60 years later, U researcher’s legacy lives on at Cedar Creek

Dan Haugen

It really should be a movie,” said David Tilman, the University’s Cedar Creek Natural History Area director, about the life of the preserve’s first and most well-known researcher Raymond Lindeman.

Blind in one eye and battling an eventually fatal illness during most of his studies, Lindeman used the Cedar Bog Lake to examine how ecosystems work. Despite frequent hospitalizations, he penned six significant papers before his death in 1942 at age 27.

His most famous work, however, wasn’t published until after his death. A mentor at Yale University convinced Ecology magazine of its merit, even though the journal had previously rejected the piece.

Now, 60 years after his death, Lindeman’s theories are taught in ecology classes everywhere, and Cedar Creek is one of the world’s premiere hubs for environmental research.

Cedar Creek – located 35 miles north of the Twin Cities in East Bethel – was officially founded the year of Lindeman’s death, when the Minnesota Academy of Sciences granted the University several acres of land for research and preservation purposes. The University continued to solicit donations and purchase land from neighboring property owners for the next decade and a half, and in 1954 the area reached its present size of nine square miles.

Part of the area’s uniqueness lies in the fact that the continent’s three major ecosystems – hardwood forests, evergreens and prairies – all converge at Cedar Creek.

In the 1960s, researchers at Cedar Creek invented radio tracking, which greatly improved ecologists’ ability to monitor and study animal behavior.

In 1982, the National Science Foundation designated the area one of approximately two dozen Long-Term Ecological Research sites, which meant more grant money and more experiments.

“The work that’s been done at Cedar Creek in the past 20 years is some of the most highly cited environmental science that’s been done,” Tilman said.

That includes a biodiversity study started in the early 1990s. Until then, Tilman said, the dominant belief in ecology was that species diversity isn’t necessarily important to the health of an ecosystem.

Cedar Creek researchers designed an experiment that appears to have disproved the old belief. They planted more than 300 small plots with varying numbers of plant species.

The experiment is still ongoing, but Tilman said they have already observed a direct link between species diversity and the health of the plot. The more species on a plot, the more biomass it produces.

“Large-scale and long-term studies are very new in ecology. In the 1970s, nobody did any experiments,” Tilman said. “What we have been able to demonstrate at Cedar Creek is that experiments are a very effective way to understand a lot more about nature.”

Tilman said the most practical application for the research will likely be in forest management.

The biodiversity experiment is one of several hundred in progress at Cedar Creek.

Saturday, the Cedar Creek Natural History Area celebrates its 60th anniversary with an open house and public tours from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Activities will include a radio tracking demonstration and a tree planting ceremony.