Bringing biodiversity home, literally

When I was a child somewhere in those wondrous years between 7 and 10, I was a voracious animal collector. Springtime brought a wealth of opportunities to find frog eggs, red-spotted newts and rat snakes, to set up an ant farm in a peanut butter jar, to capture a mouse and house it in a hastily constructed cage, only to find it gone in the morning. My enthusiasm was fueled by a book whose words and images were so enticing, so perfectly attuned to my passion that I memorized every page and could never part with it: “The Golden Book of Wild Animal Pets.”

When I look through this book now, I am deeply thankful that I was not a very skillful or ruthless hunter. The animals that I did manage to capture invariably led short, miserable lives. And it wasn’t just wild animals. If a stray dog or cat showed up on our property, I would try to hide it in the barn in a kennel made of hay bales, sneaking food from the house. This rarely worked out in any creature’s best interest. One day I made a surreptitious trade of some unused toy for a neighbor’s rabbit, but this time when my mother discovered it, she agreed to let me keep it if I would build it a proper hutch and clean it regularly. “Someday,” I promised, “I will have my own house where I can keep all the animals.”

Little did I know that the title of this blog would fulfill that promise quite literally this week as our school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Not knowing how long we would be away, I knew that the school menagerie would be coming home with me. Now installed in the guest room, the various cages and tanks house animals that have been at Jemicy anywhere from 30 years (Blotch, the ball python) to the imminent (incubating chicken eggs due to hatch in three weeks). Since I will be teaching my students online here for the foreseeable future, the animals will play virtually the role that they always have in our classroom: species ambassadors helping to impart knowledge and insight into the lives of others.IMG_4893

On the other hand, the COVID-19 coronavirus itself represents a piece of the world’s biodiversity that I am making every effort to NOT bring home. In trying to understand the nature of recent epidemics and pandemics with apparent non-human animal sources, I came across a recent article from Scientific American that highlights this issue. Habitat destruction not only reduces biodiversity directly, but it can also open pathways for new pathogens to enter human spheres. Also benefiting from human incursions into formerly wild, remote areas is the exotic pet trade that results in animals such as the ones now inhabiting my guest room. My view of these beings has evolved from passion to compassion, and to demonstrating for my students what responsible pet ownership entails. It might mean a hurried evacuation. Or soaking a shedding snake in the bathtub.

I started this blog nearly five years ago as a way to share my learning and experiences during six months in Tasmania and New Zealand on a Fulbright award. Being so far removed from my Jemicy students, living on remote islands on the other side of the world, I treasured the online connections that we devised. Our present challenge is to make these same meaningful connections across distance that feels almost as vast, since we are all separated from each other, each in our own home. My goal this spring will be to use these separate home spaces as common ground for discovery and learning. We will be sharing observations of the nature around us, both in terms of living things and the physical environment, experimenting remotely, exploring our backyards, and discovering the heart of bringing biodiversity home.

 

 

 

 

Waiting

January to February is a time that always seems to hold its breath, waiting for something to happen: Will it snow? Will there be a thaw? Will this bitter gray weather ever break? Unpredictability is a standard condition. January 29 is the average coldest day of the year with temperatures at 30 degrees F. However, the typical range from 30-43 degrees has enough variability to induce buds to blossom and amphibians to seek breeding ponds. Once these actions are set in motion, there’s no turning back, no matter what the weather has in store. 17038792_1342428442501317_7254892838485278669_o

It is the best time of year to find those things outdoors that are waiting to change, or have already begun the process. Moth cocoons, praying mantis oothecae (egg cases), beetle pupae, seeds, tree buds, slug eggs  – they persevere through whatever weather conditions come their way, holding new life in reserve until the moment is right.

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In our visitor tank in the science room, we are closely monitoring some of these. A fat green caterpillar that we had intended to observe only briefly late this fall, and then return to the outdoors, surprised us by quickly cocooning itself to the side of the tank. We decided to leave it to see if and when the adult would emerge. An introduced species of praying mantis also spent the fall in the tank, dined on ever-plentiful crickets and stinkbugs, and left us with an ootheca. There is a matching one waiting outside on a nearby shrub.

