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UMPI-UMFK research team receive Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant

A research project conducted by two University of Maine at Presque Isle professors and a University of Maine at Fort Kent professor has been awarded a grant for $7,100 by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to study climate change in Maine’s Deboullie Public Reserved Land.

UMPI Assistant Professors of Biology Dr. Judith Roe and Dr. Larry Feinstein, with their partner Dr. Peter Nelson, UMFK Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Environmental Studies, received the grant for their research project, titled “Ecological Assessment of Threatened Vegetation Communities in Rock Glaciers to Monitor Impact of Climate Change.” The grant was matched at $2,000 by both UMPI and UMFK. This was the 151st round of grants awarded, totaling $365,970, to 27 different projects.

The project will take place in Deboullie Public Reserved Land, located in northernmost Maine east of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Members of the research team will be mapping the rock glaciers, monitoring environmental parameters, and surveying their plant communities with a focus on lichens and mosses to better understand and preserve these unique environments in response to climate change.

Five rock glaciers adjacent to ponds in Debouille Public Reserved Land in the northern Maine woods were described by David Putnam, archaeologist/climate scientist and UMPI faculty member, and Aaron Putnam, now a research associate with the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, in 2009 and four of these retain persistent subsurface ice. The rock glaciers are covered by thick mats of mosses and lichens, shrubs and dwarf spruce trees. The new research will catalog the biological composition of these unique habitats, including identification of known and new plant and lichen species, preliminary investigation of their genetic makeup, and investigation of associated microbial communities.

By comparing temperature and humidity levels between rock glaciers, Dr. Roe said, “We hope to identify the environmental conditions that favor the special assembly of plants and lichens found there.”

Dr. Feinstein explained, “We are concerned that climate change will adversely affect these vegetation communities that are supported by subsurface ice.”

As conditions in the area experience changes in local climate in the future, the rock glacier communities will be monitored for impacts.

“Lichens and mosses are exceptionally abundant and diverse in the Deboullie rock glaciers, in part due to the cold, wet microclimate maintained by the ice,” Dr. Nelson explained. “Neither lichens nor mosses have true roots so they likely depend on the cool, wet air produced by the ice to survive. If the ice melts, we believe the talus will become hotter and drier, which would likely diminish the abundance and possibly diversity of lichens and mosses on the talus.”

Dr. Nelson said that the vegetation community at Deboullie is much more similar to alpine areas, such as Mt. Katadhin or arctic ecosystems much further north, which makes those particular rock glaciers “little islands of unique vegetation that persist, in part, thanks to the ice under the talus slope.”

“Lichens—a symbiosis between a fungus, algae or cyanobacteria—and mosses—tiny, simple plants—are particularly good indicators of environmental change as they lack either roots or complex outer tissues to either take up or retain water, much like a sponge,” Dr. Nelson said. “They absorb whatever either falls from the sky or flows along the substrate they are growing upon. We already have seen pronounced changes in the lichen and moss community from the edges to the center of the rock glaciers, indicating strong environmental filtering favoring different species in different moisture/light/temperature conditions.”

The team’s research results will provide information for conservation efforts in the area. The research team was sponsored by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry in its application.

This project was funded in part by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, in which proceeds from the sale of a dedicated instant lottery ticket (currently Gopher Gold) are used to support outdoor recreation and natural resource conservation. For more information about MOHF, go to www.maine.gov/ifw/MOHF.html.

For more information about the UMPI Biology program, contact Dr. Roe by phone at (207) 768-9446 or by e-mail at judith.roe@maine.edu. For more information about the UMFK Biology program, contact Dr. Nelson at (207) 834-7683 or by e-mail at peter.nelson@maine.edu.