Teaching and Research

The Natural Areas are regularly used for teaching and research. The following interviews explain not only what is done but why it is so important to have this “natural laboratory” available to students and the community.

healthy streams

Dr. Mark R. Boardman

Professor – Geology

"Our health and the health of our streams are directly connected."

All households have a connection to the stream. All the water we use goes to streams. (And rivers and oceans). The streams clean the water for us – and if we take care of them it is free. High quality life in our home depends upon having high quality streams for our water to go where it can be cleaned economically. Without them, we would have to pay for what nature will do for free.

Unhealthy streams are muddy, with lots of silt, no fish or insects, and covered with algae. We can’t swim in them; they smell and the water is not fit for humans and animals. They are an open sewer.

Our research is to determine how healthy are our streams. We measure the types of fish in the stream, quantities of mud and silt, distribution of trees along the waterway, changes in the stream bed, insects in the water and levels of various chemicals to determine the overall health of the stream.

We frequently use the Natural Areas for our research, especially Harker’s Run, which goes through naturally wooded areas, buffered from roads, with long stretches of good clean areas. Because we can wade in it and access both sides of the stream for study it is of great value for our research.

We like the accessibility of the area and the well-maintained trails help us get to the study sites easily. Our research costs are reduced because of our close proximity and having year-to-year access for measurement is critical for our studies.

Collage of 3 photos: the woods covered in honeysuckle, a student clearing honeysuckle, and the woods after being cleared of honeysuckle

Figure 1. Honeysuckle-dominated area in Kramer Woods;  Figure 2. Student volunteer works hard to remove matured bush honeysuckle;  Figure 3. Previously honeysuckle-filled area now open to new plant life

Becca King

Student-Environmental Science

Invasive Species Removal in the Miami University Natural Areas

The Miami University Natural Areas are a valuable resource for university students, providing access to over a thousand acres of native Ohio forest to explore and enjoy. However, the value of these natural areas has become increasingly threatened by the presence of invasive species, particularly bush honeysuckle. As the invasive honeysuckle begins to flourish, it crowds out native plants and destabilizes the local ecosystem. When this process continues without resistance, the Ohio forest loses valuable biodiversity, and the land becomes dominated by the honeysuckle.

In the fall of 2016, a coalition of likeminded students and university employees began efforts to take back the Ohio forests, encouraging the growth of native species by removing the invasive honeysuckle. Miami University Natural Areas employee Becca King led groups of volunteers to three honeysuckle-dominated areas, teaching students about invasive species and effective removal strategies.

Thanks to these efforts, these natural areas now include three new areas open to the establishment of native plants. This in itself is a victory for Ohio forests; however, the continued efforts of students, faculty, and community members are crucial for the continuation of this project. Together, we can encourage the growth of viable forests and create a beautiful world.

prairie grasses

Dr. Thomas C. H. Klak

Professor-Geography

I work to help build more sustainable communities.

Prairie Demonstration Site

With over one thousand acres in the Natural Areas, they provide the opportunity to practically demonstrate what native prairie grasses look like and how to replicate them in our own environment.

In May, 2004, we converted a section of grass from a mowed area beside the DeWitt House in the Natural Areas. A sign in front of the site explains the purpose of the demonstration.

Pheasants Forever has developed instructions on how to prepare and plant your own prairie.

If you would like to know more about how you can convert your own lawn to native prairie and wildflowers, please consult the Frequently Asked Questions.

These Natural Areas are a wonderful resource to demonstrate how to build more sustainable communities.

White footed mouse

Gregg Marcello

Graduate Assistant – Zoology

Studied White Footed Mice to see what is happening to other animal and plant species.

"The Natural Areas are part of the reason I came to Miami. It struck me how much emphasis Miami places on natural spaces."

As development spreads across southwestern Ohio, with more houses, shopping malls, highways, streets and cars, our natural outdoor spaces become smaller and smaller. This is called “fragmentation”.

What effects will this have on our wildlife and plant species and eventually on us?

