The first time Dr. Jennifer Schafer drove down Old State Road 8 and past the Spanish moss-covered oaks along the driveway into Archbold Biological Station, it was October 2001 and she was excited about her first job outside the Midwest. It did not take long for her to fall in love with the Florida scrub — the views from the Florida rosemary scrub patches, the sunsets over pines and palmettos and the high level of endemism — species not seen anywhere else in the world.
Eighteen years later, she is an assistant professor of biology at Winthrop University in South Carolina and a research affiliate at Archbold, focusing on studies of plant ecology. And now, when she drives down Old State Road 8, she feels like she’s coming home.
Schafer started at Archbold as an education intern in the Education Program. “I will never forget when a Florida scrub-jay landed on the head of a little boy visiting Archbold,” she said. “The smile on the boy’s face and the excitement of his classmates showed me how important it is for students to get outside to learn about nature and the world around them.” This was her first close encounter with the jays, which she always looks forward to seeing as they fly among the shrubs, keeping an eye on her while she is measuring plants.
She came back to Archbold the next year as a research intern in the Plant Ecology Program. For her research project, she studied survival and recruitment of a state-endangered plant in Florida rosemary scrub and roadside habitats named Papery Whitlow-wort (Paronychia chartacea spp. chartacea). She recalled, “Papery Whitlow-wort reaches high densities along the edges of sand roads. I spent hours searching the white sand soil for small seedlings.” Her experience conducting an independent research project fueled her desire to pursue a graduate degree.
When Schafer started a PhD program in the Department of Botany at the University of Florida, and was developing her research project, she felt pulled back to Archbold and states, “I had participated in research projects in boreal forest and tundra ecosystems in Alaska and in the tropical rainforest in Costa Rica. But I was most excited about my experience in Florida scrub and learning more about nutrient cycling in the fire-maintained shrublands at Archbold.”
She spent five hot summers collecting hundreds of soil samples to measure soil nitrogen and phosphorous and measuring shrub stems and palmettos to determine the effects of adding extra nitrogen and phosphorus on plant growth. Schafer found that the availability of nitrogen and phosphorus is very low in scrub soils, but increases over the short-term after fire. In addition, the growth of palmettos and oaks seem to be limited by different nutrients, possibly due to differences in the types of soil fungi that interact with their roots and increase plant access to nutrients.
When Schafer became an assistant professor, she knew she wanted to develop new projects that would allow her to continue research at Archbold. She began studying the demography and resprouting ability of Florida Alicia (Chapmannia floridana), a Florida endemic, which grows in the yellow sands of the sandhill habitats on the southern part of the Lake Wales Ridge as well as in Florida rosemary scrub, scrubby flatwoods, the edges of sand roads and pastures.
This year is the second summer that she has brought an undergraduate student from Winthrop University to Archbold. She said, “I’m thrilled that I can introduce my students to an ecosystem and place that I love. Coming to Archbold gives students an experience in which they gain field and lab skills and learn about conservation while living at a field station.” This summer, she and Mackenzie Jenkins are studying ‘herbivore defenses’ in Florida Alicia. Its flowering stems are covered with glandular hairs, which can trap small insects.
They are investigating if the trapped insects attract predatory spiders that in turn prey on and deter plant-eating insects that cause flower and fruit damage. So far, they have observed grasshoppers chewing on flower petals and caterpillars munching on flower buds and fruits. Jenkins will present their research at Winthrop in October and says, “This has been a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’ve learned so much about plants, and even arthropods and birds.”
Schafer shared, “Accepting an intern position at Archbold was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I learn more about Florida scrub every time I’m at Archbold, I’ve made life-long friends, and I hope to return for years to come.”