 

The youngest JE’ers spent a class this fall roaming the campus collecting dried seed heads from a variety of flowers: marigolds, joe-pye weed, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, coneflower. These are waiting for a later class in February, when we will start seed trays for the gardens around the science building.

And, in the top garden bed are a dozen tree seedlings – holly, tulip tree, pawpaw, and hickory – awaiting transplant to their new home in the reforestation area. Their buds are still dormant, but just a few feet away the buds on the dwarf peach are swollen, looking impatient to blossom. We hope it can wait just a bit longer, because there is really no telling what February has in store for us.

 

 

Seasonal instincts

As earth moves ever closer to its annual winter solstice, inhabitants of Jemicy’s science building take notice. The sun’s lower angle sends the afternoon rays more directly through the greenhouse bay and onto the glass walls of the fish tank, causing algae to proliferate and algae eaters to become more active. Meanwhile, that same shift in angle and lower daily temperatures send many of the classroom reptiles into a state of semi-hibernation, or brumation. The Russian tortoises stop eating, dig down into their bedding, and only reluctantly reawaken for occasional hydration. The male corn snakes have also stopped eating and moved to the cold end of their enclosure, where they will curl up together and remain nearly motionless for the next five months.

Time has taught us that these are normal seasonal behaviors reflecting what these animals would do in the wild. Even though the reptiles’ enclosures have heat and UV lamps, they somehow know what is going on outside and are responding to those external cues. Just last week we discovered a tiny, disoriented spring peeper in a classroom, the first one we’ve ever found as late as December. The temperature outside was in the 40’s, and we knew it was bound to get much colder soon, but we released the frog to the woods confident that it would find its way to a safe hibernaculum for the next few months.

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Last month, JE students who were studying cold-blooded animals created their own “herps” to model hibernation out in the Jemicy woods. We drew animal figures on gloves, filled them with colored “blood,” and carefully hid them in places where we thought no predators would disturb them. These herps will wait out the winter as still and silent as the living frogs and salamanders that have burrowed themselves down under logs and into the mud of the stream bed nearby. When spring returns, we will see how they have fared, whether their skin remains intact, or whether some gnawing rodent has unfortunately discovered them.

As a strategy for surviving winter, entering a state of dormancy seems risky to those of us adapted to staying active, but it works for a variety of animal groups, and not just herps. In Maryland, black bears, groundhogs, and bats seek burrows or other shelter to sleep away the cold winter months. A recent article on hibernating bats illustrated a unique use of snow dens for chilling out in winter.

What about those animals that use migration as a means of surviving winter? To better understand the incredible sense of direction demonstrated by birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other migrating creatures, the JE classes explored magnetism.

We made floating compasses with magnetized needles,

drew treasure maps to practice compass directions,

and practiced orienting ourselves outdoors using the sun and other natural clues.IMG_3857

It is hard to grasp how other animals instinctively find their way to distant destinations, just as it is difficult to imagine being drawn into a long period of dormancy. For humans, we decided, the most elemental attraction in the cold of winter is a warm campfire. With marshmallows.campfire

Water works

“A significant lack of recent rain, and unusual heat during the month of September, led to the development of what is called “flash drought” across a large portion of the area. This essentially means that the short-term dryness and heat quickly overcame the long-term record wetness we experienced between April 2018 and the early summer of 2019. Although the heat has ended, significant rain has not yet been observed, so drought conditions persist.”  National Weather Service, October 8, 2019

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If you live along the East Coast, chances are you noticed how dry it was in late summer and early fall, though this “flash drought” came as somewhat of a surprise after the extended sogginess of the previous year. Given the vital role that water plays in the lives of all living things, and its effects on non-living ecosystem components as well, the JE classes embarked on an intensive study of the many characteristics that make water so central to our lives.

We began by learning about physical and chemical properties of water. Positive, neutral, and negative buoyancy were introduced using numerous objects, and by learning to make and test reasonable predictions. Classifying objects by their float-ability was more challenging than many expected.

Experimenting with different densities and surface areas enabled more accurate generalizations, and we followed this with the classic penny boat challenge: “How many Abraham Lincolns can you keep afloat on your foil boat?” Results ranged from 0 to an astounding 200+. The cardboard boats that followed used wind power to move across our mini-ocean and featured creative detailing that tested the boats’ balance and waterproofing.

