Scientific research takes many forms. For Drs. Karen and Marvin Fawley, that means crawling around the Warren Prairie on their stomachs, searching for tiny plants with the unwieldy name Geocarpon minimum, a small leafy plant no more than a quarter-inch tall.
The Fawleys call it “belly botany” and while the technique may sound odd – and a little uncomfortable – it’s yielding big results.
Geocarpon minimum has been federally classified as endangered and is found on the edge of open spaces in the Prairie called saline slicks, barren areas of salty, hard-pan soil. Understanding the habitat of this plant is a priority for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Nature Conservancy, who jointly manage the Warren Prairie Natural Area, a 4,616-acre tract in eastern Bradley County and western Drew County known for its unusual and diverse collection of plants, many not found any place else in Arkansas.
The Fawleys comprise a husband-and-wife teaching and research team at the University of Arkansas at Monticello where they have been part of the faculty since 2006. Karen Fawley is a professor of biology and holds degrees from the University of Texas, Old Dominion University and North Dakota State. Marvin Fawley is a professor and assistant dean of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences for science and research with degrees from Cornell, San Francisco State and Miami University.
Together, they have been conducting research on algae communities for more than two decades. The Fawleys were recently invited to present results of their ongoing research on the algae of soil crusts in the Warren Prairie Natural Area at a symposium on terrestrial algae at the 71st meeting of the Phycological Society of America in Monterey, California.
“The research in Warren Prairie has shown that the unusual soils found in parts of the natural area support a highly unusual algal community.” said Marvin Fawley.
The Fawleys’ research in Warren Prairie is funded primarily by a UAM Faculty Research Grant with additional support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (Arkansas INBRE) and the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium (NASA).
Karen Fawleys’ algal research started while she was at Old Dominion where she conducted research on phytoplankton in Chesapeake Bay. When she moved to North Dakota State to pursue a Ph.D., she continued her research, focusing on algae in fresh water systems. She was joined in this research by Marvin Fawley, at the time a member of the North Dakota State faculty.
What the Fawleys discovered contradicted accepted scientific thought. “There is this written in stone idea in limnology (the study of fresh waters) that not much happens with the algae in the wintertime,” said Karen Fawley. “That was one thing we found to be totally incorrect, at least in our systems.” The Fawleys found algae growing and the community changing in shallow lakes during the winter while buried under three feet of ice.
The other prevailing idea in algal ecology was that the same few organisms were found everywhere. “What we’ve found is totally counter to that,” said Marvin Fawley. ” We found all kinds of diversity. We did one project (at UAM) where we found a new species of algae in a ditch across the road.”
The Fawleys’ research has practical applications while providing research opportunities for undergraduate students. Six UAM students – Destiny Boullie of North Little Rock, Alice Cordona-Otero of Puerto Rico, Crystal Haynes of Crossett, Rachel Knight of Bryant, and Caleb Lamb and Ashton Gray of Monticello have been assisting the Fawleys during their work with the soil algae of Warren Prairie.
As for the practical applications, the Fawleys hope their research sheds light on how Warren Prairie can be managed to increase the Geocarpon minimum population. “We’re very concerned that the populations may be shrinking,” said Marvin Fawley. “One of the possibilities is that the algal communities may have some way – and they are known to do this – to condition the soil to make it possible for Geocarpon minimum to grow.”