Flooding on the floodplains with Whitney Kroschel

Floodplains. The term conjures up images of iconic Louisiana swamps- cypress trees, alligators, and areas inundated with water. But what a floodplain really is, is a wetland ecosystem which periodically experiences pulses of floodwaters, bringing nutrients and sediment to the land. While these cyclic events can be beneficial to wetland communities, continuous flooding may be deleterious to the native species. Whitney Kroschel, Ph.D. candidate in the School of Renewable Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture takes us on an ecological journey through the floodplains to give us a perspective of how flooding is influencing Louisiana cypress swamps and the inhabitants within.

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Transcript

Becky Carmichael 

[0:01] This is LSU Experimental, where we explore exciting research occurring at the Louisiana State University and learn about the individuals posing the questions. I'm Becky Carmichael. Floodplains. The term conjures up images of iconic Louisiana swamps, cypress trees, alligators and areas inundated with water. But what a floodplain really is, is a wetland ecosystem, which periodically experiences pulses of flood waters, bringing nutrients and sediments to the land. While these cyclic events can be beneficial to wetland communities, continuous flooding maybe deleterious to the native species. Whitney Kroschel, Ph.D. candidate in the School of renewable natural resources and the College of Agriculture, studies how flooding is influencing Cypress swamps and how these changes may alter the ecosystem structure of our Louisiana wetlands.


Whitney Kroschel 

[0:59] Many of us view flooding in a negative way. Maybe you've been directly affected by flooding at one point or another. Or you may have heard stories of people dealing with major floods. Flooding in fact remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, but flooding like many natural disasters is a normal event. It actually is essential for the maintenance of some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. My name is Whitney Kroschel and I study wetlands. Wetlands are exactly what they sound like areas of the landscape that are wet. You might think of cypress trees or alligators, but they are a lot more than that. Wetlands include many ecosystems such as marshes, estuaries, deltas, mud flats, fens, ponds, swamps, lagoons, and floodplains. Not only are these areas beautiful and exciting to visit, but these areas provide services to our society, which makes them economically valuable in addition to their biological value. For my PhD research, I specifically study floodplains. Floodplains are low lying areas that are relatively flat located adjacent to river channels. As their name suggests, floodplains are where the water goes when a river overtops its bank. In the southeastern United States, floodplains are a type of forested wetland like a Cypress Swamp. I study how flooding affects the forests. And this is because in most areas, we have completely stopped flooding, or at least change the pattern of flooding. In the southeastern U.S., nearly all the rivers have been modified by humans. Many have been straightened, deepened and widened to provide navigation and transportation. Most rivers these days are constrained by levees to protect the cities and surrounding areas within floodplains from flooding. This includes highly populated cities like St. Louis and New Orleans, which both sit within the Mississippi River floodplain. Prior to European settlement, these rivers would have flooded every year. So why would people develop floodplains if they flooded? That's a good question. Flooding is actually very beneficial to the environment because it exchanges nutrients between the river and the floodplains. Over time after centuries of regular flood events, the flood plains became lush ecosystems with lots of species diversity and rich, fertile soil. People discovered that floodplains were great for growing crops, and as a result, most of our former floodplain acreage has been converted to agriculture. But we still have some areas left that we manage for wildlife habitat, timber and other resources. A good example is the Atchafalaya basin right here in Louisiana. This is a beautiful area, of protected floodplain forest. But because our rivers have been modified and levied our remaining floodplain forests no longer flood in the way they would have historically. In many areas, flooding has been eliminated or it's been reduced. The result is that our remaining floodplain forests are often drier than they used to be. And we are starting to see a change in the species specifically in the trees. Less flood tolerant tree species are replacing our traditionally flood tolerant species, which would potentially affect the entire ecosystem over time. I am studying this change to understand how the reduction or elimination of flooding has affected the trees. I think these changes are happening at the seedling age. If you can imagine a single seedling, you have an idea of how vulnerable that individual is and how devastating a flood event could be to that seedling. But depending upon the timing of the flooding, the duration of the flooding and the species of that seedling, some individuals are affected differently and I am studying these differences. A cypress tree cannot germinate underwater. Therefore when you see those trees, you know that one point that area was not flooded. People have changed the landscape and it is affecting our forests, our swamps and our floodplains. I am trying to understand how flooding affects the tree species of Louisiana's floodplains. This is important so we can manage and maintain the value of these ecosystems. Louisiana is called the sportsman's paradise. And many of the species that support this label such as deer, ducks, and Turkey, they all depend upon floodplains for survival. To maintain this paradise, we need to understand processes that shape our floodplains.


Becky Carmichael 

[5:27] Whitney, thank you so much for coming and joining me today. I'm excited to learn about your research that you're doing in the Louisiana floodplains and get to know a little bit more about you in general and your path here to LSU. So to get started, what I would really like to give our listeners is why is this type of research so important? What's the big picture ideas that we need to be aware of?


Whitney Kroschel 

[5:52] So I think a lot of people just when they hear the word floodplain, they really don't quite understand what exactly that is. And I was in those same shoes at one point. But the reason floodplains are so important is they provide a whole array of services that are important economically as well as biologically. And you might think of alligators and wildlife in general when you think about floodplains especially in Louisiana, but they are so much more than that. They're more than the trees. They're more than the animals. They can provide flood protection. They filter pollutants out of the river water, which in turn affects the water that reaches the Gulf of Mexico and the dead zone if people aren't familiar with that, and they actually provide many timber resources, a lot of economically valuable hardwoods grow and floodplains. They're important for tourism, of course, but also recreation. So Louisiana is the sportsman's paradise and hunting is really important for the state economically and also just culturally. Floodplains provide a lot of the species that people like to go out and hunt. So...


Becky Carmichael 

[7:06] Wow. And so you said something. You said it offers protection. It offers flood protection too. How so? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[7:16] So in a flood event, you know, the water overtops, its banks and it goes into our streets and into our homes. And one way in which floodplains can protect that event from happening is if you have a flood plain area, upstream of your homes and your cities. And you get this big pulse of water coming down the river and you have a floodplain space available for that water to go it can instead spread out within that floodplain area before it ever even reaches the city's downstream. So if you have that area for water to go, it will reduce the risks of it going into your homes. 


