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BIOL 1462 General Ecology & Biometry: Ecology Lab 1
 
Qualitative Sampling of Grassland Vegetation

Introduction
 
An essential skill required in ecological studies is the ability to identify the organisms involved.
In a full study they must be identified to species, but in preliminary work it is often sufficient to
know how many different kinds of organism are present, based on their morphological
characteristics (“morphospecies”). In this practical you will collect as many morphospecies of
plants as you can find in regions of mown grassland on campus, and prepare drawings and a
simple key to allow others to recognise these plants. The species will then be preserved, for
further use in Ecology Lab 5 on quantitative sampling of grassland.
Grasses (Gramineae) are adapted to withstand disturbance from grazing animals and/or
fire, their most important feature being growing points at ground level rather than at the top as in
most other plants. Short-mown lawns as found on campus represent a stressful environment for
plants, and grasses naturally dominate these habitats. A range of other plants may persist as
weeds in grassland, if they can tolerate the physical stress from mowing and from the often large
fluctuations in temperature and soil moisture. Grasses are difficult to identify, and are often
represented by only a few species, in contrast to other plants of which there may be many
species present in small numbers. In this practical you will therefore collect the major grasses
present in each region, and as many morphospecies as possible of the other plants present.
The normal way to identify plants or animals is to use identification guides, which
consist of two parts (Jones, Reed & Weyers, 2003):
1. Written and pictorial descriptions of organisms, which can be compared with unknown
specimens to aid in their identification. Good descriptions direct the user to the crucial
diagnostic features for the relevant taxon, explain the range of variability found and
point out biological and ecological characteristics of importance.
2. Keys, which help the user find the likely descriptive account for the specimen rapidly
and simply. Most keys are arranged to present a series of choices, usually dichotomous
(dividing in two). The paired statements of each “couplet” are framed to be contrasting
and mutually exclusive. Each choice made narrows the possibilities for the specimen
until the appropriate description is reached.
Each student will prepare TWO pictorial descriptions (with labels and written notes on their
characteristics) of morphospecies collected by their bench group, such that ALL the
morphospecies collected by the group are described by at least one person. Each student will
then prepare their own key to separate and identify ALL of the morphospecies collected by that
bench group. These descriptions and the key will form the lab report of each individual student.
Finally, one good specimen of each morphospecies collected by the group should be fixed to
paper and pressed to form a comprehensive collection for that bench.

Objectives
 
The objectives of this practical exercise are to:
1. Familiarise students with mown short-turf grassland habitat and the morphospecies making
up the plant community.
2. Acquaint students with simple observational techniques for describing plant morphospecies,
and for constructing a dichotomous key for their separation and identification.

 

Methods
 
A. Collecting specimens
Students will work in bench groups with their demonstrator. Each group should work together in
the field to collect a few specimens (if possible) of each plant morphospecies encountered in one
of the lettered regions of lawn identified on the map (Fig. 6). The region(s) to be searched by
each bench group will be allocated at the start of the practical, and must be adhered to. If a
particular region is unavailable at the time (e.g. due to a sports event) an alternative will be
assigned by the lecturer to the demonstrator. In each region, mark out an area of 100m2 using the
measuring string (20m long, marked at 5m intervals) or tape; this area should be square where
possible (i.e. 10m × 10m), but may need to be rectangular (e.g. 20m × 5m) if the shape of the
lawn dictates. You should spend exactly 30 minutes in the 100m2 area, spreading out to search it
thoroughly. The 30 minutes time represents a standardized sampling effort that must be
completed – do not stop when you reach any set number of morphospecies.
Within the marked area the group will collect a few specimens of each plant
morphospecies that they can find, i.e. taking a few duplicates so that a few students can draw the
same morphospecies simultaneously. Specimens should include roots, flowers and/or seeds
where possible, and be kept in good condition in a large plastic bag, labelled with the region
letter. The habitat to be surveyed is the open mown grassland. DO NOT collect in areas
obviously affected by trees, or within 1 m of edges or obstructions (such as flower beds, hedges,
concrete paths, drains, lamp posts) or areas of long grass as there may be plant species only
present because of those features, and not part of the typical short-turf grassland community.
Use a different bag for each region of lawn to keep the plant specimens separate, so that you will
be able to say which morphospecies are present in each region.

