When 18th-century trappers trekked through the forests of what is now Baltimore, their minds were on money. They collected beaver pelts because the fur fetched high prices from clothing makers in Europe. At the same time, however, their hunting habits may have dramatically changed the landscape, altering the flow of local streams and the mix of vegetation nearby, new research at The Johns Hopkins University suggests.
Today, more than two centuries after the decimation of the beaver population, Hopkins scientist Grace Brush is digging into the mud beside Baltimore-area streams to find signs of how humans changed the ecology of a region once dominated by dense forests and meandering waterways. By studying the pollen, seeds, tiny animals and chemicals preserved in sediment, Brush hopes to learn how natural resources were affected by the people who hunted animals, farmed the land and finally turned Baltimore into a bustling metropolis.
Her work is a key facet of a new long-term ecological research effort funded by the National Science Foundation. The project is unusual because these in-depth environmental studies have traditionally been done in "pristine" areas such as Antarctica, where humans have done little to interfere with the natural cycles of life. For the first time, two new research efforts, launched last year, are focusing on highly populated urban sites, Baltimore and Phoenix, where the impact of people on the environment will not be ignored..
"The idea is revolutionary in ecology," says Brush, a professor in Hopkins' Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. "But the time has come to consider humans as part of ecosystems."
She is part of the Baltimore research team, led by the Institute of
Ecosystem Studies in
Millbrook, N.Y. A widely-respected paleoecologist, Brush will look for
vegetation and chemical
changes that have occurred within the Gwynns Falls Watershed, a network of
Contact: Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins University