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Kyra Kaiser creates plant identification guide for seedlings

Thursday, March 14, 2019 - 14:00

Original article by Molly Slann from The Daily - UW's undergraduate newspaper.

If you’ve ever tried identifying trees based on their leaves, you’ll know it can be quite difficult. Imagine how difficult it would be to identify species of plants based on their seedlings. Young plants can often look very similar, even if the adult species have clear differences. Kyra Kaiser, a senior at the UW majoring in plant biology with a minor in environmental science, has created a plant identification guide focusing on seedlings.

The North Cascades and Mount Rainier are hubs for biodiversity and plant life. The native species of the area are of particular interest to researchers in the Hille Ris Lambers Lab, especially with regard to how climate change will affect them and their growth patterns.

Kaiser has been working with this group for the past few years and has recently finished up her own project –– the plant identification guide –– to help botanists and researchers identify species native to the local area from young plants.

After completing fieldwork on Mount Rainier assessing the conifer seeds and wildflowers, as well as deploying microclimate sensors and identifying seedlings, Kaiser realized that there was a gap in the market for a seedling identification guide.

“Most plant identification guides focus on mature plants,” Kaiser said. “Seedlings are harder to identify because they are very small, lack prominent features such as flowers and fruit and have similar leaf shapes.”

For the past year and a half, Kaiser’s attention has been focused on collecting information on different species of seedlings and looking at how they grow best. She attempted to grow 32 species, 29 of which she managed to successfully germinate and observe with master’s student Kimberly Ertel. The guide contains 30 species; other researchers successfully grew another species in the same greenhouse.

“Identifying plants is a fundamental part of ecological fieldwork and can be achieved using strategies that range from flipping through plant photographs to following a dichotomous key,” Kaiser said. “This guide provides a morphological approach to seedling identification and includes an introduction to seedling identification, a dichotomous key, and propagation methods.”

There were some issues in the creation of the guide, including early germination and some seeds going moldy as the researchers waited for the correct time to grow them, but that just proved how unpredictable working with living species can be.

“Biology has so many factors to take into consideration,” Kaiser said. “There aren’t as many fixed variables as with something like chemistry.”

Recently, Kaiser has presented her guide and findings at the Washington Botanical Symposium and has previously presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Although currently focused on plants, Kaiser’s introduction to research was through the UW’s Predator Ecology Lab, where she helped by watching footage of deer to see how their behavior changes due to the rising wolf population andpresented the research at the 2016 Undergraduate Research Symposium poster session.

Kaiser then moved to the Hille Ris Lambers group where she started as a research assistant, sorting seedling samples and “performing fundamental tasks that familiarized me with the lab.” She continued her research with her first independent project in which she looked at glacier lilies and how their growth is affected by climate change using samples from the Washington Territorial University Herbarium.

Kaiser credits her research for helping her figure out what she wanted to pursue and helping her with her presentation skills. She recommends getting involved with research if it’s something you may be interested in as a career path. She was keen to stress that there are “many other opportunities at the UW,” so if research isn’t for you, that’s fine too.

Read the original article on The Daily's website.

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