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Published paper result of faculty-student collaboration spanning two decades

A paper published by CC faculty and students is based on research conducted at Windy Point on Pikes Peak, shown in this photograph from the 1930s.

A paper published in “Western North American Naturalist” is the result of Colorado College faculty and student collaboration that spanned nearly two decades.

Research conducted by Michael Myerburg  ’94, James Ebersole, professor of biology, Lauren  Shoemaker ’11, and M. Shane Heschel, associate professor of biology, shows that some alpine plant species on Pikes Peak aren’t very flexible in how they adapt to new environments, which may make it difficult for them to adapt to environmental change.

Ebersole, Heschel, and Shoemaker, now a graduate student in ecology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, analyzed data collected by Myerburg during field work conducted on Pikes Peak in 1993. Myerburg is now a specialist in pulmonary medicine and critical care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where he is an assistant professor of medicine and conducts research in cystic fibrosis.

The authors of the paper, the 11th Ebersole has published with students since coming to Colorado College in 1988,  looked at five species of plants on Pikes Peak that cover the high meadows in the spring.  They compared plants growing on a slope where soil was disturbed to plants in a nearby longstanding alpine dry meadow.  Ordinarily, plants from most ecosystems allocate sugars obtained from photosynthesis to different parts of the plant, depending on the environment.  But these plants didn’t.

“It turns out that alpine plants are not flexible,” said Ebersole.  “They didn’t change much.”  As a result, it’s possible that alpine plants may have trouble competing with plants that move upwards from lower elevations as the climate warms, he said.

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Some alpine plant species on Pikes Peak aren’t very flexible in how they adapt to new environments, which may make it difficult for them to adapt to environmental change, according to a recent paper by Michael M. Myerburg (Class of 1994), James Ebersole, professor of biology; Lauren G. Shoemaker (Class of 2011), and M. Shane Heschel, associate professor of biology.

The authors looked at five species of plants known as “forbs” on Pikes Peak, otherwise known to hikers as a variety of yellow, purple, and white flowers that cover the high meadows in the spring.  They compared plants growing on a slope where soil was disturbed to plants in a longstanding alpine dry meadow nearby.  Ordinarily, plants from most ecosystems will allocate the sugars they obtain from photosynthesis to different parts of the plant, depending on the environment.  But these plants didn’t.

“It turns out that alpine plants are not flexible,” said Ebersole.  “They didn’t change much.”  As a result, it’s possible that alpine plants may have trouble competing with plants that move upwards from lower elevations as the climate warms, he said.

The paper, published in “Western North American Naturalist,” is the result of a collaboration across time.  Ebersole, Heschel, and Shoemaker, who is now a graduate student in ecology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, analyzed data collected by Mike Myerburg, now a medical doctor and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, during field work on Pikes Peak in 1993.

Ebersole and his students found the site with the help of an old photograph.  Ebersole knew that a well-known plant ecologist, Frederic Clements, had spent many summers on Pikes Peak.  On a visit to the University of Wyoming, Ebersole found a photograph from the 1930s of Clements and other people standing next to some simple buildings in a meadow, with mountains in the background. 

With the photo in hand, Ebersole and his students hiked up Pikes Peak.  After some detective work, they matched the photo with the landscape at Windy Point on the peak.  And there they found indentations that marked where the buildings in the photo had been until they were torn down in the 1940s.

Those indentations became part of the study area because they provided a contrast to the undisturbed meadow nearby.   Over the summer, Myerburg and Ebersole sampled soil and five species of forbs, including alpine sandwort, which has small white flowers, and alpine avens, which has small yellow flowers. They also studied Geyer’s onion, which are long-stemmed purple flowers; old-man-of-the-mountain (yellow flowers), and American bistort, which are white, fuzzy-looking flowers on a long stem.

Myerburg recalls loving the work. He’d drive up to Windy Peak in a college van, often staying the night.

“I loved being in the mountains,” said Myerburg, a Pittsburgh native.  “That was my goal, to spend as much time in the mountains as I could.” 

Years later, in 2010, student Lauren Shoemaker asked Ebersole if he had a project she could work on, as she had just spent the summer doing research and wanted to keep the momentum going.  He turned to Heschel and they discussed how they could recast the data from Pikes Peak and look at them in another way.

“We went back to Mike’s original notes,” Ebersole said.  They knew that many plants in other ecosystems are flexible in how they allocate the sugars they make in photosynthesis to various parts of the plants, such as the roots or the leaves, depending on the situation.  This flexibility allows many plants to live in different environments, and knowledge gained studying flexibility can help predict how plants respond to environmental change.

Ebersole and Heschel wanted to know if alpine plants were as flexible, as very little had been done to study this question.  They learned that the plants were not flexible; the plants growing in the turned-up soil where the buildings once stood put essentially the same proportion of plant matter into roots, stems, and flowers as plant from undisturbed areas.

“Very different conditions, but they still allocated the sugars the same way,” Ebersole said.

The paper is the eleventh that Ebersole has published with students since he came to Colorado College in 1988.   Shoemaker, who majored in mathematics and biology, received a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship in 2011 to study ecology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  

Myerburg, who did research in ecology in the mountains after he graduated, decided to go to medical school because he wanted “make the world a better place and help people,” he said.  A specialist in pulmonary medicine and critical care at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he conducts research in cystic fibrosis.

Here is a link to the article: http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3398/064.071.0312

Reference: Myerburg, M. M., J. J. Ebersole, L. G. Shoemaker, and M. S. Heschel.  2011. Limited plasticity of biomass allocation in alpine forbs, Pikes Peak, Colorado. Western North American Naturalist 71: 431-435.