Sunday, March 31, 2019

First sign of natural regeneration at Seward Park's Ground Zero

Three fringecup plants (Tellima grandiflora if I am not mistaken) have popped up close to each other near the western edge of Seward Park's ground zero.   This is the first regeneration I have seen in the five years since the dominant sword fern community died in this quarter acre.   Here is one of the three. 

Seattle Times Pacific NW article on the Die-off

Seattle Times journalist Sandi Doughton and photographer Erika Schultz have published a magnificent article on the regional sword fern die-off.  Their grasp of the science, the historical context, the social interactions, the politics and complexity of grassroots activism - is, in so many ways, skillful, on point, and insightful.    They tell our story better than we ever could.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Tim Billo's Presentation to the Washington Native Plant Society, January 3rd 2019

Tim, assisted by Kramer Canup, gave a masterful and comprehensive report on the regional die-off last Thursday.   Here are his slides - accompanied by extensive notes. 

Get the pdf.

Monday, December 31, 2018


New Posts (please scroll down):
December 2018: request for research proposals, site visit by LSU plant pathologist
October 2018: two experiments, possible insight into mechanisms of spread

Since 2014 we have been observing and attempting to understand a dramatic die-off of the dominant understory sword fern species, Polystichum munitum, in the 120-acre old growth "Magnificent Forest" in Seattle's Seward Park

Please add your own observations at our iNaturalist project.

Extensive lab and field work, consultations with fern experts throughout the US, and recent reports of die-off from elsewhere in the Puget Lowlands of Washington state (see annotated regional map), lead us to conclude with considerable confidence: 

  • The die-off is caused by an (as yet unidentified) pathogen 
  • Climate change may be a contributing factor, but until the proximal cause of the die-off is determined, the role of climate change can not be known.  
  • Drought is probably not a cause (see rainfall records below).
  • Is unprecedented, not part of the P.munitum life cycle, in which ferns colonize open ground, do not reproduce under a closed canopy, with individual plants living for hundreds of years.
  • Holds implications for the forest at Seward Park, and for other forests in the region.

Some selected blog entries

Saturday, December 29, 2018

RFP: time to issue requests for research proposals?

Research and experimentation on the sword fern die-off has, over the last four years, been  rather unsystematic.  It has taken us a while to realize the nature and extent of the problem.  Seattle Parks, WSU, UW and citizen scientists have cobbled together some low levels of funding and lots of volunteer effort to run studies as they occur to us.  Seattle Parks ecologist Lisa Cieko has consistently supported the work, finding some funding for consultants and experimental restoration.  

A more systematic approach to research and remediation may now be worth a try.  
In the research circles in which I work - my day job is in computational biology at the Institute for Systems Biology - research strategies and priorities are typically set by a central funding agency.  For us, this is usually the NIH, which identifies topics of interest, circulates requests for proposals, then convenes study sections to review, critique and prioritize the submissions.

The central agency’s budget is usually not known in advance. Once the the annual budget is decided, the top-ranked proposals are funded, and the research begins.  In addition, if especially compelling proposals are received, addressing urgent problems,  these can motivate the search for increased funding.

For the sword fern decline, I propose a similar approach:
  • The sword fern working group (or a subcommittee) identifies  broad research topics.
  • RFPs are drafted and circulated, with full candor about the uncertainty of funding.  
  • Research proposals (with budget options) are submitted by prospective researchers.
  • The working group then sketches out various budget scenarios, on the assumption of finding zero, moderate or generous funding.  Funding sources are identified and approached.  
  • Proposals are scored and ranked and then awarded funding depending on merit and the actual funding available.
Here are some research topics and projects for which RFPs could be issued:

  1. What are the causes of the die-off?
  2. How best to monitor die-off, at regional scale, and at the scale of selected small sites?
  3. Ongoing actual monitoring projects (based on 2)
  4. Determine the population structure (age distribution, mortality, natural replacement)  of healthy fern communities in order to establish a baseline against which to assess and understand the die-off.
  5. What happens after die-off?  In what circumstances does unassisted regeneration occur?  In what circumstances does it not?   This topic could include strictly observational studies and/or restoration experiments.

Site Visit from Rodrigo Valverde

In early December,  plant pathologist Dr. Rodrigo Valverde visited the sword fern die-off regions at Seward Park.   I first discovered Rodrigo through his 2009 study of viral infection of the Japanese Holly Fern.  He also participates in Lousiana's Roseau Cane Die-Off project.

Rodrigo was startled by the sword fern die-off - echoing Dr. David Barrington's observation that it is novel and deeply worrisome.  Based upon his visit and the tentative results of my bottle experiment, he suggests: 

Water-borne [spread] and the symptoms starting at tips is very typical of a bacterial pathogen. This is because unlike other plant pathogens, bacteria needs an opening/point of entry.  It is possible that water accumulating at tips where “openings” may be present provides a perfect environment for infection.