Serpentine Barrens of the Northern Piedmont

The Serpentine Barrens of the Northern Piedmont:
A World-Class Ecosystem with a Heart of Stone

31 May, 2019 • Nottingham County Park • 150 Park Road, Nottingham, PA 19362
Dr. Roger Latham


Certain grasslands and pine-oak woodlands in the eastern U.S. known as serpentine barrens are likely thousands of years old, and anything but “barren.” They are globally rare ecosystems, and the grasslands in particular are hot spots for biodiversity, including many imperiled species. They are underlain by a class of bedrock called ultramafic, formed under the ocean bottom and rarely outcropping on land. The unique vegetation growing on soils weathered from ultramafic rocks was the earliest-recognized case (in the 1500s in Tuscany) of geology affecting botany.

In the eastern U.S., of roughly 40 locations described a century ago from Georgia to New York, less than 20 remain, nearly all in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Even the few serpentine grasslands that survive have lost area and species since they were first described, due to fire exclusion and habitat shrinkage. Losses continue, but beginning in the 1980s there have been encouraging gains, as agencies, nonprofits, and scientists work to protect land and restore ecological processes vital to keeping the ancient grasslands and their constituent species alive.

In this hands-on workshop you will learn about:

  • serpentine barrens’ origins and ecology, including their links to plate tectonics, extinct megafauna, and Native American prehistory
  • how serpentine barrens differ from other ecosystems also known as “barrens”
    their historical and present-day scientific importance
  • how to identify characteristic plants, animals, and minerals of Northern Piedmont serpentine barrens
  • what people are doing to restore and sustain these geological, ecological, and cultural treasures
  • how you can participate in serpentine barrens stewardship

Presenter. Dr. Roger Latham has worked as a research ecologist, conservation biologist, and environmental planner since the year the Endangered Species Act was passed (1973). After earning a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Pennsylvania, he was Pennsylvania Director of Science and Stewardship for The Nature Conservancy, post-doctoral researcher in biogeochemistry and fire ecology in U. Penn’s Department of Geology, and ecology professor at Swarthmore College. Since 2000 he has been a full-time consultant, conducting applied research and planning for conservation agencies and NGOs involved in wildlands stewardship, ecological restoration, and endangered species recovery. On and off since 1982 he has been researching serpentine barrens ecology and working for their protection and stewardship.