Becky Carmichael 

[7:59] So it's more of a natural area that has those types of... It's natural area where there's particular soil kind of composition that can take on and hold that pulse of water that comes through. And so would you expect... Like so floodplains... I would imagine here in Louisiana, we see them and they're typically wet, but floodplains don't always have to be waterlogged. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[8:24] Exactly. Yeah. One of the reasons that floodplains are so diverse and full of wildlife is that they're dynamic. So they have wet periods and they have dry periods. So usually the wet period is in the spring, when you get that flood pulse coming down. You have snow melting in the north and all that water eventually makes its way down here. So winter, and yes, in particular, spring is the wet time of year but then, summer and fall, especially late falls, usually when the floodplains start to dry out. And so different species flourish at different time periods throughout the year. Some take advantage of the wet periods, some take advantage of the dry periods. And also, that whole wet dry cycle is really important for nutrient exchange. So you get nutrients coming from the river water out onto the floodplain and then you get nutrients on the floodplain and working their way back into the river water as it moves back into the channel. And so that exchange of nutrients is really important for the wildlife as well as the plants and all the different trees that grow on these floodplains. It's a very productive system. 


Becky Carmichael 

[9:31] And so this kind of leads me to you'd mentioned that, you know, it helps filter out some of the pollutants before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. So this isn't essentially... It's trapping some of that extra nutrient that is difficult maybe to process in the Gulf. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[9:48] Yes. So in the Midwest. In the breadbasket area of our country. There's a lot of fertilizer that gets used the crops and eventually that fertilizer makes its way into our waterways. And so, because most of the water just shoots directly down the rivers out into the Gulf, all those nutrients in that water stays in that water. But if you have some areas of floodplains that are connected to the rivers still, and that water is able to spread out on the floodplain, it slows the velocity of the water. And when you have a slower velocity, it allows nutrients to settle out. Like in the sediment, there's a lot of nutrients that are tied up. So when the sediment settles out, the nutrients will set out on the floodplain and then there are nutrients in the water and so you have plants and trees that uptake that water, and that helps reduce the nutrients that end up going back into the river and out into the Gulf. 


Becky Carmichael 

[10:51] It makes sense because, you know, being from the Midwest, you do see that there's such a large agricultural, you know, industry there and, you know, you're all connecting and it's all going into the...


Whitney Kroschel 

[11:11] Gulf?


Becky Carmichael 

[11:13] Yeah, well, it's all going into the rivers, right? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[11:15] Oh right.


Becky Carmichael 

[11:15] So it's funneling down into the different rivers, and which ultimately lead into the Mississippi and then down to the gulf. And so seeing all of that production and then the runoff from that production, follow through if we don't have these natural areas that can try to absorb and just try to use that. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[11:34] Right. 


Becky Carmichael 

[11:34] It all just gets dumped.


Whitney Kroschel 

[11:36] You can think of the rivers as pipelines that just push all of these nutrients and everything straight out into the Gulf. But if you have strategic holes in those pipelines where the water can spread out into the environment. A lot of those nutrients can be used by the plants and vegetation in those environments. And so it goes to use in those areas instead of going straight out into the Gulf where it doesn't get used at all.


Becky Carmichael 

[12:00] So then the other part of this enrichment, if you will, within these floodplains is that it sounds like this is one of the reasons why these areas have been converted to say agricultural land, and then essentially reduced in in areas to protect our cities. Do you want to do you want to share a little bit about what... do you know how much that conversion has happened over the time? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[12:31] Well, so most of the conversion along the Mississippi River and I think honestly, throughout most of the countries happened in the last century or the last 150 years about within the Mississippi River Valley, in particular, the Lower Mississippi alluvial Valley, as it's called, we historically had about 10 million hectares of floodplain forest, and that's been reduced by about 80 percent. 


Becky Carmichael 

[13:00] Oh goodness.


Whitney Kroschel 

[13:02] So most of it's been lost. However, the areas that we still have are very important, as I mentioned earlier, economically and biologically. And so they still have high value. And because we've lost so much of that floodplain for us, you can imagine a lot of those species that are dependent upon those ecosystems have kind of had to find refuge in the areas that we have left. So instead of having this, you know, millions of acres in which to thrive, they've kind of been reduced to these little pockets of habitat. So those areas that we have left are still very important for a lot of species.


Becky Carmichael 

[13:38] And is there any kind of protection, either national or state protection for these floodplain areas?


Whitney Kroschel 

[13:44] Yeah, so a lot of them are. A lot of them are managed by state as well as by the federal government. We have national wildlife refuges that protect some of our floodplain for us, as well as wildlife management areas here in Louisiana. And other state lands in other states. But a lot of them are also on private land still. And that's okay, too, because a lot of private landowners like to hunt tho those areas. So it's a mix. It's a mix of ownership.


Becky Carmichael 

[14:16] So what drew you then to this particular area of research? I mean, it seems like it's pretty... It's a vast type of area with many questions that you could address. What, though, drew you to it?


Whitney Kroschel 

[14:31] So in general, I have always loved wetlands, they're probably my favorite ecosystem. I mean, I think I like every ecosystem. I like everything, but wetlands are my favorite. And the reason for that is they're just so dynamic and diverse. And there's just so many different species that exist in these areas. And, in particular, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for amphibians, and many species of amphibians thrive in wetlands. And wetlands themselves can just be really diverse in general, that whole umbrella of wetlands can include so many different types of wetlands. And so in general, that's what I was looking to pursue. And I wanted to get into research, in particular for my PhD. And then when I had the opportunity to come to Louisiana to study wetlands, it was an obvious decision to do that, because there's just so much going on here, biologically. 


