Andrew Trant and colleagues win 2017 Cooper Award for uncovering the historical influence of a First Nations people on forest productivity

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.

Andrew Trant. Photo credit: Emily Urquhart.

First author Andrew Trant is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He carried out the Cooper Award-winning research project while working as a post-doc with Brian Starzomski at the University of Victoria. Credit: Emily Urquhart.

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.

Wiebe Nijland drives an inflatable boat, underway to collect UAV images of islands in the study area of the Cooper Award-winning paper on British Columbia's Central Coast). Credit: Keith Holmes.

Wiebe Nijland drives an inflatable boat, underway to collect UAV images of islands in the study area of the Cooper Award-winning paper, on British Columbia’s Central Coast. Dr. Nijland is a post-doc working on island biogeography and nutrient subsidies with the University of Victoria and Hakai Institute.Credit: Keith Holmes.

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).

Kira Hoffman commutes to remote Hecate Island on a typical, rainy, spring morning on British Columbia's Central Coast, during data collection for the Cooper Award-winner paper, in April 2014. Credit: Malcolm Johnson.

PhD student Kira Hoffman commutes to remote Hecate Island on a typical, rainy, spring morning on British Columbia’s Central Coast, during data collection for the Cooper Award-winner paper, in April 2014. Credit: Malcolm Johnson.

Trisalyn Nelson on the water in Sooke, British Columbia with children Finn and Beatrice Nelson-Walker. Credit: Ian Walker

Trisalyn Nelson on the water in Sooke, British Columbia with children Finn and Beatrice Nelson-Walker. Dr. Nelson is director and foundation professor of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Credit: Ian Walker.

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.

Darcy Mathews samples eatable Pacific silverweed rhizomes from a managed indigenous estuarine root garden. Dr. Mathews is an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Credit: Hannah Roessler.

Darcy Mathews samples eatable Pacific silverweed rhizomes from a managed indigenous estuarine root garden. Dr. Mathews is an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Credit: Hannah Roessler.

Duncan McLaren, University of Victoria, samples lake bottom sediments near Fish Egg Inlet in British Columbia, in April 2016. Diatoms and radiocarbon dates from these sediment samples indicate when the ocean was last high enough to inundate the basin, granting historical insight into sea level change. Credit: Johnny Johnson.

Duncan McLaren, an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Victoria funded by the Hakai Institute, samples lake bottom sediments near Fish Egg Inlet in British Columbia, in April 2016. Diatoms and radiocarbon dates from these sediment samples indicate when the ocean was last high enough to inundate the basin, granting historical insight into sea level change. Credit: Johnny Johnson.


Coastal forests benefit form long-term human habitation. Combined remote-sensed, ecological and archeological data shows that coastal temperate rainforest trees grow taller, wider and healthier on First Nations' habitation sites. created by Mark Garrison for the Hakai Institute.

Credit: Mark Garrison

  • 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
Brian Starzomski, the Ian McTaggart Cowan Professor of Biodiversity Conservation and Ecological Restoration at the University of Victoria, teaches a students in course intertidal ecology at the Hakai Institute on British Columbia's Central Coast in June 2010.

Brian Starzomski, the Ian McTaggart Cowan Professor of Biodiversity Conservation and Ecological Restoration at the University of Victoria, teaches students in course intertidal ecology during a course at the Hakai Institute on British Columbia’s Central Coast in June 2010.

Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

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