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Long Term Research and Demonstration Areas

Environmental Monitoring

We are continuously monitoring atmospheric and soil conditions that can be used to inform ecological research.  This long-term monitoring project can be used to detect changes in the environment over time.  We are collaborating with other sites in the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA) such as the Mohonk Preserve and Cary Institute to standardize monitoring efforts.  The data gathered from our weather station are made available to researchers on the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative and are used for studying large‐scale and long term changes in the environment. 

Phenology

The Vassar Ecological Preserve is one of the ten Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA) sites with established phenology trails. The introduction of phenology trails to EMMA sites springboarded the formation of the New York Phenology Project (NYPP), a joint monitoring, citizen science, and public education project launched by the Community Greenways Collaborative. These trails follow seasonality in plant species and the effects of climate change on the timing of this seasonality. Changes in events like flowering can lead to mismatches between dependent animal species and have significant impacts on population growth and declines. We are currently piloting additional focal projects to inform specific management priorities such as invasive species and pollinator habitat.

Restoration Planting

In 2013, Vassar partnered with the NYSDEC Trees for Tribs program and the Student Conservation Association Hudson Valley Corp to plant 1,100 trees on four acres of the Preserve.  The restoration area was divided into four different community types: oak-hickory, mesic, red maple-sweet gum-black gum, and flood plain forest based upon the soils and moisture that were observed at the site.  We selected trees that were commonly found in these plant associations and were not facing an immediate threat from invasive insects.  We also selected native species that are at the northern edge of their range.  This planting is designed to be resilient to current environmental threats including invasive insects and climate change.  We regularly monitor the growth and development of this forest to assess the success of this restoration project.

Casperkill Project

Students and faculty from the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Geography, and Urban Studies have collaborated since 2006 to assess the health of the Casperkill, the stream that flows through the Vassar College campus and the Farm Ecological Preserve, and the Fonteynkill, which flows through Vassar Lake and under the new Bridge building before entering the Casperkill.

Researchers have been working to determine the impacts of land use changes on these urbanized streams. Parameters studied include nutrient concentrations in stream water, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, fecal coliform levels, and metals in water and sediment.  Researchers have also conducted kick-net studies for macro-invertebrates, done vegetation surveys to determine the width and composition of the riparian buffer, and conducted GIS analyses of land use in the watershed. They have found a strong correlation between conductivity, a measure of the amount of road salt in the stream, and the amount of impervious surface (pavement, rooftops, sidewalks, etc.) upstream of each sampling location and have noted that the Casperkill is one of the saltiest stream in the county.  A recent paper demonstrated the possible effects of elevated chlorine levels as the climate continues to change. They have also found a strong relationship between the width of the vegetated buffer strip along the stream and the health of the aquatic community and determined that bacteria levels in all parts of the stream exceed DEC guidelines for bathing.

Deer Exclosures

The density of white-tailed deer, Odocoilus virginianus, has been increasing throughout the Hudson Valley due to changes in habitat and a reduction in predation.  High densities of deer have been observed at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve since the early 1990s. Overabundant deer have been shown to negatively impact biodiversity, cause changes in species composition, and alter the structure of the mature forest. Deer exclosures are a commonly used to isolate the effect that deer are having on a forest. We have erected deer exclosures at several forested locations on the Vassar Ecological Preserve. Each fenced area was paired with an adjacent unfenced area of equal size. To better understand the impact that the deer are having on the forests, we are comparing the vegetation and soil from the paired plots. Students in the Introductory Biology and Ecology classes collect and analyze datum for this projects. It is also studied by students for independent research projects. 

We are also using the deer exclosures to assess our deer management program.  We are collaborating with other sites in the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA) to examine the effects of deer on forest regeneration in the Hudson Valley.   By using the same methodology across sites, we can both assess the impact deer are having and evaluate the effectiveness of various deer management strategies across the region.

Land Management Demonstration Area

The type and frequency of disturbance have dramatic effects on the landscape. To better understand secondary succession in old fields present at VFEP, we created demonstration areas that includes common types of disturbance. The Old Field Management Demonstration Area have plots that are mowed, tilled, and grazed by goats on regular schedules. Plots for each treatment are treated either annually, every two years, or every four years. Another plot of each treatment was treated for four years and then allowed to go through secondary succession in perpetuity. Students in Vassar’s Ecology class collect data on the plant diversity and density, biomass production, nutrient cycling, invertebrate activity, and small mammal use of the site. Students are also studying changes in nutrient cycling for independent research. The goal of this project is to increase understanding of how human management activities are shaping the ecology of the field and allow for students and the community to be able to observe those differences first hand.