Science at Sugarlands: Post-fire Plant-Soil Interactions

Science at Sugarlands: Post-fire Plant-Soil Interactions

By Frances Figart, creative services director

Soil is the foundation of our planet. We walk on top of it every day, yet most of us rarely think about it.

Kendall Beals is one of those rare exceptions: a person who thinks about soil. On September 20 at a Science at Sugarlands presentation she will tackle gritty questions like: “Why are plant-soil interactions important?” and “How did the Chimney Tops 2 fire affect these interactions in the Smokies?” All are welcome to attend this free event sponsored by Discover Life in America at 1 p.m. at Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Kendall received her Bachelors of Science in biology from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and is now working toward completing her PhD in plant-soil sciences in the University of Tennessee’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department. We asked her to tell us more about plant-soil interactions in general and her work in the Smokies in particular.

FF: What can folks look forward to learning on September 20?

KB: We will learn about the importance of soil, specifically soil microbes, for ecosystem health, as well as the role of wildfire for Southeastern forests. We will delve into the specific relationships between soil microbes and plants, and how these plant-soil interactions can scale up to affect ecosystem structure.

FF: How did you become interested in your chosen field of study?

KB: Even though I’m from the Piedmont of North Carolina, my roots in ecology and evolutionary biology started here in Tennessee when I volunteered on a trail maintenance project with the Student Conservation Association in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area during high school. I spent a month camping and working in the forests of the Cumberland Plateau and fell in love with working outside and witnessing the subtle but important workings of nature.

This, in part, led me to major in biology in college, where I had the opportunity to spend a semester studying tropical ecology in the wet tropics of Australia—yes, Australia has rainforests! I began to learn how climate, plants and animals interact to form complex ecosystems. Later, I became really interested in the relationship between plants and soil and how microbes in the soil influence plant diversity.

FF: What are you working on in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

KB: Part of my research examines how the soil microbiome and plant-soil interactions function under disturbance, and I am using soil and plants collected after the Chimney Tops 2 fire in GSMNP to address these questions. We have been collecting soils from various unburned and burned sites within the park every season since the fire in fall of 2016.

Post-fire Plant-Soil Interactions

FF: What excites you about working in this park?

KB: As a nature enthusiast, it’s fun to work in one of the most biodiverse national parks in the US. I love that while doing my fieldwork I can also enjoy a beautiful hike.

National parks are such great resources for scientists not only because the land is well-preserved and highly protected, but because it is monitored so heavily. We as researchers get to the opportunity to work with a large diversity of really knowledgeable park personnel who have expertise in the park’s biodiversity, natural history and land-use history. It’s amazing to have such a large repository of natural history data available to us.

FF: How do plant-soil interactions work?

KB: In the simplest sense, plant-soil microbe interactions are governed by a partnership between a plant and the microbes and soil surrounding the plant’s roots. As a plant photosynthesizes and grows, it delivers carbon through its roots to the surrounding soil. Microbes eat this carbon, and in return break down organic forms of desirable plant nutrients into inorganic forms that are more accessible to the plant.

FF: How did the Chimney Tops 2 fire affect this system?

KB: Areas of the park that were severely burned by the Chimney Tops 2 fire lost nearly all of the organic layer of soil and likely the soil microbes associated with decomposing organic matter. Through our research, we have found that heavily burned soils have very different microbial composition than unburned soils. We have also learned that fire disturbance likely kills off many pathogenic microbes, allowing some plants to grow better under disturbed soil conditions.

FF: Why is soil health important for the sustainability of our planet?

KB: Soils are responsible for about 80 percent of Earth’s terrestrial carbon storage. Soil stores carbon as soil organic matter, a combination of fresh residues and decaying matter from plants and animals. Soil organic matter improves soil structure and reduces erosion, which can increase water quality and subsequently improve agriculture and food security. So we have a lot to thank soils for!

FF: What are some of the ways guests of the park help plants and soils thrive?

KB: Obeying proper hiking etiquette in the park is a simple but very important responsibility. Staying on trails reduces erosion and keeps plant communities and their associated soil microbiomes intact. It can be tempting to take shortcuts or an unofficial path that you see other hikers use, but the placement of trails is very purposeful.

FF: What are the challenges facing ecologists and evolutionary biologists?

KB: I think our biggest challenge is effectively communicating our research to land managers, the local community, and the broader public. As the growth of human society accelerates, natural science research is becoming more and more crucial for understanding how nature responds to new climatic environments and how to manage and conserve nature under these altered environments.

As ecologists and evolutionary biologists, we need to emphasize the importance of our research to those outside of our immediate fields so that land managers can make informed and effective decisions about how best to manage land/biodiversity/ecosystem services, and so that the public can fully understand the value of the nature around us.

*This event is FREE and held at Sugarlands Visitor Center, 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Road, Gatlinburg, on Fridays from 1–3 p.m. Registration at is appreciated.