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New digs at Cedar Creek

The U's Cedar Creek facility gets new name, new labs

By Deane Morrison

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at Cedar Creek
Tying the ribbon at the Lindeman Center dedication were (l to r in larger image): Gene Hugoson, commissioner, Minnesota Department of Agriculture; Clint Harris, director, Minnesota State Lottery; Kelly Scanlon, office of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar; Bob Elde, dean, College of Biological Sciences; David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology; Bob Provost, Fox and Hounds Society; former state Sen. Steve Kelly; state Rep. Kathy Tingelstad; and state Sen. Dennis Frederickson.

June 9, 2008

To grasp the impact of Raymond Lindeman's work on the science of ecology, try describing the field of economics without talking about money. Adding the money factor to economics is a fair analogy to what Lindeman, a University graduate student, did for ecology more than 60 years ago. He revolutionized the field by showing how the relations between organisms, especially the flow of energy through the food web shape the assemblages of plants, animals, and microbes that share our planet. On June 5 the U's College of Biological Sciences (CBS) used World Environment Day to rename the field station where Lindeman worked and to dedicate a new building in his honor. Located an hour north of the Twin Cities in East Bethel, the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve (CCESR)--formerly the Cedar Creek Natural History Area--now boasts the Raymond Lindeman Research and Discovery Center. The building holds critically needed laboratories to support the caliber of ecosystem science that has made Cedar Creek worthy of Lindeman's legacy, plus space for classes and public events. Along with three new dormitories, the Lindeman Center doubles the capacity for students, faculty, and visiting researchers to take advantage of the prairie, bogs, hardwood forests, and coniferous forests that meet at Cedar Creek and make it a natural laboratory for discovering how the web of life is woven and how it will respond to natural and human-induced changes.

Legacy of Lindeman

Among ecologists Raymond Lindeman's name has the same resonance as Newton has to physicists or Pasteur to chemists.

"I fell in love with Cedar Creek when I first came out and saw it," says Tilman.

"Before him, ecologists would describe an ecosystem by talking about the plants and animals that lived there and what they looked like," says Regents Professor David Tilman, director of CCESR and the world's most cited ecologist. "But he showed how all the organisms interacted with each other, and that this was why you had them living together and forming the particular ecosystem." At the core of Lindeman's work was tracing the flow of energy and nutrients between organisms in a dynamic food web. He showed how these relationships between organisms influence the evolution of ecosystems, such as when lakes turn to shallow ponds, then to marshes, grasslands, and finally forest or savanna. A pillar of this model is that energy is lost at every step up the food chain, such as when an herbivore eats a plant or is eaten by a carnivore.

Peter Reich
Regents Professor Peter Reich is a leader in studying the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels on ecosystems.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary

Consequently, there is less and less energy left to support organisms higher up the food chain, and so individuals of those species are few. Lindeman did his revolutionary studies at tiny Cedar Bog Lake, just a 10-minute walk from the center that now bears his name. His work was published in 1942, a few months after his death, at age 27, from liver disease. But Cedar Creek has continued to foster the careers of top ecologists, notably Tilman and Regents Professor Peter Reich, who is also among the top 10 most cited ecologists in the world. Tilman made his name by showing how ecosystems containing multiple species of plants thrive and survive adversities such as drought much better than those with only one or a few species. He has also documented the potential of prairie grasses as sources of renewable fuels, and he and ecology assistant professor Jennifer Powers are heading a study of how rising air temperatures will affect prairies, and whether areas with a greater diversity of plant species will fare better. Reich is well known, among other things, for his studies of how rising carbon dioxide levels will affect plant growth, a process that stores carbon and works against greenhouse warming. "We recently did a tally of articles in [the journals] Science and Nature [written] by University of Minnesota faculty over the past few years," says CBS Dean Robert Elde. "It turns out that CBS faculty produce more than any other faculty in any other research unit at the university of Minnesota. And the majority of those come from Cedar Creek." "I fell in love with Cedar Creek when I first came out and saw it," says Tilman. "It's now in its 27th year of funding from the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research program. We've had more than 900 undergraduates who got their first experience doing real research here." The Lindeman Center dedication came a few days after Cedar Creek had been hit by a hailstorm. Some plants, says Tilman, were smashed to the ground, says Tilman, while others are doing fine. Naturally, he's incorporating that experience into his studies to see if land with many plant species might survive hail damage better. In a natural laboratory, sometimes Nature designs the experiments.