Mistaken Identities in HBO (Hubbard Brook Old): Time to Resort the Birches!

As some of you know, Ruth Yanai, our most senior (Professor) lab member, is not the greatest at distinguishing leaves of white birch, Betula papyrifera, from yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis.  It slows things down when she has to ask a high school student to verify every leaf.

Pictured on the left are the leaves of a yellow birch tree, and on the right are the leaves of a white birch tree.  Could you tell them apart?  A white birch leaf is typically wider, and the petiole longer. A yellow birch leaf has a stubby petiole, and is thinner and longer. And white birch leaves have 5-9 veins, while yellow birch has 9-11 veins.

On Saturday, March 24, when Ruth was sorting with Mia, Anna, and Dan, all the birch leaves in sample HBO-4-A1 were turning out to be yellow birch.  So she asked Becky, who was Lab Host that day, “Are there any white birch in this basket?  This would go a lot faster if I knew there was only one kind of birch!”

Archived on the MELNHE web site, Becky found the data for HBO-4-A1 in 2010, in which there was only 1 g of white birch leaves, but 34 g of yellow birch.  However, in 2015, there were 13 g of white birch leaves reported, in addition to 40 g of yellow birch leaves.  It’s not surprising that the masses are not exactly the same from year to year (if they were, we wouldn’t be sorting litter every year).  But this amount of difference seemed suspicious.  The litter baskets are in the exact same place every year, and birch trees can’t move around or change their species.

Fortunately, the 2015 samples were still across the hall in B-6, awaiting transport to the attic of Bray Hall for Long-Term Storage.  Becky found the bags from basket HBO-4-A1, and dumped out the bag labeled white birch on the table for us to sort.


The first thing Ruth noticed (remember, she’s not good at distinguishing the birches), was two beech leaves!  Everyone can tell a beech from a birch, that’s easy.  The rest of the team were able to verify that most of the bag was yellow birch, not white birch.

It’s alarming to find errors from past lab crews, but reassuring that we can find the samples, resort them, and reweigh them.  Alex Young, a graduate student, is now making stacked bar graphs of the species in each basket over time to help us determine which samples should be rechecked.  The other thing we discovered is that there is no record of who sorted (or rather failed to correctly sort) that basket from 2015.  So we won’t publicly humiliate them.  We do, now, record in our notes which baskets are processed each day, as well as who was present.

Thanks to Terrance and Ed for finishing with error detection and recovery of basket HBO-4-A1 from 2015 on Sunday, March 25.  There were just a few leaves that were correctly classified as white birch by the crew that sorted that 2015 sample, probably some time in 2016.  It turned out that they also had some birch leaves in the sugar maple bag.  Ruth was proud to report that by the end of sorting the 2017 HBO-4-A1 sample, she, too, could tell a white birch from a yellow birch.

by Becky Rew and Ruth Yanai

Use this for a post about the basket labeling system:

Click here to see the Forest Plot Layout!


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Who are these yellow creatures?


What are these creatures we found on Yellow Birches from Jeffers Brook Forest?

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Who is eating our sugar maple leaves?



We found these pretty sugar maple leavs from Jeffers Brook.  Does anyone know what insect does this?  –Nidaa Aljabbarin–

This is from a Maple Leaf Cutter Moth. Doug Allen, an ESF professor, wrote a short article on this insect and its life cycle. The caterpillar of the moth constructs a portable shelter using two bits of the leaf blade and seals it with silk. The caterpillar then feeds along the edge of the shelter, creating rings on the leaf that will eventually fall out. For more info, the attached pdf discusses the moth more!


– Gabriel D-R

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The 2016 Litter Year is Over! Enter in 2017!

The very last leaf litter sample, C2-4-A3, from 2016 has finally been sorted on November 5, 2017. Just in time for the 2017 leaf samples to come in later today!


Nidaa Aljabbarin, Fidaa Aljabbarin, and Shahad Abdulameer were the lucky researchers who finished up the last few samples!

– Gabriel Deutschman-Ruiz

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Tips for Taking Off Your Gloves

Did you know that our hands have a lot of sodium on them, and the leaf samples we are studying have very little? The 2016 Fall Litter Samples are being chemically analyzed, therefore we are wearing gloves when dealing with these samples so as not to contaminate them. It’s important to wear gloves and when putting on, wearing, and taking off the gloves to not touch the outside of them. Using the method described in the video you can take off your gloves if necessary and be able to put the same gloves back on without contaminating the outside of the gloves or needing to get a new pair.    –Maria Scheibel

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Sorting 2016 leaf litter has begun!

The 2016 Leaf Litter is going to be handled differently from previous years.  Nat, Maddy, Cindy, Melany, Gretchen, Dan, Ryan, Adam, Grace, and Maddy (again) collected litter four (4, count them) times this fall:  Oct 7-9, Oct 17-18, Oct 21-23, and Nov 4-6.  This means that Melany’s crew in Ohio can get nutrient contents (as in 2012, which was also collected 4 times (better for nutrient analysis than letting them sit in baskets all fall starting to decompose).  It also means that we can look at whether our N and P treatments affect the rate of leaf fall (Griffin is working on this).  And Dan and Gretchen are comparing litter nutrient concentrations to the green leaves they shot in August, to study nutrient translocation.

Most of these samples do not require sorting, but:


We are going to analyze leaf litter by species, which requires sorting, in C1 and C9 control plots, which will contribute to a paper by Craig, Tim, and Ruth that shows how N and P decline over the course of the fall.  We will also use this time series to evaluate the “fresh” litter samples that Dan and Gretchen collected in the pouring rain on Oct 21-23.

Here is Phuong teaching species ID to Alex, our newest lab member and a grad student.


Here is an important question for our collaborators. What should we do with the “non-leaf” material?  When we sort, we don’t include this, but for all the stands where we are not sorting, these would be ground along with the leaves and analyzed!  So far, we have found a red-backed salamander, a worm, and an unknown insect pupa (can  anyone ID?), and two millipedes!



Here is another important methodological question. For all the bags that got crushed, ground, and are being ashed and digested for nutrient analysis, we analyze everything in the bag. However, for the samples we are sorting and analyzing by species, should yucky leaves from the wet corner of a basket (below) be included with the species samples?  One idea is to put them with the “unknown” species crumbles. Everything will be weighed, composited, and analyzed; including the unknowns, so that we also get total nutrient flux in the baskets.


Until you are 18, you can’t grind, ash, or digest samples, but some of you can do this and we’ll post pictures for the rest of you!



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Useful for Reuse!!


Say goodbye to clutter! These litter collection bags are packed, clipped, and ready for action in the 2017 field season.  They are already labeled by stand, plot, and basket.


Our very own Grace Lockwood has done an exceptional job double checking the Spring and Summer litter from 2015 and 2016.  We don’t need to keep these (the attic is filling up with the more valuable Fall litter collections) so she dumps them into a garbage bag after looking for non-leaf material and counting cherry pedicels, birch catkins and bracts, and today only, a red spruce cone.  We thought she was all done, and we had a bonfire to burn the samples and celebrate Yang Yang’s PhD candidacy exam.  But it turned out there were more samples hiding…  We will have another bonfire to celebrate Kara’s thesis defense, hopefully on December 19.

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