Roads and Research

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Thomas Hardy

Last week's NYTimes article about roadkill (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=roadkill&st=cse) got us thinking about how roads change the way scientists do research.  Roads are in part a great research tool because they provide easy access to every region of the country but, as well as creating other issues, they can also skew data.

Craig Freeman, a botanist at the Biodiversity Institute, studies the flora of the Great Plains.  His research often requires him to drive a lot:

"Not surprisingly, when we plot the collect locations of our specimens on a map showing the network of highways in the state, many occur at sites along or near roads, urban areas, and public lands," Freeman said. "Why? Botanists are more likely to see plants (or habitats) of interest from the roads that they travel and in areas where access is not limited. Consequently, there is a collection bias in our data."

This is particularly evident in the western quarter of Kansas, where there is very little public land and few urban areas. Many records documenting the flora of western Kansas come from roadside or near-roadside habitats. So, Freeman said, it's necessary to access lands away from roads to get a more accurate estimate of the diversity and abundance of plants.

Not only do roads change how we investigate the environment, but they also provide habitats for plants that wouldn't normally grow in the plains.  Freeman continues:

"The use of salt to melt snow and ice on paved roads in eastern Kansas has permitted both alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster to spread eastward in Kansas, taking advantage of shoulders of highways where regular mowing elevated salinity limits competition from most other species. Alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster can be found along I-70, KS Hwy 10, and other major highways through eastern Kansas into the Kansas City metropolitan area, places where they did not occur as recently as 40 years ago."

Next time you're driving to KC via I-70, keep an eye out for the salty intruders.

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