Abbey Paulson surveys the shoreline of Maine’s Mount Desert Island where she is studying biodiversity as an inaugural project researcher. | AAAS
On Maine’s rocky, forested coast, Acadia National Park’s iconic landscape includes historic stone bridges, carriage trails, and other structures where human-made culverts divert water, prevent flooding, and improve visitors’ safety. At parks across the country, such culverts can also prevent fish, insects, and other aquatic organisms from moving freely from one habitat to another. That can reduce biodiversity, ultimately affecting every plant and animal in the ecosystem.
Understanding these impacts is one focus of a new research project by Elizabeth “Abbey” L. Paulson, the first-ever Second Century Stewardship Research Fellow at Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park.
Paulson, who recently completed her Ph.D. degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will study biodiversity within three types of ecosystems at Acadia, encompassing soil, intertidal, and freshwater habitats. Her work – part of the Second Century Stewardship: Science for America's National Parks initiative, supported by AAAS Treasurer David Evans Shaw – will document biodiversity across Acadia’s Mount Desert Island, the Schoodic Peninsula, and Isle au Haut.
By analyzing the traces of DNA that organisms leave behind in the environment, Paulson will capture a genetic snapshot of biodiversity. This baseline data can then be compared with earlier biodiversity surveys, some of which date back 100 years, explained Mark Berry, president and CEO of the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. Paulson’s approach – called eDNA, or environmental DNA surveying – relies on relatively new technology that is just now beginning to be more widely applied in ecological research. The research therefore “should offer new insights to the whole spectrum of life in the park, from bacteria to brook trout,” Berry said.
At the same time, her work could ultimately help guide specific park-management and conservation practices, such as culvert maintenance and planning, according to Abe Miller-Rushing, Acadia’s science coordinator, who will serve as Paulson’s research mentor during her fellowship.
“There are millions of culverts in parks across the country,” explained Miller-Rushing. “We have thousands of them within Acadia National Park, and some are too small for the storms that we’re getting now, and will continue to get in the future, as a result of climate change. We want to try and improve culverts, but we don’t know how they affect anything besides fish, and even in that case, our knowledge is limited. Abbey’s work will really help us look at how much these culverts fragment stream ecosystems, separate populations, obstruct connectivity, and maybe disrupt species’ ability to respond to climate change.”
Fragmentation of a habitat can result in different species being isolated from potential food sources and partners beyond their immediate gene pool. Over time, that can result in a loss of biodiversity within an ecosystem. After Paulson collects samples of water and soil, she will analyze DNA “fingerprints” left by all of the life forms in each of her study environments, from microscopic bacteria, to algae and other eukaryotic organisms. Assessing the whole range of biodiversity is important, she said, because even the tiniest organisms “have important functional roles across the food web” and “a lot of microbes are important in nutrient cycling and have implications for water quality, so it’s all connected.”
Andrew Martin, Paulson’s advisor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that maintaining the right balance of microscopic organisms in an environment is essential. “There are lots of good guys and bad guys in microbial work,” said Martin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. While “good” microbes boost nutrients in the soil and water, “bad” microbes can foul waterways and increase the risk of diseases that attack plant roots, for example. “We have to understand all the players in the ecosystem in order to avoid those types of outcomes,” he explained.
Paulson, who is grateful for outstanding mentors like Martin for helping her progress as a scientist, said that she hopes to pursue a career in teaching, after her fellowship ends. Young people who are curious about science and engineering should follow their passions, she said. “I was always interested in nature, growing up in Colorado and being in wild places,” she added. “Throughout my academic years, I was encouraged to do what I was passionate about. It was never about a specific career goal. It was about going through open doors and pursuing what was interesting to me.”
The Second Century Stewardship in the National Parks initiative is a new partnership of AAAS, Schoodic Institute, the National Park Service, and other institutions. Paulson’s $20,000 fellowship award will encompass public-engagement and science-education activities, in addition to research. Berry said that Schoodic Institute expects to award three research fellowships per year, under the Second Century Stewardship initiative.
“We at Schoodic Institute are honored and excited to be partnering with AAAS to advance scientific research, education, and communication, first at Acadia National Park, and later, in partnership with parks across the country,” Berry said.
[Associated image: Abbey Paulson prepares to leave her home state of Colorado for her Maine research fellowship.]