Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wait What? The Toomer’s Corner Trees were fine a few weeks ago?

I’m letting my previous post stand, but are we being duped, or was an Auburn professor of Agronomy and Soils merely mistaken when he concluded on January 28 that the trees at Toomer’s Corner were just fine?
Below is a screen capture of a blogspot blog post written by Scott McElroy, PhD., of Auburn’s Department of Agronomy and Soils. The post has been taken off the blog (presumably in light of yesterday’s news), but the Google Webcache version is still available.

Users can find that here, until the webcache is updated and the page removed forever and ever, Amen.

And here is the text of Dr. McElroy’s blog post, from that webcached version:

Toomer's Oaks are Fine(baum)- Just a Toilet Paper Overdose.
I have been watching all the traffic related to possible poisoning of Toomer's oaks.  I heard over the water cooler that someone called into the Paul Finebaum Show claiming they had poisoned the Toomer's oaks with the herbicide Spike.  I was very skeptical, but I knew I could quickly determine if this was true. First, never passing up a teachable moment let me do some explaining.

The herbicide in question is sold by the name "Spike", but the active ingredient, the chemical compound that actually kills the plants, is called tebuthiuron.  Tebuthiuron is very specific in its action--it essentially blocks photosynthesis from occurring.  It is very specific to plants and is safe to humans. 

With many herbicides, if one wants to tell if a plant has been purposely treated, one would take soil and leaf samples, extract the herbicide, and run it through some chemical analytical test to determine if the herbicide is present.  This process can take weeks. But with tebuthiuron, since it specifically stops photosynthesis, a negative herbicide effect can be determined in a few minutes.

So I took my handy, dandy handheld chlorophyll fluorometer up to Toomer's Corner, clamped it on a few leaves and checked photosynthesis.  Everything is fine.  It has been two months since the alleged poisoning, and there should be a reduction in photosynthetic activity-- and there is not.  Just in case it occurred more recently, Auburn Horticulture has taken some soil and leaf samples for future analysis, if any damage ever appears.  For now that is a moot point, the trees are fine, just a little beat up from all the toilet paper clean up.  I will keep checking over the next few weeks just to make sure. 

To anyone who has had the idea of poisoning Toomer's oaks or killing your neighbor's tree that is blocking your satellite reception--you can easily be caught.  Not only can one quickly measure photosynthesis of the plant, but the herbicide will last up to a year in the soil surface and a little longer in the killed plant.  It will be very easy to catch you.

- Scott McElroy, PhD
Department of Agronomy and Soils
Twitter:  @auburnturf

There are a couple of explanations for what’s going on here. The first and most favorable to Dr. McElroy’s professional credibility is that his “handy dandy handheld chlorophyll fluorometer” lacks the technical capability of the full blown laboratory equipment used by Mississippi State University when it conducted the tests announced yesterday. Dr. McElroy got some spurious data and like most published professors, he’ll update his research and explain the inconsistency.

A second, and more odorous explanation would be that Auburn needed a little “sympathy press,” released yesterday’s news to blunt the negative impact of a more damaging report, and had Dr. McElroy remove his post to cover their tracks.

We can only hope that it’s the former, rather than the latter. Nonetheless, the discovery of Dr. McElroy’s conclusions of only two weeks ago raises some interesting questions.

Exit question: Can we get a second opinion?  Texas A&M has a fine, fine school of agronomy and would likely be more than willing to examine the site and the plants themselves. 

UPDATE: Crap.  I forgot to give a proper hat Tip to Bad Pony of

UPDATE II: Arrest made.

UPDATE III: Dr. McElroy has an update, explaining his earlier post.  While it’s still bad blogging form to remove an entry that you have discovered to be inaccurate, it’s important to recognize that Dr. McElroy is setting the record straight.

I still think it would be a great idea to invite other scientists to contribute their knowledge. There are great minds at Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia, Florida and Clemson who could likely help. Most encouraging is that weeks, possibly months after the incident, Dr. McElroy’s photosynthesis tests showed good results. Could it be that the assassin’s bullet has missed its target?

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OrchardKeeper said...

He updated the blog on February 9, 2011 to say his earlier post (the one referenced above) may have been premature.

I have little doubt that the news was released today as a diversion, but I doubt the academic department is part of any "cover up".


David L. said...

You're probably right on the "cover up" angle, but it is troubling that the blog post was simply removed, rather than explained.

I've posted erroneous information before, but instead of removing the entry, I explain why the information was wrong and leave it up. You don't just delete it with no explanation.

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