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Unique Research Opportunity Awaits This Summer Focused on the “Platte Thistle”

An opportunity for science enthusiasts to participate in an important scientific research program this summer in Chaffee County is being coordinated this month.

Local scientist Svata Louda, PhD, long known in the science community for her painstaking research, explained the effort to recruit “citizen scientists” to help research important questions, particularly regarding Platte Thistle, a unique native Rocky Mountain plant species.

“This is an integral part of a long-term effort on my part as an ecological researcher to understand the structure and functioning of natural ecosystems, and specifically the role of biological interactions such as pollination and especially herbivory (feeding on plants) by insects in the population dynamics of native plants under natural conditions,” Louda said.

Louda has been dedicated to this research for decades

Svata Louda, S. Collinge photo

“When I began my research in the mid-1970s no one had actually tested the supposition that insect herbivory had little effect on native plant populations,” she said. “Plant ecologists assumed that physical factors and competition were the main factors driving the abundance and distribution of native plants.”

Insect impacts on plants and their populations, Louda notes, has become an important area of ecological research; providing part of the foundation for rangeland ecosystem management, biological control of weeds, and natural lands management.

“This specific Citizen Science project is targeted at filling a gap in our present knowledge of the species diversity and complexity of the interactions in a local native species, Platte Thistle (Cirsium canescens),” she added.

Loud has worked on the Platte Thistle since 1984, primarily in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, in the center of its species distribution.

“You might say it’s my ‘lab rat,’ a model for examining general biological processes. Platte Thistle is a sandy and gravel soils native that reaches its distributional limit here in the Rocky Mountains. This makes it a special opportunity to understand how interactions may change at the periphery of a plant’s distribution.”

Organizational meeting for citizens and students is scheduled

Those interested is this type of scientific research are invited to participate in an organizational meeting from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 17 in the Tolkien Room at the Salida Regional Library.

Curious, dedicated science enthusiasts are being sought to do the field research during the first and third weeks of June, July, and August across Chaffee County, from open space to backyards. There is no minimum age requirement, but high school age is preferable and for a highly motivated student.

How will this citizen science project work?

“The basic plan is to have a guided group field trip every other week to sites where I know there are large populations of Platte Thistle, in order to collect the representative, comprehensive sample of insects feeding on or pollinating Platte Thistle,” said Louda.

“The more plants we examine, the greater the chance the final list will be comprehensive. Participants will be trained to spot, photograph, capture and bottle, label, and take notes on any insect specimen they see. In addition, they will be taught how to do preliminary sorting and tentative identification to group, if not species, and asked to do that with the specimens they collect.”

“Then, I will guide the participants interested in further identification, using and keys. And, I have secured the cooperation of Dr. Leland Russell and two entomologists, Drs. Mary Liz Jameson and Matt Paulson, to get the new specimens to professional entomologist specialists in specific groups,” she added.

The best photos of the insects studied will also be contributed to iNaturalist to aid their goal of documenting the insect species diversity of North America.

“It is my hope that final list of species will contribute to answering the questions I’ve listed above, provide a foundational list for future research with global climate change, and contribute to the publication of the plant impact data that we have,” she added.

“I’m looking for people who like to be outside, who are curious about the natural world around them, who are willing to learn about insects, and who are willing to be enthusiastic and conscientious about looking at plants in the field carefully enough to find, grab, and document representative specimens of every insect occurring on Platte Thistle at multiple sites around Chaffee County. [It’s] pretty demanding, but an exciting challenge and opportunity for the right people” she added.

Help solve important ecological questions

The citizen scientists involved in this project will be contributing not only to a  scientific database, but helping to solve important ecological questions.

The “missing piece” for a definitive understanding about the interactions of the insects with the plants here in the upper Arkansas River Valley and at the edge of the plant’s range is a well-documented and comprehensive list of the insects that are using Platte Thistle, Louda noted.

Louda said this information is critical for multiple reasons, including the documentation of the native insect species present in the experiments, but also for species diversity estimates in Colorado wild lands, as well as addressing multiple interesting, understudied questions:

  • Are the species here the same thistle-affiliated species as in the center of the distribution or do some drop out?
  • Do the thistle specialists occur or is it primarily more generalized insect species that feed on the plants at the edge of Platte Thistle’s distribution?
  • Do specific species co-occur here, or are the collections of species on plants random?
  • What species, if any, might be lost if the abundance of the plant declines in the face of global climate change?

Those are some of the ecological questions that could be addressed by obtaining comprehensive data on the species currently using Platte Thistle here.

It should be noted that despite the significance of native thistles to our ecosystems, they are often targeted for eradication, along with the more widely recognized invasive thistles. Experts warn many native thistles are now threatened, with some species at risk of extinction.