Biology professor Jeffrey Corbin conducts much of his experimental work in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. This globally rare pine barren ecosystem is a short car ride away from the Union campus, creating an ideal opportunity to get his classes into the field and also include students in his research.
Pine barrens and other open, sandy habitats are home to plants and animals not found elsewhere in the northeastern United States. Working in the pine bush, Corbin recognized a previously undescribed component of this ecosystem— biological soil crusts. Many people may recognize “biocrusts” from trips to Utah, Arizona or other dry U.S. regions. Yet they remain largely unknown in the wet northeast.
Corbin’s follow-up surveys at the pine bush and more than a dozen other sites resulted in the first broad description of biocrusts in temperate habitats. He and Jessica Gilbert ’18, a biology major with a minor in Japanese, spent many hours using the pine bush as a living laboratory. They found that intact biocrusts inhibit vascular plant seed germination, suggesting that these tiny organisms play a mighty role in what plants grow where.
This work was the basis of Gilbert’s senior honors thesis in biology, which later was published in a paper in a scientific journal. Corbin reports that his future work “will build on what Jess and I found to understand how we can best manage, conserve and restore the Pine Bush. That place is a real treasure.”