A living laboratory
As part of its land-stewardship initiative, the foundation makes Big Rock Valley (BRV), available to academic researchers and environmental organizations to help expand the knowledge base of conservation science. A few of these research projects include:
- Bioenergy crops — Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) Extension have established plots for bioenergy crops to study plant performance in different types of soils and conditions. The goal is to improve production techniques.
- Prairie sustainability — Another group of MSU researchers are studying prairies to help land managers make better decisions about planting and which species may need special attention.
- Insect recovery in bioenergy fields — MSU researchers are also studying the insect recovery rate in prairies that have been harvested for biofuels. Research teams are focusing on two types of beneficial arthropods: pollinators (bees) and predators (such as lady beetles)
“Having researchers work at BRV benefits us as well,” says Mike McCuistion, the foundation’s vice president of physical resources. “They provide us with valuable information about different species that live on the property, their relative abundance — and how we can improve our management practices to enhance specific species.”
Studying eastern massaugas
In 2009 the foundation partnered with the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (EMR SSP) to conduct research at BRV. The EMR SSP, a consortium of 22 zoos, has a dual mission: to enhance the captive population of massasaugas and to promote the snakes’ conservation in the wild. Each May members of the EMR SSP travel to BRV to hold their annual meeting and review breeding practices for their zoos’ snakes, which are managed collectively. The group also spends considerable time outdoors, combing BRV’s 2,000 acres searching for snakes to collect data for a longitudinal study.
Since the study began in 2009, researchers have caught and identified 788 individual snakes at BRV, with 172 of these found during 2014 and 2015.
“2015 marked the seventh year of the study, which is a real milestone,” observes Eric Hileman, a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University who is collecting and analyzing data for the EMR SSP in addition to his own studies. “Having seven years of data gets us closer to being able to accurately estimate population growth, which is arguably the best way to monitor population health.”
Among his own studies, Hileman is using soil temperature profiles to study when the snakes enter and emerge from hibernation. “Knowing when temperatures of shallow and deep soil invert will enable us to predict when it’s safe to conduct prescribed burns without jeopardizing the massasaugas,” he explains. “This is novel because right now most people burn by a calendar date.”
(Left to right) Jeff Evans in a plot of garlic mustard, a highly invasive plant that threatens biodiversity; Kelly Marsack takes DNA samples from an eastern box turtle; and Dennis Woodland, a botany professor at Andrews University, tours BRV with two of his students to study plant species.
What people are saying
“At Big Rock Valley there is a larger population of snakes so we get a better understanding of what kind of habitat they like. I’ve been able to learn more in a shorter of period of time there, which makes me more of an expert here in my home range state. In addition, the way the foundation manages its property offers a lot of lessons.”
— John Adamski, an assistant curator at Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York
“Visiting the foundation’s property is an awesome experience because the habitat is so well-managed. Often massasaugas are in degraded parcels, so it’s refreshing to see the amount of animals at Big Rock Valley.”
— Andrew Lentini, Ph.D. and curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Toronto Zoo
Conducting research at BRV
Although the foundation is open to a broad spectrum of research, it’s especially interested in:
- Inventories on mammals and entomological and aquatic species.
- Best practices for environmental management.
- Research to quantify prescribed-burning practices.
- Research on management of old-growth woodland.
We typically provides researchers with housing, access to a field lab with high-speed Internet and additional logistical support. For more information, contact Mike McCuistion via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.