Terrestrial Organismal Sampling

NEON collects data that characterize a suite of terrestrial plants, animals, pathogens and microbes at terrestrial field sites across the continent. The project’s organismal sampling design captures the long-term dynamics of abundance, diversity, pathogen prevalence, phenology and productivity.

Sampling methods

NEON uses a standardized, consistent sampling strategy across sites, time and focal taxa. The project locates organismal sampling plots across each terrestrial site, within key identified vegetation types, to capture site heterogeneity and support site-wide characterization of organismal dynamics. NEON also samples organisms within the tower footprint to detect connectivity between organismal data and flux tower measurements. Sampling methods are standardized to ensure comparable data across NEON sites and between vegetation types. Learn more about the protocols and science designs that inform terrestrial organismal data collection methods or explore summary handouts in the data portal Document Library

Sentinel taxa: indicators of ecosystem health

NEON organismal sampling focuses on sentinel taxa, which are sensitive organisms that indicate the health of an ecosystem and provide data relevant to public health. Changes in community dynamics of sentinel taxa affect ecological processes, such as disease transmission rates, agricultural pest control, and ecosystem structure and function.

Sentinel taxa data collected at terrestrial field sites

NEON sentinel taxa selection criteria include: 1) wide geographical distribution for standardized sampling; 2) varied life histories, including lifespan and reproductive rates, that affect the rates of response to drivers such as climate change; 3) phylogenetic diversity; and 4) relevance to infectious disease ecology. NEON samples the sentinel taxa within the following groups:

  • Plants
  • Soil microbes
  • Breeding landbirds
  • Small mammals (rodents and shrews)
  • Ground beetles (family Carabidae)
  • Mosquitoes (family Culicidae)
  • Ticks (order Ixodida)

Integrated sampling design

NEON integrates terrestrial organismal sampling with tower sensor measurementssoil sensor measurements and sampling, and airborne remote sensing data, to support ecosystem level characterization of processes and conditions, such as carbon cycling, biodiversity and ecosystem productivity. Where logistically possible, NEON colocates aquatic sites with terrestrial sites to support understanding of linkages across atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Key organismal sampling data

NEON field technicians regularly sample and observe organisms at field sites and collect relevant data including:

  • Species abundance and density
  • Community composition and diversity
  • Phenology of plants and mosquitoes
  • Organism size and other trait data
  • Leaf area index
  • Canopy chemical composition
  • Litterfall (i.e., dead plant material, such as leaves, bark, needles, and twigs)

Infectious disease samples

A subset of mosquitoes and ticks collected at NEON sites and tissue samples collected from rodents captured during small mammal trapping are tested to detect infection by target pathogens. These include Flaviruses such as West Nile virus in mosquitoes, bacteria including the etiological agent of Lyme disease in ticks, and antibodies to Hantaviruses in rodent blood samples. Results of pathogen testing are used to estimate the prevalence of target pathogens at NEON sites and track how infection rates change through time.

Insect flume study

NEON staff conducted a performance study of combinations of three trap types, two forms of dry ice and three wind speeds to inform site and sampling design to prevent interference with CO2 sensors and to ensure standardized, high-quality data. Learn more about NEON's insect flume study here.

Soil sensor measurement and samples

NEON measures soil microbes and the functions performed by resident taxa, such as decomposition and nutrient cycling. To create linkages between organismal samples and environmental data, NEON collects soil sensor measurements and soil samples at each site, near the tower flux footprint and in close proximity to the organismal collection areas.

High-level data products derived from organismal sampling

  • Aboveground and belowground biomass and productivity
  • Soil microbial abundance and diversity
  • Small mammal, plant, beetle, mosquito and bird abundance and diversity
  • Mammal and insect pathogen prevalence
  • Soil and plant chemistry
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