Friday, June 13, 2014

A trip to Meadowlily to teach kids about biodiversity

On Wednesday I was given the opportunity to teach about 200 grade 3-5 students (ages 8 to 11 or so) about biodiversity and why it's important. The students got to visit four stations (catching butterflies, a walk through the forest to learn about trees, catching snails and other ground-dwelling insects, and planting meadow plant species) and at ours they learned about why plants rock, why native species are important, and why maintaining (if not increasing) biodiversity is important. Since kids LOVE monarch butterflies and snails, we used them to illustrate two important points: if we decrease biodiversity by planting grass everywhere then monarchs won't have their food and shelter plant and so they'll disappear, and if we continue to introduce invasive species then we'll continue to see a decline in our native species that we know and love. The kids loved helping Chen round up the invasive snails (he ended up with the equivalent of a 10-gallon bucket FULL of was ridiculous) for his research, and I was surprised to see how much they loved planting wildflowers with Sandra and I.

Now, I say that I was given the opportunity to do this...which might sound weird to many research-intense academics. As a professor at a university (which I'm not; I'm a graduate student), most are required to dedicate 10% of their overall work duties to outreach in some form. Many do within-department outreach (often involving talking to undergraduate students), a few do inter-departmental outreach, some have a consulting gig on the side which is considered community outreach. But there seems to be an ever-decreasing number who truly love doing "real" community outreach: bringing science outside the ivory tower to the general public, whether that be a class of grade 3 students or a special-interest seniors group at a retirement home. The reasons for this I'm sure are vast, and I don't attempt to pretend I know why this is (decreasing funding, increasing student load and increasing teaching load all contribute, along with personal motivation and other intrinsic factors are my guesses), but I think this is doing a real detriment to science in general. When there's an outcry by scientists on Parliament Hill in Ottawa about slashes to government funding for science research, we hope that the general public is behind us and supports our plight. Science research is invaluable and can lead to so many amazing discoveries, and so it should be supported. But if we're not educating the public about the awesome "stuff" we're doing...why do we expect their support? Sure, a lot of people know about tar sands, where they are, what they are, the kind of impact it has to the Canadian economy and even the environmental impact they have. But what about the population genetics of spicebush swallowtail butterflies? What about the diversity of mosses present in nutrient-poor bogs in northern Ontario? What about the plastid genome size of green algae present in a lake in Chile (which may or may not be the same species as the green alga with the same name present in a lake in Australia...)? If we don't tell people why they should care about these research projects, why should we expect them to support us when our funding has been cut? I feel that science outreach is so, so important. This helps foster the scientists of tomorrow! It helps people understand why what we dedicate our life to is important! Plus...the look on a child's face when they learn something new for the first time about something they were blissfully unaware about previously is one of the most rewarding feelings on this planet.

This outreach activity that I did on Wednesday was originally started as a partnership between the Thames Talbot Land Trust (you can visit their website HERE to learn more about them) and a teacher at the local school board. He started a club for high school students called the Environmental Leadership Program, and Dr. Jane Bowles (you can read all about Jane in one of my previous blog posts HERE) helped him come up with activities that the high school students could do with elementary school students at one of TTLT's stewardship properties in the city. The program occurs every year in June, and each year two new elementary schools are given the opportunity to participate in this program at no cost to them. This was important to Jane...get kids out in nature, and appreciate it for what it is not what we choose to make it. Since Jane's death in July last year I've been doing a lot of outreach activities through the Arboretum/Herbarium, and now through this partnership with the TTLT. If I get to do this for the rest of my life, I will be one happy camper. I can see why Jane loved this so much. Every time I do a botany-themed outreach activity I tell myself at the beginning that if I would have made Jane proud, I've done my job. She was quite the lady.

I would LOVE to post pictures of the kids and how excited they were to plant the meadow seedlings and some "action shots" but...that's actually against the law. So instead, here's a photo-tour of the site and a tiny piece of the surrounding area with some cool stuff I saw while I was at Meadowlily. My supervisor and I have been to the area before looking for mushrooms, but we had never ventured this direction into the actual meadow. It was really neat to go there, and I'm definitely going back sometime to explore some more! And to check up on "our" plants :) So without further! There are a lot of them (sorry to those of you with slow internet connections!) :)

Meadowlily meadow, looking East-ish. Don and Drew planning the hole placement for our meadow plant planting.

