Coverboard Conversations

Photo by John Codding

The importance of introducing yourself

Who lives here? Every time I walk into a forest, that’s what I wonder. When you enter a forest, you’re entering a living, breathing system. A community. Unless you too are an inhabitant of that forest, you’re a guest there. As a child, my father and I would walk through the woods near my house, and he’d instruct me gently, “always introduce yourself, so that those who live here may introduce themselves to you.” It was something I internalized without entirely understanding the purpose behind it, but over the course of subsequent decades I’ve discovered its meaning many times over. 

At Pepperwood, we take a keen interest in who lives in the forest. We wonder not only who they are, but how they’re doing. Is life easy or hard? Is food abundant or scarce? Is the temperature suitable or unbearable? Who’s lived here since time immemorial, and who’s just moving in? We monitor the forests throughout the 3,200-acre reserve to gain insights into these and many other questions. If you ask the right questions, you can get a pulse on the health of the overall system. As our climate changes, that information is key to our collective adaptation. 

If you were to ask Black Oak and California Newt about climate change you’d get two very different responses – even though they may live in the same community. Pepperwood’s long term forest monitoring makes space for this type of conversation; everyone gets to share their insights from the aged oak to the salamander. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll discuss our method for opening this conversation with the creatures of the under-duff. Those that like cool, damp, dark. And while herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) are our main target for conversation, we won’t say no to an under-rock chat with a scorpion or a millipede.

Creepy, crawly, coverboards

Creating space for the conversation to begin is really quite simple. We use something called a coverboard. Coverboards are square pieces of plywood that rest on the forest floor, flush with the soil in order to provide shelter for herpetofauna. We have over 90 coverboards distributed at key monitoring areas throughout the reserve. They’re a convenient and controlled way to monitor these sensitive species, and the information we glean is an important part of our long-term forest monitoring. We currently have ten plots, with nine coverboards distributed at each plot. In addition to the coverboards, each plot also includes co-located climate and wildlife monitoring, including motion-detecting cameras. 

In addition to the slender salamander at right, we found a scorpion and a jerusalem cricket under this coverboard.

From December to June, we check underneath the boards every two weeks to see who’s there and then document species counts. Of course, not all “herps” (common shorthand for herpetofauna) find a coverboard to be ideal habitat. Western Fence Lizard, for instance, prefers the light of day. To account for this, we also conduct more formal “area searches,” which are timed searches where we look under rocks, logs and in other habitat to find all manner of herpetofauna in the area. Some herps like it warmer and would prefer it if we placed corrugated metal coverboards, others want more space between the ground and cover so folks have also lifted some up off the ground a bit. There’s no one right way to do this, which is half the fun – we can be innovative and modify as we go.

 

The plots are located in varying forest types and with differing structures, which helps us identify how forest type and structure influence species diversity and abundance. Additionally, all of the plots are located in stewarded forests – that is to say, forests where we prescribe and conduct forest thinning and controlled burning. Owing to these intentional choices, the project helps to create a broader picture of herpetofauna diversity over time and in relation to our forest stewardship. Then we can ask some harder questions that get at the role of humans in this system, like: how do our management activities affect these animals (immediately after thinning or burning, and over the long-term)? If we see changes in the overall community or individual species abundances, are there management activities we can take to support these animals?

How are these animals and populations changing over time?

As I alluded to in the beginning of this post, the information we learn from our long term monitoring projects is key to our collective adaptation to a changing climate. Why? Because it tells us where we are – we, being humans, wildlife, plants, fungi, all the interconnected living biota in this system. When we know where we are and where we’ve been, we can piece together patterns that can help us navigate where we’re going. 

Slender salamander

As our climate changes, and generally warms, we are interested in how sensitive herpetofauna respond to forest floor temperatures. We have installed little temperature sensors called “ibuttons,” at each of the coverboards. One is located under the coverboard and one adjacent to the coverboard under forest litter. This gives us a sense of the “thermal profile,” and helps us identify things like: which herps prefer what temperatures? How well do the coverboards buffer temperatures? Does the buffering effect differ depending on forest cover and/or changes in cover from our thinning and burning practices? How do these temperatures compare to air temperature measured by a nearby data logger one meter off the ground? There are also phenology questions to be considered in relation to a changing climate: will the emergence or observation dates shift with warming in our region? For example, when will the slender salamanders go underground during summer months and re-emerge in winter months? The long term nature of this project is what gives it strength.

Science takes time. Science is a long-term, generational commitment. The concept of generations means something different to different creatures. The perspective of a Black Oak is very different, I’d think, from that of an California Newt, and I’m fairly certain my perspective differs greatly from both of theirs. When we’re in a great hurry to answer our questions, we might mistake the answers. We might miss the subtleties. We might not listen as closely as we should when others speak in their own ways. But if we slow down, introduce ourselves, and stay awhile, then our learning will be infinite.   

This piece was authored by stephanie beard (Communications), with the help of Michelle Halbur (Preserve Ecologist). If you’d like to know more about our coverboard project or to find out ways to get involved, please contact Michelle Halbur at mhalbur@pepperwoodpreserve.org

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