Heather Bowman-Cutway, an associate professor of biology, scrambled down a slope into a wooded ravine with her Mercer University research students following in a ragged line.
Be careful! she warned as one student started to slide. We dont need dominoes!
One by one, the researchers straddled giant, fallen trees that lay across the path, looking like long, unwrapped presents with their bark lying in sheets on the ground beneath.
Tiptoeing past waist-high poison ivy shading Christmas tree ferns, the class neared its goal: a group of endangered flowers. For undergrads -- mostly juniors and seniors -- the chance to work with an endangered species is a rarity.
The chance to work with them deep in the woods -- in Macon -- is even rarer.
You would never think you were within the city limits, Bowman-Cutway observed, hands on hips, gazing up at the sun shafting through the old tulip poplar trees above her. You never know what great things are anywhere.
The endangered fringed campion was beneath their feet. Their tiny flowers emerge briefly in spring, but the rest of the year the plants are unassuming rosettes of teardrop-shaped leaves that grow by extending runners -- like strawberry plants -- right next to the trail. They dont seem to mind disturbance, Bowman-Cutway said, adding that one of the other fringed campion populations is in a driveway.
But despite this tolerance, there are few of the plants anywhere. Bowman-Cutway, whose expertise is in urban ecology, and officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources asked that the precise location not be identified to protect the plants.
Tom Patrick, a botanist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the plant is found only in two Florida counties and eight counties in Georgia, including Bibb, Houston, Twiggs, Crawford, Upson, Taylor and Talbot.
Mercer got involved in researching the fringed campion through Bowman-Cutways friendship with Patrick through the Georgia Botanical Society. She e-mailed him, asking if there was anything her conservation biology class could monitor close to Macon that would help the DNR.She was shocked when the response was basically: Sure, try this endangered species.
I was stupid excited about it, for me and for the students, Bowman-Cutway said.
Her classes began monitoring the plants in several parts of these woods last semester, and she intends to continue for years to come. Her spring conservation biology class took detailed measurements of the slope, light and soil content around the fringed campion, and recorded the types of plants that surround it.
Bowman-Cutway combed the woods during the plants spring flowering period, trying to find new populations, without any luck.
Last week, students who are enrolled in a one-credit research course used a tiny stake with a 15-centimeter string to divide the plants into groups and count them. Tuesday they identified 26 rosettes in this population, which isnt the largest in the area.
Bowman-Cutway will also be tracking whether the plants are being threatened by nearby invasive species -- most notably English ivy gone wild -- and deer nipping off population growth along with the flowers.
Her research students often find that a lot of their job is the glorified weeding work of ripping up invasive species.
They spend hours getting rid of English privet and Japanese honeysuckle on the loop trail at the Ocmulgee National Monument, for instance.
Its a de-stressor, laughed Lindsey Little, a junior from Hollywood, Fla., who plans to be a pharmacist. And you can get a feel for what research really is.
Long history in Macon
Botanical research is a mixed bag: part field science, part grubbing and part picking through documents. They all played an important part in finding Macons fringed campion.
When it was first federally listed as endangered in 1991, the fringed campion was known only in the Flint-Apalachicola river basins, Patrick said.
But the plants history had been tied to Macon centuries before.
It was first documented during the early 1800s near Benjamin Hawkins Indian agency in Crawford County, Patrick said. Macon was later founded at the location of an Indian trading post and frontier fort named for Hawkins.
In the 1890s, one of the first female botanists, Fanny Andrews, taught at Wesleyan College and collected fringed campion in Clarks Woods, Macon. But her find fell into obscurity until 1988, when Patrick and others began combing her records at Auburn University.
We dont have any idea where Clarks Woods is today, he said. It might be around Wesleyan.
But the record led Patrick and Georgia Botanical Society members to begin combing creek bottoms in Macon during the early 1990s. Thats when they found the plants the Mercer classes now monitor.
We were surprised to find them, Patrick said. Its such a huge, intact hardwood forest. There just isnt much of that kind of habitat left in Macon. When we do find it, its being terribly invaded by invasives and by deer being restricted to these areas.
Patrick called it very important to preserve these areas through conservation easements. Such easements are legal agreements that the property will never be developed, but they allow owners to continue to live on and use the land otherwise.
Although the healthiest population in Macon is on a single property, the other groupings are scattered across different ownerships, Patrick said. The owner of the largest population is very enthusiastic about the plants, but Patrick said an easement would prevent development through future generations.
And there are other unexplored, wooded creek bottoms in Macon and Monroe County that Patrick would like to be checked intensively for the endangered flowers.
The major tributaries to the Ocmulgee River in north Macon are exactly what we need to explore, he said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.