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The unexpected benefits of powerlines

We’ve all seen them – powerline right of ways, crudely cut into the landscape. They’re typically eyesores, startling reminders of humanity’s impact on nature, especially when they cut through seemingly pristine forests.

However, at least in some areas, these powerline right of ways can actually be a boon to  species which thrive upon early successional landscapes.

Our lab, in conjunction with a cohort of collaborators, has spent the last few years studying the plants and animals living in powerline right of ways in Connecticut. Powerline right of ways are typically not completely mowed, but periodically maintained to remove tall trees. What remains is an open shrubby habitat, which can be more like a meadow, a wetland, or a bramble patch. These habitats are becoming more and more scarce in CT, as fields and farmland succumb to forestation. While at one point (late 1700s/early 1800s) CT was almost entirely deforested, currently 60% of the state is forest. This may sound like a good thing, and in most ways it is. We all benefit from healthy forest habitats, which more closely approximate the landscape before human settlement. However without periodic wildfires and other natural disturbances to maintain natural meadows, dense forests are perhaps taking more than their fair share. 

So what should we do about the species that currently call Connecticut’s meadows and shrubby habitats home? It turns out that powerline right of ways are just what they need. Our lab’s study found twice the species richness of plants in the right of ways than in the adjacent forest, along with a bevy of native bee species.

I highly recommend reading their paper, which includes a multitude of links to other studies which have reached similar conclusions. This one is mostly about the plant species, a paper on the bees and other insects is forthcoming.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but powerline cuts in this area can really benefit biodiversity by maintaining early successional habitats. I can attest that they are great places to catch insects – there is one species I study, Acronicta falcula, that we have only been able to find in powerline right of ways due to the habitat preferences of its host plant.

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.