New Research Center Showcases Alabama’s Biodiversity

It seems like we have a hard time appreciating how rich Alabama really is, and how important it is to the rest of the country. But the research going on at the Paint Rock Forest Research Center in northeast Alabama could change that.

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Paint Rock Forest. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

Alabama’s Biodiversity

Alabama is the center of tree diversity nationally, the nation’s center of oak and magnolia diversity, the world’s center of hickory diversity. It’s the center of water-based diversity, as well, with more species of fish, snails, shellfish, and even crawfish than any place else in North America. It supports the greatest concentration of turtle diversity in the Western Hemisphere. It is chock full of flowers, herbs, grasses, insects, amphibians, mammals that occur virtually nowhere else. 

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Trout Lilies. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch

Increasingly, scientists are realizing that the entire nation would be a much poorer place, if the Alabama landscape hadn’t shared some of its great natural riches over many eons.

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Ed Wilson – who coined the word biodiversity – with Bill Finch. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

Paint Rock

Now, in a valley surrounding the Paint Rock River in the northeastern corner of the state, there’s a new effort underway to understand just how rich Alabama is. Scientists from UCLA, Harvard, Clemson and University of Georgia are developing research programs with scientists from Alabama A&M, University of Alabama, University of West Alabama, Jacksonville State University and others.  

Student checking tree
Student working on plot survey. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch

On a 4,500-acre Nature Conservancy preserve, they’re measuring the depth and dimensions of Alabama’s riches in a way that’s never been done before. Every woody plant stem larger than a pencil is identified, carefully measured and mapped, and will be tracked for decades. 

That’s a daunting task in a place like Paint Rock Valley. This Alabama valley is home to the richest concentration of caves and cave life in North America. The Paint Rock River itself is one of the richest of its size, packed with life that now occurs in no other river. In a few acres of forest, you could find more species of oaks, ash, hickories than you’d find in half a million of acres of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. 

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One of several caves on the study plot. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

New Species

The fact that these forests are so much richer than forests farther north is already telling us something very important about the nature of Alabama. Places like Paint Rock have been a refuge for species lost over much of North America as climate has changed. As climate changes again, Alabama forests will hold the keys to the future of forests throughout North America.

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Azalea in TNC’s Paint Rock Sharp Bingham Preserve where forest survey is located. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

The more we look, the more we find here. We’re just beginning to explore the tens of thousands of still unnamed species in the Alabama landscape. At Paint Rock, we’re now pondering potentially new species of oaks, maples, dogwoods, azaleas and many more. 

The biggest new species may be the smallest. Scientists are giving special attention to the tiny creatures that are as unrecognized as the COVID virus was a year ago. As we’re discovering, these tiny fungi, bacteria, viruses and molds may play a surprisingly large role in the future of forests and the future of Alabamians.

An Army of New Scientists

We also recognize that the only way we’re ever going to really appreciate the diversity of Alabama is if we learn to see it with the eyes of diversity. So we’re emphasizing the training of a new generation of scientists that reflects Alabama’s cultural and human diversity. We’re developing training programs that give Alabama’s underserved teens an opportunity to work with the nation’s top scientists on groundbreaking research. It’s a lesson in Alabama life that the scientists need as much as the students.

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Student performing census on a section plot. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

We brag about our hard-scrabble efforts to conquer this state. But often enough, our hard times seem to be the result of failing to explore and recognize our own natural riches. For once, the work we’re doing in Paint Rock may help Alabama lead the nation to a better future.

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Discussion of the Survey. Patience Knight – AL A&M, Mitch Reid – Nature Conservancy, Steve Livingston – State Senator, Pete Conroy – Jacksonville State. Photo via Beth Maynor Finch.

Please visit the Paint Rock Forest Research Center website for more information.

Bill Finch
Bill Finch
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