Adventure Scientists’ Timber Tracking project mobilizes volunteers to collect tree samples for scientific partners to help protect forests, promote sustainable harvest, and conserve biodiversity.
In 2023, volunteers across the Central and Eastern U.S. will collect leaves, twigs, and cores from tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) to inform global sustainable harvest practices, as well as leaves and buds from eastern ash trees (Fraxinus pennsylvanica and F. americana) to understand genetic resistance against the invasive emerald ash borer.
Nine Species Throughout the United States
Read about the tree species targeted by this project so far (slideshow automatically plays).
Ranging from Alaska to California and coast to coast, the tree species in this project are particularly vulnerable to timber poaching. Many are also threatened by climate change. Each species faces distinct challenges and has a biological, cultural, and conservation story of its own.
Our volunteers leverage their skills and local knowledge to collect tree samples at the geographic scale and quantity needed to accomplish ambitious scientific goals.
Liriodendron tulipifera belongs to the same family as magnolias (Magnoliaceae). Its many common names include tulip poplar, tulip tree, tulipwood, yellow poplar, blue-poplar, whitewood, and canoewood.
A tall, quickly-growing tree, tulip poplar is the third most exported hardwood from the U.S. On the international market, tulip poplar offers an attractive, sustainable replacement for light tropical hardwoods from vulnerable forests.
Volunteers are collecting samples of tulip poplar from May through December 2023.
Green and White Ash
Fraxinus americana and F. pennsylvanica
Ash serves a vital role in the forests of North America. The three species provide critical habitat, water and nutrient cycling, and are essential trees for Indigenous cultures and heritage.
However, the spread of the non-native emerald ash borer has decimated eastern ash trees – green, white, and black ash – causing one of the most destructive insect invasions in U.S. forests to date. As emerald ash borer spreads, we risk losing these keystone tree species entirely.
Scientists are pursuing research to preserve, conserve, and restore ash tree species in the wake of emerald ash borer destruction. Adventure Scientists volunteers are collecting green and white ash leaves and buds to be analyzed for genetics that convey resistance and resilience against the emerald ash borer from May through September 2023.
Eastern white oak
Quercus alba L. is an iconic, widespread tree in the eastern and central U.S. and Canada.
Recent years have increased demand for eastern white oak, which is desirable for whiskey and wine barrels, furniture, and finishings. This demand coupled with continuing lumber shortages from the COVID-19 pandemic drives theft of this species. Also, timber poachers sell illegally harvested Mongolian white oak by labeling the wood as eastern white oak to bypass regulations.
We completed data collection for this species in January 2023. Data and samples are with the U.S. Forest Service for analysis.
Eastern black walnut
Once widespread across the United States, black walnut trees are becoming increasingly rare as high prices for their smooth, dark wood drive illegal logging. Large specimens are lucrative, fetching up to $50,000 (U.S.) at market.
We completed data collection for this species in January 2022. Data and samples are with the U.S. Forest Service for analysis.
The tallest trees in the world, old-growth coast redwoods now occupy only 4% of their historic range. Understanding their genetic diversity will improve forest management and help guard against the negative impacts of climate change. Data collection for this species is complete.
This hardwood species, whose common name reflects dinner-plate-sized leaves, is targeted by poaching for spectacularly-patterned wood often used in guitars and furniture. Data collection for this species is complete.
Not a true cedar, but an arborvitae or “tree of life,” this species has provided indigenous communities with countless practical and cultural uses for thousands of years. Its size, fragrant and rot-resistant wood now makes it a target for illegal logging operations. Data collection for this species is complete.
A dramatic droop to its branches makes this species instantly recognizable even without seeing the tell-tale color of its wood. Now across large parts of its range, changing climate patterns are causing mass die-offs of this treasured tree. Data collection for this species is complete.
How Our Partners Use Data to Drive Change
Planning, permitting, analysis, interpretation, and implementation all require the coordinated actions of many players. We are proud to be working with leading organizations in the research, management, and conservation of forests and tree species.
Our partners at the U.S. Forest Service and elsewhere will use the reference libraries of each tree species to track the movement of timber through supply chains, enforce anti-poaching regulations, empower responsible buyers, improve sustainable resource management, and help forest managers plan for the varied impacts of a changing climate.
The USA National Phenology Network collaborated with us for the eastern white oak project. The project protocols for eastern white oak data collection are based in part on the USA-NPN’s protocols aimed to understand how oaks are adapting to new environmental conditions. These data are a part of the Quercus Quest Campaign.
The Morton Arboretum is using samples gathered across the eastern white oak range to build tools useful in conserving native oak communities. By analyzing leafs collected by our volunteers, the researchers will train algorithms to identify the unique light wavelengths that oak leaves reflect. This technique will allow land managers to more accurately assess oak populations using remote imaging.
The Schatz Center for Tree Molecular Genetics is working to find solutions to the invasive emerald ash borer (EAB). Ash tree samples from our volunteers will be aid work to preserve, conserve, and restore iconic ash tree species. Samples from this project will provide much needed information on evolutionary and ecological factors influencing ash species’ genetic variation range wide, and enhance understanding of EAB-ash dynamics and the genetics of resistance.
Once collected, samples undergo two forms of processing: Mass Spectrometry-Data Analysis in Real Time (MS-DART or DART) and genetic analysis.
DART reveals distinct chemical signatures in each sample. As the tree takes up water and nutrients through its roots throughout its life, it develops a distinctive chemical signature. Recognizing these signatures will allows us to identify the geographic origin of a sample.
Genetic analysis reveals the naturally occurring variation and interrelatedness of all trees within a species. Like the DART analysis, genetic analysis shows the origin of a piece of timber. This analysis also informs scientists’ understanding of how a species responds and adapts to particular conditions or challenges, such as climate change or pressure from an invasive species. This understanding allows for better management of existing and expanding forests. The resulting database will yield a “family tree” like no other.
Hear what our Forest Service partners have to say about the project!
Dr. Richard Cronn, a geneticist with the US Forest Service, shares with volunteers how they help build some of the most extensive and useful genetic datasets for the tree species in this project.
Keep up with Project Progress
Here’s where volunteers have collected data for the project over the years.
Timber Tracking Project on PBS
Learn More Through Our Project Reports
Eastern Black Walnut
Redwood, Western Redcedar, Alaska Yellow-Cedar