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Morgan Bettcher looks at a purple flower on a rare plant near the ground

Wetlands help student connect old and new passions

To understand Morgan Bettcher’s path to the University of Georgia, you also need to understand wetlands.

Both are a bit complicated—but this is also the beauty of it.

Just as there’s no one path to UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, there’s also no one template for a wetland. Some buffer the ocean and inland areas. Others exist in low-lying areas near streams and rivers. 

But the wetlands Bettcher is concerned with exist part time, almost like giant puddles that erupt with life in rainy seasons, then quietly dry out as the summer heats up. They exist across a swath of South Georgia and sustain several threatened and endangered species of plants and animals.

But what allows these species to live in these inconsistent environments—and how do these depressional ponds even work? This intersection of water, soil and plants is how Bettcher came to study for his Master of Science in Water and Soil Resources at Warnell.

“As an undergrad, I majored in environmental science; I really got into freshwater ecology,” said Bettcher, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ‘So, that’s what kicked me off. I was into conservation, particularly freshwater conservation.”

His first job after college involved collecting and testing water samples, plus catching and identifying aquatic invertebrates, in Oklahoma and Arkansas as part of a project analyzing runoff pollutants. He enjoyed the project and the field work, he said, and began to think about next steps once the project wrapped up.

At one point he came to UGA, considering a doctoral degree. But the timing wasn’t quite right. He went back into the workforce, accepting a job testing water samples at a lab for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The experience taught him that working in a lab wasn’t where he wanted to be—he’d much rather be outside. Wanting more hands-on work in natural resources, he moved to a position with the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “I was with the botany program—it’s a small group of folks in the wildlife conservation section concerned with conserving and monitoring native plants around the state.”

Moving from water to plants was a change. But as a small group working directly with state biologists, Bettcher got a lot of hands-on experience—which was exactly what he wanted. He surveyed and monitored threatened plant populations around the state, eventually taking on more responsibilities as COViD-19 changed workloads and staffing.

And, it turned out, he could connect back to freshwater ecology through the plants he was studying.

“There are a lot of rare plants in our state that are associated with specific types of wetlands, because wetlands are one of the more impaired and endangered habitats,” he said. “A lot of the work I did was in wetlands, specifically these depressional ponds and more seasonal wetlands that exist on the coastal plain of Georgia. And the plants are responding to these wetlands in interesting ways. … There are different pockets of habitat.”

With the guidance of his supervisor at Georgia DNR, botanist Lisa Kruse, he began working in many different wetlands around the state. In one project, they monitored the restoration of vegetation around depressional wetlands to help improve habitat for endangered gopher frogs—animals that need these types of wetlands to reproduce. Throughout the project, he began to realize there were several pieces missing to the puzzle. In particular, he was curious how the soil of these systems interacted with the water.

Bettcher soon found himself back at UGA, but this time with a plan: To study water and soil science, taking a deeper dive into these systems he’d come to love.

In some of the places he works, drainage ditches had been dug to pull water off the land. While these ditches aren’t successfully drying them out completely, managers are plugging them in the hope of restoring the wetlands’ natural hydrology. But, scientists still don’t fully understand how water is moving in and out of these systems. Bettcher began looking at wetlands on two different DNR conservation properties—one near the coast and one further inland—to examine how the layers of soil may or may not be affecting how that area holds water.

“Part of my work is assessing whether or not the hydrology is being impacted by these ditches and ditch plugging. We’re also looking at what’s controlling the water in these wetlands in general,” he added. “The working hypothesis is they have a layer of clay under them that causes the water to sit longer on top of them. But it turns out, it’s a little more complicated—some of the wetlands have groundwater influences and some don’t.”

Through the master’s program, he’s able to learn about soil-testing techniques and apply them directly to the project. This involves analyzing soil samples, using electromagnetic induction and electrical resistivity tomography surveys—basically, sending electrical charges into the ground to better understand the layers of soil.

“Those techniques are really amazing,” Bettcher said. "My advisor, Daniel Markewitz, has really opened my eyes to a lot of things you can do in soil.”

In the years after getting his undergraduate degree, Bettcher never imagined he’d one day be looking for the dainty pink flowers of the rare willowleaf meadowbeauty or clusters of white flowers on the stems of Canby’s dropwort, a federally endangered plant. But through this work, he found a way to connect his passion for freshwater in systems critical to Georgia’s coastal plain.

“Wetlands are an interesting system in that they are a hard place to live if you’re a plant—especially these systems that go from being flooded to dry in the summer. It makes the plants that can tolerate that and thrive special,” he said.

But if wetlands change, whether it’s through man-made drainage or less rain due to climate change, it can create a cascading effect that goes beyond a few rare plants. This adds a deeper layer of meaning to the work.

“When you lose those plants, you lose what makes those habitats special, and you lose a portion of that community in those wetlands,” he added. “They’re part of a whole ecosystem; there are pollinators that get their food from them, lay their eggs on them, or they are part of the chemical cycling of the wetlands. And many of them are really pretty, too.”


Morgan Bettcher stands near monitoring equipment


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