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NewsJul 1, 2019

From bees to trees, Lesley researchers map Mount Auburn

$85,000 grant creates model for community engagement in local ecology

Maria Aliberti Lubertazzi wears waders and stands waist deep in a green pond.
Environmental scientist and dragonfly researcher Maria Aliberti Lubertazzi scoops up water bugs at Mount Auburn. Lubertazzi worked with students at our Habitat Explorers camp last summer.

By Georgia Sparling

Working in partnership with Mount Auburn Cemetery, Lesley researchers and citizen scientists logged thousands of hours studying the property’s unique ecosystem through a two-year, $85,000 grant from the A.J. and M.D. Ruggiero Memorial Trust.

Lesley scientists teamed up with the Friends of Mount Auburn to research the biodiversity of the cemetery — a National Historic Landmark, arboretum and bird sanctuary — and to increase science-related educational opportunities at the cemetery.

The cemetery is a unique spot in the densely populated communities of Cambridge and Watertown. Occupying 175 acres, it contains ponds, wooded areas and meadows, 17,000 trees, and more than 150 species of birds, plus coyotes and raccoons. The cemetery maintains its own apiary and has introduced flowers to attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators while also eradicating invasive plant species.

Conservationist and Lesley Associate Professor David Morimoto, one of two educators-in-residence during the grant, said it was the perfect place to provide myriad research opportunities and to seize the “birthright” of environmental appreciation and education.

“The natural world is a pretty magical place,” he marveled.

Only a bus ride away from campus, Lesley professors and students easily accessed the site, where they not only conducted research but led educational walks and collaborated with citizen scientists. All told, 550 participants from preschoolers through adults spent 61,600 hours on site during the grant.

Professor Susan Rauchwerk served as the educator-in-residence for the first year of the grant, and Dr. Morimoto for the second. Each leveraged their natural history expertise to develop new research-based education opportunities.

 “The goal was to enhance the research that was happening and engage new audiences,” Rauchwerk said.

Mt Auburn Morimoto Rauchwerk students exploring outdoors with cameras. Group leader is pointing at something and everyone is looking
David Morimoto leads young citizen scientists on a bird walk.

As a naturalist and education researcher, Rauchwerk studied how different audiences engaged with the landscape and how to provide visitors with access to authentic research opportunities. Morimoto employed his natural history and research skills to develop a comprehensive geographic information system (GIS) map that enables all of the scientists to enter and share data that can be used to monitor changes over time.

Here are a few notes from the field:

The cemetery at night

Studying bat ecology in an urban setting was new for Lesley instructor and bat researcher Chris Richardson. With Lesley students, citizen scientists and cemetery staff, Richardson set up three transects or routes with 23 sites to survey bat activity in the cemetery at dusk. Over two years, they recorded four species of bats, discovering some interesting flight patterns. Each species had its own paths and zones of activity. Some areas saw much more activity than others, which could be attributed to factors such as the density of the vegetation or the insect population. It’s too soon to draw any conclusions.

Bar chart with the average bat calls recorded per month by time band for all sites at Halcyon Lake, from 45 minutes before sunset to 2 hours after sunset. The highest numbers are in August.
A sampling of data collected by bat researcher Chris Richardson shows the number of bat calls recorded at one location.

Another question for further research, said Richardson, is to assess why almost all of the bats they captured were male.

“It’s been a great way to think more about how bats operate,” Richardson said.

In the weeds

Assistant Professor Amy Mertl has studied tropical ants, but like Richardson, she was less familiar with an urban environment before the partnership. As she worked with her students and citizen scientists to collect specimens, Mertl discovered that landscaping had an effect on where ants decided to nest, preferring less manicured areas. They also found species of woodland ants in the limited tree line.

Person kneeling in grass, examining test kits
Amy Mertl collects ants, which she captured using pecan shortbread cookies.

“Even though the woods that are there are relatively small, at least some of those ants had dispersed there and established colonies,” Mertl said. While larger animals may not be able to settle in small pockets of trees, ants can, which could contribute to more biodiversity in urban environments.

Mertl also studied pollinators and found far fewer honeybees — especially given the on-site apiary — and butterflies than expected. With the help of citizen scientists, she plans to continue exploring the diversity of pollinators as well as cataloging hundreds of specimens collected over the past two years.

Dragonfly perched on a sign above water
Researchers and citizen scientists recorded their findings on everything from bats to dragonflies.

With the “insect apocalypse” in recent years, Mertl said insect populations are plummeting worldwide.

“I think there’s a lot of promise for preserving insects within urban habitats. They can use little forest fragments where you might not get a bird or mammal population,” she explained.

Bringing people in

The grant also placed a heavy emphasis on incorporating as many members of the community as possible.

For Wynne Johnson, a senior environmental studies major and political science minor at Lesley, working with Richardson and Mertl has given her valuable experience.

Susan Rauchwerk kneels on the grass holding a leaf with a small pile of leaves in front of her
Susan Rauchwerk served as educator-in-residence during the first year of the grant.

“It really gave me a lot of knowledge on how to conduct field research. It allowed me to feel like I was contributing to the community that I live in,” said Johnson. “I have a really solid foundation for any type of field research I would do after this.”

Dozens of citizen scientists contributed to data collection. Children in Lesley’s WonderLab program and STEAM Beans (which is focused on African American girls) learned how to collect data on dragonflies and damselflies, record the location of frogs, sample macroinvertebrates, and use scientific tools.

 “Kids who have a hard time in classroom really shone here,” Rauchwerk said.

Other citizens from the community captured ants and pollinators for Mertl’s research and measured trees with Morimoto.

Hand holding cicada exoskeletons
Kids enjoyed collected data and interacting with nature, especially finding tons of exoskeletons shed by bugs.

“We’re training natural historians,” said Morimoto, who noted that studies show that humans’ increasing estrangement from nature and the scarcity of biodiversity in urban environments has consequences on our personal health and that of plants and animals. Giving more people the opportunity to participate in outdoor activities through citizen science can have a transformative effect on all parties.

“We’ve tamed our environment to domesticate ourselves. We’re losing a real sense of who we are,” Morimoto said. But “understanding (nature) helps us understand how we can protect and keep a robust and diverse ecological system going.”

Although the grant has ended, Lesley scientists plan to continue their research and partnership with Mount Auburn. This summer, Mertl will work with eight citizen scientists to collect data on pollinators while Richardson wants to study the differences and similarities between bats in urban and rural environments. Rauchwerk will continue to engage new audiences in research experiences at the cemetery, and Morimoto has many more trees to measure.

A sample GIS map showing the overlays of bats, birds, plants, etc recorded.
This sample map shows the staggering amount of data that researchers have mapped at Mount Auburn.

“It’s so timely and critically important that people understand how important natural systems are for ecology and their own health and well-being,” Morimoto said. “To do that here in the Cambridge area, the most densely populated part of New England, I think it’s a model for what can be done elsewhere.”