Photo by Chris Davis

Since 1930, the University of Michigan has maintained the Edwin S. George Reserve (ESGR) to provide research and educational opportunities, as well as preserve native flora and fauna. The 525-hectare fenced ESGR is located in Livingston County, Michigan (about 25 miles northwest of Ann Arbor) and hosts EEB students, postdocs and faculty as well as biologists from other universities throughout the year. 

The ESGR is a unique site for ecological research, offering opportunities for both long-term and shorter-term studies. ESGR’s topography and biodiversity make it an ideal site for studying ecological and evolutionary processes, an essential resource for the University of Michigan, and it is an asset to the scientific community as a whole. The research work at the ESGR has provided new insights into ecology, evolution, toxicology, and conservation, highlighting the importance of long-term research to understand the complex interactions between organisms and their environment.

Rick Relyea (Ph.D. ‘99), Ecology and Evolutionary Biology alum, completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. During his time in EEB, Relyea worked with Earl Werner, now professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and fellow scientists at ESGR (including Keith Wittkopp, now an advisor in the Program in Biology). Reylea and his colleagues even spent a few years living at the ESGR while doing their research. 

One main reason for living and working at the ESGR is to support ongoing projects to which multiple generations of students and scientists have contributed. 

One ongoing project, led by Relyea and funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on tadpoles tails and their responses to different environments and conditions. “Since I was a graduate student, one major area that I’ve worked on is understanding how animals respond to environmental change by changing their morphology, their behavior, their life history, which is when they breed and how often they breed,” said Relyea. “It occurred to me that we know a lot of experiments about how they change their morphology, but no one really knows how much of that is happening in nature. We have 17 years of preserved specimens, in this case, tadpoles. We could actually look and ask that question.”

Illustration by John Megahan
Photo by Chris Davis

Relyea’s project is based on work that began 17 years ago by Werner. Werner’s lab collectively made the decision that they wanted to survey all of the wetlands on the Reserve. The wetlands encompass nearly 40 bodies of water, including ponds, swamps, and marshes, some man-made and others naturally occurring. Werner’s lab then decided they wanted to understand how the aquatic communities were assembled, where biodiversity was highest, how abundance changes over time, and how biodiversity and abundance change over space. This work led Relyea and others to conduct dozens of experiments on their own. Relyea also revisited those samples this past summer. 

“Everything that we’ve been finding, over three decades of experiments, do we see all of those things showing up in nature? Do we see things that we’ve never thought about as affecting the shape-shifting of these animals? The tadpoles are shifting how big their tail is, how big their body is, how big their mouth parts are, all in very adaptive ways,” said Relyea. "For example, when there's not enough food, they grow a bigger mouth to grab more food. When there's not enough food, they grow a longer intestine, allowing them more time to digest the food and get more energy out of it. When they smell a predator in the water, they grow bigger tail that helps them escape from that predator better. All of this is being favored by evolution, by natural selection.” 

Relyea now finds himself leading graduate students of his own, just as his mentor, Werner, had years before. This continued mentorship and shared love of the Reserve bring people from all over the world together to focus on their shared passion for researching biodiversity, working to help local conservation efforts, and for the priceless data collected over the years by so many scientists. The ESGR is thriving.

“I am highly impressed by the two [UM Master’s] students that we have, Ashley Jones and Hannah Hicks,” said Relyea. “The professionalism, the expertise, and the ability to make great decisions as we get to different decision points on the research, they've been amazing, and I've told them that.”

Jones and Hicks work together in coordination with Greg Schneider, Collections Manager, and with Reylea himself when he’s in Ann Arbor. Both students assist in separating, identifying, labeling, and photographing collected specimens for Reylea’s team of undergraduates to measure. This invaluable work helps this project come together with supporting data, actively marking the changes to these tadpoles and testing Reylea’s hypotheses. 

Relyea took a page out of his mentor's book when working with his own students. Focusing on their new ideas, strengths, and curiosities allows for collaboration despite the difference of years in the field. 

“You must realize, as a faculty member, that your lifeblood is the graduate students. They make enormous contributions if you encourage it and facilitate it,” said Werner. “They make enormous contributions to your research program. And, in the long run, it does them a lot of good. It gets them in a position where they can contribute, to find their passion, feed it, and give them the confidence that they can do it.”

Reylea has a dedicated team of undergraduates at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who are taking measurements of all the body dimensions from images gathered by our UM students. 
Lab Manager: Mitch LeSage
Undergraduates: Emily Cuellar, Rachel Warnet, Michael Leonard, Maya Huaman, Charlie Nahabetian