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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Christy Finlayson
On Midway Atoll, Christy Finlayson and her team have employed a multipronged approach to removing invasive golden crownbeard and restoring the island's native vegetation in a way that is both effective and ecologically sound pulling up plants, carefully using herbicides, replanting native species and educating the public.

Photo courtesy of Christy Finlayson

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For the Birds

Perched amid the turquoise waves of the central Pacific, a 1,500-acre knob of sand and coral offered World War II airmen a much-needed dose of dry land to break up the monotony of the open sea. Midway Atoll, once a regular stop for transpacific military flights, welcomed fliers of the nonhuman variety long before work began on the U.S. Naval Air Base in the 1940s. Its isolated location and nearly predator-free terrain made it the perfect spot to raise the new year's brood, and, even today, its shores are a nursery for more than 2 million nesting seabirds.

Human habitation of the island, especially regular visits from abroad, has opened up its once pristine shores to a variety of invading opportunists, however. Brought to the island inadvertently in crates and boxes and bags of soil, or released on purpose with the best of intentions, invasive plants and animals have wreaked havoc with the island's delicate ecosystem, threatening native plants and seabirds that depend on the island's relative safety for survival.

Enter Christy Finlayson. A one-time tourist to Midway, the University of Maine Ph.D. candidate now leads the charge to protect the ecology of the tiny island from the ravages of unwanted guests especially a cheerful yellow aster known as golden crownbeard (Verbesina encelioides).

"It's really a pretty little plant," says Finlayson, "but as it has spread and pushed out the native plants, it has also caused problems by forming dense stands that interfere with seabird nesting. It is also very, very hard to get rid of."

Finlayson's project combines research, educational outreach, and good old-fashioned muscle to combat the tenacious plants, and has proven effective so far. The project began as an assignment for a graduate-level course on biological invasives taught by Finlayson's adviser, UMaine biological sciences professor Andrei Alyokhin.

"I wrote a mock grant proposal for the course, and decided to focus on a real issue that was of interest to me. I contacted the Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and worked with them to secure a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Pulling Together Initiative grant program. We were awarded the grant in May of 2006, which funded two crews of volunteers to work on the island."

While the project has been a success, the battle to remove the island's well-entrenched crownbeard population is far from over. On Midway, the plant can uncharacteristically grow 8 feet tall. Drought tolerant and highly adaptable, crownbeard can withstand a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions. It produces copious amounts of seed and can self-pollinate, giving a single plant the potential to become the source of a full-blown invasion.

In addition to outcompeting native plants, dense golden crownbeard stands can prevent seabirds from nesting. Worse yet, the rapidly growing stems can effectively trap growing chicks, preventing them from reaching the water when they are ready to fledge. Crownbeard's thick vegetation can make it difficult for adults to find their chicks at feeding time, and can often host populations of ants that may feed on vulnerable young chicks.

Finlayson and her team have employed a multipronged approach to eliminating golden crownbeard, utilizing a combination of techniques to remove the invasive and restore the island's native vegetation in a way that is both effective and ecologically sound.

"The volunteers pulled a lot of plants; we made huge piles along the side of the road. Long-term management is the goal, however, and crownbeard does very well in disturbed soils, so simply pulling up the plants just makes room for others to take their place," says Finlayson. "With a combination of pulling, careful use of herbicides, and an active program to re-establish native species that can competitively exclude golden crownbeard, we hope to remove the crownbeard and restore the island's natural habitat."

Finlayson recently received additional funding from the National Geographic Conservation Trust for a project that will continue the fight against invasive species on Midway by establishing a comprehensive management strategy and conducting research aimed at identifying how invasive plants such as golden crownbeard may indirectly affect the health of native ecosystems. By harboring pest insects and serving as a vector for viruses and other pathogens, invasives may be harming native populations to a much greater degree than previously thought. Finlayson hopes to use the isolated island location to quantify these secondary effects.

As with many invasive species control projects, education is the key. Experienced in a variety of outreach and education methods, Finlayson is always searching for new ways to educate the public about the dangers of invasives. When the invader is a hardy flower with dainty, daisy-like blooms, the lesson can be a hard sell.

"Golden crownbeard is a serious threat to native ecosystems, but you can still purchase it in wildflower seed mixes in the U.S. where it may not be native and ship it to locations where we know it is not native. Teaching people about the dangers of invasives can be just as important as the research itself," says Finlayson.

UMaine Today Magazine
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