Deep in the Binghamton University Nature Preserve, countless invasive plants are exerting negative impacts on native biological communities.

Invasive species are non-native organisms that have the ability to threaten human health and devastate entire ecosystems when introduced to an area. Invasive plants typically cause harm by outcompeting and overcrowding an area, but they can cause subtle harm as well. These plants often differ in their chemical composition compared to native species, which in turn affects the habitat quality for animals and plants that survive in the topsoil and leaf litter of an area.

Soil organisms inhabit the soil and play a vital role in nutrient cycling, drainage and aeration of soil to create a more habitable environment for plants. The presence of invasive species may negatively alter soil organic matter quality and quantity.

Brendan Enochs, a senior double-majoring in environmental science and biology, and a team of student researchers led by George Meindl, an environmental studies instructor, are working to examine the impacts of invasive plant leaf litter on soil biological communities in the BU Nature Preserve.

The study will primarily be focused on testing whether differences in plant tissue chemistry between native and invasive species alter the abundance and diversity of animals, such as arthropods, that live in the leaf litter.

Meindl explained that by better understanding the impact of invasive species, the team will be able to devise more useful land management practices to help limit or prevent detrimental effects. According to Meindl, the Nature Preserve is a perfect starting point.

“Over the past several years, my students and I have become very interested in studying the impacts of invasive species, and the Nature Preserve provides a natural laboratory in which to study since there are several invasive plants that grow there,” Meindl wrote in an email. “This project began as an idea by [Enochs] when he was a student in my soils class, and, after a year of planning and research, it has turned into his honors thesis project.”

Enochs was first introduced to this type of research during a soil ecology class that was taught by Meindl. The class required students to design and carry out a semester-long research project during the course that ultimately led Enochs to delve into opportunities to conduct research as an undergraduate student. His search led him to carry out his honors thesis project by researching the impact of five common invasive species — autumn olive, multiflora rose, Japanese knotweed, Japanese honeysuckle and Japanese stiltgrass in the Nature Preserve.

The research began by collecting large quantities of leaves from five native and the five invasive plants during the fall. The team then took leaves from each species and placed them into various mesh bags to allow the leaves to experience natural winter conditions.

“This spring we will collect the leaf litter bags at three points and bring them back to the lab to flush out any soil critters that colonized them,” Enochs wrote. “By doing this, we can examine the soil organisms that utilized the leaf litter and compare the biological community composition between each plant species and overall between native and invasive plants.”

Examining the leaves over different time points also allows the team to compare the rates at which native and invasive species decompose on the forest floor and examine how the community structure may change depending on time.

Meindl went on to explain the analysis process for the collected leaves.

“We will also conduct chemical analyses on the leaves to look for differences in leaf chemistry (e.g., [nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon] content of leaves) between native and invasive species that might help to explain any differences in colonization that we might find between native and invasive plant species,” Meindl wrote.

Dylan Horvath, steward of natural areas at BU, works to manage the impact of invasive species at the Nature Preserve. Horvath was excited to be involved in the process to aid the students in their research since he typically deals with land management rather than field-work.

“I look forward to whatever results they get, as science builds our knowledge, and here, specifically, it may help inform how I manage invasive species,” Horvath wrote. “My less scientific hope is that the results reinforce my strategies toward some invasive plants. It’s almost impossible, but I try to manage invasives so that they are useful to wildlife and to me while mitigating the potential harm they do to the environment.”

Enochs stressed the importance of understanding invasive plants and their impact on the soil to better manage the area to avoid negative effects on soil biodiversity.

“Overall, this study will help build on our current understanding of the effects of invasive species, especially in the realm of soils, which play an important role in maintaining global ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, nutrient cycling and biomass production,” Enochs wrote.

Although Enochs will be graduating this semester, the study will be taken over by current team members to continue.

Kira Hawes, a junior majoring in environmental studies, had previously learned about invasive species and other environmental issues facing the Nature Preserve under Meindl’s instruction. Hawes was thrilled to see that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students were experiencing hands-on research and seeing environmental science in action.

“It is amazing to see the continued research being conducted by students and [Meindl] to study the growing problems in the [Nature Preserve],” Hawes wrote. “I think understanding the full impact of common invasive species, especially on soil health, is not only important for the larger scientific community but also for the health of the Nature Preserve. I am very inspired by these students’ ability to spearhead unique and important environmental research, right here on campus!”

According to Horvath, invasive species are a major issue in the United States as a whole with billions spent on their management each year. Horvath related the research to BU’s community and stressed the importance of becoming aware of invasives entering the Nature Preserve.

“The Nature Preserve is fragile in many ways, as it is heavily influenced by past and present human behavior,” Horvath wrote. “What happens in our Nature Preserve is an example of what happens across the landscape of America. Overall, healthy ecosystems help keep life possible on our planet, and we need to take care of them.”