Ecology

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest Center is located on the Piedmont of New Jersey. Located just south of the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin glacier, the soils at HMF belong to the Penn soil series, derived from the highly weathered, soft red, Triassic shale of the Brunswick Formation (Ugolini, 1964). These soils are typically well-drained, resulting in a uniform oak-hickory forest. Areas of poor drainage occur at each end of the old forest stands, where a stream and wetland are located.

The oak-hickory forest of the HMF Center are characteristic of the region. White, black, and red oak (Quercus alba, Q. veluntina, Q. rubra), as well as pignut (Carya glabra) and mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) are evenly distributed on upland sites, and spasmodic in occurrence in poorly drained areas. The other canopy representatives are less evenly distributed and include species of ash and red maple. Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Norway maple, sugar maple occur as canopy individuals, along with non-native species such Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) along forest edges.

As recent as the 1960s HMF, one of the Mid-Atlantic's exemplary old-growth forests, would have appeared much as it did when European settlers arrived. As stated by forest ecologist Carl D. Monk, "Centuries old oaks and hickories dominate the landscape, dogwoods and mixed shrubs vie for space amongst these ancient giants. Each spring, May apples carpet the forest floor, while in the fall migratory birds rest and find refuge in the tree canopy and acres of surrounding successional buffer fields (Monk 1961)." Today, the forest is quite different. Intensive herbivory by decades of elevated deer populations has resulted in the loss of many of the shrub and understory species, along with the regeneration of native tree species. The changes in plant community composition and structure have been followed closely every decade in long-term forest plots with data covering more than 60 years of plant community change. With the construction of a deer fence in 2015, we are now intently following the ability for native plant species to recover within the old-growth forest.

In addition to forest, the Hutcheson Memorial Forest Center includes abandoned agricultural fields and early successional forest. Many of these "old-field" sites are in fact just as famous as the ancient Mettler's Woods and are the focus of the Buell Small Succession Study, one of the longest running ecological experiment and instrumental in defining the ecological processes the govern forest succession. Succession, a fundamental concept of ecology, is the change in either species composition, structure, or architecture of vegetation through time. In the 1940s the study of old-field succession at HMF Center was timely and relevant to much of the eastern United States. Intense land use, erodability, or droughtiness characterized many Piedmont farms. Therefore, many Piedmont sites were abandoned from agriculture as a result of opening more hospitable soils in the Midwest and changes in the economic and social situation for agriculture in the east. Many fields in the Piedmont of central New Jersey were abandoned in the 1940's. Today, we are interested in the impact of other land use and regional change on forest succession and plant dynamics. From the impact of deer and non-native species, to changes in regional climate, the study of changes in plant community composition, structure, and architecture, can inform conservation and management practices.