BLISS — Ally Licht took great care to watch her step in the sand along Lake Michigan’s Sturgeon Bay so she didn’t smash and kill any Pitcher’s thistle, a Great Lakes endemic species her class was tasked with finding, counting and analyzing on the stunningly perfect beach day in early June.
The Traverse City-native who will be a senior at the University of Michigan in the fall hunted the sand dunes for all ages and sizes of the federally threatened dune thistle with wooly leaves and a silver-ish green coloring as part of an ecology lab course at the University of Michigan Biological Station in northern Michigan.
“I enjoy this experience because it reminds me of why I want a career in conservation,” Licht said. “There is so much depth and diversity in each habitat in Michigan.”
Armed with measuring tape, notebooks and pencils, students taking the four-week course hit the beach in search of Pitcher’s thistle in one of the few places in the world the plant is thriving.
Bliss, Michigan, is about a 30-minute drive from the more than 10,000-acre research and teaching campus along Douglas Lake just south of the Mackinac Bridge in Pellston.
The class is led by Dr. Corrine Higley, a UMBS instructor and assistant professor in the Biological Sciences Program at Michigan State University.
“This is the pilot year for our Pitcher’s thistle work,” Higley said. “It is observational today, but we are consulting with some local researchers to develop a long-term project where students survey endangered Pitcher’s thistle in dune areas heavily trafficked by beach-goers with the intention of returning in subsequent years to look at changes over time due to human behavior.”
The plant was federally listed as threatened in 1988 and is named after the amateur botanist who discovered it along Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1820: Dr. Zina Pitcher, a medical physician who also was one of the 12 original members appointed to the Board of Regents at the University of Michigan.
“It is great for students to see a large, healthy population because it may not exist here in 15-20 years,” said Riley Pizza, a TA for the UMBS ecology lab and graduate student at MSU who does prairie restoration research in southwest Michigan.
Pizza attributes the disappearing population to several factors including trampling, climate change and weevils.
“People step on the plants when they come out to play at the beach and dunes,” Pizza said. “Pitcher’s thistle only flower once in their lifetimes. They need at least three years to flower. If trampled, the plant might not reproduce, and their seeds are important food sources for birds, especially goldfinches.”
While helping students collect data, Pizza found a flowering Pitcher’s thistle with a weevil hanging out on the plant.
“These insects don't actually eat the plant, but they do lay eggs in bracts of the flower and then the larvae, once hatched, bore into the seed head and eat the seeds, which is the bigger issue,” Pizza said.
For Higley, it was important that the field research day wasn’t all work and no play.
“We split into groups to cover large swaths of the beach to make our observations but then took our time and enjoyed the dunes,” Higley said. “When I bring UMBS students out here, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve experience a sand dune. We need to savor these moments.”
Licht is no stranger to sand dunes and said it is an honor to collect data for a long-term research project to see how human behavior affects this thistle.
However, the overall semester of living and learning at UMBS was daunting at first.
“When I was packing my stuff at home, I was nervous to come,” Licht said. “But I love it, I love the people here. The professors are so passionate and encouraging and rallying to the fight of the environmental cause and to be sure we walk away aware of our surroundings.”