BATON ROUGE, LA — For the past several years, LSU biology professor Barry Aronhime and the students in his Principles of Ecology Laboratory class have been working hands-on at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, or BSNC, to study an aggressive invasive species of plant called elephant ear and to work towards eradicating it. Not only has the plant become overbearing in the swamp, but its prevalence in the ecosystem has the potential to reduce the amount of native species found there and disrupt diversity and stability in the ecosystem.
BREC and LSU science classes have partnered for nearly a decade to address the spread of invasive species in BREC nature areas; in 2010, BREC began to notice the increasingly damaging effects of the elephant ear species specifically and, in response, Aronhime began to focus his students’ efforts on eradicating elephant ear. His first 90 lab students headed out to BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in the fall semester of 2010, and the students enrolled in his BIOL 4254 class have been doing the same every semester since then.
The goals of the project are to allow the students involved to gain a better understanding of the course material through hands-on observation and experimentation and also to impact the community in a positive way by providing the research and solutions that will allow BREC to better sustain Bluebonnet Swamp.
“The students benefit from participating in a project that will help BREC and its visitors,” Aronhime explained. “They learn valuable lessons about experimental design, diversity and stability, invasive species and applied ecology.”
This ongoing experiment involves the students collecting data from established plots, like how many types of plants are present and comparing their results to data collected in past years. Students also study correlations in the data to assess how effective different treatments have been and to propose changes to the treatments if necessary. Once an effective treatment is found, Aronhime aims to have students spread the appropriate treatment to larger portions of the swamp.
“The project definitely benefited both the community and our class,” said former student Amanda Bucher. “By visiting the swamp, we were able to see an invasive species first-hand and learn how to decrease its effect on the community.”
Aronhime has also received funding from Keep Louisiana Beautiful, or KLB, in an effort to improve the removal treatments already in use. As of yet, the “remove and add natives” treatment, which involves both getting rid of the invasive elephant ear plants and re-planting native species on the same plot of land, has been ineffective in combatting elephant ear.
Aronhime believes it has been ineffective because the native plants added were too short; the funds from KLB will allow Aronhime and his students to obtain taller native plants, like wild iris and pickerel weed, which may have a better chance of competing with the elephant ear. If the treatment is shown to be effective, they plan to seek more funds for the taller plants in order to expand the project.
“It is important for university students to realize that the issues that lay before them require a longevity of dedication to finding solutions if they are to be effective professionals in a natural resources field,” said Claire Coco, special facility manager for the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.
The project is unique in that each semester’s worth of students is responsible for only a small, albeit important, part of it. As the students immerse themselves in beyond-the-classroom research, they are also aware that their role in the research will affect the sustainability of Bluebonnet Swamp.
The project not only impacts the college students involved, but younger students and visitors from the community also have an opportunity to learn about the preservation efforts.
“Overall this project has been beneficial to LSU, BREC and BREC’s visitors,” Aronhime said. “Often, teachers, students and other visitors ask about our project and are surprised to see elephant ear’s invasiveness. We hope to bring awareness about invasive species and especially elephant ear since so many people plant it in their gardens and are unaware it can be invasive.”
Service-learning classes like Aronhime’s are supported through the Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership, or CCELL. For more information about CCELL, visit www.lsu.edu/ccell.