White footed mice are like the “canary in the mine” except they are in the woods. They can be found almost everywhere. Based upon their abundance we can make predictions about what is happening with other animals and plants. For example, if there are lots of mice than food must be plentiful. Lots of food means there might be fewer competitors like deer, birds, raccoons, and foxes. Therefore, places with lots of mice might be bad in some ways for other animals.

As urban sprawl increases, our forests become smaller (fragmentation), the population of mice increases and wildlife and plant species decreases.

If we want to maintain animal and plant species we need to know how fragmentation affects these species. We need to know what happens under these trends to maintain the widest number of species possible.

Without the Natural Areas, it would have significant impact upon my research. I would have to drive farther, spend more time and money, reduce the sample size and the quality of my research would suffer.

Cerulean warbler

Julie Means

Graduate Assistant

"If we don’t conserve the environment, who will?"

I graduated from Ohio University and have been doing fieldwork studying cerulean warblers in southeastern Ohio. I worked in bird banding stations in Nova Scotia, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. I Majored in Environmental Geography.

The Natural Areas has the potential to house a lot of bird species. I was surprised to see from some 1938 photos how bare the land was and how much has recovered through the process of succession and land protection.

I selected the NA areas, as it is a large area in the midst of urban sprawl and agriculture. The proximity to the University and the ease of use as it is open to the public were important considerations for my research. The NA is unique in that it is not all one single age, some lands are in succession and others are mature. It is such a diverse and heterogeneous area.

The Natural Areas are really convenient for my study and if they weren't available it would make it much more difficult. It saves time and money to have them so close. If I had to use private land I would have to get permission for my research which would increase the time and expense of the project.

My plan is to survey the Natural Areas patches of woodlands that have regenerated, for their bird diversity and abundance. It’s important to monitor bird life so we can better assess our conservation efforts. Bird conservation is my passion and I hope to make a career out of it. I am hopeful that my research will encourage others to become more active in preserving the environment and the diversity of the species.

stream erosion

Monica Rakovan

Ohio Watershed Coordinator – Institute of Environmental Sciences

"My goal is to discover long-term solutions to address stream erosion."

I use the Natural Areas because I study streams, and since most are on private property the Natural Areas are perfect for my research. They are a natural laboratory, provide easy access, short travel distance and always available.

I am trying to understand what human influences have done to our natural stream systems.

We discovered logs in the Natural Areas that are very old (over 200 years) They will help us measure the age of the sediments along the stream and see more clearly what has transpired over time in these flood plains. This is important to know so we will be in a better position to stop the negative impacts of stream erosion.

land use

William H. Renwick

Chair & Professor – Geography

"The Natural Areas are a wonderful resource for teaching."

Miami is primarily and educational institution and the Natural Areas contribute importantly to our teaching in many ways. Our research will help explain what is there and why it looks the way it does. We use the Natural Areas when we teach physical geography because they are within a 10-minute walk from our classrooms. With out them we would have to do it “virtually” or drive in a van to the location, increasing time and cost.

Geography classes frequently use the Natural Areas as outdoor classrooms where students learn about the environment. Among the topics we study are the ecology of forests, stream erosion and flooding, and the lasting impacts of past and present human activities on the environment.

Although we call the undeveloped lands adjacent to the Miami campus “natural” areas, in fact they have been dramatically altered over the 200+ years of European settlement. The forests were cleared to make way for agriculture and provide wood for building or for fuel. Some areas were farmed, some were pastures, and still others were used as dumps for trash.

These natural areas demonstrate very well that, while we may not notice such things in casual observation, humans have profoundly changed our environment.

teaching

Dr. James M. Rubenstein

Professor – Geography

"Once they experience the Natural Areas they are bowled over by what they see."

At Miami University we try to relate the students curricular interests with their personal interests. Incoming students are asked to express these interests and are than placed in a residence hall that matches their interests with others. I work with the students participating in the Environmental Awareness Program, First Year Living Learning Community in McKee Residence Hall. I teach a 100 level class that these students are required to take that expands on their interests in the environment. The students may or may not major in the sciences but over half are planning to study zoology.

