Summer Research – Krista Ehlert

Hi! I’m Dr. Krista Ehlert and I’m the Thomas McKenna Meredith ’48 Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Science (phew!). My students and I have a plethora of diverse, but connected, research projects. The Ehlert lab at Trinity is focused on ecologically based management of invasive plants, with a special focus on Berberis thunbergii, Japanese barberry. Specifically, we’re looking at the intersection between Japanese barberry, Ixodes scapularis (the black-legged tick), climate change, and Lyme disease. Forests invaded with Japanese barberry have twice as many ticks as those that aren’t; this is associated with the fact that Japanese barberry creates the ideal, humid environment that ticks need to avoid desiccation. Here’s a closer look at what we’ve already completed and are currently investigating in the Ehlert lab:

Recent ENVS alum Adam assessed different survey methods of Japanese barberry in Simsbury, CT. Adam specifically used transects and GIS to quantify the extent of invasion at our study site. Along each 50 m transect, Adam utilized a quadrat to count Japanese barberry density and cover. With GIS, Adam downloaded NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) satellite data to map Japanese barberry locations, as you can see in the map below. The NDVI values closely align with the dense shrubbery that we associated with Japanese barberry from Adam’s transects.

Adam trapped in the barberry with his quadrat.

Map displaying 2016 NDVI vegetation coverage and their equivalent values within the study site.

Blair, another recent ENVS alumna,  investigated the invasivore movement, specifically as it related to Japanese barberry. The invasivore movement is a means of eradicating invasive species through human consumption. In the past, the fruit of Japanese barberry has been used to make…jam! Blair went to work by first conducting a strong literature review of the invasivore movement and how it became popularized. Next, she spent time in the kitchen! Blair was able to successfully produce jam from Japanese barberry, providing an alternative means of controlling this insidious invader.

Blair holding the jam she produced from Japanese barberry fruit, alongside the poster she presented at the student research colloquium in Spring 2017.

Soon to be ENVS alumna Corinne and I are investigating the role of horses as potential vectors of invasive plant seeds. Corinne and I are interested in this research question because we each have a horse! Horses are able to transport invasive seeds not only through their digestive tract, with seeds ending up in their feces (eek!), but their manes, tails, and fur can also easily transport seeds. We’re focusing on the latter for Corinne’s research. Corinne started her research by conducting a survey of Intercollege Horse Show Association (IHSA) horseback riders, to learn about their attitudes toward and knowledge of invasive plants. We will be expanding upon the survey by conducting experiments with our own horses and others to investigate how far seeds can travel when attached to their fur.

Corinne presenting the results of her survey at the student research colloquium in Spring 2017.

Another soon to be alumna, Bailey from the Biology department, spent the summer along with Blair helping me with the Japanese barberry research (see previous blog post!). Bailey will be expanding on this research for her senior thesis in the Biology department, and will be co-advised by Dr. Amber Pitt and I. Specifically, Bailey will be focusing on the effect of microhabitat on black-legged tick abundance on the white-footed mouse, Peromyscus leucopus. White-footed mice are reservoirs of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Ticks feed on mice for one of their blood meals, become infected, and move on to their next blood meal – often a human, thereby transmitting Lyme disease. Bailey will accomplish this research by using live-catch traps in the field, and counting tick load on each captured mouse; after counting is complete, the mouse will be released back into the wild. Overall, we hope that Bailey’s project sheds light on tick load on white-footed mice in a Japanese barberry infested forest.

Biology student Bailey in the field with a Japanese barberry shrub that has been uprooted.

That’s a wrap on what the Ehlert lab has accomplished and is currently doing! I’m actively looking for one or two research students this fall to help on the Japanese barberry project, so if you’re interested, send me an email at: or stop by McCook 123! Or stop by if you’re interested in other invasive plant research!

Summer Research – What the Ehlert lab has been up to

Bailey (left) and Blair (right) having fun pulling Japanese barberry.

