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A Love for his Subject Matter

Dale Vitt has no problem describing his ideal day. "It's my perfect day to study and look at mosses," says the U of A botany professor. "Some people study insects and love beetles; others, butterflies. For me it's mosses. All the work I do revolves around the love of this particular group of organisms."

Despite this singular focus, Vitt's work is remarkably wide-ranging, stretching from basic taxonomy to investigations of how ecosystems are patterned and how these patterns relate to chemical and physical factors. His research has taken him around the world to examine first-hand ecosystems in which mosses are important. He's explored subantarctic islands, tramped the tropics of the South Pacific, Australia and the New World, and made discoveries in China, the United States, western Canada and the Arctic.

His reception has not always been friendly: on an island off New Zealand he was treed by an angry sea lion, and in the Canadian Arctic he was butted by a muskox. However, Vitt had a more appreciative audience recently when he received one of the two 1994 Kaplan Awards recognizing outstanding research by University of Alberta faculty members and delivering a lecture summarizing his research.

A PhD graduate of the University of Michigan, Vitt joined the U of A as a faculty member in 1970. Besides his research and teaching contributions at the University (he consistently receives high ratings on teaching evaluations done by his students), he has served as director of the University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden for the past two years.

"My really basic interest is to try to understand why plants grow where they do, and how they are related to one another," says Vitt, whose love affair with mosses began with a study of the basic relationships within one group of mosses.

Although they are the second-largest group of green land plants, mosses haven't received much scientific attention—possibly because of their size, suggests Vitt. They're just too big to be profitably examined with a compound microscope, yet too small to be easily studied with the naked eye. "Because of this size problem, it takes a long time to see how one moss differs from another," he says.

Vitt's commitment to systematics ("All our knowledge must have a sound taxonomic base," he declares) led him to undertake the first reclassification of mosses since early in this century. itwasri t an easy task. "It's difficult to put together enough world-wide knowledge to know 10,000 species or the over-1,000 genera," he says. "In order to make a classification you have to have some feeling for if not all then most of those groups of mosses."

Vitt's new classification turned the old system around backwards, but his basic ordering continues to be confirmed by others. The Canadian moss checklist is now based on his system, and the recently-released book Flora of North America uses Vitt's classification system as the basis for the first continent-wide treatment of mosses. The system is also being used in Europe.

While classification remains the backbone of his research, Vitt's interest in ecosystems within which mosses are important has given him prominence as a wetlands scientist. According to David Schindler, the U of A's highly-regarded Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology, only three other researchers rank in Vitt's company as the top wetland scientists in the world. "The prospect of collaboration with him was an important reason for my own move to the University of Alberta," wrote Schindler in connection with a Killam Annual Professorship awarded to Vitt last year.

During the course of that professorship, Vitt followed up his research interest in peatlands. He says that not only are ' peatlands important spatially—they cover large amounts of the globe, including 40 per cent of northern Alberta — they act as a giant carbon sink, mediating climate by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

It was once assumed that Canada's vast peatlands developed very soon after the ' glaciers of the last ice age receded — about 10,000 years ago. However, studies by Vitt and his collaborators have shown that south of a line drawn from the Swan ' Hills of Alberta to Ontario there was virtually no peat 6,000 years ago. This is important because it shows that the sequestering of the carbon trapped within the peatlands had to have taken place much faster than anyone had thought. "Climatic change must have had a large effect," says Vitt.

Based on his research, Vitt is now able to relate land forms visible on aerial photographs to events inpeatland development. "These landforms tell us that within the last 200 years, as a result of the warming after the little ice age, a lot of our permafrost-dominated peatlands, common in northern Alberta, have melted," says Vitt, who is excited about this new insight into permafrost activity.

While he would be well content to pursue his research solely based on his love for his subject matter, the 1994 Research Prize winner is always alert to ways in which the knowledge he unearths might be applied and often serves as an advisor to companies in the peat moss business. "I have a strong belief that finding ways to apply basic information is a really important part of what we do at the University."

Published Autumn 1994.

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