McDonald, who is studying plant sciences, has spent the last year canvassing the 1,400 acre Frank Spain Scout Reservation in Delta, about 25 miles south of Anniston. He has collected 700 specimens from the reservation and his is the first such project conducted by a JSU student in more than a decade.
“A lot of people are moving out of this field,” McDonald said. “It’s kind of a dying art.”
McDonald’s project may be increasingly unusual, but it might also be the start of something new at JSU. McDonald’s advisor, assistant professor Jimmy Triplett, said he hopes to steer more JSU graduate students toward flora projects, which is a scientific review of the plant life in a given area, if it suits their area of study.
Triplett said Alabama, which ranks fifth among the states for biodiversity, has a deficit of scientific information about that diversity as it pertains to plant life. More knowledge about Alabama’s plant diversity could lead to changes in land management and a push toward more ecotourism, he said.
“We definitely still need these projects to be done,” Triplett said. “We still don’t know all the species in Alabama and that’s something that we ought to know.”
McDonald’s work will be added to state and national databases, it will be recorded in a scientific book that will be stored on JSU’s shelves and his specimens will be held at the JSU herbarium, which is like a library of mounted plants that have been specially preserved. Scientists could use the information he produces for future research and his work could also be used to help local educators develop programs for area children.
McDonald’s project has the potential to benefit JSU and the state, Triplett said.
“This kind of project is really good from the student’s perspective and the university’s perspective and the perspective of the state,” Triplett said.
It’s good for the students, he said, because it gives them advanced scientific knowledge, which in turn, makes them more marketable job candidates. It’s good for the university, he added, because it boosts JSU’s collection of plant species at its recently re-opened herbarium, which has the potential to become an attraction for other researchers. And good for the state, he said, because floras can be used to inform economic, government and educational decisions.
Floras could also help educators develop lessons for their students, the scientists said.
McDonald intends to comb the 1,400 acres at the Frank Spain Scout Reservation before completing his project in the fall.
He scouts its ridges, bottomlands and creek-sides and, with Triplett, often spends between eight to 10 hours each day they visit the site. For each species he finds, McDonald stops, takes notes, determines the plant’s GPS location and plucks the species to be pressed, heated in a special oven, mounted and stored at JSU’s herbarium.
“The geography of the site is diverse and because the geography is diverse that’s another reason to believe it’s an extremely divisive site for plants,” McDonald said.
McDonald describes the process as tedious but rewarding. His most rewarding moment came while trying to positively identify a specimen he collected on the scout reservation.
While comparing the plant to the records in one of the 10 books he uses for plant identification, he began to notice that his specimen’s characteristics matched that of American chestnuts, which are all but extinct.
“I kept telling myself ‘No that can’t be,’” McDonald said. “To me, that was huge, because I didn’t know it existed.”
As it turns out, the tree, which was killed by blight during the last century, does still exist in the wild but is rare. It can begin growing, but because of the blight doesn’t mature.
While McDonald has already collected hundreds of samples, there’s much work still to be done. His project won’t be complete until next fall.
“We really don’t know what we can find and that’s the reason we chose this area,” McDonald said.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.