The Cooper Award honors the authors of an outstanding publication in the field of geobotany, physiographic ecology, plant succession or the distribution of plants along environmental gradients.
William S. Cooper was a pioneer of physiographic ecology and geobotany, with a particular interest in the influence of historical factors, such as glaciations and climate history, on the pattern of contemporary plant communities across landforms.
Andrew J. Trant, Wiebe Nijland, Kira M. Hoffman, Darcy L. Mathews, Duncan McLaren, Trisalyn A. Nelson, and Brian M. Starzomski received the 2017 Cooper Award for their article “Intertidal resource use over millennia enhances forest productivity” published in Nature Communications.
Dr. Trant, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and colleagues at the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute in British Columbia revealed a previously unappreciated historical influence on forest productivity: long-term residence of First Nations people.
Counter to a more familiar story of damage to ecosystems inflicted by people and their intensive use of resources, the activities of indigenous people on the Central Coast of British Columbia enhanced the fertility of the soil around habitation sites, leading to greater productivity of the dominant tree species, the economically and culturally valuable western redcedar (Thuja plicata Donn ex D. Don).
Though the calamity of colonization has greatly reduced their numbers in the last century, First Nations people have repeatedly occupied coastal sites in the study region for 13,000 years. Study sites were last occupied about a century ago. Through millennia of marine harvests, coastal people created shell middens extending over thousands of square meters of forest area. Trant and colleagues sampled middens that extended deeper than 5 meters (16 feet) below the forest floor. The shell piles leveled the ground, improved drainage, and delivered a long, slow-release boost of calcium to what would otherwise be acidic, nutrient poor soils.
Calcium is commonly a limited nutrient in forested ecosystems. Lack of calcium has been proposed as an element in top die-back of western redcedar. Charcoal from human made fires may also have mobilized soil nutrients. The slow dissolution of calcium carbonate from shells and charcoal from fires raised the pH of the soil, releasing inaccessible phosphorus to plants.
Through a combination of airborne remote sensing and on-the-ground field work, the authors showed that forest height, width, canopy cover, and greenness increased on and near shell middens. They presented the first documentation of influence on forest productivity by the daily life activities of traditional human communities.
- Andrew. J. Trant, Wiebe Nijland, Kira M. Hoffman, Darcy L. Mathews, Duncan McLaren, Trisalyn A. Nelson, and Brian M. Starzomski. (2016) Intertidal resource use over millennia enhances forest productivity. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12491. doi:10.1038/ncomms12491
- “UW researcher discovers human settlement can aid natural environment” James Jackson, Waterloo Chronicle 7 Sep 2016
- Watch this space for announcements of more 2017 ESA awards — or find all 2017 award winners in the 1 March 2017 press release