Tree Sleuths Tackle a Local Mystery

by Bryan Bernart

Strauss_Ripple_COFSince at least the 1920s, scientists have been aware of a cataclysmic series of floods that, 15,000 years ago, swept across eastern Washington, down the Columbia Gorge, and into the Willamette Valley. The Missoula Floods, caused by rupturing glacial dams, occurred periodically over a span of about 2,000 years, and at their peak, had a water flow of nine cubic miles per hour—more than the combined flow of every river in the world. With that kind of power, the floods moved enormous boulders hundreds of miles and left an indelible impression on the environment—but what if the floods’ legacy extended further than the physical landscape? What if the raging waters carried new species to the Willamette Valley?

Quaking aspen, common across much of Canada and the upper Midwest and Northeast, is quite scarce in Oregon west of the Cascades. With that in mind, the half-acre stand of aspen southeast of Corvallis is a massive anomaly. Once they learned of the stand, OSU University Distinguished Professors Steve Strauss and Bill Ripple, both in the Department of Forest Ecosystems & Society, went to investigate. They theorized that the stand did not originate as a result of artificial propagation, but rather that the species was carried here in the Missoula Floods, millennia ago. “Aspen trees could have sprouted from root material deposited in the Willamette Valley by these ancient floods,” explained Ripple. Once established, aspen stands can live thousands of years through the constant regeneration process of root sprouting.

At present, little evidence exists to support the idea that tree species can be transported across great distances in such events. To test this hypothesis, Strauss’s research group planned to sample the DNA of different aspen populations in an effort to determine the origin of the stand. If it was genetically similar to aspen populations found along the flood path, it would constitute evidence that the stand came to the Willamette Valley via the Missoula floods. However, the cost for the genetic analysis to collect the necessary data was prohibitively steep. What to do? 

Enter Experiment.com, a new and unusual crowdfunding platform. Although crowdfunding efforts for artistic endeavors and business ventures are ubiquitous, crowdfunding to support scientific research is a relatively novel approach. Experiment.com separates itself from the rest by focusing on “discovering, funding, and sharing science” worldwide. Members can choose to fund projects in a variety of fields or develop their own projects. 

At the urging of OSU graduate (and contributing researcher) Collin Peterson, Strauss put the project up online. Initially, the group sought $4,000 to cover the cost of DNA sequencing. Once community members caught on to the project, however, the effort snowballed. All told, the team, consisting of Strauss, Ripple, Peterson, and Rich Cronn, raised over $6,000—enough to not only cover initial expenses, but also to expand the scope of the work.

“It was absolutely great to have the crowd not just fund, but help to create the project. At least 5 of the 70 or so contributors told us about other stands to consider, and in a few cases actually made collections and mailed the aspen branches or leaves to us,” says Strauss. “I loved using the platform to correspond with our supporters about the project—we actually thanked and talked with every one of them.” 

Strauss says that due to the community’s strong support for the research, the team will be able to analyze about two dozen aspen groves from throughout the west. In the future, Strauss would like to continue with research into potential propagation of species due to the Missoula Floods. In fact, one supporter of the aspen crowdfunding campaign may have already tipped him off to the next species he may study. “One of our crowdfunding sources pointed out some black cottonwood stands that might have had the same origin,” he says. “If the aspen research comes back in support of our hypothesis, it would be very exciting to see what else may have come to the Willamette Valley thousands of years ago in the Floods.”

You can read more about the aspen research here.