The Science of Webster Woods

by Richard B. Primack

Newton Tab, May 27, 2016
reprinted by permission

Many Newton residents care deeply about Webster Woods and are working to protect the area after its sale to Boston College.

We value the woods for lots of reasons: some for the lovely walks or jogs, some for bird watching or nature photography, others for rock climbing, and nearly all for the relaxation that comes with spending time in Newton’s largest open space. In addition to these benefits, I also want to highlight the educational and scientific value of Webster Woods, a value that has shaped my life and the lives of others. It is important to recognize that Webster Woods has added to our understanding of the natural world.

A pink lady’s slipper orchid flowering in Webster Woods. Photo by Richard B. Primack

My relationship with Webster Woods began during my childhood here. I endlessly explored the woods, following the paths and streams and watching bumblebees visit flowers. In those woods, I gained my passion for nature and conservation. These woods have similarly influenced many other people. My brother Mark explored Webster Woods and later managed conservation trusts in Massachusetts. Our daughter learned outdoor skills that she used while an officer in the U.S. Army Military Police. Two brothers, Nick and Oliver Komar, grew up bird watching in the woods and now Nick investigates bird-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control, and Oliver is an ecology professor at Zamorano University in Honduras.

The inspiration of Webster Woods is not reserved solely for residents. Because is it one of the largest natural areas close to the center of Boston and readily available by public transportation, Webster Woods is a resource for the whole region. Each year, hundreds of students from Boston College and Boston University come to the woods to learn basic ecological principles, bird and plant-identification skills, and the scientific method. For some of these students, this is their first outdoors research experience. Nearly all of the students enjoy the time in the woods, and some leave the experience transformed, hooked on a career path or hobby that they may not have chosen otherwise.

Webster Woods has also inspired and hosted much research, including some that has received widespread attention. For example, during the 1980s, my students and I investigated the pink lady’s slipper orchids – a favorite flower of many New Englanders. We used these orchids to explore an unsolved mystery of ecology: Is there a cost to reproduction-to having babies or producing fruit? The answer may seem obvious, but scientists had little hard evidence. After eleven years of experimental studies in Webster Woods, we found that orchid plants that made extra fruits got smaller and stopped flowering in subsequent years; they exhausted themselves making fruits. This experiment from the Webster Woods has become a classic study of plant ecology.

Webster Woods has hosted experiments testing methods to restore native wildflower populations. Restoration projects happen all the time after construction projects and cleanups of polluted areas, but scientists did not know the best way to re-establish lost wildflowers. For example, is it better to use seeds, seedlings, or adult plants? As a part of the project, my colleagues and I worked with hundreds of volunteers from Newton, including children and teachers, planting wildflowers in Webster Woods and other Newton locations. The project was covered in The New York Times and continues to inform plant restoration ecology to this day.

Richard Primack leads a Conservators walk in Webster Woods. Photo by Bill Hagar

Conservation students around the world (United States, Japan, China, Italy, and many other countries) read about Webster Woods, which I use to illustrate key conservation principles in my conservation textbooks, such as how habit fragmentation by roads and railroads affects animal populations. We have also used the woods to study the actual effects of roads on pollination – specifically on the willingness of bees to cross the Hammond Pond Parkway to visit flowers. Like people, bees can cross busy roads, but they generally prefer not to.

More recently, my students and I have been studying plants in Webster Woods to understand how global climate change is affecting trees and shrubs. Our results have pointed to ways in which warming temperatures are helping non-native invasive shrubs, like Japanese barberry and multi-flora rose, displace our native shrubs. These invasive species can start leafing out quickly in response to warm weather, even in January, whereas our native species are slower to take advantage of warm conditions. Rapid climate change has put many of our native species on the losing side of the ongoing battle for survival.

In the coming decades, I hope we will continue to protect Webster Woods as a place to do science and to encourage budding biologists and scientists–and as a place to simply walk and enjoy nature. The woods have inspired many people, including myself, and have led us to fulfilling and meaningful lives. I think the next generation deserves that same privilege – we owe it to them.

–Richard B. Primack is a lifelong Newton resident and a professor of plant ecology at Boston University.

Learn more about the effort to preserve Webster Woods