Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager 1
The herbarium of the NRS’s Bodega Marine Reserve has been named in honor of Peter Connors, the reserve’s longtime former manager and an accomplished scientist. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu/NRS

Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

The NRS’s Bodega Marine Reserve has named its reference plant collection in honor of the longtime former manager of the reserve. The Peter G. Connors Herbarium at Bodega Marine Reserve recognizes decades of scientific, administrative, and facilities achievements by a man who arrived as a postdoctoral scholar in 1971 and remains an active member of the reserve community today.

“It’s very fitting that we name our herbarium after Peter Connors. He’s made a lot of major contributions to us having an herbarium to begin with. He is one of our go-to experts on what’s here. And he has a long list of accomplishments that he’s made to the university to the marine lab, and to the reserve,” says Suzanne Olyarnik, current director of Bodega Marine Reserve.

The Connors Herbarium is an important scientific asset for both the reserve and UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory, located on the reserve. The collection supports researchers who want to know what species of plants and algae are found in the area. The presence or absence of certain species helps scientists draw inferences about environmental conditions, how those conditions have shifted over time, and understand how influences such as climate change are affecting the ecosystem.

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager
Connors has spent years collecting specimens of both terrestrial plants and algae from Bodega Marine Reserve to populate the herbarium. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu/NRS

A valuable scientific asset

The Connors Herbarium consists of specimens gathered at the reserve. Each is identified to species, arranged on heavy absorbent paper, and pressed until dry. Like all herbaria, the collection provides a tangible record of the plants found on the reserve.

The Connors Herbarium currently holds more than 900 specimens of vascular plants (most types of land plants, from ferns and grasses to flowering plants and conifers) and more than 800 specimens of marine algae (such as kelp). Of those, Connors himself contributed 327 of the terrestrial specimens and 101 of the algal specimens, helping to expand the list of known species at the reserve. He has prepared and donated still more specimens to the UC Davis and UC Berkeley herbaria.

Connors had two primary motivations to improve the herbarium: his own scientific curiosity and a desire to aid future reserve users. “When I became the reserve manager, I quickly realized I had to know what’s here. But I didn’t have any botanical background. So I began teaching myself the plants of our area,” Connors says. Reserve research coordinator Jackie Sones, and Kathy Ann Miller, curator of algae at UC Berkeley’s University and Jepson Herbaria, provided additional tutoring and company on collecting outings.

Those outings, Connors says, “were what in years past we’ve called ‘afternoon projects.’ It was very easy to just have an hour free to go out into a new habitat or a new area depending on the tide schedule, and look closely for what plants were there,” Connors says.

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager
A selection of marine algae prepared by Connors in the Bodega Marine Laboratory library. Proceeds from their sale support Bodega Marine Reserve. Image credit: Molly Engelbrecht

Art inspired by marine algae

While collecting for the herbarium, Connors came to admire the elegance of marine algae as they swayed in the waves. But he found that arranging the algae as specimens for the herbarium, which required showcasing physical characteristics, tended to erase the grace so evident underwater. Eventually, he began making two types of specimens: one for the herbarium, and one to satisfy his aesthetic sensibilities.

“Because I loved making these things, I guess I became a little more of an artist,” Connors says. “I wanted to make something as beautiful as I could out of these wonderful algae.” Eventually, he began displaying his prettier alga pressings in art shows. He now offers many for sale in the laboratory’s library, with proceeds going to benefit the reserve.

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager
Research by Connors helped establish that the Pacific golden plover, shown here, is a distinct species from the American golden plover. Image credit: Bernard Spragg. via Wikimedia Commons

A Renaissance scientist

In addition to being a top-notch field collector, Connors is a scientist who has made discoveries in an impressive range of subjects. His more than 47 original research publications cover topics as varied as the three-dimensional structure of nucleic acids such as RNA, how pollution affects seabirds, the problem of plastics in oceans, invasive species management, and rare plant genetics.

The scientific findings Connors is most proud of are based on close observations of plants and animals found in and around the reserve. For example, watching sanderlings at Bodega revealed how these fist-sized shorebirds, whose legs blur as they skitter, utilize tidal schedules, territorial behavior and different types of coastal habitats to maximize their food-finding success.

While observing two subspecies of golden plovers during migration, Connors realized they might be more different than scientists had thought. After examining plover specimens requested from museums across the nation, Connors and colleagues established that the American golden plover and the Pacific golden plover qualify as two separate species.

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager
Connors watering showy Indian clover seedlings. He rediscovered a single individual of the species, thought to have gone extinct, on a hillside in Sonoma County. Connors has shared the plants he propagated with botanic gardens to help ensure the survival of the species. Image: Courtesy Jacqueline Sones

Years of collecting for the herbarium has given Connors with the ability to pick up subtle differences among plant species that would escape most civilians. That discerning eye enabled him to spot a single showy Indian clover plant—a species that had been presumed extinct—on a Sonoma County hillside in 1990. His rediscovery of Trifolium amoenum, and careful collection of its seeds, helped place the plant on the endangered species list and laid the groundwork for its conservation.

“Now there are seeds in a lot of seed banks and plants growing at places like the Berkeley Botanic Garden. That was very satisfying. It’s not exactly bringing back an extinct species, but it is something close to that,” Connors says.

An accomplished reserve manager

Connors made these and many other scientific discoveries on top of his primary responsibilities as reserve director: to support research and teaching on Bodega Marine Reserve. In his 19 years as reserve manager, he helped obtain permits to expand the laboratory building, authored grants that funded a NITROX scuba facility, seawater system upgrade, greenhouse, and housing for graduate students, among other amenities.

Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager
Connors helped extend the protection of the Bodega Marine Life Refuge located adjacent to the reserve to fishes such as this brown rockfish. Image credit: CDFW/MARE

Connors’s work didn’t stop at improving facilities for visitors. In 1998, his efforts to obtain greater protection for Bodega habitats led to the expansion of the Bodega Marine Life Refuge adjacent to the reserve to extend he umbrella refuge protection to fish in support of marine research.

In his retirement, Connors continues to lend his deep knowledge of the Bodega area’s natural history to Bodega Marine Reserve programs. With his former colleagues, he leads plant walks on the reserve, surveys shorebirds, and keeps adding new plant and algae specimens to the herbarium that now bears his name.

“He’s a beloved member of this community, and he still cares about the plants and all the things out on the reserve. It’s wonderful to have him living nearby and interacting with us still,” Olyarnik says.

One response to “Bodega herbarium named to honor former reserve manager”

  1. Violet Nakayama Avatar
    Violet Nakayama

    I’m in awe of Peter’s amazing and broad accomplishments that I’ve only learned about through this article, despite having known him for decades. Hats off to this wonderful scientist and man!

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