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Natural reserves: Research for the ages

By Dave Jones on October 9, 2015 in University

Jepson Prairie, Quail Ridge, Bodega Marine, Stebbins Cold Canyon and McLaughlin — far from campus but still very much a part of UC Davis, our five natural reserves, among 39 in the UC Natural Reserve System. The system turns 50 years old this year, and UC Davis is celebrating by putting on an afternoon program, Friday, Oct. 23 (see details below). In advance of that event, Virginia “Shorty” Boucher, associate director of the UC Davis Natural Reserve System, and Jeffrey Clary, director of the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, have written this introduction to the reserve system.

By Virginia Boucher and Jeffrey Clary

Most of us acknowledge that climate change is real, but how do we document the change and its effects? Repeated measurements of daily weather from established stations across the country and the globe provide irrefutable evidence of warming and other climatic changes. But what sort of data inform us about how the environment reacts to such changes?

The ability to repeat measurements of environmental shifts in the same place is critical for tracking changes in ecosystems. By the early 1900s, scientists in California were already bemoaning the loss of natural sites where they could conduct research without human interference. Not even public lands were suitable, because government agencies often sold lands, timber, and mineral resources, while management policies often limited the scope of research.

As the population of California burgeoned after World War II, tract houses and suburbs began to cover areas that UC faculty had used for teaching and research. In the late 1950s, discouraged by returning to familiar sites to find the land bulldozed or covered by buildings, a group of University of California scientists banded together to start a network of natural areas managed specifically for academic use.

The ‘bat’ for our ‘baseball game’

These scientists needed samples of intact natural ecosystems where their equipment would remain undisturbed, and they and their students could study plants, observe animals, and measure ecosystems over the long term. Wilbur Mayhew, a faculty member at UC Riverside and one of the founding fathers of the reserve system, used to say: “Teaching field science without natural areas is like playing baseball without a bat.”

The effort quickly gained support from UC President Clark Kerr, who subsequently wrote, “One of our major accomplishments during my tenure as president was starting a natural reserve program to preserve one example of every kind of California terrain, from desert to high Sierra to redwoods to marshlands — everything.”

In 1965, he created what has become the UC Natural Reserve System, which today is the largest university-administered reserve system in the world, today comprising 39 reserves encompassing 756,000 acres across the state. Environmental scientists staff the Natural Reserve System lands to take full advantage of their research potential. On NRS reserves, research plots can be permanently marked and revisited year after year.

Decades of data

Kerr recognized that such preserved lands would become increasingly important over the succeeding years, and many current studies examining how plants and animals are adapting to environmental shifts across both time and space rely on information accumulated over decades.

Years of studying the same place can also lead in unexpected directions. For example, UC Davis Professor Susan Harrison set out 15 years ago to look at the effects of grazing and wildfire on native plants. Unexpectedly, her observations have documented a disturbing decrease in diversity of native wildflowers as the climate has warmed and dried out.

Her field site, the serpentine grasslands of UC Davis’ McLaughlin Reserve in Lake County, is particularly rich in species found only in California. Over the course of the study, wildflowers were gradually replaced by non-native grasses.

“This change in wildflower diversity may foreshadow larger-scale extinctions that we are working to understand,” Harrison said.

Volunteer observers

A fuller picture of how climate change is affecting California requires a broad geographic brush. The Natural Reserve System allows investigators to do comparative studies across the state. One statewide project tracking the effects of climate change is the California Phenology Project. Since 2010, trained volunteers have recorded important events in the life cycles of wild plants, such as the dates of bud burst, flowering, fruit production, and leaf fall. As climate change alters temperature and precipitation patterns, the timing of these life cycle events is also being affected.

In early 2015, the UC-wide Institute for the Study of Ecological Effects of Climate Impacts, or ISEECI, was created to coordinate climate research in California at NRS reserves. Funded with a $1.9 million grant from the office of UC President Janet Napolitano, the project will bring together environmental databases from NRS reserves, extract useful information, and develop new, long-term, large-scale experiments.

The reserve-based studies will be designed to identify the mechanisms by which climate drives ecological and evolutionary processes. Responses to climate change will be measured at a variety of levels, from genes to individual organisms to ecosystems. A key next step will be figuring out how these processes are likely to affect human communities. ISEECI’s repositories of NRS data will be made available to scientists everywhere.

Some information in this story came from the UC Natural Reserve System website.


Reserve the date for UC Davis’ celebration of the UC Natural Reserve System’s 50th anniversary. The program includes talks by UC Davis professors Susan Harrison and Jay Stachowicz, and a keynote address by Davis author Kim Stanley Robinson, a frequent visitor to UC reserves.

Harrison (environmental science and policy) will talk about “The Future of Wildflowers in a Warmer, Drier California,” and Stachowicz (evolution and ecology) will talk about “Teaching Beyond the Classroom.”

UC Davis’ Jeffrey Clary will address “After the Fire: Restoration and Recovery at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.” Clary, the reserve’s director, is referring to the Wragg fire, which swept through the reserve in August.

The program also includes Barry Sinervo, professor at UC Santa Cruz, talking about the “UC President’s Research Catalyst Initiative: California’s Reserve-Based Climate Change Institute.” Sinervo is the institute’s director.

The 50th Anniversary Event is scheduled from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 23, at the Conference Center. Admission is free and open to the public; please RSVP here.

The program includes welcome remarks from Ralph J. Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor; Professor John Wingfield, faculty director of the UC Davis Natural Reserve System; and Peggy Fiedler, director of the UC-wide system.

The afternoon will conclude with a poster session and art exhibit (by graduate students and Chris Woodcock, photographer), accompanied by a reception.

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,