Having seen negative (sinking) and positive (floating) buoyancy in action, we attempted to achieve neutral buoyancy (within the water column). Our rock/balloon constructions mimicked fish and submarines with swim bladders and ballast tanks, with success dependent on finding just the right balance.

Next, it was time to review water’s different states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. We enacted the difference in energy between these three states by playing a tag game where kids responded to a shouted prompt by finding others to quickly form an unmoving solid or flowing liquid, or by running away as a gas molecule. We also had fun trying to predict liquid capacity in different containers and playing with dry ice reactions.

Our typical introduction to the water cycle involves learning big words with big movements. Students jump off the classroom tables while shouting “Precipitation!”, “Runoff!” to the corners of the room, “Evaporation!” while climbing back onto the tables, and “Condensation!” while huddling together as cloud vapor.IMG_3224

This year, we added a technology component: augmented reality in the form of a MergeCube. This cool tool pairs with an iPad to create 3-dimensional views of all sorts of science content. For this lesson, we were able to make each stage of the water cycle play out in a miniature world complete with water raining onto and running off a mountain into streams and a lake, and then evaporating into wispy clouds. We reinforced these images with one more game, creating large cardboard dice showing different parts of the water cycle and designing multi-player game boards.

Throughout these water-based activities, we talked often of the lack of rain and how it might be affecting our campus. The small stream in the woods, which has its source in groundwater seeps, has sometimes dried up during extended droughts. This year it persisted throughout the fall, though with diminishing flow. Frogs, crayfish, and salamanders were found in the deeper pockets, but the vegetation along the banks hung limp and pale, lacking its usual fall vibrancy.

“Where is this water still coming from, if there’s no rain?” we wondered. The NWS report indicated that, in spite of the drought, deep groundwater remained at relatively normal levels, which apparently continued to supply us with enough water to keep the stream flowing. By October 15, however, still with no rain in sight, our region’s drought status had changed to severe. Groundwater levels were dropping.

A week later, relief arrived in the form of several days of drizzle and occasional heavy rainfall. The air along the newly recharged stream is pungent now and “finally smells like fall,” one frog hunter declared as he studied the current.090319-15

Our final water topic currently underway is a study of fish adaptations for underwater life. Given the erratic nature of our weather patterns this fall, and the tendency toward more extreme weather events and water quality impact as our climate warms, the challenge will be to design fish with adaptations to survive such changes. Mudskippers may once again have their moment.

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Mudskipper, Wikimedia commons

			

What are the animals for?

During a recent Back-to-School night, parents gathered in the science building to hear how their children would be spending their time in science classes this year. After my introduction, a parent raised her hand. “What will you be using the animals for?” I scanned the room, taking in the dozen or so habitats housing snakes, guinea pigs, a poison dart frog, fish, zebra finches…IMG_2621A simple question with a multifaceted answer. Very few classrooms feature so much biodiversity, at least of the vertebrate kind. Yet each of these animals, rescued or donated by families who could no longer keep their pet, plays an important role as an ambassador for its species. Each displays characteristics that help children understand it not just as an individual, but as representing a lineage distinct from humans and each other. Animals are also attention magnets, capable of capturing and holding a child’s focus while delivering immediate multisensory reinforcement of concepts that are being taught. This space is a “companionable zoo” where animals are partners in the learning process.

In last week’s JE classes, our older Russian tortoise, Borise, took center stage. As the students sketched her, she wandered around the table, occasionally meandering onto one of the kids’ dry-erase boards. “Hey! She likes me! She likes the drawing I did of her!” they would shout. Eventually, the focus became whose work Borise liked best, as evidenced by her movement toward a particular sketch.

Was the tortoise really paying attention to the drawings? What other variable could entice her to choose one direction over another?  Food? Light? Shelter? These are things that we can and will test, with respectful, humane, and scientific methods, setting in motion an increasingly sophisticated inquiry process over students’ years at Jemicy and beyond. Employing our easily observable (and yes, endearing) classroom animals as demonstrators of specialized adaptations enlarges our perspective on the experience of non-human others. How are they like us? How are they different? Why do they display these differences?

