Many people throughout the Madison area love to spend time outdoors. Whether it’s hiking through trails or spending time on the lakes, everyone loves the scenic views the city has to offer. Though the landscape is beautiful, there is more hiding underneath the surface than most people know.
Landscape ecology is the study of ecological processes in the environment and how they differ between ecosystems. It focuses on many different areas of the environment, ranging from the aquatic underworld to the dry deserts of Africa. Landscape ecologists try to see how different processes affect the variety of parts of these specific landscapes, regardless of whether those changes are for better or for worse.
Not only do landscape ecologists study the physical structures of the land, but they study how these physical differences lead to the wide variety of conditions for plants to grow, how organisms live and thrive in their environments and how they can positively or negatively affect different types of environments.
Carly Ziter, a graduate student in the UW-Madison Landscape Ecology program, has been immersed within the world of biology and ecology for a long time, beginning with her undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology. But Ziter has always been passionate about the environment and its interactions and effects within our society. She is currently researching the effects on jumping worms in our environment — specifically Madison’s. Ziter became particularly interested in how the jumping worms interacted with Madison’s community.
Jumping worms are an invasive species of worms that were discovered at the UW Arboretum in the fall of 2013, which was shocking because the species is native to East Asian countries — not the Midwest. Researchers jumped on this issue and three main questions immediately came to the table: Where is the species spreading within the city, how are they spreading and what can people do about it?
Though the research began with looking at how the worms interact with a particular shrub, it evolved into studying how they were affecting Madison’s ecosystem as a whole.
“Many gardeners talk about their love for earthworms because they eat organic matter such as dead leaves or mulch and turn it into nutrients available for the surrounding plants. Jumping worms do this job a little too well,” Ziter said.
Though the jumping worms produce an abundant amount of nutrients, they release them very quickly and in large quantities. This worries researchers for two reasons: The nutrients eventually wash into the waterways and it changes the structure of the soil itself, producing a soil that resembles dried-up coffee grounds. This affects the plants, though the specific effects on plants or soil organisms is currently unknown.
“We’re really just at the beginning of learning what they might do and what problems they may or may not cause,” Ziter added.
In September of this year, Ziter and her team led a city-wide survey of these creatures. Around 40 volunteers attended the information session held at the Arboretum and contributed to the survey.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by how engaged the Madison community has been in this work,” Ziter commented.
The volunteers’ jobs were to spread across 85 sites around the city and collect samples, determine an estimate of how many worms were within the soil and note the type of habitat the samples and observations came from.
A few weeks ago, the survey concluded and the research team is now beginning to sort through all of their findings. Even though they’re just starting this data evaluation, the community has shown a large amount of support for this endeavor.
These worms are invading people’s gardens and yards, which has begun to worry many of the community members. Madison residents are very keen to understand what exactly the worms are doing and learn about the effects, positive and negative, they are having on their land.
“As a scientist and graduate student, you don’t always get community members approaching you and asking about your work. For me, this has been an interesting experience in that local people will seek me out and want me to come talk to them and educate them about this species,” Ziter added.
Since they’re at the beginning of their research, it presents many opportunities for students and community members to learn about invasive species and how they affect the campus directly.
“The UW Arboretum is a great place to start. They sometimes have student research or internships available for undergraduates. The Lakeshore Preserve has good research opportunities as well,” Ziter said.
Though there is not a large amount of information known about how this invasive species will affect the campus ecosystem, community members can remain calm knowing results are soon to come.