LIFE LAB

by Francis Bonenfant

Hike interrupted by encounter with unexpected amphibian!

No, it’s not the plotline of a sci-fi B-movie. Rather, on February 17, Stephanie Norton was enjoying a leisurely walk along a trail in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum (the Arb) when she spotted a salamander.  One would not expect to see a salamander in winter; but then again, anything’s possible with Michigan weather.  Such was the case on this unseasonably warm (mid-60s!) mid-February day.

Salamanders most often live near moist locations, and the Arb includes wetlands. So the sighting seemed, at first, no surprise. But Norton wondered if this particular individual was not your “normal” salamander. Was it, in fact, the endangered small-mouthed species?! She quickly snapped three photos and took a video with her cell phone.  She then contacted both the Arb’s advisory committee and the Department of Natural Resources in Lansing.

A number of herpetologists were consulted.  After all, an endangered species is a rare find anywhere, but for Kalamazoo College, the possibility of such a sighting in the Arb could be especially important. 

Located in Oshtemo Township just south of M-43, the Arb encompasses 140 acres of marsh, meadow, pine-plantation, and second-growth deciduous forest and contains four miles of trails.  Kalamazoo College stewards the land as a valuable resource for both environmental conservation and education. The College also owns the property, thanks to the late Lillian Anderson (Class of 1926), who donated much of the current holdings in 1982.  In 2000, thanks to the generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Lewis Batts, Jr., the College added 31 acres of land along the eastern boundary of the original Anderson property. Lew Batts was a “K” alumnus (Class of 1943) and distinguished faculty member whose work continues to influence the way that biology is studied at “K.” In tribute, the College named the spring-fed pond in the southeast corner of the Arb after Lew Batts.

“K” is committed to the restoration of the Arboretum, and this work includes eradicating invasive species and restoring habitat diversity.  Professor of Biology Paul Sotherland has long been involved with the Arb, including its official establishment (1998), serving as its former director, and working with students to lay out trails and boardwalks.  Today, Sotherland continues to take his classes on field trips there.  “It’s a very important part of campus – a great resource,” he says, especially for field courses.  He also views the college’s stewardship of the Arb as living laboratory for the management of green space.

Ann Jenks, the College’s director of corporate and foundation relations, adds that the Arb “offers opportunities for conservation, experiential learning, field research, spiritual contemplation, low-impact recreation, and community volunteerism.”

Despite those possibilities, the Arb overall is an underused resource, according to Binney Girdler, associate professor of biology and the Arb’s current director.  The biology department is the most frequent educational visitor for certain types of field work (in early May, for example, as this article was being readied for publication, Girdler’s class discovered thousands of fairy shrimp in Batts Pond) but the Arb’s potential far exceeds its use.  “A more physical presence is needed,” she says, “in this learning laboratory for the natural world.”

That presence may help mitigate other problems that loom.  Population growth and new commercial and residential construction in Oshtemo Township are pressure the Arb’s boundaries and threaten the vitality and integrity the “contiguous wildlife corridor”—with shared plant, bird, and animal diversity— created by the Arb and one of its immediate neighbors: Oshtemo Township Park. Norton, who grew up in the Oshtemo area, said she finds it “disheartening to see the rapid commercial development in what used to be wetlands.”

In order to protect and sustain this environmental asset as well as expand the educational value of the Arboretum, Kalamazoo College is seeking to raise funds to purchase the original Anderson family homestead: a 5.2 acre parcel of privately owned land that would serve as a buffer for the Arb. 

In terms of educational value, the homestead not only has better access to a main road, it also has utilities which the current 140-acre Arboretum currently lacks: running water and electricity.  The homestead land could become a staging ground and gathering space for educational activities, collaboration with local community partners, and expanded land management.  It could be used for equipment storage, sampling space, and a laboratory.  Finding funding to acquire the homestead land is critical to “tapping the full potential of the Arboretum,” said Jenks.

And the college’s fundraising goals extend beyond the acquisition of the Anderson homestead.  Future plans include creation of a Center for Sustainability and the Environment, a key part of the College’s vision for its future. Such a center would require improvements to the homestead and endowment support for expanded land management under a full-time director, and it would certainly contribute to the College’s goal of “wise stewardship of natural resources,” said Sotherland.

After learning about the concept for the Center, Ilse Gebhard ’62 and her husband, Russell Schipper, gave a generous year-end gift to support the
"The Arb is a learning laboratory for the natural world."
project. “The Arb is a perfect fit for me to give something back to my alma mater,” said Gebhard, “to give something to the community that I’ve been a part of for almost 50 years, and to educate future leaders in the area of the environment and sustainability, where enlightened leadership is greatly needed.” (To make her gift, Gebhard took advantage of the extension of the IRA Charitable Rollover, one of several ways that a person can support the proposed center; if you are interested in making a contribution, please contact Teresa Newmarch at 269.337.7327 or newmarch@kzoo.edu

Students, too, have contributed to providing inspiration for what the Center could be.  Eric Lambert’s Ecological Philosophy class undertook service-learning projects aimed at “contributing to the College's thought and dialogue about how best to conceive of the Arboretum as a resource both for the College and wider community.”

Girdler hopes that the center would come to “embody everything we do well here at “K”.  It could become a base for expanding curricula and research opportunities, providing additional opportunities for co-curricular and service learning activities, involving the larger community, promoting general environmental sustainability, and even encouraging the presence of visiting scholars.

Enter the small-mouthed salamander! An exotic, rare, or endangered species in the Arb would certainly aid the fundraising cause, so Norton’s findings touched off a concerted effort on to determine the species she saw in February.  Alas, various salamander experts concluded that the salamander was NOT a small-mouthed species; instead it was the more common blue spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). 

But common for how long? Amphibians in general, including salamanders, have increasingly seen their numbers decline around the globe over the past few decades.  A New York Times article noted that the National Academy of Sciences has attributed this endangerment to, among other reasons, fungal disease, deforestation, and climate change.

For that reason—rare species or not—Sotherland concludes that Norton’s February sighting was “pretty marvelous,” and just the type of occurrence that “makes the Arb a special place…” and makes a future Center for Sustainability and the Environment an indispensable space for the type of undergraduate education our planet requires.

Pictures
A mid-winter sun stroll by this little creature had “K” hearts a’thumpin for a little while.  The other pictures show students of various ages enjoying the “Arb” in various seasons.


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