Cemeteries Can Serve as Research Laboratories

Patches of green surrounded by gray asphalt or other signs of human infringement, graveyards can serve as not only eternal resting places, but also habitat preserves flush with scientific data. Across the county, natural landscapes have been replaced with roads, buildings, and developments, so cemeteries can host some of the last existing habitats, and their permanence allows researchers to track environmental changes over time.
“The future of conservation is in fragments, unfortunately,” Erin Shank, an urban wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, recently said in an NPR interview. “We're working with private landowners and public land to try to best manage what we have left, down to small pieces that we just happen to be lucky, honestly, through history to still have intact.”
The last remnants of tall grass prairie in St. Louis are in Calvary Cemetery, she pointed out, saying that graveyards and other small plots may be critical for the survival of native plants and seeds.
In a 2001 study published in Conservation Biology, the researchers stated that, “Cemeteries within the landscape mosaic not only provide a model system for cultural investigation, but may serve as a substantial repository for biotic diversity.”
Researchers are also collecting information on ground nesting bees found in a graveyard where native plants thrive outside of Carlinville, Illinois, the NPR story reported. “We spend a lot of time driving around, looking for these remnant forested areas and there are not a lot of them left,” said Laura Burkle, an ecologist at Washington University in St. Louis who is conducting the research.
These places not only hold information about the ecosystem, they can also show global changes through the years, decades, or even centuries. Last year the Geological Society of Australia asked people, school and community groups to visit cemeteries and track the rate of weathering on marble headstones, which can help determine changes in pollution and global warming, according to an article on Science Alert.
“Rain contains more than just water — it also contains dust particles and acid from air pollution and chemicals, the story reported. “Given the acid in rain chemically erodes marble gravestones (and the more acid the rain contains, the more it erodes the marble) the rate of weathering of marble gravestones can indicate changes in pollution or climate between locations and over time. In this way, the Gravestone Project can help assess whether some regions of the globe are experiencing higher pollution and more rapid climate change than others.”
With the help of researchers and citizen scientists, those who are resting in cemeteries may be pushing up daisies that can still teach us a thing or two about our environment.


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