Protecting the Pinelands

Spanning more than a million acres across seven southern New Jersey counties, the Pinelands is a true Garden State gem, valued for its beauty, natural resources, and contributions to agriculture, history, and folklore. With its animals, aquifers, farms, forests, and wetlands, this fragile ecosystem has been called “the most extensive wilderness tract along the mid-Atlantic seaboard.”

 

The Pinelands region has 56 municipalities and 700,000 people, and provides habitat for more than 1,200 plant and animal species, including hundreds—like the bobcat, bald eagle, and Pine Barrens tree frog—that are threatened or endangered. So special is the Pinelands that it has earned a triple crown of designations: National Reserve (America’s first), United Nation’s U.S. Biosphere Reserve, and UNESCO Man and Biosphere International Reserve.

Research Destination

The region’s unique qualities attract researchers from near and far, and it is the Rutgers University Pinelands Field Station where many come to study. Led by biologist John Dighton, the station is the Pine Barrens’ oldest and most extensive science laboratory. Among the visiting researchers are undergraduates such as Kim Donat and Erin Gutilla whose fungi research with Dighton, featured below, was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

  • The Pinelands is the country’s first National Reserve.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 established the Pinelands as the country’s first National Reserve, a designation that protects the Pinelands and its unique natural and cultural resources.

  • The Pinelands Field Station draws researchers from around the world.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    To study this unique ecosystem, researchers come to the Rutgers University Pinelands Field Station from New Jersey, across the nation, and around the world. Ukrainian scientists interested in the long-term effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have studied fungi exposure to radiation with station director John Dighton, a world expert on fungi.

  • The station’s modest building exteriors belie the high-tech world inside.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The station’s modest building exteriors belie the high-tech world inside. The main office building, above, houses computers and high-speed internet. The station’s Buell lab houses an analytical chemistry lab for analysis of field samples. A second lab has clean facilities for fungal culture, microscopes, and a molecular lab.

  • Erin Gutilla, left, and Kim Donat, right.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Erin Gutilla, left, an undergraduate from Mills College in Oakland, California, and Kim Donat, right, an undergraduate from Rutgers–Camden, spent part of a summer at the field station researching Pinelands fungus with station director Dighton, center.

  • Gutilla's and Donat’s work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Gutilla’s and Donat’s work was sponsored through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The Rutgers–Camden REU program enables student-scientists to work with world-class faculty and experience cutting-edge research during an intensive 10-week summer program.

  • The students spend a good deal of time collecting plant and animal specimens.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The students spend a good deal of time collecting plant and animal specimens. Occupying 1.1 million acres in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Ocean counties, the Pinelands region is home to 850 plant species, 299 bird species, 91 fish species, 59 reptile species, and 39 species of mammals.

  • Today's goal is to look for tadpoles that may have Chytrid fungus.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The team’s goal for the day is to look for tadpoles and examine them for the presence of Chytrid fungus, a strain of which has been killing frogs around the world. After an appropriate sampling area is identified, Donat climbs into a pair of waders in preparation for a slog into a Pinelands bog.

  • The waders keep the scientists dry and protect them from unforeseen dangers.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The waders keep the scientists dry and protect them from unforeseen dangers in the dense waters of the Pinelands, such as northern water snakes or common snapping turtles, both of which bite.

  • Donat, a biology major, studied Chytrid fungus in streams and lakes.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Donat, a biology major, studied the presence of the Chytrid fungus in streams and lakes and on amphibians in the Pinelands, an ongoing project at the field station. Chytrid is a simple fungus found mostly in fresh water, and while some varieties are harmful to certain frogs, it is nonetheless a useful bioindicator for monitoring water quality.

  • As part of the Chytrid fungus project, Donat surveyed six lakes and streams.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    As part of the Chytrid fungus project, Donat surveyed six lakes and streams. Pinelands streams are slow moving and shallow, and are tea-colored because of natural vegetative dyes and high iron counts. There are almost no natural lakes in the area. Most lakes and ponds are the result of damming streams to produce power for early industries.