Becky Carmichael 

[15:33] So you've come to Louisiana for your PhD research, but this appreciation and this love for the wetlands, those started somewhere else. Where where did this originate from? Were you visiting wetlands and other locations nationally, internationally?


Whitney Kroschel 

[15:48] Yeah. So I would attribute my general love for ecology to my childhood, of course. Just growing up we lived, or my parents live right next to a state park. And so...


Becky Carmichael 

[16:02] Oh wow. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[16:02] That was wonderful to spend a lot of time outdoors, but I... For whatever reason, I just loved finding frogs and toads and flipping logs and rocks and just finding little critters. I loved that. And my parents and my family have a cabin in northern Minnesota on one of the many lakes up there. It's close to the Canada Border, but it's very, very rural up there. And I would spend time walking the shoreline and flipping rocks and looking for frogs and looking for crayfish, as we call them up there. 


Becky Carmichael 

[16:39] Yes! 


Whitney Kroschel 

[16:40] And just leeches... Any critter. I would try to find snakes,


Becky Carmichael 

[16:47] Leeches? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[16:48] Yeah! 


Becky Carmichael 

[16:48] Oh my gosh! Those creep me out!


Whitney Kroschel 

[16:51] So they're actually many different types of leeches, and they don't all suck blood. But there's this really cool, big species of leech in northern Minnesota called the horse leech. They don't suck blood or anything. They're friendly so to speak. But they're so cool. They're just really big and they're beautiful when you see them swimming.


Becky Carmichael 

[17:12] Really? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[17:13] Like a wave moving through the water.


Becky Carmichael 

[17:16] So when you say they're big... have... like


Whitney Kroschel 

[17:18] They're maybe like six inches. And then when you hold them out of the water, they're just like a blob in your hand. 


Becky Carmichael 

[17:25] Oh my gosh. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[17:26] When you put them in the water they swim and they look like a ribbon.


Becky Carmichael 

[17:29] Oh.


Whitney Kroschel 

[17:29] They're cool, but they're harmless. At least in the lake that I would, you know, go searching for them, they weren't super common. So when I would find them, it was always really exciting.


Becky Carmichael 

[17:39] It's that prize of the day, right? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[17:42] Yeah. But I would always always try to find a really big crayfish if I could. Yeah, just like frogs. Everything. It was fun. So I would say that's where all of that kind of developed. I would also search for Monarch caterpillars, and I would take those home and raise them into butterflies. So little things like that kind of planted the seed for my love for ecology. And then when I got into college, I did some internships with US Fish and Wildlife Service. And that kind of fueled that motivation to pursue ecology. And then from there, I moved on to a Master's doing research in Appalachia. So I worked in the mountains...


Becky Carmichael 

[18:31] Nice. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[18:31] And for that project, I studied a federally threatened salamander species. That was fun for me.


Becky Carmichael 

[18:40] Which one? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[18:42] It's called the cheat mountain salamander, Plethodon Nettingi.


Becky Carmichael 

[18:45] Oooooh.


Whitney Kroschel 

[18:46] Yeah, it's a high elevation salamander species. And they only occur on a few select mountain tops within them and on the hill and National Forest. So that was really fun project, learning about them and trying to find them because you're literally flipping rocks and logs looking for these salamanders as part of your research. It's fun.


Becky Carmichael 

[19:11] And you're are also hiking and walking through some of the... Like this beautiful area anyway that's in the mountains. And you've got all this really interesting weather and all this other different things that happen too 


Whitney Kroschel 

[19:21] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[19:22] No I appreciate that. The Appalachian kind of area is gorgeous.


Whitney Kroschel 

[19:30] Yeah! And it wasn't really a wetland or wasn't a wetland focused project, of course. But I mean, Appalachia itself is a biodiversity hotspot, especially for salamanders. So that was really exciting too and just working in a different ecosystem is always really fun. But after a few years, when I decided to go back to school, I wanted to be a little bit more strategic about what I went for. And I knew I wanted to study Wetlands. So that's how I ended up here. 


Becky Carmichael 

[20:04] Yeah, I think that's a nice journey, though. I think that it says that, you can continue to pursue your interest and you can test things out along the way, but still stay true to the idea of what you want to go into.


Whitney Kroschel 

[20:18] Yeah, and it takes time. For a little while, I thought I wanted to pursue herpetology. And I still have a strong passion for it, but I just kind of realized over time... I mean, I've always loved plants too. 


Becky Carmichael 

[20:32] Mhmm.


Whitney Kroschel 

[20:32] And I mean, I love how everything works together and fits together within an ecosystem to thrive. And it's exciting to learn the ins and outs of one organism. But for me, I just I love learning about everything and how it all works together to create a productive ecosystem, or where something might be missing, or what we could improve somewhere. So learning how that's connected is really interesting. And floodplains in Louisiana were a strong draw for me, because they're so dynamic. So you have vegetation, the trees.. You have that component, and then you have the hydrology with the flooding. And that's super dynamic. And then you have geomorphology...


Becky Carmichael 

[21:17] Mhmm.


Whitney Kroschel 

[21:18] Which is a fancy term for just sediment and how the sediment moves and erodes or deposits. So that's another interesting aspect of it. And then, of course, you have the wildlife. So they're always different. It's very interdisciplinary, which is really cool.


Becky Carmichael 

[21:34] It's very interdisciplinary. And I think it speaks toward the... How complicated it is once we lose the floodplain ecosystem, as well as really any ecosystem, that once you lose that you think that you want to try to rebuild it. There's all of these systems that come into play. And there's all these complexities that we don't necessarily understand thoroughly enough, or can be very unique for that particular small area that really once it's gone it's really difficult to put it back and have it function in the same way. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[22:11] Yeah. 


Becky Carmichael 

[22:13] No, I feel you on this, this kind of love and appreciation for how the whole works together. And then not only the beauty that you see in that, but also the puzzles that are there and trying to figure out how it all fits together.


Whitney Kroschel 

[22:28] Yeah, and one of the challenging things with floodplain forest ecosystems in Louisiana and elsewhere is that we don't have much old growth forests left to really try to understand what these areas looked like historically. I mean we can make our best guess and study how the floodplains we have left operate, and try to hypothesize how they should and would have looked. But it is really challenging, because they're all a little bit different and they're all unique. And so it's complicated, but it's also really exciting to study. 


Becky Carmichael 

[23:04] Well, you mentioned something about your work, and you're really kind of thinking about what's happening to the seeds. So I'd like for you to describe kind of what is a day in the life of your field work for us? What does that look like? What's that process? Yeah, I'm excited to kind of hear what... What do you do? How do you study this. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[23:29] So a typical day, these days for my field work, is I go out to floodplain sites. And I have a one by one meter frame. And I have over 100 1x1 meter plots. And I use this little frame to revisit those plots. And I have little flags that mark each plot and I put this frame down over the plot. And I study the seedlings that are in each of these plots. And when I say seedlings, I'm specifically referring to the tree seedlings. 


Becky Carmichael 

[24:09] Mhmm.


Whitney Kroschel 

[24:09] I'm not really focusing on herbaceous plants at this point, but specifically, I'm trying to study the trees. And so I go from plot to plot and I examine what's germinating and how much it's growing, and if there's any mortality, and I mark each one of these little seedlings, and I revisit it every two weeks.


Becky Carmichael 

[24:31] Oh, goodness. And you've got 100 of these plots?


Whitney Kroschel 

[24:34] Yeah, I have about 150.


Becky Carmichael 

[24:35] 150? How many sites, then, do you have? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[24:41] I have, broadly speaking, four sites that have obviously multiple of these little plots.


Becky Carmichael 

[24:49] So you've got several locations... You've got that number of locations and are they in close proximity? Or do you have some good drives in between getting to each one, so you're just constantly going and doing field work?


Whitney Kroschel 

[25:03] Yes, constantly going doing field work. So 2 of my sites are in North Louisiana, which is about a 3 hour drive. They're on 2 different wildlife management areas up there, which they have different hydrologic regimes, which is a term for flood patterns. They have different flood patterns. And then I have 2 local sites that are closer to Baton Rouge that are in the Mississippi River historic floodplain. And they are located around Gross Tete as well as Plaquemine.


Becky Carmichael 

[25:35] Nice. But having those drives in between...


Whitney Kroschel 

[25:41] Mhmm.


Becky Carmichael 

[25:42] That makes this either for a long day or a long trip.


Whitney Kroschel 

[25:48] Yeah, generally it takes about a day to do a site. So I end up staggering the trips. So when I go to my North Louisiana sites, that's a couple days. And then the next week, I usually do my local sites, which is a couple days. So it's a lot of fieldwork, but I like it. I love the diversity. And I see so much wildlife. It's really exciting.


Becky Carmichael 

[26:13] Well, I'm going to take a pause on that, because I have a couple other questions for you for your research. But I want to talk about the wildlife that you get to see and so I'll put the link on if you're okay...


Whitney Kroschel 

[26:24] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[26:24] For your Instagram feed because you post all of these amazing images of these different organisms that you find. So tell us what what are some of the cool ones that you get excited to see?


Whitney Kroschel 

[26:38] We see a lot of amphibians and reptiles. That would probably the most... The biggest group of animals that we see. So a lot of snakes, a lot of frogs, a lot of turtles. Actually, last week, we saw an alligator, a baby alligator. 


Becky Carmichael 

[26:55] Oh, wow. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[26:56] Which is much less common at those sites. It was just hanging out on the ATV trail. So we're chugging along, and there was.. And it kind of ran off a little bit, but then it hung out kind of in the vegetation we were able to get a close look at. It was really cool. 


Becky Carmichael 

[27:12] Oh wow.


Whitney Kroschel 

[27:13] And another exciting one is black bears. We see a good number of black bears. We don't see one every time, but I would say I've seen one probably half a dozen times in the last two years that I've worked up there. 


Becky Carmichael 

[27:31] That's exciting!


Whitney Kroschel 

[27:32] Yeah, it's really cool.


Becky Carmichael 

[27:33] The black bears are always... I haven't gotten to see a black bear here in Louisiana. But seeing them when I was in Shenandoah was really cool, but then it was also like, all right, stay away from what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to do my... We were doing some kind of surveys. Make yourself look big. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[27:51] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[27:51] Go the other way. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[27:52] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[27:53] The other thing, I think... and I've told you this in the past. It always excites me yet scares the daylights out of me is seeing the snake. Seeing the venomous snakes. Do you see more of like non-venomous snakes out there?


Whitney Kroschel 

[28:13] Umm.


Becky Carmichael 

[28:15] Or do you tend to see some of the ones that are a little more scary


Whitney Kroschel 

[28:17] We definitely see more non-venomous ones more often, but we see a lot of venomous ones. And in particular, they're the water moccasins that we see. 


Becky Carmichael 

[28:28] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[28:29] But we also have seen some timber rattlesnakes, which is exciting. 


Becky Carmichael 

[28:33] Oh, that is exciting.


Whitney Kroschel 

[28:34] They're really beautiful. And I mean, the first summer that I worked at these sites, I was a little bit hesitant just because I didn't know how often I would run into a venomous snake. But honestly, it's just about being careful. My family and My mom is always worried about the snakes. She always be "is that a venomous one" if she sees a photo of it. 


Becky Carmichael 

[28:57] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[28:59] But it all just comes down to understanding the organisms and just knowing that they're not going to chase you. They're not gonna try to eat you. You're way too big. 


Becky Carmichael 

[29:07] Yeah. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[29:09] And they'll only strike if they feel threatened. And that very, very rarely ever happens. So really, it's just about watching where you step. You just don't want to step on one.


Becky Carmichael 

[29:20] No. I honestly think that I'm more nervous about a tick... Finding a tick on me than I am stepping on a snake.


Whitney Kroschel 

[29:31] It's good that you didn't come out with us this spring. So many ticks. 


Becky Carmichael 

[29:38] I've had...


