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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Brandon LaBumbard

One of Brandon's field sites in Peru

Like many of us, I once thought that plants were just the backdrop for observing wildlife. There were times where I would stop and observe the plants around me (outside of botany classes) but I really only focused on a few types of plants - flowers, pines, and ferns.

Frogs Brandon studied in Peru (Hypsiboas gladiator)

My plant story that changed my mind happened in Peru, catching frogs, for my Master’s degree research. We were always told to look out for pit vipers (Bothrops) because they love to eat frogs, and as such, would be found in the areas we were looking for frogs. I saw an amazing little frog sitting on a leaf and when I went to grab it, I felt a sharp shooting pain in my hand. I screamed, thinking I had been bitten by a snake. Soon I realized it was actually the plant I had grabbed, and I noticed the cute little stinging hairs on the leaves. It only hurt for a few minutes, but the memory will last a while.

It was a huge relief that I hadn’t been bitten by a pit viper. You think plants are passive, just swaying in the breeze, and in just a matter of seconds I was stung, bringing a realization once and for all, that plants are not just a backdrop for animal viewing enjoyment.

Brandon LaBumbard is a herpetologist and PhD student at UMass Boston, studying amphibian disease. You can see more of his fab photos on instagram at frogz4dayz, and on twitter @b_labumbard.

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Ben Sikes

When I was a new dad and living in Louisiana, I was working hard and trying to figure out how I was going to do this thing called life.

I was newly married and had a new job at a big USGS facility working on population genetics and restoration. I was learning about the the city, Lafayette, and decided to go try frisbee golf just to be outside and see the area. I wasn't very good at frisbee golf mind you and only had 3 disks (a driver, a mid-range, and a putter), which I had left over from my college days. On hole two, my mid range went directly into an island of trees that was around a seep or low area of the course.

Having little recourse, I adventured through the shrubs and brush guarding the inner sanctum, only to come face to face with two stems of beautiful red flowers. I had no idea what they were, and no way to find out, since this was before cell phone cameras were ubiquitous. I sat there amazed. It was Louisiana, but it was getting pretty late in the year (October I think). I really wanted to know what these flowers were. I stared and studied trying to recall any botanical names I knew, but came up empty.

As I grabbed my disk and started to head back out to the course, a cardinal flew into the brushy scrub and started upbraiding me, likely because of a nest nearby. I looked at the flower and looked at the bird, remarking how bright red they both were, contrasting with the yellowish gray-green of live oaks and the rest of Louisiana that time of year. I didn't forget the flower though, and spent time searching for it's picture and name when I finally got home. Turns out, the bird was a hint: the mystery plant was a Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

Ben Sikes is a scientist who live in Kansas. He hasn't always lived in Kansas, but he would say he's always been a scientist. Photo by Jonathan Bauer.

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Lucy Zipf

Lucy in a black needlerush marsh

Black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) is the dominant plant species in the wide, flat marshes that surround the Pamlico Sound in Eastern North Carolina, where I found myself working a few years ago, as well as much of the US southeastern and gulf coasts.

And yet, the vast majority of marsh ecology takes place in cordgrass-dominated marshes. This could be due to the high concentration of research universities in New England and California, where cordgrass marshes prevail. Or it could be because cordgrass marshes are generally home to more species, take more beatings from waves, and are considered a more iconic landscape.

But we, The Juncus People, have an alternate hypothesis: black needlerush is just a pain in the ass.

In its marshes, black needlerush persists in dense monocultures of around 400 live leaves per square meter and just as many dead. The leaves are stiff, fibrous rods rising up over a meter from the mud beneath. At the tip of each tall leaf sits the plant’s namesake, a needle like point that could pierce my summer, but not my winter, waders.

While I worked in these marshes the needlerush would leave countless tiny pinpricks all over my body, which took on an unfortunate rash-like appearance, and my legs would ache from having forced their way through its leaves. Field days were hard, hot, muddy and incredibly rewarding.

I fell in love with the work, the landscape, and the plant. I became one of them, The Juncus People. We, The Juncus People, read papers on cordgrasses marshes and quietly scoff at the simplicity. We take pride in our strong legs and pricked skin. We see each other at conferences and meetings and we reminisce about our time amongst the needles, even toasting to the rush. I work in a different system now, but growing up as a scientist in black needlerush forged me. I will always be a Juncus Person.

Lucy is a PhD student at Boston University applying historical citizen science data to ecological questions surrounding the effects of climate change on conservation areas. She lives in Allston, MA with lots of friends and one grumpy, orange cat.

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