by Ben Hodgson (@EcologieBen)
I have just completed a six-week Research Experience Placement (REP) on the Gair Wood Project. Alongside helping to collect baseline ecological data by completing invertebrate and bird surveys on-site, I had the opportunity to complete my own small research project.
I decided to investigate which environmental factors affected the species diversity and percentage cover of ground flora in a small woodland fragment on the Gair Wood site. The ground flora was very species-poor which meant I was not able to investigate factors affecting their diversity. I did, however, show that percentage cover increased with an increase in light penetration through the tree canopy.
I am just about to start my 3rd year of a 4-year integrated master’s degree in Ecology and Conservation Biology at the University of Leeds. Some time ago I decided that I would like to go on to do a PhD after my degree, and so this placement provided an excellent opportunity to gain relevant experience and boost my CV. I enjoyed having the freedom to choose my topic of investigation, plan my experiment and carry it through to data analysis and the creation of graphs.
For my project, I used quadrats to measure the percentage cover and species identity of plants at 20 sampling points in the woodland. I then collected a variety of environmental data from each sampling point. Some of this data collection involved using equipment that I had not had the opportunity to use in the School of Biology. I used PAR meters (which detect the level of Photosynthetically Active Radiation) to measure the light intensity both inside the woodland at each sampling point and outside the woodland to calculate the percentage of light penetration through the canopy. I also took canopy photos and used ImageJ to calculate canopy cover. I recorded the distance of each sampling point to the nearest mature tree and also noted the species of the nearest tree. Soil science and soil sampling are not things that I had experience with before my project, however, I had the opportunity to take soil moisture readings in the field and to sample the soil for nutrients, pH and organic carbon in the lab.
I analysed my data in R, which is a program that I have wanted to gain more experience in but could not find the time when completing university work. I found that only light penetration had an effect on the percentage cover of the ground flora, and I managed to plot this relationship on a graph in R. While my results were limited by the poor species diversity of ground flora and my small sample size, it was really good to get one significant result and this project allowed me to try many methods that I had not used before.
My REP was funded by NERC and was supervised by Dr Cat Scott and Dr Tom Sloan. The enthusiasm and effort that they both put in has made this placement an invaluable experience which will certainly help me when applying for a PhD in the future.