The Stanford campus is peppered with laboratories conducting bleeding-edge research. It is home to some of the world's finest advanced robotics and nanotechnology labs, filled with scientists busily working to create a future filled with autonomous cars, ultra-efficient solar technology and new treatments for the most debilitating neurological diseases. There's even a particle accelerator.
But perhaps the closest thing the university has to a time machine is a patch of wild grass found alongside a dirt path that turns off Sand Hill Road a few miles west of Interstate 280.
Chris Field has been returning to the site of his Global Change Experiment for more than two decades, carefully calibrating machinery that subjects small plots of grass to a range of atmospheric and environmental conditions that the world is expected to face in the next century.
Studying the vegetation's response to these changes is key to developing a model for projecting how ecosystems worldwide will be affected by climate change, and informing future scientists and policymakers on how best to conserve the planet going forward.
None of these important observations would be possible if not for Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, which this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a protected nature reserve. The preserve's value as a model system for long-term biologic environmental studies is incalculable, both to the university and to science.
"At Jasper Ridge we've been able to do sustained observations over long periods of time to look at what happens slowly and contrast that to what happens fast. We can leave complicated equipment out in the field over time and know that it's safe. And we can do the experiments in a way that lets us go out there and work on them every day," said Field, faculty director of Jasper Ridge and the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. "All those are features that you couldn't have at any other site."
The early days
The Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve covers nearly 1,200 acres, roughly one-seventh of Stanford's land holdings, and is bound by the Corte Madera, Los Trancos and San Francisquito creek valleys. The area was originally occupied by Ohlone Native Americans, followed by Spanish settlers. The new inhabitants began felling redwood trees to make room for cattle to graze, particularly in the early 19th century. The Gold Rush lured hordes of people to the Bay Area, and by 1870, nearly all the redwood forests were gone, cut down to be used to build San Francisco.
Leland Stanford acquired the land in the 1880s while planning to establish Stanford University, and in addition to eventually providing water to campus, Jasper Ridge was an open recreational area for swimming, hiking, camping and horseback riding. It was quickly assimilated into the university's research: In 1896, Elizabeth Babcock completed the first thesis on the reserve, an investigation into Manzanita growth, en route to earning her master's degree.
By the 1960s, however, pleasure activities were posing a significant threat to ongoing experiments. Biology Professor Paul Ehrlich, who was studying a fragile population of checkerspot butterflies, and other faculty members began petitioning the university to make Jasper Ridge off-limits to the public. In 1973, the preserve's undeniable scientific value persuaded the university Board of Trustees to designate it as a research-only preserve and shut the gates to recreational visitors. (The public is encouraged to explore the preserve on docent-led tours.)
"It was an extraordinarily unpopular decision with the surrounding communities. This was a very popular recreational area," said Philippe Cohen, executive director of Jasper Ridge. "But it was also an extraordinarily prescient decision by the university, in terms of the kinds of research and educational experiences that became possible."
Today, the preserve is home to some 16 species of mammal, 800 species of vascular plants and at any given time 70 to 80 research projects. Scientists point to this broad diversity – species in the preserve represent 10 percent of all California species – as one of the major features that makes Jasper Ridge such an ideal research facility.
"In a half-hour walk you can pass through a half-dozen ecosystems," Field said. "You can move through redwood forest through beautiful oak woodland, on to grassland and chaparral. This rapid succession of ecosystems is like a bouquet of the richness of planet Earth."
A rich history of knowledge
In addition to the preserve's biodiversity, researchers there routinely point to the same favorable characteristics that make the land unique from an academic perspective. First, it's protected, so researchers don't need to worry about people accidentally encroaching on a sensitive experiment.
Second, the research record there stretches back 40 years, which has created an incredibly valuable knowledge capital. Research here has produced 1,100 scientific reports, 400 peer-reviewed publications and 100 dissertations.
A graduate student planning to study serpentine rock formations, for example, can refer to decades of previous studies in order to frame his or her research in new and interesting ways. Similarly, a researcher interested in how climate change or some other factor is affecting Mimulus flowers – also known as "sticky monkey flowers" – can simply call up the natural history of the plant at the preserve.
"You could rebuild the rest of campus, but there's no way you could rebuild Jasper Ridge, because there's a record of change up there," Ehrlich said. "We know what's gone on in the past, and we'll be able to look at what's going on in the future."
Third, it's just a few minutes away, which makes it possible for researchers with commitments on campus to still make daily inspections of experiments.