This summer, Dr. Krista Ehlert and her research students have been investigating the role of in situ climate change on different management strategies for Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and how that in turn, affects the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), which serves as a reservoir for Lyme disease. The two summer research students in the Ehlert lab are ENVS alumna Blair Frantz ’17 and Biology student Bailey D’Antonio ’18. A lot of the work we’ve done so far has been setting up open top climate chambers (OTCs) that utilize the greenhouse effect to increase the temperature inside the chamber by 1-3°C – what models are estimating with climate change. We also employed different management strategies for Japanese barberry, such as pulling the plant and applying herbicide and compared those to an untreated control. The data that we’ve collected includes vegetation surveys, temperature recordings, and ticks! This data will continue to be collected into the fall, and once we have a few hundred-ish (or more) ticks, we’ll be testing them for Lyme disease. Overall, we’ve had a great summer and are excited to uncover more about the indirect effect Japanese barberry has on Lyme disease incidence in Connecticut. If you want to learn more about what the Ehlert lab is up to follow us on Instagram @ thescientificlunaticks.

Japanese barberry encircled by an open-top climate chamber (OTC).

Catch of the day!

Krista Ehlert Will Continue Weed (oops – invasive species) Research at Trinity

IMG_5728_SMKrista Ehlert, who is currently finishing her PhD at Montana State University will join our program later this year in August. She will replace Cameron who has been our McKenna Meredith (’48) postdoctoral fellow for the past three years and will move on t – oops I am not allowed to tell you quite yet.

After reading through over 50 amazing applications it turned out that we settled for another weed scientist, which means we don’t even have to change the sign on Krista’s lab (Krista, you haven’t seen it yet, but it’s awesome).

IMG_0752_smIMG_3663_smKrista’s research includes both field (see above) and laboratory (see below) experiments as she works on management plans for areas affected by invasive plants. So, if you ever wanted to know what garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) or  hairy jointgrass (Arthraxon hispidus) look like then you might want to consider doing research with Krista. If you have already graduated or are already doing plenty of research you can just come back for a visit, or simply google it :-).

I have to warn you though: here is what she had to say about the picture below (after I asked why she sent me pictures of dead bugs):

“They are SO cool!!!! Those are seeds infected with Pyrenophora semeniperda, (the “black fingers of death” or “BFOD” for short) a fungal pathogen that I’m using to control cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass. It kills the seeds, so you have the potential to limit propagule pressure from the seedbank. So you can see the black fingers poking out of the seeds in that one picture, and the picture of the petri dishes is the BFOD growing on agar. – I then harvest it off of the plates to make an inoculum to infect the seeds with.”


DSCN1699_smbWhich might also explain what these guys are…

02_8_12 001_smWelcome Krista – we can’t wait to have you in Hartford!

P.S. Happy Earth Day! Originally I wanted to celebrate by posting a picture of our students out on the main quad where they gathered signatures for a petition to end the sale of bottled water on campus. Yesterday, in bright sunshine, they were eager to stay until Sunday – and then the forecast changed to “chance of showers” and off they went. No pics, no post, no glory. :-(

Dr. Amber Pitt joins ENVS Program

Amber Pitt

Amber Pitt

One thing that kept us all busy during the first weeks of the semester was the search for a new conservation biologist. After reading many, many applications, coming up with short-lists, checking them once, checking them twice, meeting lots of candidates via Skype and in person, we made our decision and offered the position to Amber who gladly accepted.Just in case you wondered what a "hellbender" looks like.

Just in case you wondered what a “hellbender” looks like.

Amber is currently an assistant professor of biology at Bloomsburg State University in Pennsylvania, where she studies amphibians, especially hellbender salamanders. This Fall she will teach a non majors course on conservation biology and co-teach our methods with Joan Morrison.

As many of you may know, Joan Morrison is on phased retirement and will only teach a few more courses for us. So, if you ever wanted to take conservation biology with Joan: Don’t delay, sign up today (OK, once course registration opens).

