Ecologists at work in Lakeshore Nature Preserve

A piece of black duct tape labeled "B" and stuck to a tree trunk

Photo by David Tenenbaum

Have you noticed those duct-tape-tagged trees in Muir Woods, between Bascom Hall and Lake Mendota? What’s up?

Tricia Fry, who coordinates lab work in general ecology courses on campus, says I’m looking at an undergraduate study of Reineke’s rule, a theory of how a forest “self-thins.”

“This is related to self-management of the forest,” says Fry, who is an instructor in the botany department. “If the density is too high, the trees are going to be a lot smaller, because they don’t have space to grow; they can’t reach the light. They won’t regenerate, or they will be stunted.”

The ecology classes work in the Lakeshore Preserve, which Fry calls “a great place to teach and learn species identification. This year, the students made pamphlets for a tour guide based on the life history of trees.”

Lakeshore Nature Preserve sign and a trail into the woods

Photo by David Tenenbaum

Most of the students come from the city, Fry says, “but they leave with a very good understanding of ecological principles and the natural world. Ecology is such a great story; we teach them how to open their eyes. I often suggest to student they ‘take their ear buds and listen to the birds.'”

Positive student evaluations are one sign of success, but emails are a better one, Fry says. “I get emails every weekend. One group was so excited; they got a video of a muskrat on a critter cam last weekend.”

Then there was the avid student golfer who visited the Arboretum and Baraboo Hills to develop hypotheses to investigate during the semester, and focused every one on golf courses. “I was really concerned,” Fry says, “but I got an email at the end of the semester, ‘I still want to do golf course design, but I have learned so much about how to use native plants in landscaping.'”

And then there was the student who put the transformation in terms anybody can understand: “A year ago, he said he walked through the woods and only saw the woods. Now he sees the trees.”

Including, I’m guessing, those trees tagged with duct tape just below my office in Bascom…

A white paper label "40 cm F" taped to a tree near Bascom Hall

Photo by David Tenenbaum