Beneath a glorious blue sky, 17 U of T students stand under a canopy of budding trees. Their focus, though, is on the mud. The nature buffs are analyzing the cheery yellow flower of a young coltsfoot that has poked through the soil. Ivana Stehlik, an ecology and evolutionary-biology lecturer, explains that the species is native to Europe and Asia. The classmates debate whether early settlers brought it to North America for its medicinal effects. “Coltsfoot makes good cough syrup,” says one student.
The class is one of many to visit U of T’s Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill, in King Township. Every year, more than 500 U of T undergrads go from learning about science to actually doing science at Jokers Hill. Students from Trent, Western and McMaster in Ontario, and as far away as the University of Singapore also come to analyze fungi and the milkweed longhorn beetle, listen to chickadees, and more. Jokers Hill is generally not accessible to the public, but you can sign up for a U of T nature walk or workshop.
Arthur Weis, the director of Jokers Hill, says the property promises to be one of North America’s leading field research stations. Since it opened for research in 1997, more than 85 reports have been published based on studies performed at the facility. The researchers stick brightly coloured flags in the ground to mark off the areas where they’re probing questions such as: What makes some plant species become invasive? Do plant genes affect insect diversity? How have plant mating systems evolved? After a horse from a neighbouring farm trampled a grad student’s research project, Jokers Hill banned horses from the property. (In the 1950s, the property was named after Joker, a horse fond of climbing up the highest hill on the estate.)
In 1969, Drs. Murray and Marvelle Koffler bought the 865-acre property so their five children could play in the sun-drenched meadows. In 1995, after their family had grown, they donated it to U of T in the largest-ever land gift to a Canadian university. The Kofflers trusted U of T to preserve the biodiversity of the segment of the Oak Ridges Moraine where Jokers Hill sits and to change its focus from horses to scientific research. The family had used the property as an equestrian centre, but now the paddocks, riding trails and fields are living laboratories where biologists, geologists, foresters and grad students conduct research.
“The land presents unlimited research opportunities, but to take advantage of them we needed a lab to set up microscopes, balances and DNA equipment,” says Weis. To provide the investigators with the tools they need, the racing barn has been transformed into a research facility. The new walls are lined with lab benches, centrifuges and freezers, but the horse-stall doors remain, honouring the building’s past.
On July 10 at Jokers Hill, there are two 90-minute “Creepy, Crawly and Cool – Insects” nature walks and a children’s bug hunt (free). On October 9, there’s an all-day “Mushrooms on the Moraine” workshop ($60). For more information and to register, visit ksr.utoronto.ca.