Whitney Kroschel 

[29:39] Dozens and dozens...


Becky Carmichael 

[29:41] And then...


Yeah, once they get on you then it is the mad search for trying to get them off. I took duct tape. I had a friend. We were doing moves with the Park Service. They took duct tape and helped me rip them off. And that was on my skin too. I was just like no! Just get them because I walked through a nest.


Whitney Kroschel 

[29:41] Falling on us.


Oh no. 


Becky Carmichael 

[30:01] Yeah, no. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[30:02] Yeah, they are really bad in the spring. And fortunately, they've started to taper off a little bit, but I get them every time. They're just hard to avoid. But I mean, I took my sleeves in. We use bug spray. And I just pull them off if find them. I mean usually you find them like just crawling before they do bite you.


Becky Carmichael 

[30:23] Yeah, they're doing the happy little dance to find a good spot when you find them.


Whitney Kroschel 

[30:28] But no, honestly, they... It's not for everybody, I will say. But if you are hardworking and a good sport and excited about seeing wildlife and diversity, it's worth it. The heat is challenging. The bugs are really challenging. So not only the ticks but the mosquitoes get insane. 


Becky Carmichael 

[30:54] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[30:54] They can be so bad. And then there's also Poison Ivy, you know, things you just need to be aware of. But yeah, generally, it's just... for me the heat is difficult and when it gets tough. So you just gotta drink a lot of water. 


Becky Carmichael 

[31:08] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[31:08] But um, no, I love those ecosystems. They're beautiful.


Becky Carmichael 

[31:15] You mentioned something in your monologue about when we see trees, they're standing in water. They're probably not going to be any more... We're losing that area. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[31:25] Right, right.


Becky Carmichael 

[31:28] How much mortality are you seeing with your seedlings as a result of inundation of water?


Whitney Kroschel 

[31:35] So that's a great question, because that's one of the big relationships I'm trying to understand with my study is "how does flooding influence different species". So flooding is dynamic, as we know, and it often happens in the spring. And what we don't really know is when different tree species germinate. So they tend to germinate in the spring also, but they germane at different times. And so when they germinate in relation to when it floods is an important relationship to understand. So if a certain species were to germinate later in the spring after the flooding receded, it might have a better chance of surviving. Whereas if a seedling germinated, before it flooded, say in late February, and then a flood came in, it likely wouldn't survive. So actually, at some of my sites, I have documented high germination of a different species in some of my plots. And then we had a flood come in. 


Becky Carmichael 

[32:40] Oh, wow.


Whitney Kroschel 

[32:40] And after that, there was no survival. So that's, it's an interesting thing to note, because in our bottom lands, for in our floodplains, I should say, we're starting to see a shift in tree species composition. And we're trying to understand why. And we understand it's linked to disease changes and flooding. But we don't really understand how it's linked. And so I'm... My hypothesis is that these changes are happening at the seedling age. 


Becky Carmichael 

[33:14] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[33:14] Because that's when an individual is the most vulnerable. And so what we think, potentially, is that in areas where we have eliminated flooding, it's allowed certain species to germinate and grow where they wouldn't have been able to historically due to the floods. So flooding potentially acted as a control for some of those species. 


Becky Carmichael 

[33:38] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[33:39] Eliminating them before they were able to grow and reach canopy height.


Becky Carmichael 

[33:45] And so what are some of the species that you're studying? Like Cypress? Would you say?


Whitney Kroschel 

[33:51] Well, so, Cypress, does occur in some of my plots. In particular, though I am focused more on oak species because Cypress occupy the lowest areas, the really swampy areas that flood the most frequently, but if you move up just a step, from Cyprus swamps, you have what's called bottom lands. 


Becky Carmichael 

[34:13] Uh huh.


Whitney Kroschel 

[34:14] Which is just another type of floodplain, and they're a little bit less swampy and wet than Cypress swamps and just slightly higher elevation. But these areas, bottom lands, were historically dominated by oak species. And they're actually several flood tolerant oak species. And it's in these areas that we're starting to see a change in the tree species. So we're kind of losing the oak regeneration, and it's being replaced by species such as Elms, green ash, and sugar Berry. 


Becky Carmichael 

[34:54] Oh, really? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[34:54] Yeah. So they're slightly less flood tolerant. And those three species that I just mentioned, they often germinate earlier in the spring, about the same time that flooding historically happens.


Becky Carmichael 

[35:07] Uh huh. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[35:08] And so that's kind of why we think that flooding maybe was important for limiting these species, the elm, ash, and sugar berry. Whereas oaks tend to germinate later. Like, say about June, about this time of year.


Becky Carmichael 

[35:20] Uh huh.


Whitney Kroschel 

[35:21] When in a lot of areas flooding has receded and it's bland, their land is exposed,


Becky Carmichael 

[35:27] And are you looking at like the seed of these different plants for you know... Is there something that triggers them, you know... So when I think of, you know, longleaf pine, fire goes through. It's sterile land.


Whitney Kroschel 

[35:40] Yeah. 


Becky Carmichael 

[35:41] And then that this seed can germinate that way? Is there something too with the different seeds? Either that they can track like if it's flooded, and they do have seeds that'll produce, those will move and be distributed with water or is there something that triggers them to germinate that's the result of either the composition water or... Do you know what I'm trying to get at>


Whitney Kroschel 

[36:03] Yeah, they're different triggers that help promote germination of some species over others. But I will say there is a species called overcup oak, and the acorns actually float because the caps are porous, and they kind of trap air, so they float like a little bobber. 


Becky Carmichael 

[36:20] Oh, cool.


Whitney Kroschel 

[36:20] And so that's an adaptation that that species evolved to distribute its seeds via flooding. 


Becky Carmichael 

[36:27] Nice. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[36:28] So it's kind of cool. 


Becky Carmichael 

[36:29] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[36:29] So it's anything but a floodplain species. But back to your question about germination triggers. So some species do require more light or more moisture to germinate. There really isn't a huge, dramatic difference between any of these. Once they germinate, though, some of the seedlings are more shade tolerant and some are more shade intolerant. So oaks in general are shade intolerant. So they kind of need patches of sunlight to survive and kind of grow at a competitive rate. But there are other species like the Elm, Ash and sugar berry a group that are generally shade tolerant. So that kind of gives them an advantage and understory.


Becky Carmichael 

[37:16] And these are all native species too?


Whitney Kroschel 

[37:19] They are, yeah. 


Becky Carmichael 

[37:20] Interesting. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[37:21] There is some problem with some invasive species, but in the floodplains I've been working in they're not too much of a problem. Chinese Tallow is a big problem down here. There's also Chinese Privet, which is another invasive. So those do exist in some areas, but at least enough floodplains I'm working in they're not too big of a problem yet. 


Becky Carmichael 

[37:29] Oh yeah. Wow, that's cool.


Whitney Kroschel 

[37:41] I think without the flooding, they might potentially invade and kind of take over, but we'll see. I know the state was working on that.


Becky Carmichael 

[37:54] Fingers are crossed that they can be contained.


Whitney Kroschel 

[37:58] Yeah. But one more thing. 


Becky Carmichael 

[38:01] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[38:02] So oak seeds are vulnerable to drying out, whereas other seeds can dry out and still be viable. 


Becky Carmichael 

[38:08] Uh huh.


Whitney Kroschel 

[38:09] So if floodplains get too dry, it's possible that oak seeds dry out and they don't even germinate. 


Becky Carmichael 

[38:15] Wow.


Whitney Kroschel 

[38:16] So that's why flooding is also important for maintaining the appropriate soil moisture and keeping those conditions appropriate for oak germination.


Becky Carmichael 

[38:27] Yeah, it has me thinking about just the different stages of different types of ecosystems that exists within a floodplain. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[38:37] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[38:38] And then kind of these ecotone areas where you could potentially have that transition. And if the changes that happened within that... I was... Because I'm also thinking if you have more flooding, and the water stayed longer, would you start to see an increase in spread of Cypress seedlings at that area? Yeah, now I'm thinking about a whole different thing. I'm thinking about this in a scale of where these trees are, and then the fluctuation of those species, then what that does to the harps and the herbs and the other kinds of organisms 


Whitney Kroschel 

[39:20] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[39:20] That can kind of stay within that because I'm sure too these oaks are a food source.


Whitney Kroschel 

[39:26] They are. They really are really important for a wild life as a food source, yeah. But what you're thinking of is definitely on the right track. And it's also why floodplains are so complicated. I mean, they are relatively flat. But within a floodplain, you have micro topography, so small changes in elevation, which actually produce big differences in flood duration, because you can have an area that's just maybe six inches or a foot lower, and that will be where all the water ends up going. And that will hold water longer than an area that's just slightly higher. And so it's really neat, because you have this mosaic of different flood conditions within a floodplain. And that's why these areas are so diverse is because different trees evolved to regenerate and grow in these areas that are slightly more flooded or slightly less flooded. So the elm, ash, and sugar berry community is native, and they do exist in floodplains, but they exist in the slightly drier areas, whereas the Oaks are a little bit wetter. And then Cypress, Tupelo are the lowest kind of wettest areas in the floodplain. 


Becky Carmichael 

[40:36] Wow.


Whitney Kroschel 

[40:37] So different communities within a floodplain, which makes it really diverse. But the problem is it's kind of homogenizing into this elm, ash, and sugar berry group. And we're kind of losing oaks in the bottomlands. 


Becky Carmichael 

[40:50] And so once you start to lose those oaks, you're not only losing the diversity of those tree species, but it can trickle up and you're losing diversity of the of the bigger picture here.


Whitney Kroschel 

[41:00] Right.


Becky Carmichael 

[41:02] Which then goes back to why you're looking at this and doing this in the first place, which is, again, it's all exciting. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[41:09] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[41:10] So okay, so kind of keeping in mind fieldwork. Have you ever had the... Also, too, because you said you're traveling, you know, 3 hours, potentially, to get some of your sites.


Whitney Kroschel 

[41:21] Mhmm.


Becky Carmichael 

[41:21] I imagine that, one, you have to be very, very prepared and organized before you leave. Have you ever had to... Have you ever gotten somewhere and something has broken? And if so, how did you MacGyver your way out of that?


Whitney Kroschel 

[41:38] That's a good question. I'm trying to think of any dramatic events we've had. So we've actually, when I first started, we did some research up in Arkansas along the White River. The White River National Wildlife Refuge is the huge area of floodplain forest. And that particular trip is very memorable because we didn't necessarily have equipment failure. But we were at a site that we had to use a boat to get to. We had to launch it and take the boat up the river, then park it on the bank. And we were measuring some trees and taking some samples, and a storm moved in and just poured on us. And we are getting soaked. And we heard it coming too. We're like, "Oh, we got time. We got time. We're almost done. We're almost done." And we did not have time, because we jumped in the boat. And we hadn't gotten caught in the rain quite yet. But we were, you know, b-lining back to the launch as fast as we could. But in the middle of the river, it just started pouring on us. And there was lightning, and it was not good.


Becky Carmichael 

[42:52] Oh nooo.


Whitney Kroschel 

[42:52] We took shelter on the bank under this overhanging tree. It was ended up being kind of amusing, because we were just drenched. And it was the end of the day too. So we're starving and hungry, and eventually it let up enough that we can make it back. But I don't know. I think just the combination of all that. I won't forget that.


Becky Carmichael 

[43:16] Would you call that instead one of your craziest, most dangerous, or weirdest experiences in the field? Or do you have another one for that?


Whitney Kroschel 

[43:25] Ummmm.


Becky Carmichael 

[43:26] Because what you just described sounds kind of dangerous?


Whitney Kroschel 

[43:29] It was definitely dangerous. We probably could have, you know, planned that one better, or made better decisions. So we learned from it. You know, I don't know if I've had any huge major equipment failures. Fortunately, for what I have to do, I don't have to rely on a lot of equipment, which is nice. 