B. Sorting specimens
Once you have collected from one region, return to the lab and spread the specimens on the
bench. Identify the number of different morphospecies involved, and place duplicate specimens
of the same morphospecies in a pile together. Label each pile with a code combining your bench
number, and a sequential number for the morphospecies, i.e. 8-1, 8-2 and 8-3 for the first three
morphospecies of bench 8. Note the number of morphospecies found in this first region for your
report. If your demonstrator confirms that you have collected ten (10) or more morphospecies in
your first region, you can proceed directly to Section C below. If you collected less than ten
morphospecies you must repeat Section A above, collecting specimens from a second region (for
a full 30 minute sampling period) in a separate bag; in that case you should then continue to the
next paragraph.
If you have sampled a second region, spread the specimens on a different part of the
bench. Identify the number of different morphospecies involved, and place duplicate specimens
of the same morphospecies in a pile together, as before. Then compare the piles with those from
the first region. If your demonstrator agrees that one morphospecies from the second region is
the same as a morphospecies from the first region, you can combine the two piles (with the
original label). Make sure to note that this species was also present in the second region. Label
the piles for new morphospecies as before, continuing the numerical sequence, e.g. 8-8, 8-9 and
8-10 for the first three new morphospecies of bench 8 in the second region, assuming that there
were seven morphospecies in the first region. Then make a list of all the morphospecies found in
the second region (including those morphospecies also present in the first region).

C. Constructing a key to the morphospecies


Make notes for yourself on the characteristics of each morphospecies that make it distinct from
the others. Then use these notes, going back to check with the specimens, to construct a key to

 

separate all the morphospecies found by your bench. THE KEY SHOULD BE YOUR OWN
INDEPENDENT WORK, not the result of the group. An example key is shown in Table 1, showing
the important features of the construction:
a) More fundamental characters usually occur near the start of the key, and separate the
species into two large groups. An efficient key divides the species into fairly even groups
at each stage, rather than gradually “peeling off” one species at a time. In the example,
the first step (1) separates the arthropods (the largest animal Phylum in terms of numbers
of species) from other animals.
b) The steps provide a pair of alternatives which are mutually exclusive and therefore
unambiguously present two pathways to proceed down the key. In some cases both
alternatives go to another step of the key (e.g. step 1). In other cases one alternative
results in identification, while the other continues along the key (e.g. steps 2, 3, 4, 6 and
7). In other cases both alternatives result in identification (e.g. steps 5 and 8).
c) In some keys there are more than two alternatives for some steps, particularly in the later
stages where each alternative leads to identification. This is useful in large groups which
would otherwise give very long keys. However, YOU SHOULD USE A STRICTLY
DICHOTOMOUS SYSTEM for your key to the limited number of morphospecies that you
have to deal with today.
d) If it is sufficiently informative, each choice can deal with a single character (e.g. steps 1,
2 and 7). Otherwise, two or more different characteristics can be included in a choice
(e.g. steps 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8). If a character is one of degree only (e.g. step 3, “mostly
rounded” vs “usually elongated”) then it should be combined with others to give a more
reliable distinction.
Construct your key using the characters available from macroscopic observation of the
specimens, such as the arrangement of leaves on the stem (Fig. 1), shapes of leaves (Fig. 2),
nature of leaf margins (Fig. 3), numbers of elements per leaf (Fig. 4), nature of stems (above or
below ground; single or multiple; simple or branching; horizontal or vertical; forming rooted
runners), sizes of leaves (especially width of grass blades), nature of roots (fibrous, coarse, tap or
storage roots), or other characteristics (ridges, bumps, hairs, spines etc on stems or on the upper
and/or lower surfaces of leaves). Be clear about where leaves join the stem, i.e. the difference
between several opposite simple leaves and a single compound pinnate leaf. Do not include
flowers or seeds in your key as most specimens will lack them.
The terminal points of your key should be morphospecies identification codes, as given
to the specimens when sorted. Every morphospecies collected should be included in the key.

D. Describing morphospecies
Each student should then prepare a written and pictorial description of TWO morphospecies, AS
ALLOCATED BY THE DEMONSTRATOR. The drawings should be annotated to show the important
features of the morphospecies, with a scale bar, and a separate full written description of each.
You can include simple characteristics of flowers or seeds (e.g. colours or numbers) in your
written description, but do not attempt to describe them in detail. An example is given in Fig. 5,
which shows ten characteristics of a specimen that might be useful in its identification.
The demonstrator will retain one good specimen of each morphospecies and mount them
on one or two sheets of paper, labelling each with the code used by the group and the region(s)
in which they were found, e.g. 8-3 (A, N); 8-4 (A); 8-5 (A,N). These sheets will be preserved in
a plant press for later reference. Otherwise, specimens should always be returned to the
appropriate pile immediately after use, to be available to other students.

