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University of Central Missouri
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UCM Biologists Join Colleagues in BioBlitz

Contact: Mike Greife
WARRENSBURG - 07/11/2007- Working in the treetops offers a unique perspective on life above the forest floor. For a group of UCM biology students, making scientific discoveries that will receive worldwide recognition make it even more unique, adding a new level of excitement to already thrilling adventures.

Invited to Participate in National Research Event

A team of UCM students, faculty and alumni, recently received the honor of being invited to participate in the first National Geographic Society-National Parks Service BioBlitz in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. Making the trip were Harold W. Keller, visiting professor of biology, principal investigator and myxomycologist; Angela Scarborough, an undergraduate biology student from Higginsville, MO.; Sydney Everhart, a recent UCM master's degree recipient in biology from Atlantic, Iowa; Courtney Kilgore, a graduate student from Fayetteville, N.C.; Kenneth Snell, a UCM alumnus and instructor in biology at Maple Woods Community College who was the group's climbing instructor; Joseph Ely, assistant professor of biology and plant ecologist and biostatistician; and Robert Breshears, a recent UCM photography graduate and graduate student in the Department of Communications.

Marathon of Intensive Nature Study

The BioBlitz, a 24-hour marathon of intensive nature study, is not a new concept. In fact, the UCM Wildlife Society has held its own BioBlitz in the past at Pertle Springs. However, the opportunity to collect and catalog as many species as possible within the limits of a 24 hour time period and the boundaries of a specified area is always exciting and a challenge.

Joining Other Scientists in Discovery

"It was an honor to be invited to participate in this event," Keller said. "More than 800 participants were involved.  It was a remarkable opportunity to join scientists and the general public from around the country in the search for new species, while also demonstrating our double rope climbing technique for exploring the treetops."

The Search for New Myxomycetes

The UCM team knew what they were looking for – myxomycetes in the tree canopy. Myxomycetes are tiny protists that exhibit fungal and animal characteristics and are often found on the bark of mature living trees. Keller is no stranger to this kind of research, having identified a new species restricted to the tree canopy in 2000 with the assistance of UCM undergraduate student Melissa Skrabal.

Climbing Technique Important to Success


Using the double rope
climbing technique,
UCM graduate Sydney
Everhart collects examples
of slime molds from the
tree canopy in Rock
Creek Park, Washington,
D.C., during the first BioBlitz
sponsored by the National
Geographic Society
and the National Parks Service

It is the double rope climbing technique used to ascend into the treetops that has brought the UCM team recognition, as well as prior grant funding from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, and Discover Life in America to explore the tree canopy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The double rope technique is commonly used by foresters and arborists. A climbing saddle, system of knots, and a climbing rope installed over a tree crotch, enables the climber to advance and reach heights over 40 meters to collect bark samples with mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi, and myxomycetes. This climbing technique requires special instruction, and the safety of the climber and ground crew is always a priority.

The UCM team attracted a crowd while working in the tall tree canopy near the entrance to Rock Creek Park. Choosing the location was no accident, according to Keller, who saw the opportunity to educate the public about the double rope climbing technique as he entered the park.

"It was a perfect location for us to demonstrate our climbing techniques," Keller said. "People were curious as they entered the park, and we met and had great conversations with some very interesting people."

Interest Leads to Media Coverage

The event drew media coverage, and interest in the UCM team's research and activities that  resulted in a photo of Everhart on the front page of the Metro section of the May 19th issue of the Washington Post. Perched in her harness in the treetops, Everhart collected tree bark samples that would be transported to the laboratory at UCM where moist chamber cultures provide conditions that encourage the growth of myxomycetes and other organisms.

PBS to Broadcast Coverage of UCM Team

The National Geographic also shot video footage, which will be included in an August Public Broadcasting Service broadcast, Episode 236 of National Geographic's Wild Chronicles.

Previous Research Draws Interest

The invitation to participate in the first national BioBlitz came as a result of coverage of Keller and his student's research during past summers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Keller has introduced a number of UCM students to tree canopy research and the double rope technique, resulting in front-page coverage in the Knoxville,TN, News-Sentinel.

Keller has conducted field research on myxomycetes for more than 35 years, and he and his student Snell pioneered research on tree canopy myxomycetes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2003. Keller does research with students in Ha Ha Tonka State Park and Big Oak Tree State Park in Missouri, the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Students also participate in special activities such as the BioBlitz, the first lichen Bio-Quest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and tree canopy research projects with 7th grade life science students, and their teacher Trish Smith at Warrensburg Middle School.

Participation Requires Training

UCM students who participate in the tree canopy research are well-trained in a tree climbing school held at the university's Pertle Springs natural outdoor laboratory area. The training sessions were conducted by Charly Pottorff, a professional arborist who also conducted the final skills test that allowed each student to participate. Students demonstrate physical conditioning by running the stadium steps in the university's Audrey J. Walton football stadium.

 "Tree canopy research is one of the last frontiers of research on the planet earth," Keller said. "No one is searching for this group of organisms using the double rope climbing technique to access the tree canopy."

Samples Being Analyzed

The Rock Creek Park BioBlitz participants returned to their home venues with samples to analyze. To date, nearly 700 species have been tallied, with more to come as they work in their laboratories.

Research Opportunities for Students

 "This is an opportunity for students to understand scientific methodology by conducting original research," Keller said. "They are able to participate in an ‘adventure phase,' a ‘laboratory phase,' and a ‘publication phase,' leading the way for successful completion of future studies and doctoral degrees. Our UCM students represent role models and inspiration for the next generation of tree canopy biologists."


The UCM team attending the first BioBlitz sponsored by the
National Geographic Society and the National Parks Services
included, left to right, Dr. Harold Keller, Joe Ely, Courtney
Kilgore, Sydney Everhart and Angela Scarborough.
Not pictured is Kenneth Snell.