Exploring the Plant Side of Citizen Science

In the state of Wisconsin, we are lucky to have so many people who take interest in our natural resources. From the Snapshot Wisconsin project here at the Department of Natural Resources, to university professors conducting environmental research, to individual Wisconsinites, there’s no shortage of people who care.

Before I started working with the Snapshot Wisconsin team, I was fortunate enough to participate in another research project. The goal of the project was to look more closely at the impact that white-tailed deer have on Wisconsin forests when they browse on (or “eat”) sapling trees.

A maple sapling that has been browsed by a deer.

Dr. Donald Waller (retired professor from UW-Madison’s Department of Botany) had come up with a new idea for measuring this impact. He dubbed it the Twig-Age method. My job was to use the Twig-Age method to help him collect data, as well as to build a website to share his idea with other volunteers who wanted to participate in the research. We used the Twig-Age method across several patches of forest in Southern Wisconsin. This involved looking at a tree sapling, measuring its height, and counting the terminal bud scale scars along two of its branches. Terminal bud scale scars are what’s left behind on the twig when a bud falls off naturally during the growing process. Picture marking a child’s height on the wall each year. The more bud scale scars a twig has, the longer a twig has been able to grow without being browsed by a deer. We took hundreds of data points in order to paint a picture of what sort of browsing impacts deer were having on these forests.

Dr. Waller points out one year of growth on the twig of a Red Maple sapling.

While I was doing this field work, I found myself surprised by how many different species of trees we have in our forests. Usually when I walk through the woods, I don’t take the time to notice all the different plants around me. I notice the birds and the squirrels, but the plants have always been more of a beautiful backdrop. This research project gave me a stronger appreciation for the diverse vegetation that we have in our forests. I had time to get down at eye-level with these saplings and really look at them. It was like playing the part of a historian by recording the age of their twigs and whether or not a deer had eaten from them before. Each data point collected was a personal interview with a tiny tree.

By the end of the summer we created Our Wisconsin Understory, a citizen science project for monitoring deer impacts. The goal is to collect as much data as possible and to hopefully expand data points across the state. Anyone interested in learning more about the Twig-Age method and collecting data for the project can do so at the Our Wisconsin Understory website.

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