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image of Loon Lake in Savanna State Park, at sunset.

State Parks Sleuthing

Scientists find state parks to be fruitful ground for inquiry into all sorts of subjects -- from disease, to dung, to dark matter.

By Mary Hoff

I don't feel it. At first, I don't even see it. But when I bend over and search, there it is -- a tiny deer tick, a dust speck with legs, working its way fleshward on my right pants leg.

"Data!" a voice behind me exclaims. The voice's owner, Minnesota Department of Health senior epidemiologist Dave Neitzel, reaches down and plucks up the tick with a needle-nosed forceps. He drops it into a rubbing alcohol-filled vial labeled Human. I feel important.

Neitzel, fellow epidemiologist Melissa Kemperman, and student Geoff Lyon are spending a fine fall day at St. Croix State Park looking for deer ticks. Dressed in light-colored clothing for superior tick spotting, the three drag pieces of canvas through the underbrush from one red-flagged tree to another. Every 20 yards or so, they lift them up and check for ticks. Those they find automatically earn themselves a free one-way field trip to the MDH laboratory in St. Paul, where they'll be analyzed for the presence of disease-causing organisms they can transmit when they bite humans.

The health department's tick survey is just one of dozens of scientific studies carried out each year in state parks by scientists from colleges, government agencies, and private organizations as far away as Great Britain.

Many studies are aimed at improving resource management, says state parks resource management coordinator Ed Quinn, who oversees the research permit process. Others are carried out by scientists with their own agendas who wish to access the resources the parks have to offer -- and who have proven to the DNR's satisfaction that their work will not harm the park's resources.

Citizens Win

All research projects in state parks benefit Minnesotans in one way or another. Back at the MDH lab, for example, molecular biologist Gongping Liu will boil the ticks -- and others captured at locations around the state -- individually in ammonia to break open their cells, then search inside for the DNA of microbes that cause three human ailments: Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis, and babesiosis. Kemperman, principal investigator for the study, says the results will help focus health department educational efforts where deer ticks and tick-borne diseases are most common or are emerging.

"Ultimately, the goal would be to prevent disease," she says,  "to get the information out to people [about] the levels of risk in different parts of the state, and to communicate with physicians who might see patients coming in with symptoms."

Dung Fungi

Lymari Ruiz-Sanchez decided to include Blue Mounds State Park in her National Science Foundation-funded research project for one simple reason: That's where the bison dung is.

A graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ruiz-Sanchez is working to identify and categorize members of a family of manure-munching fungi in the group called ascomycetes. Ruiz-Sanchez is particularly interested in members of the family Lasiosphaeriaceae that grow on bison dung because they were part of the ecosystem before European settlers arrived with livestock and their nonnative dung fungi. As decomposers, these native fungi on bison dung are critical to keeping ecosystems healthy.

"They help the whole recycling of the dung," Ruiz-Sanchez says. "I can't imagine how many patties of dung we would have accumulated over the years if we didn't have them."

Ruiz-Sanchez has visited Blue Mounds twice, along with more than 20 other locations in 15 states, to collect fresh dung. At each site she gathers fist-sized samples with a cookie cutter-like device, plopping them into paper bags for easy transport. The bison don't seem to mind sharing, though some -- and occasionally some human observers too -- give her the "what are you doing?" look as she goes about her work.

At the end of the day, she takes the samples back to her motel room, where she puts them onto an air dryer to begin removing the excess moisture. When she gets back to the lab, she incubates the samples so the fungi can grow, then searches them to find the specific species in which she's interested. By extracting and comparing the DNA from fungi from different sites and seasons, she is helping to build a family tree of dung fungi.

"The main focus is to understand how species are related to each other," she says. When dung fungi were first identified, she says, they were classified according to what they looked like. With the advent of DNA technologies, researchers are finding that's not the best way to tell how closely species are related. "DNA can be much more accurate," she says.

WIMP Detectors

About 400 miles northeast of Blue Mounds, science of an entirely different sort is going full tilt at Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Here, in an instrument-filled chamber 2,341 feet below the surface, researchers from around the world are searching for elusive pieces of dark matter called weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs.

Though scientists have never been able to detect these particles, they are convinced WIMPs exist. In fact, WIMPs might make up the bulk of the universe. Confirming the existence of WIMPs would tell scientists that their thinking about the nature of matter and the formation of galaxies -- which is based on the existence of enormous amounts of yet-to-be-detected dark matter, like WIMPs -- is on the right track. That would allow them to develop and test more hypotheses about what makes up the universe and eventually paint a clearer picture of reality beyond what we can detect with our own limited five senses, says project manager Dan Bauer, a physicist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab in Chicago.

The heart of the experiment known as the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, or CDMS, is a roomy chamber carved out of 2.7 billion-year-old Ely greenstone. Along with giant refrigerators, graduate students, and generators, the chamber holds five vessels containing a total of 30 hexagonal, hockey puck-sized detectors. The detectors are made of the semiconductor elements germanium and silicon, which are cooled to nearly minus 460 F -- the coldest temperature matter can achieve -- to quiet the atoms within. Shielded from confusing cosmic rays by megatons of rock above and around, the detectors are poised to detect the presence of WIMPs. Scientists watch and wait for a germanium nucleus to wiggle when hit by a WIMP, an interaction that would register as a minute rise in temperature within the detector. No project anywhere has yet detected a WIMP.

"What we've done so far in about a year and a half of running is to produce limits," Bauer says. What that means, essentially, is they've found out more specifically just how rare it would be for WIMPs to interact with normal matter.

CDMS should be in business for several more years, and visitors are welcome at the lab. If you don't mind taking a 20-some-story elevator ride in a cage straight down, you too could go WIMP hunting. "We always encourage and enjoy people coming here to see what we do," Bauer says.

Aliens in the Earth

At another state park, St. Olaf College biology professor Kathleen Shea is also looking beneath the surface, though not quite so deep.

Each fall Shea and her advanced field ecology students hike out to a patch of forest in Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. They carry ziplock bags, notebooks, foot-square frames, and gallon jugs filled with a mixture of mustard and water. At their study site, the students take a soil sample and document the trees and other plants. Then they plunk down their square frames and measure, weigh, and remove the litter layer within the quadrant frames. Finally, they pour mustard water into the spaces. Within minutes, worms of all kinds wriggle to the surface, irritated by chemicals in the mustard solution. The students bag them to take back to the lab for identification.

Shea and her students are assessing the impact of earthworms. Not native to Minnesota, terrestrial earthworms were inadvertently introduced when settlers brought plants to their new homes. In forests, earthworms consume duff, the nutrient-rich layer of partly decomposed leaves and other vegetable matter that understory plants need to thrive. Earthworms also damage plant roots and seeds.

During the seven years of this study, Shea and her students have found seven species of earthworms, most likely introduced by anglers dumping leftover bait on the ground. They have not detected a significant loss of duff or large changes in earthworm populations. However, there is concern about increases in Lumbricus terrestris because this large night crawler is most destructive to the duff layer.

The research is helping park managers keep tabs on the threat earthworms pose to the park's vegetation. It's benefiting the students too. "It helps them to think about how [people's] actions affect the natural environment," Shea says, "and how important it is to not release more earthworms into our natural areas."

Old Home

Not all state parks research is aimed at the future. At Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, Minnesota Historical Society archaeologist David Mather and park interpretive naturalist Jim Cummings are trying to understand the past. Under the watchful eyes of park visitors, they're excavating what they think is an 800-year-old house near the park's picnic grounds. 

The Mille Lacs Kathio area has been a hotbed of humanity for some 9,000 years, Cummings says, thanks to its prime location on the shores of the Rum River and Mille Lacs Lake and at the intersection of Minnesota's three biomes. Since the 1930s, scientists have been looking for -- and finding -- evidence of past civilizations here, as the park's numerous interpretive displays attest.

About 40 years ago, a University of Minnesota archaeologist noticed five rectangular depressions at Petaga Point, which juts into a widening of the Rum. Digging down through the layers of time in one of the depressions, researchers uncovered charcoal, arrowheads, hide scrapers, and other signs that indicated it was the remnant of a structure built by early ancestors of today's Mdewakanton Dakota tribe and burned down around A.D. 1200.

The other four depressions lay untouched for decades. Then, last year, Mather and Cummings rediscovered one of them. The pair decided to use it as a demonstration site, excavating it while park visitors watch to give them a picture of archaeological research in action.

"We wanted to further this research, but knowing that we did not have the time or the human resources to do so, we decided to just do a little bit at a time and have the public be able to watch us," Cummings says. "We believe the more people understand about it, the more they will help support the research and protect the resources."

The researchers have dug a 1-meter-square section and plan to do two more at an upcoming archaeology public demonstration.

"I'm looking forward to getting a better sample, seeing where this goes," Mather says. "This is a way to kind of spread [the discoveries] out and get some public education. And it's fun."

Mather and Cummings hope to continue their research next year. If they do, they will be in fascinating company. Quinn says parks projects proposed for 2008 include studies of moths, mussels, lichens, invasive species control, regeneration in hardwood forests, accumulation of contaminants in bald eagle blood and feathers, and reproduction in skinks.

"It's very interesting to see what some of the projects are," he says, "particularly ones that would be really helpful to the management or protection of the resources in the park."

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