Shaine Hill has always enjoyed the ways nature networks. From ant farms he maintained as a young boy in Folsom to his summer internship at River Partners, the Plant Biology major at Chico State finds fascination in interspecies communication.
Working out of the Chico office, Hill’s River Partners internship took him up and down the Sacramento Valley—from Redding to Marysville—examining the census and survivorship of plants at the different restoration sites. For his personal project, he has studied arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), evaluating the health of fungi networks in relationship to the establishing and established plants around them.
“AMF form these networks under the soil and plants will grow roots down to where these networks are while supplying the plant water and nutrients in exchange they get sugars from the plant,” he said “It supposedly helps a plant to grow and can create a type of network system where the larger plants can help smaller plants establish themselves—the larger plants will feed the fungi and the fungi will feed the smaller plants. It’s all connected.”
Hill explores fungal networks at River Partners restoration sites, before and after the agency disks the soil—the process of disturbing soil and existing vegetation in an area by using an instrument called a disk, which is used in tilling.
“I’m going out there and calculating the percent density of colonization on different plants at these sites and seeing how healthy these networks are and if they’ve recovered from disturbances like this in the past,” he said. “I’m looking at the restoration sites and comparing them to a control—a remnant riparian habitat—where the fungus has never been disturbed.”
Even well below the surface, Hill suggested it’s impossible to ignore the impact that climate change has wreaked on the plant life he studied—most notably, the current drought and how it has changed the landscape.
“A lot of the plants aren’t producing as much seed in a lot of areas as we’ve seen in the grasses and some other stuff,” he said. “We use irrigation for a lot of establishing plants, but plants that aren’t on a drip system, they don’t make it. They just need that water to grow well.”
With River Partners, Hill has leveraged his lifelong love of the natural world—and the attention he has given to life just below the surface of the soil.
“Ever since I could walk, I was lifting up rocks in the backyard looking for bugs—that never really phased out,” he said. “I’ve had them probably since sixth grade. I have a bunch of ant colonies in my room—I enjoy them, they’re fun to watch.”
As for Hill’s experience with River Partners, he continues to deepen his knowledge of AMF—and as he does so, he continues to be intrigued by the network and communication that occur just below the surface.
“We’re looking into the benefits of AMF with plants when it comes to climate change,” he said. “Also, there’s evidence that allopathic plants, like walnut trees, kill off AMF, to not only kill but also promote fungi that are associated with them, while suppressing the other fungi. There’s some big stuff like that. There are associations between different plants and the overall soil—it’s fascinating.”