M Group’s first science research project identifies some of these key characteristics of our classroom animals. Each student chooses an animal to observe, while also researching the natural history of its species in the wild. Every year there are eye-opening discoveries that lead to critical discussions about research methods, physiology, cultural differences, the pet trade, reproduction, climate, etc.

  • “It says that ball pythons only live about 10 years in the wild, but 30 years in captivity. Does that mean Blotch set a new record? And how do they know how long they live in the wild?”
  • “Oh NO! They EAT guinea pigs in South America?!”
  • “All the Chilean tarantulas I see online are very hairy. Why is Sponge Bob bald?”M animals-9
  • “If it’s called a poison dart frog, why isn’t Blue poisonous? And if he’s not poisonous, why can’t I hold him?”IMG_2624 (1)
  • “Why can’t I find any pictures of molly fish eggs?”IMG_2625
  • “The chinchilla is so soft, it’s like you can’t even feel her fur! But why won’t she let us hold her?”M animals-3

Every day, the younger JE groups spend part of their class time with a particular animal, learning about its adaptations and accompanying vocabulary. Did you know that some snakes have vestigial legs? That a tortoise cannot crawl out of its carapace and plastron? That a gecko’s tail can regenerate? That snakes have no eyelids, and they shed the “brille” that covers their eyes? That guinea pigs are coprophagic?

Sometimes we are able to hold or touch an animal, and sometimes not. An often-repeated phrase: “It’s not about what you want. It’s about what they need.”  A snake that is hungry, a chinchilla that needs her space, a bird that will always view us as predators, a bearded dragon in defensive “blue beard” or “pancake” mode: these are all animals whose behavioral response to humans we learn to identify and respect.

How to convey the significance of animals to parents in such a brief moment? I may have said, “The animals support what we teach and the importance of respecting others.” What I hope this really means is that their continued presence in our classroom will engender not only a scientific but also a humane approach to interacting with diverse creatures that are wholly dependent upon us for survival.gp2

 

Late bloomers

In spring and summer as I’m tending my gardens at home and at school, I click into keep/discard mode. It’s usually pretty straightforward: keep what I planted, discard the rest. But inevitably I pause at the same spot every year, stymied: What is this rangy, tough-stemmed plant that’s pushing upward with such determination? I’m sure I didn’t plant it. A friend wanders by, sees me studying it, and offers an opinion. “A weed, for sure.” I’m not so sure. There are no visible flower buds, nothing that promises to enhance summer’s blossoming and entice insects and hummingbirds. Just some thin, jagged leaves, a reddish stem, and a branching pattern that suggests…something. Something that convinces me to let it be, to wait and see.Eupatorium serotinum

I’m glad I did. The plant that I decided to ignore all summer just waited as the sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans burst into bloom, flashed their gaudy petals (or were eaten by the deer), and then became food for the finches. Finally, as I was contemplating spreading compost and putting the beds to bed for the winter, I noticed it. Actually, what caught my eye first were its visitors: sulphurs, monarchs, skippers, buckeyes, wasps, bees, ants.

A stunning array of insects worked over the inconspicuous, delicate white flower heads. I hardly knew where to look first, much less how to focus my camera lens to capture the abundance. Only then did the identity of the plant finally enter my consciousness: late boneset, also known as late thoroughwort. Eupatorium serotinum. Pollinator magnet.

This is not the only “weed” that waits until late summer to attract pollinators. Goldenrod, aster, ironweed, blazing star, and a host of other plants welcome visitors through September and into October in this region. Why so late? Many late-season pollinator species overwinter as larvae or use the nectar derived from fall flowers to fuel migration southward.

E. serotinum won’t be forgotten next year. I’ve submitted photos to the Maryland Plant Atlas, which has no formal record of it for either the Cockeysville (Jemicy LMS) or Reisterstown (my house) quad, in spite of its ubiquity. Better late than never!

 

 

Can’t make (some of) this stuff up

The JE science classes focused on insects this spring, studying the life cycles of cockroaches, mealworms, silkworms, and other 6-leggeds. Their final project was to create a unique insect species in suitable habitat, depict its life cycle stages, and tell a story about an adventure that it had.

