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Pitcher plant communities as model food webs

Monday, June 20, 2011, by Rachel Brooks
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Covered in mud, and smelling similar to the stagnant swamp I found myself surrounded by, I peer deep into the small cuplike leaves of the Sarracenia purpurea (Northern Pitcher Plant), a long-lived carnivorous plant. Contained in these delicate green and red veined pitchers (which have become my life for this summer) an entire detritus-based food-web thrives. This community, consisting of bacteria, protozoa, rotifers, and anthropods, is diversified with numerous endemic species that can only be found within this unique little niche.  

Therefore, every morning, dripping in the cold early morning rain or fresh fog, I can be found floating on Sphagnum, hidden by the thick leatherleaf shrubs (Chamaedaphne calyculata), working with these plants. For more than just a marvel of evolution – these plants provide a natural system which allows for numerous replicated field experiments on small, isolated, localized, aquatic microecosystems, which would not be possible with other aquatic ecosystems. 

Changing perspective from this small patch of swamp to a larger scale, it can easily be seen that many global systems (such as ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and climate change) can be quickly influenced by tipping points and thresholds. As a result, an understanding of these state changes can benefit the management and protection of these systems throughout the world. So, within these little pitcher ecosystems, knowledge about their state changes will hopefully allow us to find answers applicable to situations all over the world.  

I am using proteomics (the study of proteins) to monitor state changes caused by different stressors on this system to develop a chemical signature that can be used for future temporal state changing studies. With two controls and three environmental stressors that represent fluxes created by cross ecosystem interactions (eutrophication, hunting, and the isolation of communities), I add daily ground up wasp samples to the pitcher’s water, remove the top predators in some pitchers, and cut off the stem of the other pitcher. At the completion of these treatments the pitchers will be taken up to the University of Vermont laboratories where I will analyze them using SDS-PAGE and Mass Spectrometry, creating profiles that will potentially show characteristic differences in relative band intensities reflecting different state signatures. 

After this project, the Northern Pitcher Plant, to me, will be more than just an interesting plant to canoe past – but a unique system with the potential to give us deep insight into the fluctuations and details of larger functioning ecosystems.

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