Research could abound at Merced reserve, officials say

On Wednesday, UC Merced dedicated its 6,500-acre nature reserve, a habitat unlike others in the statewide system of nature reserves.

A crowd of about 120 people that included UC Merced staff, students, area leaders and University of California officials gathered near Lake Merced to celebrate the dedication of Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve.

The reserve’s seasonal vernal pools are nowhere to be seen because of the state’s drought, but the land is still teeming with life, said Sam Traina, vice chancellor for research. “The amount of life out here is unbelievable,” he said.

A handful of classes have used the site for course research on soils, ecology and isotope chemistry. Traina said the statewide system of reserves was missing habitat like UC Merced’s treeless, rolling hills. A large swath of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys look as they did before agriculture covered the land.

The landscape has also served as a place to learn for a few hundred schoolchildren from Merced and Planada. UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said she expects that number to grow with the reserve’s new designation.

Receiving the designation is the culmination of more than a decade of work by faculty and staff, she said. “For me personally, this is one of the best days since I’ve been here,” Leland said.

Christopher Swarth, co-director of the reserve, said about 1,200 undergraduates have studied the land. A group of students from UCLA has also done work on the site while searching for the tiger salamander.

In January, the UC Board of Regents voted to add the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve to the statewide system, which is made up of 38 other reserves spanning more than 750,000 acres.

The UC system’s network of reserves was created to represent the types of ecosystems that exist around the state. Peggy Fiedler, UC Natural Reserve System director, said more than 450 classes use reserves around the state to learn and conduct research.

“It supports the research articles that are published annually in top-ranked, high-impact journals, hundreds of them,” she said. “It also provides a classroom without walls for hundreds of schoolchildren each year.”

UC Merced’s reserve offers some features that researchers haven’t seen on the other 38 sites, according to officials. The vernal pools and grasslands near Merced are home to such plants as the succulent owl’s clover and Hoover’s spurge, as well as animals such as the fairy shrimp and tiger salamander.

The dense hardpan below the surface that allows the pools to collect took 1 million years to form, according to Martha Conklin, faculty director of the reserve. She said other soils date back to when the Sierra Nevada began to jut up from the landscape.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, more than 90 percent of California’s original vernal pool habitat has been lost. The reserve has about a dozen plants and animals that are federally protected.

Year-round, the reserve is home to songbirds, coyotes, birds of prey and many other animals.

Conklin said she remembers visiting the site that would become UC Merced before buildings went up. “It was obvious that these grasslands were going to be an important part of UC Merced’s identity,” she said.