UD adjunct faculty member sole Forest Service presence in Delaware

Vince D'Amico with UD doctoral student Solny Adalsteinsson.
Vince D’Amico with UD doctoral student Solny Adalsteinsson.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service has a solitary representative in the state of Delaware in Vince D’Amico, a research scientist who is also an adjunct faculty member in the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

D’Amico has been at UD since 2001 as a member of the faculty in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. While he can be seen around Townsend Hall and is often confused with teaching professors, his sole role is in research, while also serving on the committees of graduate students and as an adviser.

“It’s best to look at me as absolutely not part of UD but also very intimately involved with UD,” said D’Amico. “It’s hard for people to remember. Sometimes they ask, ‘What do you teach?’ I don’t teach classes, but I have collaborated with most of the faculty of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at one time or another. It’s a great symbiotic and synergistic relationship.”

D’Amico said the Forest Service has researchers stationed at universities across the country and that UD has a long history of collaboration with the agency.

Forest fragments

D’Amico’s main area of research is urban forest fragments, specifically the Forest Fragments in Managed Ecosystems (FRAME) study that he started with Greg Shriver, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

The study picked up prior work that had been done at UD in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in part by Roland Roth, UD professor emeritus of wildlife ecology.

It was at a talk given by D’Amico and Shriver that they first discovered that their study had historical roots.

“After Greg and I gave our first FRAME talk to the department, a faculty member came up with a big old yellowed report, which we had no idea about, and it was a collaborative report by the USDA Forest Service and what is now UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology on urban forests in northern Delaware,” said D’Amico. “It absolutely blew our minds because none of us had any idea that that had ever happened.”

The main focus of that study was UD’s Ecology Woods. Now, FRAME has added more than 20 other fragments, leading to a broader discussion.

Deciduous forest fragments

D’Amico said those sites are meant to be representative of the ecology of urban deciduous forest fragments and that most of the sites are in northern Delaware, with some stretching into Pennsylvania. He explained that there are a lot of deciduous forests located in highly populated areas of the world.

“Deciduous forests that are heavily populated hold about a quarter of the Earth’s population and what you’d be talking about is a big piece of China, Europe and the eastern U.S., so these are places that are heavily populated and the deciduous forest is really the biome,” said D’Amico.

For example, the strip of urbanized area that is about 100 kilometers from the Atlantic coast of the United States is one of the most densely populated areas in the whole world and it is full of small forest fragments.

“Those contain the biodiversity and the wildlife that requires a forest. That’s where it all is, in small forest fragments,” said D’Amico. “So imagine thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of small forest fragments that comprise the forests that dot the entire East Coast. The FRAME is meant to be representative of those, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and especially in the United States.”

The goal of the FRAME project is to provide useful recommendations for improving ecosystem function, with an emphasis on ecosystem services.

Since its humble beginnings, the project has grown geographically, adding collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Riverside.

“We’re studying as many aspects of urban forest ecology as we can, starting with the soil and then moving up to higher trophic levels like birds and mammals and reptiles,” said D’Amico.

Other research projects

With his work being done in collaboration with UD, D’Amico said those projects that include students provide them hands-on experience with Forest Service research.

Other research projects with which D’Amico is involved include restoring iconic tree species such as the American elm, which was wiped out in the early part of the last century.

Because of selective breeding, there are now varieties that are tolerant of Dutch elm disease, which devastated the population.

D’Amico said one of the varieties of elm that he and other researchers are planting is called “Delaware,” and he is hoping that there will be plantings throughout the FRAME sites to see how these disease resistant varieties function in the ecology of urban forests.

“I’m interested to see if these tolerant trees, which have been selected to survive diseases, will play the same role as their predecessors when they’re put into the general forest ecology of the area,” said D’Amico.

As for how these collaborative research projects such as FRAME come about, D’Amico said that because he is in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology every day, there is a mutual understanding.

“If there’s a problem that concerns urban forests, then I’m likely to look for someone at a university to work on it with me for many reasons, including so that a student can be included, and the University of Delaware is the first place I look,” said D’Amico. “The department is excellent and has really been on nothing but an upward trajectory for the past 10 years.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Lindsay Yeager