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A remarkable strength of Archbold Biological Station is the clear coupling among research, conservation, and education programs. Fundamental research continues to inform conservation decisions. Conservation problems pose challenging research questions for us to address. Conservation success inspires students in our education programs. In 1941, when Archbold Biological Station was founded, scrub habitat was extensive on the Lake Wales Ridge, and on other scrub ridges throughout Florida. Located at the extreme southern end of the ancient Lake Wales Ridge, there was little foresight of the vital role Archbold Biological Station would play to help save this ecosystem. As scrub habitat was destroyed and fragmented by urban development and agriculture, conservation joined research and education, as the third integral component of the Archbold mission. We focused land acquisition on protecting the last precious remnants of scrub around the Station. Our research has had increasing relevance and urgency for conservation:
In response to the loss of scrub habitat state-wide, Archbold Biological Station, in conjunction with many other conservation partners notably The Nature Conservancy, helped identify and target lands for protection and guide a successful public land acquisition program that has trebled the area of protected Lake Wales Ridge habitats since 1985, with nearly $70M spent on acquiring nearly 25,000 acres, so that now about half of the remaining scrub and sandhill habitat is in protected lands. Our research, conservation planning, and these land acquisition programs have contributed towards improving the conservation status of 56 species listed as state or federally threatened or endangered, or globally threatened, 36 of which are endemics restricted to scrub habitats. In the last few years, using Archbold data to guide and prioritize fire management needs for conserving natural communities and associated species. Hundreds of acres per year of prescribed burns have been conducted on conservation lands along the Lake Wales Ridge (TNC Fire Strike Team Ten Year Report).
The acquisition of conservation lands up and down the Lake Wales Ridge had a profound effect on Archbold research as well as on conservation. With access to new sites in public ownership opportunities for scientists to conduct comparative ecological research among sites along the Ridge was greatly increased. New species have been discovered, and new sites reported for species previously known only from Archbold. Understanding the population dynamics of species across their entire range has become a real possibility; population viability analyses for several rare plants and animals have been completed. Detailed genetic sequencing from multiple sites has revealed the complex structure of many populations revealing surprisingly levels of genetic distance between individuals from different scrub sites. The partnership between Archbold and the various state and federal agencies managing these sites along the Lake Wales Ridge has been a fruitful collaboration addressing many pressing questions about how to manage the scrub.
An important conservation partnership has also been forged over the last 20 years between Archbold Biological Station has and the U.S. Department of Defense DOD. Avon Park Air Force Range, 106,000 acres, lies about 45 miles north of Archbold, and encompasses scrub, pine flatwoods, dry prairie, marshes, seasonal wetlands and forested wetlands, as well as managed grazing lands and planted pine forests, lands, and the military infrastructure. Since 1991 Reed Bowman and the Avian Ecology program have conducted an expansive research and monitoring program for federally listed bird species at the Avon Park Air Force Range, including Florida Scrub Jay, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which has provided important insights into the biology of these species in a matrix of natural and managed landscapes, whilst providing critical data for informing Avon Park Air Force Range military operations. Recently Betsie Rothermel, leading the Herpetology Program, has added new studies of Gopher Tortoises at the Avon Park Air Force Range to Archbold research and monitoring activities in support of DOD operations.
Although many Archbold studies focus on specific conservation problems,much of our work still revolves around the fundamental research essential to understanding how a natural community or species is adapted to its environmental conditions. Only by unraveling the basics such as the diversity of species are present in this ecosystem, the life history patterns of plants and animals, responses to ecosystem processes like fire, and the role of nutrients and food resources, are we able to knowledgeably inform conservation decisions for Florida scrub habitats. Furthermore, many of our studies have been conducted over decades so that we are able to differentiate long-term trends, or unusual events, either natural or human induced, from annual and seasonal variation.
Our research constantly reminds us that the very survival of the scrub ecosystem, which has so informed, inspired, and challenged us as all as scientists, will continue to depend on us conveying our feeling of wonder and scientific adventure to others. Scrub is not an ecosystem easily appreciated by those that disdain science; without scientific understanding the ability to grasp and fathom its wonder and beauty is greatly diminished. John Jerome wrote in his 1994 essay on the Last Great Places-entitled Scrub Beautiful Scrub—"here is all this biology, working all these complex schemes to accommodate the geographical harshness that soil, climate, altitude and aspect have dealt it...; What's so beautiful about scrub, you eventually come to realize, is that it works; that it simply is. Understanding this type of beauty, observed the late Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, is "that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound."