Preserving Florida's Habitat

August 21, 2012

Arielle Perez '16 and Paige Hansen '16 remove air potato vines from Lake Lotus Park during SPARC Day of Service. (Photo by Judy Watson Tracy)

Eyes narrowed, Sarah Smith ’16 gazes through the dense hammock at Lake Lotus Park. She is looking for a deadly predator. No, not a panther or an alligator; the biology major is searching for the invasive air potato plant.

She spots one winding around the pointy branches of a saw palmetto, and while most people wouldn’t be alarmed by such a sight, Smith knows better.

The seemingly innocent twining vine with heart-shaped leaves will slowly overpower the saw palmetto as it outcompetes it for light, water, and nutrients. That’s bad news for the black bears and white-tailed deer that eat the saw palmetto fruit. Listed as one of Florida’s most invasive plant species, the air potato, along with several other invasive non-native plants, is responsible for the destruction of countless acres of natural Florida habitat and the decline of many of Florida’s animal species.

It’s hard to imagine that a mere plant can do such damage, but as Smith and her 15 classmates are learning on this humid August morning in Altamonte Springs, invasive exotic plants are akin to the plague when given the opportunity to invade and flourish in

Nicole Ogden '16 and Kerrysha Matos-Soto '16 remove invasive plants from Little Wekiva River. (Photo by Judy Watson Tracy)

The group gathered Saturday morning at the 125-acre Lake Lotus Park, prior to the official start of classes. They are all enrolled in Associate Professor of Biology Katie Sutherland’s class, Endangered Earth, one of dozens of Rollins conference courses (RCC) designed to join a professor with a group of 15-17 first-year students to explore a subject of mutual interest through reading, writing and experiential learning. Launched in 1994, RCC was one of the first  seminar courses offered in the country.

The biology, marine biology, and environmental studies majors got a head start on classes and their prospective majors as part of SPARC (Service Philanthropy Activism Rollins College), the annual service day for all incoming first-year students. By the end of the day, 779 first-year students had completed a cumulative total of 3,116 hours of service at 26 community organizations across Central Florida.

“My course will be teaching them about threats to global ecosystems,” Sutherland said. “This project, as well as the three others we’ll participate in throughout the semester, shows students how to be active members of the community. Today, they are going to start being part of the solution.”

After a brief introduction from park rangers and the project’s community partner, Natalae Almeter of The Seminole Education, Restoration and Volunteer (SERV) Program, the crew donned work gloves, grabbed shovels, and rolled up their sleeves to begin pulling out invasive plants.

Braving the heat and an occasional nip from a mosquito or fire ant, the students dug, tugged, and yanked until the piles of air potato and torpedo weed towered alongside the banks of Little Wekiva River. In their place, Sutherland and her class planted more than 60 native plants, half of which were paid for by Rollins College.

“The work you’re doing here today has major ecological significance,” Almeter told the group. “I can’t thank you enough for being here.”

For Smith, the camaraderie enjoyed by all as well as the hands-on jumpstart to her coursework was well received. But the message about the importance of service in her new life at Rollins wasn’t lost either. “I really enjoy service work and I’m glad we’ll have so much access to it at Rollins,” Smith said. “Service creates a more well-rounded student; I love that it’s part of the culture here.”

By Kristen Manieri

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