 

 

The invented insects were fantastically diverse, both morphologically (though they did follow “insect rules” with 3 body parts and 6 legs) and in their adaptations to their living conditions. In response to the questions, “What do you eat?” and “How do you keep from being eaten?” responses ranged from blood-thirsty  – “It can and will eat every other insect” – to benevolent – “Does it have to be a predator? This insect just wants friends.”

 

 

What struck me was that in the description of every seemingly invented insect, there was more than a hint of reality. Insects can be voracious and indiscriminate predators (praying mantis). They can also display behavior that we might encourage students to emulate: cooperation and care for young (social insects), and dogged determination (dung beetle). But frequently insects interact with their environment in ways that are just… bizarre.

  • One damp morning I was crossing a side street near my house when I saw what looked from a distance like a snake, and judging by its ragged shape maybe one that had been hit by a car. But there was movement, too, an undulating forward motion. It was only when I got within a few feet that I could see that the creature was actually hundreds of larvae woven together like rope fibers, moving determinedly as one toward the opposite side of the road. A few had lost contact and dropped off the back, but they were still aiming in the same direction as the mass of their fellow larvae.

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This, it turns out, is the preferred migration method of dark-winged fungus gnat larvae.

  • Down in the woods during recess one day, someone pointed to a large, colorful, spidery insect repeatedly appearing to sting a rotting log.

I knew this must be a female of some species laying eggs, but I assumed it was one of the ichneumon wasps that has the uncanny ability to deposit eggs through its mammoth ovipositor into rotting wood directly over the tunneling larvae of its favorite beetle prey. The eggs hatch, and lunch is served.

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This new insect, however, turned out to be a fly – a cranefly that lays its eggs in the dead wood that its larvae will later feed on.

  • On one of our many searches for new insects in the milkweed patch, a student pointed to a minuscule gold dot on a leaf. “Is this something new?” I could barely see the bug, but I dutifully took a picture, and when I enlarged it, saw that it was an aphid.

aphid mummy

Or was it? Turns out, it was an aphid mummy: the skin of an aphid hosting the parasitic larva of a braconid wasp.

  • Another day, a tiny, dance fly perched on a leaf near the stream, her enormous eyes glowing red.dance fly

Little did we know of the drama that awaited her that evening. According to Bugguide,

Adult females congregate in a swarm above vegetation near water around sunset, and inflate abdominal sacs in an attempt to fool males into thinking the swollen abdomens are full of ripe eggs. The hairy legs are held alongside the abdomen in flight, supposedly to accentuate abdominal size. Males hunt small insects and bring the dead prey as “nuptial gifts” to females in exchange for a chance to mate. Males prefer to mate with the fattest and hairiest females, but the cost of being hairy is an increased chance of being caught in spider webs.

  • And then there is the strange insect that I have not yet seen, but that is making its way in our direction: the spotted lanternfly.

    spotted lanternfly
    Spotted lanternfly – USDA photo

This introduced fly is wreaking havoc with fruit crops in Pennsylvania, just north of us, and several other states. It’s been found in one county in Maryland so far. Fortunately, it seems that we may have native fungi on hand to counter its spread – fungi that glue the fly down and prevent it from moving while it’s being consumed.

Truth in these cases is almost stranger than the fiction kids come up with.

 

 

 

 

City Nature Challenge 2019

On the morning of April 26, I gave my students a challenge that I knew they would embrace enthusiastically. Showing them a world map with real-time data, I explained that just past midnight on April 26, citizens of cities all over the world had begun to photograph and identify their local species in a global competition called the City Nature Challenge.

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City Nature Challenge 2018

The goal is simple: Observe and identify as many species as possible between April 26-29. Upload them to iNaturalist where they will be counted toward your city’s totals. Observations are approved by others in the iNaturalist community, which acts as quality control for the data coming in. As residents of Baltimore County, Jemicy’s totals would count for Baltimore, which competed in the challenge for the first time in 2018. Last year, out of 68 participating cities, Baltimore came in 24th for the number of observations made and 22nd for total species identified. We looked at the stats that were already coming in, from countries in eastern time zones: Christchurch, NZ already had 2500 observations, while Capetown, South Africa showed over 5,000.

