Arachtober

We may be a little late to the Arachtober party this year, but it’s never too late to celebrate the 8-leggeds among us. Following the costumed craziness of a Halloween morning at school, some middle schoolers joined me today for a spider hike in the woods. We started in the science room, admiring the subtle beauty of our resident tarantula, Webster. Then we headed into the woods, pausing to flip logs and examine minute webs strung between small branches.web103118.jpg

Most of the spiders we found on webs were tiny offspring hatched this summer, already proficient orb-spinners. Along the stream, fishing spiders spread themselves flat against the ground, perfectly camouflaged. We snared several spiders dangling on single strands of silk, but these evaded us by dropping quickly to the ground and vanishing.

Our final spider discovery was a large web that appeared abandoned, along the path on our way back up the hill. Then we spied a curled leaf at one side, and tucked in it, a lovely marbled orb weaver. She was intent on eating her most recent victim (which looked like it might be another of her kind) and she fixed her many eyes upon us without releasing her grip on her prey. We took her picture and then left her to eat her treat in peace.spider103118a

For more Jemicy arachnids, check out the gallery below:

Mis-placed plants

“But make no mistake:  the weeds will win; nature bats last.”  Robert Michael Pyle

My last post celebrated having reached over 400 identified species at Jemicy. Why, then, would these kids be cheering an effort to reduce that number?

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A few weeks ago, this group went for a hike into the far Jemicy woods. I told them only that we were on a mission and brought along a bag, so they assumed that we were picking up trash. “Not exactly,” I replied, “although what we are looking for doesn’t belong here, and we’re going to try to get rid of it. It’s right under a red flag.” We found the flag, but the kids looked around, puzzled. “There’s nothing wrong here – just some grass.” I bent down and pulled up one of the low plants at our feet. It had wide, wavy leaves. “See this? It’s called wavy-leaf basketgrass. We’re not sure how it got here – probably by a seed stuck to someone’s shoe, or in mulch – but it can spread very quickly and keep other plants from growing here. So, do you think we can get every one of these little plants out of the ground and into this bag?” “Yes!”

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We hunted and bagged plants until the area was clear, declared our mission a success for that day, and made plans to come back in the spring to check for those that might have evaded us.

Jemicy’s woods, like much of our region, is full of plants that are considered invasive, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture: “non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration, and… likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” The Maryland list contains many species that were intentionally introduced for ornamental or practical purposes – as a food crop, perhaps, or to stabilize eroded slopes. Jemicy’s Lower and Middle School campus has 20 of these, most so firmly established that there is little hope of eradicating them. While many introduced species remain contained and manageable, others “escape,” their seeds carried by birds, the wind, or inadvertent human transport. The effects of these aggressive colonizers can range from shading out native species to trapping them in a permanent stranglehold. While we do have some native wild grapes, most of the “Tarzan vines” that snake up our trees and drape the canopy of our woods are introduced and now invasive species of bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

 

Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is a more recent invader whose broad leaves and tenacious tendrils create a thick blanket along the edges of the woods – and whose bright blue berries are eagerly eaten and transported by hungry birds.

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Some of these introduced plants bear a strong resemblance to native species. For years I had assumed that the spiky-stemmed, purple-fruited trees growing at Jemicy were the  Maryland native, devils’ walking stick (Aralia spinosa). When I went to photograph them for inclusion on our biodiversity checklist, however, a closer look at their leaf veins revealed that they were instead Aralia elata, an introduced species now regarded as invasive.

I often cite George Washington Carver’s words to my students when we are discussing the value of plants such as dandelions or other introduced agricultural species: “A weed is a flower in the wrong place.” One of the stories that I remember my mother telling about my grandfather was that he inspected for “noxious weeds” growing along the roadsides of farms in Ontario. That term left me with the vivid impression that some weeds were worse than others, defined by our need to manage them.  That “wrong place” is one that allows the plant in question to grow and spread without constraint, where it lacks its native consumers, pests, and environmental controls, and where it impinges on human interests, which increasingly include the value of ecological integrity. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an example of an introduced food plant that can rapidly inundate and obliterate the smaller plants in a forest understory, to the detriment of other species that depend on them.

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During aftercare this week, a student brought something to show me. “What’s this?” she asked. I hesitated, envisioning the chain of events that could follow my response. Paulownia tomentosa, or princess tree, is one of those plants that was introduced here intentionally from eastern Asia, as an ornamental. In the spring, it puts out large, lovely, purple blossoms that sometimes still contain a taste of delectable nectar after they fall. They have large, heart-shaped, fuzzy leaves and interesting boat-shaped seed pods that open to release hundreds of tiny seeds. Once the wind gets hold of them, they can sail for miles.

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In the end, after explaining my concern, I let the pod-finder open it and explore the seeds in a place where I thought they would not be spread.  A few days later, I saw the same student pointing out more pods to another child, and explaining what they were. Nature may bat last, but educators hope we have a few innings left to help make up for a few errors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milestone

We’ve reached a biodiversity milestone! Five years ago, in the summer of 2013, Jemicy School joined the Maryland Biodiversity Project, an endeavor founded in 2012 with the goal of documenting all the species of Maryland. When MBP founders Bill Hubick and Jim Brighton asked whether we would like to be one of their featured sites – offering to help us identify Jemicy’s biodiversity, from fungi to fauna, from ant species to plant species, and everything in between – we jumped at the chance. Today, five years later, our site checklist has surpassed 400  identified species. Many more species have been photographed and are under review, but all can be found in our Jemicy biodiversity album.

Documenting new species on our school grounds has become second nature, an integral part of daily teaching and learning. In just the past few weeks, we collected dozens of images and specimens:

The soundtrack to this ongoing bioblitz – heard at recess, during aftercare, or abruptly in the middle of a class – is usually some variation of “Quick, get your camera! I found something!”

Sometimes we make a deliberate and focused effort, as in the seasonal fungi, plant and invertebrate hunts that send the younger students scouring their play areas for new species in specific categories. Among other things, we’ve learned that worms and slugs are escape artists.

Usually, though, the process of locating and documenting our local species is a natural part of how children learn science at Jemicy – by following their inherent desire to explore and discover. It takes little more than the willingness to follow a child to wherever they have made their discovery, to provide oversight for temporary, humane capture and release, and to appreciate every find, no matter how small or apparently common. One experience from our first year partnering with MBP has become a now iconic story shared with each incoming class: A group of 6 year olds coming to science class stopped me on the patio outside, insisting that I photograph ants (that I could barely see) crawling on a single piece of popcorn. I obliged, reluctantly, assuming that this was probably a waste of time. But no – those minuscule, nearly overlooked creatures turned out to be “pavement ants,” a new species record for the project.

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Some kids talk about their participation in the biodiversity project the way others might describe reaching a new video game level.  Two 8 year old girls discussing their finds: “I just got a new record for a beetle.” “Cool! I remember when I got my first one – a cute little jumping spider.” They love to scroll through our Flickr album and recall who found what, where, and when, calling out, “That’s my hand!” or “That crayfish almost got me!” The photographic records themselves have become a valuable teaching tool. Printed out as cards, the images are used for sorting and classifying, for comparing to new specimens, for examining adaptations and features specific to different plant, fungi, and animal groups.

Our 5-year bioblitz has yielded a trove of information and revealed some glaring gaps. Arthropods dominate our checklist, and we need to find ways to better document plants and fungi. I have no doubt, however, that the enthusiasm for finding new species that brought us this far will continue to expand our checklist well beyond this milestone, while helping us to recognize the value of documenting all forms of life.

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