VANCOUVER, Wash. — Mount St. Helens is in John Bishop’s blood. In 1989, nine years after the historic eruption, he moved to Seattle to begin graduate school and research on the recolonization of plant life on the volcano. Bishop, now an assistant professor of biological sciences at Washington State University Vancouver, just received a $297,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue his study of lupine populations over the next four summers.

Dwarf lupine is short in stature; with its small, hairy leaves, it looks like it belongs in an alpine rock garden. Which is just perfect for the mountain’s Pumice Plains. It’s well adapted to growing on bare pumice, especially because like other plants in the pea family, dwarf lupine finds its own fertilizer, capturing atmospheric nitrogen with the help of symbiotic bacteria. In July and early August, the volcano’s north side has so much lupine it looks like purple crayon scribbles in a kid’s coloring book.

Bishop and Bill Fagan from Arizona State University discovered in an earlier study that caterpillars were greatly slowing the expansion of lupine populations on the Pumice Plains. However, to their surprise, the herbivores existed mainly in the smallest lupine patches.

This summer Bishop, Fagan and Jonathan Titus from Columbia University’s Biosphere 2 with a team of research assistants have set up insect cages in both densely populated and sparse lupine patches to determine why herbivores are more prevalent in the smaller patches. They have two hypotheses. The first is that the arrival and survival of herbivore predators, such as spiders, ants and birds, have occurred in the larger lupine patches, keeping the herbivore population down. The second is competition for soil nutrients from the growth of other plant species in the larger lupine patches. A deficiency in soil nutrients could change the lupine leaves’ nutritional value and taste, making the plants unattractive to herbivores.

Another portion of the grant will help answer if lupines aid in the regrowth of other plant species. According to Bishop, lupines are “ecosystem engineers,” adding nitrogen and organic matter that prepare soil for other species.

“The unique thing about studying Mount St. Helens is that because we’re starting from scratch, there are far fewer components to study,” Bishop said. “It’s a temporal sequence of lupines then herbivores then predators and hopefully other plants.”

The research team consists of Bishop, Fagan, Titus, six WSU Vancouver students and alumni, and students and assistants from ASU and Biosphere 2. Fagan is an assistant professor of biology at ASU in Tucson, and Titus is an assistant professor of earth and environmental science at the Biosphere 2 campus in Oracle, Ariz.

Of Bishop’s research assistants, two are 2001 graduates. Nicholas Murchison has worked with Bishop for more than a year and Nathan Reynolds since June.

For more information, contact Bishop, 360/546-9612 or bishop@vancouver.wsu.edu.

ah128-01