I take the students to the Natural Areas to make sure they are aware they exist. Once they experience them they are bowled over by what they see. The Natural Areas is one of the top features that Miami University has to offer these students and my job is to make sure they know where they are and what is there. Once they know, than they take it from there. Some even become environmental activists. For example, after the recent hurricane that passed through our area, many volunteered to help remove limbs that had fallen across the trails in the Natural Areas.

The proximity of the Natural Areas is close. It is just out the backdoor of the University. The small-scale complexity is unique. There is so much to see in such a relatively small space. The students are always surprised that the Natural Areas exists and once they get inside they discover the richness of what is there.

Issues of energy, security, recycling, climate change, are of interest to the students. I try and match their interests to the local resources.

Baldeagle

Dr. David E. Russell

Lecturer – Zoology

"For the first time we recently saw a bald eagle in the Natural Areas"

For our bird research, we band birds, assign them numbers, capture lots of data about them; we monitor them year after year for how many return and what birds use the areas. This research is important because birds are indicators of environmental health, if they are having problems than other species, including us, could be in trouble. Birds in the environment are like canneries in the mines. First warnings. Making sure common birds stay common so diversity is maintained is crucial.

You may wonder why diversity is so important. Birds are essential for dispersing seeds and plants all over the world. Many of “our” birds breed in the tropics and migrate to North America in the spring. While they are here, they disperse seeds and plants as well as eat insects. For example, fewer birds mean fewer plants, and more insects.

As future leaders, we think it is important that students experience, first hand, the environment. If they understand and have a feeling for how things work they will make better financial decisions that support and protect the environment. You can’t appreciate something you don’t know. Once you learn about something it can be life changing. Some are just in awe of what they see.

We are so fortunate to have the Natural Areas so close, varied and large. Without them, we would have to teach more from the classroom. They add tremendously to the richness of the class.

american cardinal

Paul Schaeffer

Research at the Bird Viewing Station (Bird-Blind)

We are studying seasonal changes in energy use of the Northern Cardinal. Cardinals live year-round in Ohio and must cope with extreme winter. In addition to needing more energy during the winter, we seek to understand whether these birds use torpor (a form of "overnight hibernation") to help survive.

Bluebells

Dr. Michael A. Vincent

Curator/Herbarium & Instructor – Botany

"The loss of a single species can have a cascading effect on the environment."

I started when I was five and have a deep abiding interest in plants. My teachers fostered my interest; primarily my Father and an aunt and the personnel in my library that allowed me to dump out the plants, get their tables dirty while I identified my finding. This was a critical thing for my learning.

Some students will end up in jobs where they need to identify plants and I want to give them the tools to do so. Also, when students become interested in plants they become interested in the environment. If they can see that the out of doors is interesting and exciting they will be more interested in what happens to the earth.

I use the Natural Areas primarily for teaching how to identify trees, shrubs, wildflowers and fungi, especially Silvoor, Marcum, Western and Brown Glover. Because the Natural Areas is a natural setting vs. campus, it is a great way to show diversity.

While the Natural Areas have been disturbed from their original state, they are still good representatives of what was there formerly. We can still see beech, maple, oak and hickory forests. We can see a diversity of plants that are native and can also see non-native species invading the Natural Areas. I can point out the changes to my students and explain why this is happening. It is like having our own natural laboratory.

The loss of a single species can have a cascading affect on the environment. There use to be a butterfly in our area called the spice-tailed swallowtail. As non-native shrubs like Amur honeysuckle invaded the areas, the spicebush, that the butterflies fed upon disappeared, and so did the butterfly.

Today, we see another species, the White Ash, being attacked by the emerald ash borer, imported from China. This will have a significant impact on our forests and we can’t predict the outcome at this time. We don’t know what will replace this tree in our forests. We might have more shrubs or invasive species.

I feel it is part of the responsibility of the University to teach good practices with regard to how people interact with their environment. As citizens, we have to have an understanding of how important our environment is in order to protect it. It’s critical for our survival.