Why Monitor Vegetation?

Scientists monitoring at Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary
Scientists monitoring at Sesachacha Heathlands Wildlife Sanctuary

We monitor plants on Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries because they are a critical barometer of ecological changes and are often a target of our management activities. Specifically, we monitor plants because:

  • The plant community determines what animals will be present. Thus knowledge of plants is fundamental for assessing the current ecological characteristics of a natural area and for assessing future changes. 
  • Vegetation communities respond to long-term changes (i.e. climate change and air pollution) and to short-term management measures and disturbances.
  • Many vegetation communities are changing rapidly in response to invasive plants and plant diseases.
  • Long term monitoring of plants can reveal changes in the habitat of a specific area and by extension, how that habitat is likely to support different animals.
  • Sampling methodologies are well developed for vegetation analysis. 
  • Since plants, particularly trees, respond relatively slowly to environmental change, the same locations do not need to be sampled every year.
  • Plant monitoring has an obvious advantage over monitoring of animals in that plants do not move, thus detectability (being able to detect a species when it is present) is a minor issue.

Priority Natural Communities for Monitoring

Since it’s impossible to monitor everything, the first step in vegetation monitoring is to define priority vegetation communities and the question that one hopes to address by the sampling. Northern hardwood forests and salt marshes are two communities that are predicted to change in Massachusetts in response to climate change, making them ideal monitoring candidates. 

Monitoring forests dominated by Canadian hemlock would help us understand the impact of the wooly adelgid, an insect that is devastating hemlocks in much of their range.

Natural communities that we are intensively managing, such as grasslands and coastal heathlands, are also major subjects of monitoring on Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries.