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BWLI Students and Committee

Botanical Discoveries

11/17/2010

MCLA professors are passionate about their work, and C. Barre Hellquist, Ph.D., biology professor emeritus, is no exception. In his retirement, Hellquist not only continues to teach classes intermittently at the College, he conducts research all over the world. This puts our biology students on the cutting-edge of the aquatic plant world - his specialty.

Hellquist has spent the summers of 2008 and 2010 at Yellowstone National Park, surveying the aquatic flora in that region with his son, C. Eric Hellquest, an assistant professor of biological sciences at SUNY-Oswego. While doing some post-doctoral work in the Park, Eric learned that very little was known about its aquatic vegetation. Because aquatic plants are his father's specialty, he asked the MCLA professor (pictured above, in the southwest corner of Yellowstone) to join him in a survey of the Park.

During their two-year study, 226 sites were sampled and 1,152 were recorded. A total of 2,257 plants were collected. Three new aquatic plants, Potamogeton zosteriformis, Potamogeton obtusifolius, and a species of Najas were found in the Park.

"For us, it's just exciting to find something new, and the Park is just thrilled over what we're finding," Hellquist said.

According to Hellquist, the two Potamogetons were last collected 60 years ago in Wyoming; the Najas is new to the state. Plants were collected and sent to Dr. Zdenek Kaplan in the Czech Republic and Dr. Donald Les at the University of Connecticut for DNA analysis. 

"Numerous hybrid pondweeds of the genus Potamogeton and Stuckenia, were identified.  This has helped to clarify many of the plants in the Park, especially those of the Firehole and Madison rivers," Hellquist said. 

The specimens collected will be deposited in the herbaria of Yellowstone National Park, the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming, and the Smithsonian Institute.

"As botanists, we're always looking for something new - diversity in the flora is very important," Hellquest said. "They're also great indicators of environmental changes and what the environment is like. These plants grow naturally in acidic water, and it's a good indicator that waters are healthy.

"In the world today in aquatics, we have a real problem with invasive species. When you have a body of water that has invasives in it, what you have is very little diversity," he continued. "You have a lot of one or two or three species, which are usually invasive, and the native ones are just totally killed out. In a normal ecosystem, the greater the number of species, the healthier the environment is."

Hellquist has traveled the world to study aquatic plants, including to China, twice to Russia, to Australia many times, and also throughout Europe and across the United States.

Soon, he'll be headed off to Australia again, so he can study the tropical water lilies found there. He and colleagues from around the world are involved with naming an entire species of the plant.

Hellquist's MCLA classes include frequent references to his discoveries in Yellowstone. "It allows me to make a comparison between the East and the West and some of the habitats that these plants grow."

He expects to return to the Park next summer to finish up the work, which he finds extremely rewarding. "It's what keeps me going. I keep planning for the next year."