Proximity to the main campus makes the location prime for another reason: The boundaries of highly populated urban areas and natural open space are currently a popular focus of ecologists. As human populations continue to expand, it will be important to understand how these two realms interact in order to preserve as much of nature as possible, Cohen said.
All told, Jasper Ridge has encouraged some of the most dynamic and transformative work in modern ecology, in many cases providing fundamental facts and methods that became staples of future research.
For instance, Ehrlich's multi-decade study of the checkerspot butterfly – which eventually went extinct about a decade ago – was a landmark work of population ecology. In particular, it provided a model of how human activity can threaten an insect species, how that threat affects an ecosystem and perhaps how policy and science might conserve other species.
It also helped support the theory of co-evolution, which puts forth the idea that change in a particular species is dependent on the changing conditions both inside and outside its habitat.
The research conducted by Harold Mooney, professor emeritus of biology, investigated the biochemical tradeoffs that the same species of plants in different environmental conditions must make to survive. This long-term work began in 1978, and has provided a widely used model for plant research.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of biology Professor Deborah M. Gordon's research on invasive Argentine ants. The ants are a household pest around the world, and a threat to citrus crops in California. Gordon's study of the ants' behavior – helped in part by biannual preserve-wide counts of the insects, conducted by students and local volunteers – has shed light on how buildings and landscaping promote the expanse of Argentine ant populations.
The invading ants threaten local ecosystems by wiping out native ant species that play a critical role in dispersing the seeds of native plants. Based on observations made in the preserve, however, it now appears that some native ants might be slowing the spread of Argentine ant populations; understanding this interaction could help with future efforts to conserve native ecosystems.
The era of big data
More and more, ecology is becoming a discipline of statistics, a shift that is reflected by work at Jasper Ridge. Projects such as Chris Field's Global Change Experiment produce an incredible amount of data, which must be analyzed and parsed in order to help inform general academic and policy recommendations.
Students taking Biology 44Y, Core Plant Biology & Eco Evo Laboratory, taught by Tadashi Fukami, assistant professor of biology, are also generating mounds of statistical data as part of their course work (which won the 2013 Science Prize recognizing undergraduate course design that incorporates faculty research).
Their work focuses on the nectar of the brilliant orange Mimulus flowers that dot the preserve. The nectar is a staple of hummingbirds' diet, and as the birds flit from flower to flower, microorganisms living on the bird's bill and tongue fall into the flower's bell and into the nectar.
By carefully analyzing the nectar, students can determine the order in which the microorganisms arrived, and which ones were beneficial or harmful to the flower's development. "For questions like these, there isn't a single answer," said Nona Chiariello, a staff scientist at Jasper Ridge.
"It's a statistical question because each flower is unique. But the statistical properties of what lives in the nectar of the flower can be really important for understanding bigger questions," she said.
One of those questions, and a current focus of research of the preserve, is how to best go about successfully preserving nature, or what is known as intervention ecology.
"When Jasper Ridge was formally designated as a preserve, there was good reason to believe that it was a self-sustaining environment, that natural processes would sustain the natural biodiversity, for example," said Chiariello. "That worked for a while, but it's now clear that with invasive species and other pressures that won't be a sustainable practice for the future."
In 2004, a new strategic plan for Jasper Ridge revised the founding "do-not-interfere" policy and opened a case-by-case discussion on how to strategically tweak an existing ecosystem – either at the preserve or elsewhere – to put it back on a natural path.
"We're really interested in restoration now, but to do this effectively we need to first know, for instance, how important it is that you seed an ecosystem with a critical species first so that it can take off on its own," Chiariello said. "We can begin to understand that with the Mimulus system."
As research in the preserve has moved in these directions, the types of faculty and students who gravitate to the preserve have shifted as well.
Engineers are working at Jasper Ridge to develop systems and techniques to mitigate human influences on the environment. Faculty from Stanford Law School have gotten involved in the legal and ethical considerations surrounding natural resources and environmental stewardship. Geneticists from the School of Medicine are investigating the different biochemical pathways of a particular strain of yeast that grows on the oak trees of Jasper Ridge.
"The sorts of interests that we're trying to address, and the kinds of questions that need to be answered, increasingly require teams of people that come from different disciplines being able to work together and talk together in order to come up with good strategies for answering important questions," Cohen said.
Stanford scholars excel at coming together to tackle the world's greatest problems by approaching them from novel places. As long as Jasper Ridge's redwood groves and rolling grasslands stand, it will serve as a living laboratory to study and test potential solutions.