Walking through Purisima Creek Redwoods Reserve in northern California, I am the paparazzi of Western sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). When I find one, I stop and click, click, click my smartphone photos and then approach boldly for a closer look. Are new leaves emerging as curled fronds or fiddleheads? Are there round spots called sori—reproductive structures that produce spores—on the underside of the fronds? Are these spots brown or green? And how many centimeters are the four longest uncurled fronds? I am really getting intimate here, probing for the most personal of details, and ready—yes—to post it all online on the Fern Watch website. Researchers there won’t handle this information discreetly. Instead they share among themselves and all their citizen scientists, using our data to learn more about how redwood forests are responding to climate change.
Fern Watch was organized in 2010 by Save the Redwoods League, which protects, restores, and connects people to redwood forests. The league also coordinates a similar citizen science project, Redwood Watch. Both programs are interested in tracking the impact of climate on California’s coastal redwood forests.
The good news according to Deborah Zierten, Education and Interpretation Manager for Save the
Redwoods League, is that old-growth redwood trees seem to be doing well in this era of warmer temperatures and persistent drought. The trees that remain from years of unchecked logging and development are growing and thriving—and storing more and more carbon every year. “But,” Deborah says, “other plants in the redwood forest are not fairing so well.”
Western sword ferns, for example, are showing signs of stress. With enough rain and fog, these elegant plants grow thick and tall, a kind of fairytale forest all their own. But in dry conditions like we are currently experiencing, the ferns often lose fronds and get browner and more brittle. Their relatively quick response to climate change makes them a good indicator of the present and future health of the forest.
“Documenting our ferns,” Deborah says, “and where different species of plants and animals occur in the redwood forests helps us focus our conservation efforts. Fern Watch shows us which forests might be more susceptible to changes in climate so we can keep an eye on these areas and better understand how the redwood forest functions throughout its range.”
In the last four years, information from Fern Watch has shown how Western sword ferns handle drought conditions by reducing their leaf area by as much as a third. This conserves water, at the expense of photosynthesis.
As I near the end of my afternoon walk, I put away the smartphone and need to collect data, and let myself reflect on the resilience of the plants around me, the elegant fern and the majestic redwood, a kind of yin and yang, a meditative harmony…
Whoa! Yo! I stop and stare at the ground. Get out the camera! Banana slugs nuzzling! Click. Click. Click. Like all slugs, these hermaphrodites have both male and female reproductive organs. Of course, they like to cross-fertilize, too. First they eat other’s slime. Later they will exchange sperm. When disengaging from sex, the banana slug gnaws off his/her own penis. Eventually, he/she will produce beautiful translucent eggs and deposit them under logs or in leaves. One guidebook notes, “The majority of banana slugs can be easily identified by their resemblance to a banana.” But really…these guys are not like any banana I know.
I’m pleased that Redwood Watch will post these photos, too, interested in the variety of species that exist alongside redwoods and ferns, particularly species of interest like bay laurel, live oak, rhododendron, California newt, Pacific giant salamanders, and banana slugs.
And maybe tomorrow I’ll get a glimpse of that elusive Pacific giant salamander or hear the croaking growly sounds this species makes when threatened. These are the pleasures of a citizen scientist. We walk through the forest, camera in hand, anticipating…the tender curl of a fiddlehead, a yellow-spotted millipede, the blue flash of a jay. We keep our eyes open, ready to be star-struck.
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