“Well?” I asked. “Do you think we can help Baltimore out?” The kids answered by racing for the door, fanning out over designated areas and calling to me to photograph whenever they found something that they thought would count as a new species. Because of our affiliation with the Maryland Biodiversity Project, spotting and identifying unique species has become second nature to the Jemicy lower school students.

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In the space of only a few hours, we made over 100 observations of plants, animals and fungi, most of which were able to quickly be identified to species. This placed us momentarily at the top of the Baltimore leaderboard, which itself was just more incentive to keep hunting. Ringneck snake, phantom cranefly, common angle moth, jack-in-the-pulpit. By the time school was over, I had shared the app with numerous kids who were clamoring to keep looking, encouraging them to continue hunting at home over the weekend.

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By the time Monday came, I had added observations from my own backyard and local excursions. It was unseasonably cold, and many of the expected invertebrates remained hidden. Still, we continued to observe species at school: eastern bluebird (with a nest of new hatchlings), crayfish, dryad saddle mushrooms, a tiny eastern tailed blue butterfly. Most of these were species that we had already added to our MBP checklist in the past, but some were welcome newcomers.

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When the observing part of the challenge was over, we took a look at the thousands of observations others had made to see if we could help verify their identifications. Many were beyond our capabilities, but others were identical to species that we had seen and studied on our campus: white oak, red maple, garlic mustard, American robin. It was exciting to see other people jumping in to help verify our sightings or to steer us to more accurate identifications.

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The final totals from the 2019 challenge will arrive on May 6, after images taken during the challenge window have been uploaded and as many as possible identified. So far, Baltimore appears to have increased its number of observations by several thousand since last year, while the global total is nearing 1 million.

The City Nature Challenge was exhilarating on several levels. Joining a worldwide effort with thousands of other citizen scientists bolsters our sense of belonging to a global community. Every observation made, regardless of which city it belonged to, supported a joint effort to recognize and document biodiversity through direct engagement. Considering Jemicy’s small size in terms of numbers of observers and physical geography, we were still able to provide an inordinate impact on our region’s total observations. This image of our sightings from the challenge makes two facts clear: 1) Our campus is loaded with biodiversity, and 2) Jemicy kids are some of Baltimore’s keenest spotters.

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We can’t wait until City Nature Challenge 2020!

 

 

Freeloaders

Spring’s arrival heralds many joyous returns: migratory birds to their local nesting sites, kids to their favorite haunts in the woods, crayfish, amphibians and reptiles to the flowing stream, butterflies and bees to sources of pollen and nectar.

It also means – for better or worse – the return of parasites. It’s an age-old way of life, a survival strategy employing amazing feats of deception, stealth, straightforward attack and seemingly innocuous liaisons with unwitting hosts. Just the thought of parasites that target large, warm-blooded creatures – the ticks, leeches and lice that we can see; the worms, protozoa and mites that we can’t –  makes us shudder. Those that can deliver severe illness while feeding, like ticks, require hyper-vigilance, physical clothing barriers, chemical deterrents. They may not be out to get us specifically, but we serve their purpose.

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Lone Star tick

Parasitism among other animal species, however, can take many forms beyond direct feeding on a host. Brown-headed cowbirds, a species originally of short grass plains and now found throughout Maryland, are notorious brood parasites.

brown-headed cowbird
Brown-headed cowbird

They sneak into and lay their eggs in other smaller birds’ nests, letting the unwitting host parents raise their large, hungry, and dominant offspring. In mainland New Zealand, the shining cuckoo (riroriro) has similar behavior, targeting the tiny grey warbler as its host.

shining cuckoo
Shining cuckoo

Certain plants demonstrate parasitism as well. The Maryland Native Plant Society has declared 2019 the Year of Parasitic Plants to highlight this often overlooked group and their survival strategies.  Included are plants such as Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Indian or ghost pipes, that gain nutrients from attaching themselves indirectly to the roots of trees.  Lacking chlorophyll for photosynthesis, this species is hosted by mycorrhizal fungi that themselves derive food from tree roots (and aid the tree’s nutrient uptake in the process). 