While you were hanging out in Acapulco …

… Professor Christoph Geiss went to scenic Iowa – western Iowa to be precise. Christoph spent a long weekend at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa.

Now, that's a sky worth traveling for.

Now, that’s a sky worth traveling for.

While many of you got roasted on the beach, Christoph took his field training to study wildfires and become a wildland firefighter. The training started out pretty benign. The class learned about equipment (expensive!), life on the fireline and in fire camp (dirty – no showers for a week), and how to use the various hand tools. The highlight of the morning was a fire shelter exercise: Christoph and his fellow firefighter rookies had exactly 30 seconds to unpack a fire shelter, climb into it and drop to the ground (feet to the assumed fire). The exercise was fun, the re-folding of the practice shelters less so. They seemed to get bigger after every drill.

Yep, that's us under our practice fire shelters. The real thing is made of some space-age fiberglass-aluminum composite, weighs a ton and costs even more. We were only allowed to play with the practice version.

Yep, that’s the class under practice fire shelters. The real thing is made of some space-age fiberglass-aluminum composite, weighs a ton and costs even more. We were only allowed to play with the practice version. The guy in the flannel shirt shakes every shelter to simulate the fierce winds to be expected during a fire storm.

The afternoon was spent on fire fighting tactics and safety (Always keep an eye out for your safety zone and establish a solid anchor point!). The class also got to spray some water as they learned about the ins- and outs of fire engines, hose lays and various nozzles.

This thing beats any super-soaker!

This thing beats any Super-Soaker! It empties a 400 gal water tank in less than 10 minutes.

All lined up to fight some fires.

All lined up to fight some fires.

The highlight of the afternoon came after a short hike (in formation, spaced 10 ft apart, tool held on the side at the balance point on the (non-existing) downhill side – no swinging, hacking or stabbing allowed) to a nearby tallgrass prairie. The big bluestem burned quite nicely and provided just enough excitement.

Chad Graeve, the instructor points out the finer points of a grass fire.

Chad Graeve, the instructor points out the finer points of a grass fire.

The group practiced on several small fires. It took the instructors maybe a minute to extinguish theirs, the class was, well, not quite as practiced, but after a few (very) hot hours everybody had three little grass fires under their belts, and knew how to “enter the fire from the heel”, work “from the black”, and learned that a simple backpack pump can do wonders, but that even 4-ft flames put out quite a bit of heat.

A rookie crew at work.

A rookie crew at work.

The final fire of the day.

The final fire of the day.

Christoph also used the opportunity to sample some recently burned soils, go on a few hikes and watched the pro’s extinguish a “real” grass fire, where he learned that the mighty backpack pump may well be an effective fire-fighting tool, but that even a measly “Type 6” fire engine puts out so much more water…

One of Christoph's sampling sites.

One of Christoph’s sampling sites.

Invasive plants: good, bad or just ugly?

Cameron's study site near Mystic, CT

Can you spot the invasive plant(s)? Cameron’s study site near Mystic, CT

Cameron Douglass, our postdoctoral fellow, will give a research talk entitled “Invasive plants: good, bad or just ugly?” on Friday, April 3rd at 3PM in the McCook Auditorium. I hope you all can make it. here is the abstract to Cameron’s talk:

Invasive plants are thought to cause many negative ecological impacts, but new research suggests that they may also play beneficial roles. The problem is that we know little about how the properties of individual invasive species or groups of them might drive those impacts. Our research focuses on this problem, and uses a nature preserve near Mystic, CT to study whether invasive plants are as problematic as advertised, or rather are just misunderstood.   

Refreshments will be available after the talk.


A busy spring …

Fossilized remains of one of the earliest (the earliest ?) feathered dinosaurs. Shreds of Joan's field pants clearly visible around bones from the leg.  Image source:

Fossilized remains of one of the earliest (THE earliest ?) feathered dinosaurs. Shreds of Joan’s field pants clearly visible around bones from the left leg.
Image source:

… just because you haven’t heard much from us recently does not mean we haven’t been busy for the last months. The two biggest news first: Joan Morrison will enter phased retirement soon (technically she is already in phased retirement, but I try to ignore that as much as possible) and Christoph Geiss was promoted to petrified wood (aka full professor). We have since requested to hire a new conservation biologist and hope to hire a new colleague next year.

