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Individual Highlight

Sagebrush Scent Identifies Species and Subspecies

Photo of Collecting sagebrush volatiles (odors) in a common garden near Ephraim, Utah.  U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Collecting sagebrush volatiles (odors) in a common garden near Ephraim, Utah. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.Snapshot : Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is the dominant plant species across much of the western United States and provides critical habitat and food for many endemic species, including the threatened Greater sage-grouse. Sagebrush habitat is imperiled due to disturbances and increased wildfire frequency due to exotic annual grasses. Consequently, there is a great need for sagebrush habitat restoration, but success rate of restoration efforts is low likely because the right sagebrush subspecies is not used in the right place. Sagebrush subspecies are difficult or impossible to identify so there is a need for reliable methods of identification.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Runyon, Justin B. Richardson, Bryce A.
Research Location : Great Basin, western United States
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2016
Highlight ID : 1041


Scientists collected and analyzed volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from five species and subspecies of sagebrush (Artemisia, subgenus Tridentatae) growing in two common gardens (Idaho and Utah) using gas chromatograph and mass spectrometry. Of the 74 total VOCs emitted, only 15 were needed to segregate sagebrush species and subspecies using the Random Forest classification algorithm with 96 percent accuracy. All but one of these 15 VOCs showed qualitative differences among taxa. Five VOCs could be used to identify environment (common garden and month), which do not overlap with the 15 VOCs that segregated taxa. This showed that VOCs can discriminate closely related species and subspecies of Artemisia, which are difficult to identify using molecular markers or morphology. It appears that changes in VOCs either lead the way or follow closely behind speciation in this group. This suggests that VOCs could allow identification of sagebrushes for restoration, to match the proper plant with the proper habitat.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Deidre Jaeger, Rocky Mountain Research Station