  • Three bodies of water were polluted and three were pristine.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Three bodies of water were found to have been degraded by pollutants and three were pristine. The cleaner the body of Pinelands water, the more Chytrid fungi were found.

  • The research is useful for those concerned with water quality.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The research is useful for the New Jersey Pinelands Commission and others concerned with water quality. Because water with a higher presence of Chytrid fungi was found to be cleaner, the Pinelands Commission can use Chytrid counts as a bioindicator for the health of a body of water. The study has been submitted to the journal Fungal Ecology.

  • The team heads back to the field station lab.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    The team heads back to the field station lab. Research at the field station has been continuous since the U.S. Forest Service established the site in 1932. Now managed by Rutgers under a lease from the federal government, the facility still hosts U.S. Forest Service research, mostly focused on wildfire prevention.

  • Donat returns the sampling equipment.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Donat returns the sampling equipment. “We are learning the process of being researchers,” she says, “developing hypotheses, carrying out experiments, and reevaluating when our methods don’t work. Most employers and graduate schools are looking for people who already have a general idea of how everything works, and this program provides that experience.”

  • The slides contain fungal cultures that are ready for identification.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    These slides contain fungal cultures that are being identified under the microscope. Fungi are responsible for everything from returning carbon and nitrogen to the environment as they decompose dead materials to helping 95 percent of plants grow as they attach to plant roots, helping them utilize water and soil nutrients.

  • Gutilla studied how fungus may offset the ill effects of a gypsy moth epidemic.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Gutilla, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, studied how fungus may be able to offset the ill effects of an epidemic of gypsy moths that is defoliating the Pinelands as they munch their way through the forest.

  • Gypsy moths ingest nutrient-rich plant matter and eliminate biowaste.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Gypsy moths ingest nutrient-rich plant matter and then eliminate biowaste—or frass—that is not easily decomposed. Consequently, essential nutrients captive in the frass are not returned to the ecosystem. Fungi are nature’s decomposers, so Gutilla examined the succession of different fungi that breaks down frass, returning nutrients to the ecosystem and potentially mitigating the moth infestation.

  • This mushroom-forming fungus (Basidiomycota) breaks down organic matter.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    This fungus (Basidiomycota) is breaking down organic matter derived from plants. Fungi (from the familiar mushroom to microscopic species) are key to the earth’s balance.

  • Gutilla, left, and Donat, right, are back at college completing their degrees.
    A Day of Research in the New Jersey Pinelands

    Gutilla, left, and Donat, right, are now back at college completing their undergraduate educations. Dighton, center, among many other responsibilities, is preparing for the next class of students who will begin the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program in June 2010.

  • The Pinelands is the country’s first National Reserve.
    1/19
  • The Pinelands Field Station draws researchers from around the world.
    2/19
  • The station’s modest building exteriors belie the high-tech world inside.
    3/19
  • Erin Gutilla, left, and Kim Donat, right.
    4/19
  • Gutilla's and Donat’s work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
    5/19
  • The students spend a good deal of time collecting plant and animal specimens.
    6/19
  • Today's goal is to look for tadpoles that may have Chytrid fungus.
    7/19
  • The waders keep the scientists dry and protect them from unforeseen dangers.
    8/19
  • Donat, a biology major, studied Chytrid fungus in streams and lakes.
    9/19
  • As part of the Chytrid fungus project, Donat surveyed six lakes and streams.
    10/19
  • Three bodies of water were polluted and three were pristine.
    11/19
  • The research is useful for those concerned with water quality.
    12/19
  • The team heads back to the field station lab.
    13/19
  • Donat returns the sampling equipment.
    14/19
  • The slides contain fungal cultures that are ready for identification.
    15/19
  • Gutilla studied how fungus may offset the ill effects of a gypsy moth epidemic.
    16/19
  • Gypsy moths ingest nutrient-rich plant matter and eliminate biowaste.
    17/19
  • This mushroom-forming fungus (Basidiomycota) breaks down organic matter.
    18/19
  • Gutilla, left, and Donat, right, are back at college completing their degrees.
    19/19