Becky Carmichael 

[43:48] That's good 


Whitney Kroschel 

[43:49] But I will just say that there have been some days that have been so long and so hot that you just come home and you're covered in sweat, and mud and deet.


Becky Carmichael 

[44:01] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[44:02] And just layers of all that with layers of sunscreen and it feels so good to take a shower after that. It's just the longest days. But no, there are some great experiences I've had just sitting there working at one of my plots, you know, kneeling down. Me and my tech, we were being relatively quiet and then a bear just came walking by us. Probably only maybe 30 yards away. It didn't even see us because we were being pretty quiet and just working. And we weren't making any big movements or anything. And it was just trotting along doing its thing. And we just froze and watched it walk by. And you definitely do get that mixed combo feelings where it's like, oh my god, it's a bear. It's so exciting. But the same time you're a little bit nervous.


Becky Carmichael 

[44:50] Yeah. Because...


Whitney Kroschel 

[44:51] You never know


Becky Carmichael 

[44:51] It's a bear, and it's a wild animal.


Whitney Kroschel 

[44:53] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[44:54] What is it... Am I going to startle it?


Whitney Kroschel 

[44:56] Yeah. But no, it didn't see us. It just kept doing its thing. And there have been a couple of other times where we've seen a bear and it didn't see us. And it was a little bit further off. But yeah, every time it's that same kind of feeling. Yeah, and we actually see a lot of feral hogs too, which is a big problem here in Louisiana. And that's interesting, too, because, one time I was walking up to site and there was kind of a herd of mothers and piglets, because they all travel together kind of in a community. And we startled them and they all went running off. But that kind of scared me too a little bit because they can potentially be dangerous as well. 


Becky Carmichael 

[44:56] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[45:29] And they can be big. And especially if it's some of the bigger wildlife there's more uncertainty.


Becky Carmichael 

[45:42] Yeah, I think that I would chalk these things up to those nature magic kind of moments that happen when you're out in these remote areas. And whether it is something that's big, or it's something that small, it's just this like, I don't know, it's just this moment where I personally will feel very small in the grand scheme of the world. And I'm like, oh my gosh, but I have this moment where I can witness this. Yeah. The other thing too, yeah, that's also a little bit of that scary... I feel that instinctual part of you as a human kind of kicks in. It's like that fight or flight kind of moment, or freeze or flight.


Whitney Kroschel 

[46:21] Yeah and I've thought that too. Like what would I do if, you know, something happened or if something's happening? So just being aware, and I think just being educated. I mean, we always been first aid kits with us. We always bring a ton of water. And then just knowing what you should do if you see a bear is an important thing. And then knowing what types of venomous snakes you might run into. And I mean, before starting field work at some of those sites, I called the local hospital to make sure they had antivenom. 


Becky Carmichael 

[46:52] Oh, wow. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[46:53] Yeah. Just in case...


Becky Carmichael 

[46:54] Yeah!


Whitney Kroschel 

[46:54] You never know. But fortunately, we've never had a major injury or emergency incidents. So that's been really lucky. We've had several flat tires. Field work will get you really good at changing your own tires. 


Becky Carmichael 

[47:10] Yes.


Whitney Kroschel 

[47:10] And being competent in those kinds of things. And then actually, this year, we've been caught in the rain more than we ever have before. So that's interesting. At first, it's like, oh, so refreshing. It's wonderful. But then once you're like completely soaked head to toe, you're like, oh, maybe this isn't so great. And then it expands a little bit harder.


Becky Carmichael 

[47:28] And then it gets humid again. And then you're just like, oh, I'm just steamy. I'm going to be my own personal sauna.


Whitney Kroschel 

[47:34] Yes, very true. It's always an adventure. And it can be really unpredictable. But if... Like I said, if you're prepared, and you kind of know, kind of the ballpark of the range of things to expect, you'll be okay. 


Becky Carmichael 

[47:47] Do the hogs do any kind of damage to your plots? Do you think they're attributing to any of the issues with the seeds?


Whitney Kroschel 

[47:53] Yeah, that's a good question. Actually, before I started at those sites, the foresters, they were thinking that the hogs might be be affecting the oak regeneration because they will eat acorns. They'll go to town on acorns. So that is actually one thing that we were going to pursue and try to see if herbivory was a problem affecting oak regeneration. But unfortunately, we didn't have the resources or the manpower to kind of create the study design that we would have liked to kind of get at that specific question. But it's definitely something to consider. And I think it could potentially be a factor affecting different species regeneration.


Becky Carmichael 

[48:39] So it's very cool. Yeah, I wondered about that. As soon as you said that. I was like, oh yeah, they're trampling the rooting. They're eating things as well. And that combination of those disturbances at the ground level...


Whitney Kroschel 

[48:52] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[48:53] You know, knocking those seeds down could be an issue.


Whitney Kroschel 

[48:55] I have little pin flags that mark out my plots. And frequently, when I return, they'll have rooted in those plots. They'll go especially around the pin flags. It's like they suspect something might be buried under there. But that happens a lot. I'll have to put the pin flags back in, because they dig them up. So yeah, they do get in there. But just this past week, we must have seen 30 of them, because we were riding along the ATV trail, which is kind of up on a levee and it was overlooking kind of this lower area. And it was almost like we were joking that it was like an African savannah, because it just looked like a herd of wildebeest or something like running through the trees, because you get to see them down there.


Becky Carmichael 

[49:40] Wow.


Whitney Kroschel 

[49:41] Yeah, and I had never seen that many. But it just really emphasized how problematic they are and how they're everywhere. And just the power of impact that they could potentially have on an ecosystem. So that was eye opening.


Becky Carmichael 

[49:57] It is very... Just seeing even on small scale what they do, but then imagine how many really exist in in the area? It is frightening. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[50:05] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[50:06] It definitely does. It emphasizes the problem that they're having. Whitney I wanted to kind of bring it back to you through your journey to kind of getting here to your Ph.D. Did you have a moment in your career that's been really eye opening and if you could tell your younger self, you would tell yourself this? You give your younger self this advice.


