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Mehroff monitors change in state's biology
By Renu Sehgal
When a cockroach ran across the wall of a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square, Les Mehrhoff didn't scream or yell at the owners. He grabbed it for a museum specimen.
"If you are a serious student of natural history, you can never be bored," says Mehrhoff, the former state biologist who is now curator of the Torrey Herbarium and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology's vertebrate collection manager. "Natural history is something you live."
Indeed, Mehrhoff's family has had to share their vacations with his plant presses and collection equipment. His hand lens is a constant companion.
Mehrhoff's research focuses on the flora of Connecticut. His affiliation with the University spans more than 20 years. He started earning his Ph.D. at the University in 1973, but left to teach in New Hampshire. Before starting as the curator of the herbarium, he had been head of the state Department of Environmental Protection's biology program for the Geological Natural History Survey since 1978. He finished his doctorate last year.
During his career, Mehrhoff has collected more than 19,000 plant specimens for the herbarium, which is located in Torrey Life Sciences Building. He also has conducted inventories of the biota in Connecticut, especially the state's rare and endangered species. He now wants to rewrite the survey of the flora of Connecticut, which was last done in 1910.
"There have been many changes in the state's flora. Close to 900 species of the 2,600 occurring in the state are not indigenous. Only about 200 of these are fairly common," he says. "On the other hand, more than 20 percent of the 1,700 native species are considered endangered, threatened or of special concern."
He is currently interested in non-native species that invade natural areas.
"Non-native invasive species are one of the hottest conservation issues right now," says Mehrhoff, who is trying to establish protocols for a regional invasive tracking network of volunteers.
Gov. John G. Rowland has appointed him one of four members of the Natural Area Preserves Advisory Committee, which oversees the statewide protection of natural areas and helps to identify new ones working with the Department of Environmental Protection.
Mehrhoff also would like to get students enthused about field work.
"Field work is fun and it's an important part of an education in biology," he says. "Students who do some field work are more adaptable, more flexible and more diverse. "Field work is as important today as it has ever been."