The US National Park Service (NPS) is placing new emphasis on raising awareness of the scientific value of parks. One strategy is to communicate with visitors about current and past park-based research in ecology and other disciplines. The NPS protects many places that have been central in the development of major scientific ideas and practices, and thus represent unique features of our global scientific heritage. Examples include the first evidence for plant succession at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, development of C14 dating methods using fossils in Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, and the discovery of Thermus aquaticus in Yellowstone and its application to PCR technology. We are launching a project to tell digital stories about these places, their role in the history of science, and their connections to science today. We begin with the example of Henry Cowles and ecological succession.
Henry Chandler Cowles (1869-1939) was a botanist at the University of Chicago and one of the great American contributors to the new discipline of ecology. In 1896, as a PhD student, Cowles began visiting the sand dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan and developed a dissertation project to examine how plant communities were distributed across dunes along transects perpendicular to the shoreline. He observed that plant species consistently replaced one another from young, mobile, near-shore dunes to older, stable, inland dunes. He also observed similar community replacements in a series from ponds to mesophytic forests. By having the insight to substitute space for time, Cowles interpreted these observations as evidence for seral communities tending toward a climax community through the process of succession. Cowles’s work (especially papers published in 1899-1901) profoundly shaped research on ecological succession and established this concept as one of the most important organizing principles in ecology. The dunes are now preserved by the NPS as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, amid steel mills and power plants, an outcome that Cowles helped bring about.