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Studying the Natural World

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Research Projects at the UMD Farm

UMD grad student, Kevin Anderson, holds a goldenrod stem with rounded bulbs that house larvae that will emerge as flies
Elise Cordo lifts a minnow net that has been reshaped to attract an invasive species called the Brown Goby
Several UMD graduates are studying the effects of sulfide on wild rice


“We’re outdoors, we’re studying the real thing, and we’re finding real answers. We have been empowered by our professors, and given the chance to test our ideas. It doesn’t get any better than this." — Josh Ditsworth



Invasive species. Goldenrod. Wild Rice. These are only a few projects underway at the UMD Research facilities on the 100 acres of university-owned land. Over the past several years, over $2 million in allocated funds from the Minnesota Environmental Trust Fund, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Reservations, and the National Science Foundation has supported the work of dozens of UMD graduate and undergraduate students, as well as UMD professors.

Throughout the rugged, wild acreage, undergraduate and graduate students are currently studying the effects of climate change on a native species of goldenrod. Even though the plant itself looks exactly the same in places like North Dakota or Moorhead, the plant has several different components that set it apart from other locales, one being the amount of genetic material.

Guided by Julie Etterson, professor of Biology, the students have successfully crossbred two types of goldenrod plants, those with two chromosomes and those with four, to shift their flowering time earlier and later than in their natural environments. Plants that have been crossbred for four years have blossomed five days earlier.  They are trying to determine if the plants with four chromosomes evolve faster than those with two. If the world heats up, the plants that can evolve faster to early flowering may have a better chance of survival because they could flower and produce seeds before drought conditions. 

“Among the many native plants,” said Tim Craig, UMD biology professor and graduate advisor at the UMD research facilities, “goldenrod is a fascinating plant. The insects that collect on goldenrod in Duluth are not the same insects that collect on goldenrod in Moorhead. The evolution of the insect and the plant go hand-in-hand.”

To better understand the evolutionary relationship, Craig and three graduate students are meticulously studying a specific fly that lays eggs inside the plant.

“The fly inserts the eggs into the top of the plant,” said UMD biology graduate student, Kevin Anderson. “The egg hatches into larvae and eats the plant from within, eventually creating a bulb on the stem. The insect breaks free by producing a balloon from its head that pushes against the plant. The balloon recedes, and the fly lives for about five days, repeating the reproduction process.”

While it may seem like a strange and short-range life, the very nature of the insect’s behavior is the fascinating part of the study. “The insect in the plant becomes very specialized,” said UMD graduate student Joanne Menchaca. “It will not inhabit anything but a native, Duluth goldenrod plant. It’s very particular.”

This picky behavior has created a hypothesis that the students are eager to explore. “If we crossbreed the flies, producing a Duluth-Moorhead fly if you will,” said recent graduate Claire Hofdahl, “will it be content on either type of goldenrod plant? We thought the research would prove this to be true, and so far, it has.”

In a far corner of the research facilities are several large tanks housing another study of an invasive species, the round goby. The project is being conducted by graduate student Elise Cordo. The round goby, a Caspian and Black Sea native, was accidentally introduced to Lake Superior. This muddy-colored fish has thrived by diminishing the native lakebed species traditionally found within the lake.

“It’s more aggressive; it competes with native fishes for resources; and it’s quite detrimental to our region,” said Cordo.

With an eye on reducing future generations of the round goby, Cordo is focusing on the vocal mating call sent by the males to the females. “I am basically creating a way to 'jam' the call.” Cordo has fashioned an acoustic trap. The goby is so attracted to the sound of a recorded mating call, it swims into a netted contraption.

“It’s pretty much a minnow trap that I adjusted for the swim technique of the round goby,” said Cordo. “The round goby swims closer to the ground than a minnow, so when I changed the entrance to the net, the goby was more interested in entering it.”

Once the mating call was recorded, Cordo was better able to understand the components of the vocalization. In turn, she created an unpredictable, constant noise that interrupted the call from the male. “The noise could potentially cease mating,” said Cordo. “Which could slow the invasion of the round goby in our lake without using harmful substances.”

Cordo is also working on the creation and production of an easily deployable machine that could be used at DNR stations. “It’s exciting to have an idea, to see it work, and then begin a plan to help local water systems,” Cordo said.

Across the field, a pocket of wild rice research inhabits several hundred square feet. Based on a collaborative effort among NSF, UMD, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the study of wild rice recently celebrated its eighth year.

“The Fond du Lac Tribe approached us,” said John Pastor, professor of Biology. “They were concerned that sulfate released from the mine could affect native wild rice downstream. Sulfur itself may not be harmful, but once it enters the wild rice beds, it may become sulfide which may be toxic to wild rice.”

In order to comprehend the effects of sulfide, the group of students led by Pastor had to first understand wild rice itself. “We have had rice growing in 75 tanks for the past seven years,” said Pastor, gesturing toward six rows of stock tanks filled with water and plants. “And we also have tanks that are in their second year of research on the effects of sulfate additions. These plants are teaching us how wild rice grows.”

As a whole, the group has learned that wild rice naturally has a boom year and a bust year. “It destroys itself one year, and then the following year, it booms,” said UMD graduate student Emily Wack. “Our concern is sulfur runoff from the mines, which will result in becoming sulfides that might affect the natural process that wild rice needs in order to thrive.”

Throughout their research, and the continued efforts of data collection from water samples from each wild rice tank, the students are following the process of sulfides through the whole system of the plant. “We’re studying the effects of sulfide on growth potential,” said UMD graduate Nathan Dahlberg. “We want to know if it increases or decreases the plant size, how, and in what way?”

These questions and potential answers tantalize the students, guiding them deeper into their studies and real-life experience as researchers. “This opportunity at UMD is incredible,” said graduate student Josh Ditsworth. “We’re outdoors, we’re studying the real thing, and we’re finding real answers. We have been empowered by our professors and given the chance to test our ideas. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Written by Christiana Kapsner, July 2012

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