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What does a forest look like in 2318?

Monday, June 25, 2018, by Max Ferlauto
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Somehow your body gets frozen for three hundred years. Maybe you fell through a lake in the middle of winter and froze solid, maybe Darth Vader threw you in carbonite, maybe you were forgotten in a cryogenic chamber. In any case, you are revived three hundred years later and wake up in a hospital. After the nurses perform their tests and you’ve overcome the shock that, instead of having to use the restroom, waste is automatically teleported into a customizable receptacle, you’re allowed a fifteen minute walk through the hospital. A news feed displays on the floor as you step on the rubbery material, debriefing you on the past three hundred years of history. Honestly, most of it is boring.

Donald Trump was exposed as a rogue Norwegian spy and impeached. The United States colonized Mars but there wasn’t much to see so we came back, we developed lifelike virtual reality but after a couple decades we realized it was cheaper to just do things for real, and we went to war with Norway because of that Donald Trump thing and because we were jealous of how darn happy they were all the time. All in all, much of the world is still the same. People still like fancy watches, football, and lip gloss for some reason. Eventually you notice a tracker bracelet on your ankle. You rip it off and sneak out through the doors of the hospital. Your eyes take a moment to adjust to the bright sunlight, and after walking around in a daze for a few hours, you find yourself in a forest. What does it look like? Maybe it is dominated by the exotic Norway maple, a species invasion from three hundred years earlier. Are the Norwegians having a laugh in some fjord somewhere? How have exotic species changed forests? Are forests healthy? Are they diverse? Is diversity even important? Who decides what is important?

That is what my research is ultimately about. How do ecosystems become novel, does it change how they function, and is it necessarily bad? My lab group studies how the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid’s crusade against the eastern hemlock affects ant communities. I also study how exotic garlic mustard, which sometimes fills in gaps left by dead hemlocks, affects ant communities. If you ask any researcher about their study system they will express its importance. Even researchers of spider mites will tell you that their research is vital to humanity; they might be right. But ants are very important too. They are pollinators, seed dispersers, ecosystem engineers, and bioindicators. Also, there are tons of them and they are everywhere. Hemlocks will be gone from Northeastern forests in less than three hundred years. The landscape will be forever changed. We study how this will affect ants. Our research is specific, localized, and relatively short term, but it has implications that could span centuries. We are trying to see the future…without falling in a lake.

Max is a rising Senior at Juniata College studying Plant Ecology.

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