Mt. St. Helens’ barren regions offer questions, answers for WSU Vancouver

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 reshaped its surrounding ecosystem, and 35 years later, the region is still feeling the effects. John Bishop, Washington State University Vancouver’s professor of biological sciences, is studying how plant and animal communities reassemble after a catastrophe. He first became interested in understanding how plants adapt to new environments while he was a student at the University of Washington. Bishop’s advisor gave him the choice to study the arsenic poisoned areas around Tacoma or the barren surfaces on Mt. St. Helens. Ever since, he has been studying these areas. Over time, he began looking at what is important for recolonization of decimated ecosystems. Bishop has been studying this particular question since 1990 and has been funded by the National Science Foundation for approximately 18 years.

Bishop’s first contribution came as a graduate student, when he and another grad student observed that plants were dying as a result of an infestation from herbivorous insects. Initially they believed that this was something that had already been observed and was no great discovery. They ended up learning that, while it was known, nobody had really investigated it. They began treating the plants to repel the insects and found that the plant population exploded. Bishop said “that was my ‘aha!’ moment.” He began to look for other examples and found a non-native weevil that was causing significant damage to willows in the region, as well as a native moth that resembles a wasp. According to Bishop, the interesting thing about these insects was not the damage that they cause, but rather the fact that they did not cause as much damage in existing willow groves.

Due to the relative closeness of Mt. St. Helens and WSU Vancouver, Bishop is in an ideal position to maintain his research for as long as possible. He is able to stretch funding further due to decreased travel costs and is able to use that funding for additional, low-cost projects. Bishop has several students working with him on this research, five graduate students and five undergraduates.

Currently, this project engages in a lot of observation, with a few experiments. One of experiment studies a trend where dwarf lupine will grow to a substantial population then die out. Bishop found that in communities with more complexity, the lupines did not develop the nutrient density like it has on Mt. St. Helens and consequently does not get affected by the weevil and moth population as drastically.

Most of the experiments that Bishop conducts are long-term undertakings. Another experiment being conducted on Mt. St. Helens is similar to the lupines but on a larger scale. Plots of willows are being treated for insects while identical plots are being left untreated to see the effects and the results can be seen on Google Earth. Plots that were treated not only see increased height, but also show an increased base size compared to those plots that were left untreated.

Future work for this project mostly involves soil chemistry. Soils at established sites of former and ongoing volcanic activity, such as Chile and Iceland, have been observed to have high carbon absorption capabilities. Due to the violent nature of volcanic eruption, carbon content is eliminated at the time of an eruption. Bishop plans to study the carbon content over time on Mt. St. Helens to understand more about that. He also wants to look at how microbial communities affect the soil nutrients and what role they play in maintaining soil nutrient levels.

Bishop is also working on various other projects on Mt. St. Helens in addition to the role of insects on revegetation. There is also a project being conducted that will compare lupines originally from the same location in Alaska and Iceland as comparisons. Additionally, new questions have been raised about the abilities of lupines to extract phosphorous from their environment, a trait normally seen in European species being seen in local plants.

Bishop often seeks the help of students to complete these projects. He plans to advertise on campus for paid summer positions available to biology majors and he welcomes volunteers as well. Anyone seeking additional information on these positions should look for advertisements on campus and may contact Bishop directly through his email bishopj@vancouver.wsu.edu.

Anyone looking for information on this project or any of Bishop’s other work may find information through his faculty website, which also lists papers he has written on the projects. It is also possible to find information through the US Forest Service website, fs.fed.us, or the Mt. St. Helens Institute website at mshinstitute.org.

Photo features John Bishop, WSU Vancouver professor of biological sciences.

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