Mystery in the Woods

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Feb 15, 2018 1:51 PM
Two hikers stumbled across these wire cages in the woods. Who would put these here, and why? (Scott Lilley photo)

"Poachers," my brother said as we sized up the array of cages tucked into the underbrush a short distance off the trail. We had hiked past the location once already, but now, as we were making our way back down the trail, something caused us to glance off to the side.

Newfoundland is a perfect location for a good mystery; with a history as diverse as ours, set on an island, how can it not be? When you go for a walk in the woods and find something completely unexpected, what you first assume to be true has just as much likelihood of being wrong as it does of being right. This was the case last August, when a hike on a trail in Central Newfoundland introduced us to something truly mysterious.

We pushed through the brush to get a better view of the cages, some tall and round, others rectangular and much closer to the ground, all of them apparently homemade from small pieces of lumber and chicken wire. 

“If it is poachers,” I said, “they’re teaching it at MUN now.” Tucked into the wire mesh of the cages were laminated cards explaining that what we had stumbled upon was not the illegal taking of animals as it certainly appeared from a distance, but in fact an experiment being conducted by the geography department of Memorial University of Newfoundland. 

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Scott Lilley photo

The most curious element of what we’d discovered was that the cages weren’t there to contain animals; they seemed geared more towards  keeping them out. Along with twigs and dead leaves that had fallen from the forest canopy, they held fibre flower pots half-buried in the ground. Some pots looked empty while others contained a seedling of some sort - new green life pushing up through the detritus of the forest floor. We also found more flower pots similarly dug in nearby, outside the cages. 

Along with crediting the work to the university and a request that the site remain undisturbed, the card contained contact information and an invitation to get in touch if curious. We definitely were that and soon fired off an email to Piers Evans, the name on the card. Piers, we learned, is working towards his master’s degree in biogeography, the study of plants and animals and how they are distributed and move through a landscape. This field of study has risen in importance with the growing evidence of climate change, and this is what forms the basis of Piers’ work. Under the guidance of his supervisor, Dr. Carissa Brown, and as a part of the team at the Northern EDGE (Ecology of Distributions at their Geographic Extreme) Lab at Memorial, his research is focused on four species of trees: yellow birch, black ash, eastern white cedar and sugar maple. 

It is believed that with a warming climate, plant and animal species should be able to move northward into higher latitudes. 

“The climate of Newfoundland is arguably sufficient to support populations of these species, so my work is to try to understand what else might be keeping them from being successful at germinating and surviving their first growing season beyond their native range,” explained Piers in an email. 

To that end, he is studying the types of forest and soil the trees are planted in and whether or not the seeds are being eaten by wildlife. This explained the pots that were placed outside the security of the cages. 

The Northern EDGE Lab is involved with other joint studies in Europe, Australia and South America, and although they are not a part of his current work, Piers’ experiment does cover a fair bit of ground. With the help of field assistants, Piers placed the first of his cages in 2015 and has since expanded the
territory he is studying to include eight locations across the island. His studied area extends from a site near St. John’s on the east coast to the Stephenville area on the west coast, with six others in between; the one we happened to find in central Newfoundland was not far from the town of Badger. 

He’s been collecting the data generated from his experiment since 2016, and the preliminary results are indicating that the cages are needed for the survival of the species - the seeds outside their protection are being eaten by squirrels, mice and other animals. “In the case of the sugar maple, this is almost certainly due to the fact that the seeds are so much larger and more nutritious than boreal species’ seeds,” Piers writes.

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Scott Lilley photo

Newfoundland, being an island, is isolated from many of the influences that may affect similar species on the mainland. In spite of this, the results that Piers comes up with will be valuable, not only in understanding the Newfoundland environment but further afield as well. “My results will also be applicable to the ongoing research around the world into how organisms (trees included) may redistribute themselves with changes in the environment due to climate change,” he explains.

Since my brother and I made our discovery, Piers has removed most of the cages and begun the detailed data analysis. For us, the solution to our mystery was easily revealed with an email to Piers. He now has a much more difficult one to solve. 

“Currently I am working through the data to identify the key drivers that are inhibiting these species’ ability to germinate and survive their earliest stages of life. Once I have figured out the story these seeds are trying to tell me, I’ll write it up, and that will be the final chapter of my thesis,” he writes.

As climate change progresses, changes to the environment and the creatures that call it home will be inevitable and the work of scientists such as Piers will help us all have a better understanding of what’s going on and possibly what’s ahead for the forests of Newfoundland and beyond. - By Robert Lilley