 

Write-Up

o You should write your own Abstract section, describing what you did and the major results
found, e.g. the number of morphospecies in your region(s).
o You DO NOT need an Introduction section for this practical.
o You may refer to the handout for the Methods – only describe any modifications you have
made, and include the region(s) that you sampled.
o In the Results section of your report, you should include the following:
ƒ A short (200 word) summary of the characteristics of the region(s) of grassland, e.g. the
degree to which it is likely to be shaded by trees or buildings during the course of a full
day, the height of the vegetation, a rough estimate of the plant cover (to the nearest 10%)
and any indications of use, recent mowing etc, and the number of morphospecies found.
ƒ Your own key to the morphospecies.
ƒ If you sampled two regions of grassland, give a list of the identification numbers of those
found in the second region (including those also present in the first region).
ƒ Your descriptions of two of the morphospecies.
o You DO NOT need a Discussion section for this practical (your results will be discussed in
relation to insect and plant diversity in Ecology Labs 4 and 5).
o Your report must be completed by the end of the timetabled practical session, which ends at
10 minutes to the hour (to leave time for the next class to use that lab). All reports will be
collected at that time, WHETHER THEY ARE COMPLETE OR NOT.

References

Jones, A., Reed, R. & Weyers, J. (2003). Practical skills in biology. Third edition. Harlow:
Prentice Hall.
Lewis, T. & Taylor, L. R. (Eds). (1967). Introduction to experimental ecology. London:
Academic Press.
AH: 26 January 2011

Table 1. Key to major groups of land invertebrates (modified from Lewis & Taylor, 1967).

1. With segmented legs. 2


Without legs. 6

2. Three pairs of legs. Insecta (insects)


Four or more pairs of legs. 3

3. Four (or apparently five) pairs of legs; body mostly rounded. Arachnida (spiders)
More than five pairs of legs; body usually elongated. 4

4. Body more than three times longer than wide; seven pairs of legs. Crustacea (sowbugs)
Body very elongated, more than three times longer than wide. 5

5. Body flattened dorsoventrally; one pair of legs per segment;


Often with large poison-bearing jaws. Chilopoda (centipedes)
Body cylindrical; usually two pairs of legs per segment;
Inconspicuous jaws. Diplopoda (millipedes)

6. Body pointed at both ends; many ring-like segments. Oligochaeta (earthworms)


Body unsegmented. 7

 

7. With tentacles. Gastropoda (slugs & snails)


Without tentacles. 8

8. White; cylindrical and worm-like. Nematoda (nematodes)


Brown or black; very long and slender, hairlike. Nematomorpha (hairworms)

Figures 1-4 are from http://www.borealforest.org/picgloss.htm, used with permission from Dr


Ulf Runesson, Lakehead University, Ontario, Canada.

 
 
Figure 1. Leaf arrangement.

 
 
Figure 2. Leaf shape.

 

 
 
Figure 3. Leaf margins.

 
 
Figure 4. Leaf structure.

 

 
 
Description of morphospecies 8-4. Plant about 6 cm tall, simple leaves with
cordate shape and round-toothed margins; smooth and hairless, with
strongly-marked veins. Very long petioles, twice leaf blade length or more.
Basal leaf arrangement with no above-ground stem, only flower stalks;
yellow flowers. Fleshy white rhizome with few unbranching coarse roots.

Figure 5. Example description of a morphospecies, pictorial and written.

Non-copyright image from USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database http://plants.usda.gov/


Viola nephrophylla Greene - northern bog violet
Britton, N.L. & Brown, A. (1913). An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada
and the British Possessions. Vol. 2: 551.

 

Figure 6. Regions of grassland on campus for study (A to V). The map shows the campus
from UWI doubles at top left to the Main Library (#87) at bottom right. Check carefully that
you sample in the correct locations. Lab D is at #2 and LS1/LS2 is at #61. Other useful
landmarks are: #26 Biotech Lab; #117 Bookshop; #32 Bank; #1 Bursary; #44 Faculty of
Science & Agriculture Offices; #47 Greenhouses; #115 Estate Police; #60 Institute of
International Relations (sampling location N is just north of this); #102 LRC; #111 Principal’s
Office (fenced); #63 Temporary Room at Natural Science; #73 Engineering.