The Meadowlily meadow looking West-ish (you can see a passing transport truck on Highbury Ave; from where we were you'd have no idea this was right beside a road with a speed limit of 100 km/hr. Amazing what kind of sound buffer nature can be!)

One of our meadow species we were planting: wild bergamot. It's a really beautiful plant with purple flowers that is great for attracting butterfly and bee species. A great garden plant for full-sun locations!

Sandra preparing the milkweed seedlings for the kids to plant (getting them out of those styrofoam trays was much more difficult than it seems. I swear you need an engineering degree to figure it all out. I ended up just digging my fingers in and pulling them out. I got muddy!). This species of milkweed is sometimes called the "monarch flower" (or another name along those lines) since it is the only food source of the monarch butterfly. It was recently taken off the noxious weed list in Ontario, so if you can find some in nurseries, plant some in your garden! And don't kill the caterpillars eating the plants...they'll grow up to be monarchs one day.

Another meadow species, but this one isn't native (native to Europe; naturalized, not invasive, in Canada). A close relative of the dandelion, this is called the common goat's-beard (Tragopogon dubius).

Two TTLT summer interns, Drew and Jamie, digging some of the grass out of the way to make space for wildflower planting! They were a great help during the day.

A view looking towards the river showing the kind of diversity present at the site. 1) an American basswood tree, 2) Virginia creeper, 3) wild grape, and 4) Dame's Rocket in full bloom. VERY unusual for mid-June; usually those are done flowering here by the end of May. We've had some wacky weather!

The three colours of flower you can find in a population of Dame's Rocket: purple, white, and slightly-more-purple-than-white. A great little plant to do some outdoor genetics experiments on. Illustrating genetic principles using real-world examples. Awesome!

One of the branches of the Thames river running through Meadowlily. The water was remarkably high, and moving quickly. No boaters today, but I'm sure if the weather was nicer (overcast, threatening to rain all day without ever having actually rained) there would have been lots!

A really nice, old Bur oak tree that I was admiring for a while and then thought...wait a minute. Are those BUCKETS up in the tree?! That's nearly three stories off the ground. How the heck did they get up there?!

Canada anemone, one of our showiest native forest wildflowers. This species flowers in the spring, unlike the fall-flowering Chinese or Japanese anemone that most people plant in their garden as an ornamental species.

A great example of why planting invasive species in your garden when you live near a natural area is a really, really bad idea: yellow flag iris starting to take over the wetland area at the edge of the forest where it meets the river. Eventually it will out-compete all of the native wetland species around it and it will be a solid stand of yellow flag iris. Might look pretty, but it's not nearly as important to the ecosystem as the native species!

The smallest vascular plant in the world, duckweed, floating on the surface of a tiny stream feeding into the river. I was trying out my new rubber boots here by wading down the stream. They work! Feet dry.

Another unfortunate invasive species taking over. This is forget-me-not. If you live near a natural area, don't plant this species, either!

A very cool insect-insect-plant mutualism we saw during the lunch break. These VICIOUS red ants (we taunted them with a stick to see what they would do, and attack they did!) were defending their little aphid colonies that were feeding on cottonwood trees. The aphids suck out the sap in the main vein of the leaf, and any extra they can't consume pools on the leaf surface as a "honeydew". The ants consume the honeydew for nutrients. I'm sure they would also consume the aphids, if they ever stopped doing their jobs!

It wouldn't have been a day in the great outdoors if I didn't at least make an effort to look for mushrooms. And let me tell you...the crop this year in this area is abysmal. We didn't have enough rain in the early spring, and then had too much rain later in the spring, and so now everyone's confused at what season it is and what they're supposed to be doing. This was only one of two trees that had mushrooms on them. That's it! One single species of mushroom on two trees all day! I felt ripped off.

The same species of fungus (Dryad's saddle or Polyporus squamosus) growing on a very dead tree. Some of those mushrooms were 50 cm across!

I call this picture my "mushroom selfie". I think I'm going to start making this a thing...any mushroom worth photographing gets made into a selfie. You should all do it, too! I was using this particular mushroom to talk about the dangers of invasive species (snails eat the spore-bearing surface, or the location where mushrooms make their babies, of fungi and are likely a huge factor contributing to the steady decline of fungal species in North America. Invasive species are bad!!) either accidentally or purposely introduced to an area.

Hi Mr. Toad! Sorry for almost stepping on you...twice. Don't worry, he's fine. Or she...I don't know how to tell the difference between male and female toads. I always interpret frogs as females and toads as males until proven otherwise.