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Mason students document plant species in Loudoun County wetlands, measuring biodiversity

November 4, 2020   /   by John Hollis

Eight George Mason University students recently braved the tall grass and a slew of pesky ticks to do their part in a formal survey of vegetation on a seven-acre wetlands-preserve area in Loudoun County owned by the Piedmont Environmental Council. 

Andrea Weeks, an associate professor of biology within the College of Science and the director of Mason’s Ted R. Bradley Herbarium, was overseeing their work at Roundabout Meadows as part of a long-term floristic study sponsored by a grant from the Virginia Native Plant Society and conducted in partnership with the Piedmont Environmental Council and the herbarium. All eight students were part of her Biology 345 Plant Ecology class. 

“The mission of George Mason University's herbarium is to advance our understanding of Virginia's flora and to provide hands-on educational opportunities for our students—and the Gilberts Corner study is designed to fulfill both goals,” Weeks said. 

The project provides a safe experiential learning experience that combines real-world research in a land conservation initiative while also serving as a living laboratory that gives students the botanical training necessary for field work. 

“I think it’s fun, especially considering the virtual world we all live in now,” said Erica Hatcher, a senior biology major. “It’s really nice to get out in the field, especially as a scientist.” 

Roundabout Meadows is located at Gilberts Corner, where the council has helped protect more than 325 acres of land in an important transition zone between the historic, rural landscapes of western Loudoun County and the newer suburban neighborhoods to the east. Gilberts Corners lies within the 386-square-mile Goose Creek watershed that drains to the Potomac River, so the council’s work there focuses on improving water quality and restoring wetland and upland habitat. 

Using 60-meter tape measures and interpretative signage, the students broke into pairs to meticulously document plant life at various elevations and water levels. Their findings will serve as critical baseline data for current plant biodiversity by creating a checklist of species that will allow for the tracking and measurement of restoration efforts for the meadow. 

“It just goes back to biodiversity,” said Niloufar Karim, a junior biology major. “You don’t want one species to dominate an area.” 

The group’s work follows that of recent Mason graduate Cameron Pierce, who received funding through the Garden Club of America’s Joan K. and Rachel M. Hunt Summer Scholarship in Field Botany to begin the survey this past summer. He recorded around 140 species, including some rare species and one that may not have been previously documented in Loudoun County. 

“It’s a teaching tool for my students,” Weeks said, “but it’s also giving back to the community.”