Whitney Kroschel 

[50:33] I would say definitely be confident, because growing up I... I still am. I tend to be quiet and shy. You know, I think a lot of people, especially in academia and research, question their competence and their intelligence level and they go, "can I really do this?" And after my master's, I never considered a PhD. I was like, Oh, that's not for me. I'm not smart enough. I don't think I could do that. And I also think I had this mindset that I would have to stay in academia, or that's what most people do. So I don't know if I can pinpoint an exact moment. But I think just through little steps along the way. I think honestly, it really transformed more once I started my PhD here. And I talked to other students and like learned what they were doing and their challenges and how everybody's experience is different and really challenging in different ways. Like I've definitely had my challenges throughout this experience. And I have had friends that have had really challenging events too. But have been really different. So you learn from each other. And I think just having that confidence to keep moving forward, because every PhD student wants to quit at some point. 


Becky Carmichael 

[51:54] Yeah.


Whitney Kroschel 

[51:55] And I wish my like 12 year old self could see me now, especially for women in science, too, I think. I feel like I have like the coolest friends. The other PhD students that I work with, the other women, I feel like they do amazing work. I feel like they're so competent. And I mean, it doesn't matter at all that they're women, like they can do anything. And so that's been, I think one of the coolest parts about this journey is just seeing everybody's own journey and how they ended up here and just that if you are passionate about it, you can do it, I think. Because that's kind of what I've discovered getting to this point. It's not giving up and working hard. And yeah, I think having that confidence keep moving forward, especially during the lowest like darkest moments just keeping your chin up and relying on your friends and family and just your support community to get you past that period. And once you do, it's so worth it. And you learn so much about yourself along the way. So.


Becky Carmichael 

[53:08] I think you know, the fact that you just said talking to others and finding your community. I think that that's really key to being able to continue on to push yourself through this process. Because a Ph.D. and even any part of academia, you're going to run into something that's hard and challenging. So whether you are an undergrad, and you're just trying to get through a class that something's not clicking. Or like you said, you're on this PhD track. You're on a tenure track. Finding somebody who you can relate to, that you can both be each other's cheerleaders, if you will. I think that that's... That's also... We all need that. Because otherwise, we can be our worst enemy. And we can talk ourselves out and down from that. I do think it says something, the fact that you've continued you go into the field, into these conditions, because anyone who is from Louisiana knows that this is no joke. The heat is no joke. The mosquitoes are no joke. And so to be able to keep doing that, I think is... Because it's something that's passionate to you or  it's your passion. I think that says a lot about your character. 


Whitney Kroschel

[54:22] Yeah. It's just such a wonderful place to study. There's so many different ecosystems. And I've met people from all over the country that have come here to pursue similar passions, and it's just an amazing experience. Definitely worth it. And yeah, don't sell yourself short. If you're passionate about something, and I've had people tell me, "Oh you're living the dream. Keep it up." That makes me so happy that I guess other people can see what I'm doing and see how awesome it is too. Because that's really what I want people... I would love people to at least get a taste of the things that I get to see. And at least to care a little bit more at the very least about these ecosystems and bad diversity in general?


Becky Carmichael 

[55:14] Well, because it all affects us no matter where we're living. Like the work that you're doing. It has an impact on us as a larger whole. And so paying attention to both the research that you're doing and what others are doing in similar areas. It all connects. And so I'm excited that, yes, kind of to follow you on... Would you give your Instagram handle?


Whitney Kroschel 

[55:35] Yes, it's just Whitney Kroschel. Girl wait. It's @ Whitney crystal,


Becky Carmichael 

[55:40] Excellent, because then they can kind of be checking out your different pursuits in the field. They can see some of the critters. And they can reach out to you too if they have questions. They want to talk to you a little bit about how you're making it. How you're doing getting through your PhD? 


Whitney Kroschel 

[55:56] Definitely. I would love that. Yes. 


Becky Carmichael 

[55:58] And I want you to keep doing it, because I'm living vicariously through your field experiences. Because I just... you can't help but be excited when you're seeing somebody out in nature. 


Whitney Kroschel 

[56:09] Oh for sure. I do that with my friends that are out in the field. I love seeing what they are up to and the different things they deal with on a daily basis. So yeah, I agree. It's exciting.


Becky Carmichael 

[56:18] Yeah, it's all part... It's exciting and then it's also... It's these little moments where we can also again, It's being each other's cheerleaders. Kind of keep rooting each other on because... 


Whitney Kroschel 

[56:26] Yeah.


Becky Carmichael 

[56:28] That deeply there is that passion that's deep rooted to keep going.


Whitney Kroschel 

[56:31] Yeah, definitely.


Becky Carmichael 

[56:32] Whitney, is there anything else that you wanted to share with us today?


Whitney Kroschel 

[56:34] I don't think so. Just again, going back to just be confident. And if you're pursuing a career or goal, competence can take you, you know, so far. And just remember, everybody is going through their own day to day challenges. So it's not like everybody else has it perfect and put together so. Yeah, one day at a time and keep your chin up.


Becky Carmichael 

[57:05] I think that's excellent advice. Whitney, thanks so much for sitting down with me today. It's been a pleasure.


Whitney Kroschel 

[57:09] You too! Thanks for having me. 


Becky Carmichael 

[57:11] You're great!


Whitney Kroschel 

[57:12] Thank you!


Becky Carmichael 

[57:16] This episode of LSU Experimental was recorded and produced and the CxC Studio 151. Here on the campus of Louisiana State University, and is supported by LSU's Communication Across the Curriculum in the College of Science. Today's interview was conducted by me, Becky Carmichael, and produced by Grant Kimball and Kyle Sirovy. Theme music is "Brambi at Full Gallop" by PC three. To learn more about today's episode, ask questions, and recommend future investigators, visit cxc.lsu.edu/experimental. While you're there, subscribe to the podcast. We're available on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.