I just started counting the number of plant species that we saw as soon as the experiment was set up," says Ellen Damschen, a UW-Madison conservation biologist. She's the lead author of a study about connecting habitat to encourage biodiversity published last week in Science.

Credit Google Earth 2017 / Neil McCoy
One of eight experimental landscapes at the Savannah River Site, South Carolina that test for the long-term effects of corridors on plant diversity.

The study has been going on for nearly two decades. It's yielded surprising results, even to the scientists. Every year, the number of new species increased — and continue to increase by 5% in the connected savanna fragments.

"And the flip side of that is that for any given species, the likelihood of going extinct in any given habitat patch was 2% lower when it was connected by a corridor than compared when it didn't have that," Damschen explains. "Those rates have compounded every year for every species, so now we have 14% more species in the connected patches than the unconnected patches. So, that equates to about 24 species per patch."

Credit Julian Resasco
Ellen Damschen gathers samples inside one of the habitat blocks.

She says the the study is applicable to many landscapes, including Wisconsin's.

"In Wisconsin, it's less than 3% (savanna) and 1% (grassland) of the original habitat type, so there's not much left. Our study actually mimics what you would do by recreating this habitat, reinserting fire into the landscape," Damschen adds, "and do it in a way that is smart scientifically and can help recover some of these species."

Credit Liz Anna Kozik
The longleaf pine ecosystem once stretched from Texas to Virginia, and is home to thousands of plant and animal species. Only 3% of the original habitat remains in isolated fragments today.

An extended conversation with conservation biologist Ellen Damschen aired on Lake Effect.

The study’s encouraging outcome couldn't come at a better time, she says.

"Just in the last couple of weeks we've heard about the declines in biodiversity. In birds, for example, 3 billion birds have been lost and the biggest impacts are actually from grassland ecosystems," says Damschen. "And so what do you do about that when there is so little grassland or savanna habitat remaining?”

READ: North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds, Scientists Say

Credit Tal Mims
The longleaf pine ecosystem supports thousands of plant and animal species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Damschen says the team will continue its work and monitor these rates over time.

“We were really surprised by this affect continuing each year,” she notes.

There's also plenty more to learn, according to Damschen.

"For example, we could look at plant/pollinator interactions or we could look at soil productivity and soil rejuvenation. Thinking about how these changes in biodiversity in a number of species might then translate to increased ecosystem services might be a future direction as well," she says.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.