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On Campobello Island Student Botanists Help Catalog a Forest's Diversity

Like most other sciences, botany -- or the study of plants -- has grown more high tech in recent years, as computers and electronic imaging have become more refined. However, old-fashioned plant collection - where people go into the field to collect, identify, label and preserve actual plant specimens for later study -- is still as necessary as it was in the days of Charles Darwin.

It's a clear, warm summer morning on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. Located near Lubec, Maine, at the easternmost end of the US-Canada border, Campobello is part of the central Acadia Forest system, a vast tract of wilderness stretching hundreds of kilometers from New York State to Cape Breton Island in Canada. Here, Peter Romkey is in his element.

As director of the KC Irving Environmental Science Center at Canada's Acadia University, it is Romkey's job to oversee the students and others who will be collecting plants here, and then to compare those plants to the 300,000 plus specimens in the university's collection, some of which date back to the 1850s.

"And you can look at the leaf size. You can look at the size of the plant. You can look at the stomata. In some instances, you can sequence the DNA sequence of a plant that was collected in 1850, and compare it with the same plant found in the same area, in 2006."

Romkey says the study may help determine how the plants in the Acadia system may be changing -- due to global warming, for example.

"Scientists are really very much interested in what is this forest or what is this environment going to look like in the long run," he explains. "Are we going to have problems with one species or another? Is one species going to be more prevalent than another? Are those species economically important to man, or are those species environmentally important to man?"

Nearby, Acadia University botany student Ben Myles stoops by a stand of "Spirea alba" or "meadowsweet," a common low-lying plant with creamy white, five-petaled flowers. He has his wooden pressed-specimen holder, with its blotting paper, its protective polyethylene sheets and its vice-like leather straps. Myles explains that he must make careful notes of the habitat in which the meadowsweet was found before cutting the specimen.

"We are basically on the roadside right now, and the main forest is white spruce and, larch," he says. "Then you'd also say any associated species [you see]. So any of the shrubs that are growing along with it - I'd mention those as well, such as the clover and stuff, underneath. You just want to give as much general information about where the plant is growing as you can."

When an onlooker asks if one must collect a specimen when it is in bloom, Myles says no. "You want representatives," he says. "You want 'no flowers.' You want flowers that are open. You want fruits."

Myles puts the meadowsweet cutting in a layer of blotter paper with some cardboard. "Then you squish it all down, put the other piece of wood on top, and then strap her up! Then we usually step on it to get it really squished." He enthusiastically demonstrates. "There we go! We've got our species." When you collect plants, it's a perfect record of the vegetation. "… So you can say 'this plant grew at this location at this time, and here is the plant. That's good data!"

When it comes to nature, however, one cannot be complacent. Peter Romkey reminds us that, like the plants they contain, forests themselves are always evolving. "Generally speaking," he says, "when you get a dense thick forest like we're standing in, a few years ago, it would have been very shady here with just maybe a few needles and some mushrooms. And now the trees are starting to mature and individual trees are falling out." He points to a brightly lit hole nearby. "And in there, the grasses and the mosses will come in first. And you can actually see a little oak tree over there and a poplar tree. This is false holly. And these are shrubs that come in only when enough light is produced in a forest. And so this forest is in a state of transition."

He indicates a squirrel that has suddenly appeared a few meters away spiritedly chasing a mouse. "He would love this deep thick moss because he'd have tunnels all through it everywhere. And it's a great place to hide a few seeds and cones for the winter."

Like all forests, the complexity of the relationship between species in the Acadia Forest system is as daunting as it is beautiful, and there are widespread concerns over what humanity's effect on the climate has been and will be. Yet Peter Romkey remains hopeful.

"We are the first organism in the history of the world that has the ability to improve, conserve or preserve our environment," he says. "I am an eternal optimist. We've made some messes and we're fixing them up and we'll make more messes and we'll fix those up. But I think in the long run, I think we're going to be okay!"