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When Jemicy’s I Groupers take their annual trip to Echo Hill, they meet another variety of plant parasite that occurs widely in Maryland’s coastal plain. Walking on the boardwalk through the swamp, their guide will point out red maple trees that have not yet leafed out, but display large green masses in their branches. These are mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpuma parasitic plant that embeds itself in the living vascular tissues of a tree’s branches. 

Mistletoe, Wikimedia commons

Parasites can themselves be a source of food for humans. I remember as a child staring in disgust at misshapen, discolored ears of corn in our garden that had contracted a smut fungus. This parasite could ruin a corn crop in short order. But the same fungus is prized as a traditional southwestern delicacy known as huitlacoche.

Ustilago_maydis_Wikimedia Commons

This week in the Jemicy woods, we came upon a most amazing parasite story. A student who was catching frogs with a net called out, “This one has something wrong with it!” As we examined the young green frog, we found that it had an extra hind leg jutting out from behind one of its two normal back legs. The extra leg didn’t move and seemed to impede the frog’s motion as we released it. What pathogen could have caused this? Was some chemical introduced into our stream that caused mutations?

Searching for an answer to the mystery, this video popped up.

In some nearby wetland, the tadpole that became this frog was beset by a parasite that had been hosted by both a bird and a snail in other stages of its life, confounding the normal development of the frog’s limb buds. One of the young discoverers of the parasitized frog offered a succinct summary after seeing the video, “That is so disgusting. And also really cool.”

Out of trees

Trees are easy to take for granted. Standing leafless in the Jemicy woods, dark trunks braced resolutely against the wind, ice, and snow that winter throws at them, they are part of the background landscape. It’s also easy to forget how much of what we deem essential comes from those same solid trunks. 32855191774_f1f3a773c3_oWhile we wait for them to end their dormancy and reveal the first buds of spring, late winter is a good time to look around and acknowledge the presence and value of trees in virtually everything we do. I challenged my classes, as we went about our normal routines and special projects in the last few weeks, to give a shout out to items derived from trees. Some uses were immediately obvious: the classroom furniture, the paper we write on, the wood chips in some animal habitats. But others were more unusual, or creatively Jemicy-esque:

  • A paper Valentine delivered to a rat, who added it to her shredded paper beddingratvalentine
  • A hamster maze made of re-purposed paperIMG_0837
  • A scrap wood bench custom-built for a stuffed animalIMG_0705
  • Trebuchet frames

 

M Group students, learning about the layers of a tree’s trunk and vascular system, created “tree cookie” pendant necklaces from slices of branches that allowed them to see the annual rings formed in the xylem.

tree cookie

We examined different kinds of fibers and spent a week recycling paper scraps collected from around the school, turning them into our own paper creations.

The best part of learning about the xylem and phloem layers of the tree trunk, though, may be getting to taste what they produce. As the late winter sap began to move from the roots up the tree, carrying sugars formed in last year’s leaves, it was time to see what we could harvest. Once again, we repurposed plastic containers into buckets, drilled holes and tapped in spiles, and hoped for a stretch of cold nights and warmer days.

We managed to collect a few gallons and boiled some of it down over a bonfire (naturally, toasting marshmallows while we waited). Almost everything around us there, it seemed, came from trees: the wood for the fire, the marshmallow sticks, the logs that served as benches, the sap, the leafy mulch beneath our feet.

Once the sap run ended, we turned to our final tree-based winter project: birdhouse construction. Since we do this annually, we first checked previously installed boxes, cleaned out old nests and composted any wood that had rotted.trees-5 For the new houses, we examined the boards that we would use, learning about their grain, the knots where branches once attached, the way pine trees are grown and milled. In teams, the kids measured, cut, decorated, and assembled the birdhouses.

Amid the sounds of cardinals and woodpeckers announcing their spring territory in the woods, we installed the new birdhouses. Nearby, we are marking off an area to establish a small forest restoration project, with new tree plantings and the replenishment of understory biodiversity: an opportunity to give back to a patch of woods that we have taken for granted.