This is our lab: carbon budgets in campus forests

The “Forests” class — a field-oriented class introducting concepts of ecology and evolution (taught by faculty member Kerry Woods) — recently remeasured two study plots established in 2004 in campus forests.

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Class members posing with their trees. Left to right: Emily Sanders, Dane Whitman, Nick Atherton, Kevser Kedici, Syvlia Madaras, Kily Dalrymple. Photo by Reily Gordon.

Remeasurements will allow estimation of biomass accumulation and turn-over — in other words, whether these forests are overall carbon sinks or sources. (the stand pictured here is a plantation of native red pine planted in the 1960s by former faculty member Bob Woodworth and his students).

It’s generally thought that New England’s forests are ‘carbon sinks’ because they are relatively young, post-agricultural ecosystems and so still growing — but we do not know how generally or how long that can be expected to be true, so we will keep monitoring the roughly 200 acres of forest on the Bennington College campus.

This is our laboratory: Ecology classes study the local landscape

IMG_9975Each year, the introductory ecology and evolution class participates in a multi-year study assessing how the history of agricultural usage and abandonment has affected ecosystem patterns over our local lanscape –  once almost entirely cleared and now over 80% forested. In addition to conducting quantitative vegetation sampling, we ‘read’ stories told by stone walls, soil properties, and remnant trees like this white oak, whose growth form indicates that it was well-established when this site was still an open pasture.

Class excursions also explore the rich diversity of habitats and communities found within a short van-trip from the College, including sub-alpine forests near the summits of surrounding mountain ranges (here, Mt. Greylock in the Taconic Mts., the highest point in

Ecology class in the lab - at the summit of Mt. Greylock

Ecology class in the lab – at the summit of Mt. Greylock



Spelunking in Bennington County

Did you know that there are caves in the hills around Bennington?

Tim Schroeder‘s The Geology of the Bennington Region class explored one such cave on the north side of Mount Anthony on a recent class field trip. The caves are present in the Ordovician marble deposits that have been quarried in this region for centuries. The rocks were originally deposited as limestone in a reef-like setting when Bennington was on the margin of North America 500 million years ago. The rocks were metamorphosed to become marble during the tectonic events that built the Appalachian Mountains. The caves form now because the mineral calcite, which composes the marble, is slightly soluble in acidic rain water, and it slowly dissolves openings as the rainwater infiltrates into fractures in the marble. This particular cave is located very near one of the major faults that formed the Taconic range, which we also mapped on this field trip.

Students gather at the entrance to the cave they will explore at Mount Anthony, Bennington, VT.

Autumnal Delights

October in Vermont. When the mountains are ablaze with vibrant colors, there’s a chill in the air, and leaves crunch underfoot.

In Dickinson Hall, there’s another seasonal pleasure. Every year at this time, students in Betsy Sherman‘s Comparative Animal Physiology class dissect cats to explore firsthand the connection between form and function of physiological systems. This week students focused on the circulatory system, considering how the function of the heart and blood vessels can be inferred by close inspection of their structure. Prior to this, students examined the digestive and musculoskeletal systems, and will soon turn their attention to the nervous system.

As the term progresses students will design and execute their own research projects. In previous years students pursued topics such as the relationship between hatching asynchrony, development and temperature in moths, does mass affect exertion and time to exhaust in salamanders, the effect of temperature on hemolymph coagulation in crayfish, and the effect of nicotine on regeneration in planaria. This year students will present their results at a poster session on December 7 in Science Workshop.


In the Classroom: Electrochemical Biosensors

Undergraduate Carly Flynn (concentrating in Science and Dance) and Post-Bac Katie Giarra (shown at right, Princeton, 2009) gave the first student presentation of the term in Chemistry 3 this week. The two explained the theory behind the operation of electrochemical glucose meters. These devices, used by millions of diabetics all over the world, employ enzymes bound to the anode of a small disposable electrochemical cell whose current output is directly proportional to blood glucose levels. They explained the background theory and led a discussion that included questions concerning sources of error in the measurements and strategies to minimize them, as well as recent developments in the field.