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Interpreting Nature

Diagram of Plant Succession on the Coastal Plain of North Carolina
"Plant Communities of the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and Their Successional Relations."
B. W. Wells

Early in his career, Wells, like most first-generation ecologists, subscribed to the teachings of Frederic Clements, whose theories stated that vegetation grows in a series of stages, affected by climate and other disturbances, until it reaches a "climax state" in balance with its environment and dominated by a stable community. This diagram shows the successional stages of communities in the coastal plain with the climax community as the beech-maple, the community Clements identified as the climax for the southeast. Eventually Clement's ideas of a monoclimax were contested by ecologists, and Wells' own observations would later cause him to abandon these ideas.

Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago Department of Botany on a field trip
American Environmental Photographs Collection, [AEP-ILP234], Department of Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

One of the first American ecologists, Henry Chandler Cowles directed Wells' Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago and may have provided Wells' first exposure to the theories of ecology. Cowles was one of the first to develop a formal approach to the concepts of plant succession-the orderly changes in the structure or composition of a plant community-which he developed in his paper "The Ecological Relations of the Vegetation on the Sand Dunes of Lake Michigan" published in the Botanical Gazette in 1899. Cowles' work influenced the first generation of ecologists, including Wells, who sought to define plant communities and explain how they are affected by a variety of environmental factors.

"Salt Spray: An Important Factor in Coastal Ecology."
Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club
B. W. Wells and I. V. Shunk

Once satisfied with his conclusions, Wells published his findings in scientific journals and popular publications, often revising earlier ecological thinking. Scientists previously believed that wind caused the unique swept-back appearance of shrubs near the coast. Wells, however, observed that even when wind was uniform across a group of shrubs, the effect was not. Through a combination of observation and experiment, Wells was able to state with confidence in 1938 that the salt carried on the wind-which varied according to distance from the water-caused the injury.

"Juvenile turkey oak (Quercus laevis Walt.) showing vertical orientation of leaves."
"The Vegetation and Habitat Factors of the Coarser Sands of the North Carolina Coastal Plain: An Ecological Study."
Ecological Monographs
B. W. Wells and I. V. Shunk

Wells conducted most of his research through observation and analysis. On several occasions, he conducted simple experiments to test hypotheses. This image illustrates an experiment in which he forced blades of a turkey oak into a horizontal position after noticing that they almost always grew in a vertical orientation. After he bent them, they quickly showed signs of high-temperature injury, demonstrating the plant's ability to adapt to its habitat.

"Fire repressed specimen of Nyssa biflora over 50 years old."
"A Southern Upland Grass-Sedge Bog: An Ecological Study."
North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station
Technical Bulletin No. 32
B. W. Wells and I. V. Shunk

Close examination of individual plants helped Wells interpret the environmental factors that contribute to a location's ecological composition. The image above demonstrates the dramatic effect that fire has on savanna plants. The roots of the plant are over 50 years old, while the shoots are one season old.

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