Featured Collection: University of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station Herbarium
Today, I’m pleased to offer another guest post from a colleague here at the University of Virginia, Michelle Prysby. Michelle supports science education and outreach at UVA, but also has a special place in her heart for herbaria, master naturalist groups, and citizen science, having spent much of her academic career in those areas. Upon my invitation, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to help out with sharing the story of Mountain Lake Biological Station as part of UVA’s science education and outreach effort. – Andrew Sallans
On a remote forested ridge, at 1,160 meters in elevation in the southern Appalachian mountains sits Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS), a busy hub for ecological and evolutionary biology research. As part of the University of Virginia Department of Biology, MLBS serves as a facility for teaching field courses, a research site for scientists from around the country, and, for parts of the year, a home for students and faculty who come there to learn and to study. Field courses include topics such as Wildlife Disease Ecology and Techniques in Conservation Biology, while research at the station has included studies of high-elevation forest ecology, genetics of various native and non-native plants, and salamander dispersal, to name just a few.
The station has some high tech research facilities, including a DNA extraction lab and chambers for growing organisms in controlled environments. The first stop, however, for a scientist interested in studying plants in the area would likely be the much less high tech herbarium. The MLBS herbarium houses more than 9000 plant specimen from the Mountain Lake area, the surrounding Giles County, and a smattering of other locations in Virginia and the Southeast. It’s a great resource that gets used by many scientists studying plants at Mountain Lake. Visiting scientists starting a new research study, for example, might comb through the herbarium to locate possible study populations of a particular plant. A new graduate student might use the herbarium to help formulate research questions and choose a study system. It’s also used for education, particularly during MLBS courses on plant conservation and diversity.
The herbarium has been assembled over time through collections by U.Va. scientists and through the acquisition of other scientists’ collections over time. It has become a fairly extensive collection for the region, with significant contributions made by many different researchers. It’s a region that is quite biologically diverse, too, with varying topography and microclimates. Walking out from the station atop Salt Pond Mountain, one can find several forest types, rock outcrops, bogs, streams, meadows, and one of only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia.
The herbarium grows every year, particularly through the efforts of students taking the plant diversity course in the summers. It contains some very old specimens—more than 100 years old. Some of these species may no longer even exist in the locations where they were originally collected. That’s one reason herbaria like the one at Mountain Lake are so important as both a reference collection and historical record.
The MLBS Herbarium is cared for by Eric Nagy, Associate Director of MLBS and Assistant Research Professor of Biology at U.Va., and by Zack Murrell, Associate Professor of Biology at Appalachian State University and instructor for the MLBS Plant Conservation and Diversity summer undergraduate field course.
“The herbarium is one of Mountain Lake Biological Station’s greatest assets,” says Nagy. “Other field stations drool when they see what we have for our users.” The digitization of the collections and the database of specimen information transcribed through Notes from Nature will make it even more valuable.
Mountain Lake Biological Station invites the public to its Open House event, July 13. If you happen to be nearby, stop in to learn more about the research at the station and visit the herbarium in person.
-Michelle Prysby, Director of Science Education and Public Outreach, University of Virginia