Evolution of tenure track faculty. Left: green wood, center: dead wood, right: petrified wood. Christoph has now proudly reached the petrified wood stage.

Evolution of tenure track faculty. Left: green wood, center: dead wood, right: petrified wood. Christoph has now proudly reached the petrified wood stage.

Our students are busy on several research projects. Christoph Geiss’ students are analyzing sediments from Otsego Lake in upstate New York and a salt marsh at Hammonasset State Park. The salt marsh sediments are probably the smelliest sediments ever cored, and they are stinking up the cold room as we speak. A GPR survey conducted this February yielded – absolute nothing. The salty pore fluids, combined with highly conductive clays ate the radar signal withing a few inches of the surface. Good day to work on our tan, though!

March 2015 - Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey at a Hammonasset State Park Salt Marsh

March 2015 – Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey at a Hammonasset State Park Salt Marsh

Cameron Douglass’ students are busy analyzing soils and invasive plants at a conservation area near Mystic, and we will erect a few interpretative signs at that introduce visitors to the various ecosystems encountered at the site.

March 2015 - Ground Penetrating Radar Drawing of a song sparrow to be featured at one of our interpretative signes. Drawing by Eunice Kim

Drawing of a song sparrow to be featured at one of our interpretative signs. Drawing by Eunice Kim

Jon Gorley’s students are still crunching the soils data numbers from their sites in the White Mountains.

The Perks of Volunteering

Last week I spent an afternoon at a nearby elementary school teaching 3rd graders about rocks. The already knew about the rock cycle, but their hand samples were pretty mediocre – pebble size, maybe. So I loaded up our cart with a couple hundred pounds of rocks  and spent the afternoon teaching those kids on “How to become a rock-detective”. It was fun and I got some cool thank-you letters back. Mackenzie clearly remembered what volcanic bombs look like:volcanic bomb
The students wrote thank you letters and asked follow up questions. Here are a few:

Q: What is your favorite rock?
A: A blue schist from Russian River, CA

Q: On a scale from 1 to 1,000,0000 how much do you like your job?
A: 999,980 (nothing is perfect, but some things come close)

Q: What do you teach those College kids?
A: Lots of stuff: Geology, Physics, Climatology, how to do research and plenty more

Q: How much money do you make?
A: Enough to feed my wife, kids, two dogs, and a cat.

Q: What do you do all day?
A: I teach, do research, visit nosy 3rd graders, spend too much time in meetings.

And, finally, I received an awesome portrait, drawn by an amazing artist.awesome portrait
I must say my new friend Angelo got it right: flannel shirt, rolled up sleeves, beard, glasses, rock cart (note the ripple marks on the sandstone!!) – the works.


ENVS Faculty Participate in Treehouse Lecture Series

Hammonasset State ParkIn April Christoph Geiss and Joan Morrison will both give lectures or lead discussions at the Treehouse. On April 8th Christoph will give an introduction to landscape photography, sharing some advice and enjoying the excuse to show cool pictures. On April 22nd Joan will lead a discussion on the connection between “Environmental Health and Human Health“. We hope to see you all.

Yes, for all you bird folks out there: these are “sanderlings” a migratory bird species fattening up on Long Island Sound before heading back north to their breeding grounds in northern Canada. Who says a geologist can’t do birds. :-)

2014 Iceland Fieldtrip is Full

2008_Iceland_groupNext year’s field trip to has filled up. Cameron, Jon and Christoph will take 12 students on next year’s trip to explore the southern part of the island. Jon’s already busy updating our gear lists, chief paparazzi Christoph bought a new camera. Cameron? Well, Cameron is looking into the authoritative works on edible Icelandic weeds. We are so ready – and it’s going to be awesome!