Search Results for: lter

Alternative Lessons

These are the lessons that you should use in your control (aka. comparison, BAU) classrooms.

All lessons can be found in Google Drive by following this link:

LTER Data Nuggets

The following Data Nuggets are written by LTER scientists and created using LTER Data.

To learn more about the ongoing collaboration between Data Nuggets and the LTER, check out our blog posts, “Data Nuggets: small activities with big impacts for students” and “LTER Data Nuggets: Breathing new life into long-term data“. If you have any questions about the research in an LTER Data Nugget, or want help accessing original datasets, please contact us or the Education and Outreach Coordinator (EOC) for that site. 

TitleLTER SiteEOC & WebsiteContent LevelSummary
All washed up? The effect of floods on cutthroat troutAndrews Forest LTERKari O'Connell2Floods are very common disturbances in streams. If floods happen right after fish breed and eggs hatch, young fish that cannot swim strongly may not survive. Although floods can be dangerous for fish, they are also very important for creating new habitat. Cutthroat trout are a species of fish living in Mack Creek, which experiences occasional floods. Trout breed in the early spring, right at the peak of flooding, so scientists are collecting long-term data on this species. Will floods hurt trout populations or help?
Trees and bushes, home sweet home for warblersAndrews Forest LTERKari O'Connell4The vast coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest provide surprisingly rich and diverse habitat types for birds. Andrews Forest is a long-term ecological research site where there have been manipulations of timber harvest and forest re-growth. This land use history has large impacts on the bird habitats found in an area. Each year since 2009, scientists have gone out and measured bird populations and habitat types. Two species of warbler, with very different habitat preferences, can give insight into how birds are responding to these disturbances.
Streams as sensors: Arctic watersheds as indicators of changeArctic LTERAmanda Morrison3As the world warms from climate change, the Alaskan Arctic is heating up. This is causing permafrost, or the frozen underground layer of rock and ice, to melt. When permafrost melts, plant material that has been stored for thousands of years begins to decay, releasing carbon and nitrogen from the system. Ecologists can act like “ecosystem accountants” measuring the balance of material that goes into and out of these systems.
Limit by limit: Nutrients control algal growth in Arctic streamsArctic LTERAmanda Morrison3Aquatic algae, a type of microbe that live in the water, need to take in nutrients from their surroundings for growth. Two important nutrients for algal growth are nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P). Climate change may be altering which nutrients are limiting to algae, changing food webs in the ecosystem.
Which tundra plants will win the climate change race?Arctic LTERAmanda Morrison3While you might think of the arctic tundra as a blanket of snow and polar bears, this vast landscape supports a diversity of unique plant and animal species. Climate change is altering the arctic environment. With warmer seasons and fewer days with snow covering the ground, soils are thawing more deeply and becoming more nutrient-rich. With more nutrients available, will some plant species be able to outcompete other species by growing taller and making more leaves than other plant species?
Spiders under the influenceBaltimore Ecosystem Study LTERBess Caplan & Alan Berkowitz2People use pharmaceutical drugs, personal care products, and other chemicals on a daily basis. Often, they get washed down our drains and end up in local waterways. Chris knew that many types of spiders live near streams and are exposed to toxins through the prey they eat. Chris wanted to compare effects of the chemicals on spiders in rural and urban environments. By comparing spider webs in these two habitats, they could see how different the webs are and infer how many chemicals are in the waterways.
Benthic buddiesBeaufort Lagoon Ecosystems LTERKatie Gavenus2Arctic lagoons support a surprisingly wide range of marine organisms! Marine worms, snails, and clams live in the muddy sediment of these lagoons. Having a rich variety of benthic animals in these habitats supports fish, which migrate along the shoreline and eat these animals once the ice has left. Ken, Danny, and Kaylie are interested in learning more about how the extreme seasons of the High Arctic affect the marine life that lives there.
DSC_0060The birds of Hubbard Brook, Part IHubbard Brook Experimental ForestSarah Garlick & Amey Bailey2Avian ecologists at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest have been monitoring bird populations for over 50 years. The data collected during this time is one of the longest bird studies ever conducted! What can we learn from this long-term data set? Are bird populations remaining stable over time?
DSC_0060The birds of Hubbard Brook, Part IIHubbard Brook Experimental ForestSarah Garlick & Amey Bailey3Hubbard Brook was heavily logged and disturbed in the early 1900s. When logging ended in 1915, trees began to grow back. The forest then went through secondary succession, which refers to the naturally occurring changes in forest structure that happen as a forest ages after it has been cut or otherwise disturbed. Can these changes in habitat availability, due to succession, explain why the number of birds are declining at Hubbard Brook? Are all bird species responding succession in the same way?
When whale I sea you again?Palmer Station Antarctica LTER Janice McDonnell4People have hunted whales for over 5,000 years for their meat, oil, and blubber. Today, as populations are struggling to recover from whaling, humpback whales are faced with additional challenges due to climate change. Their main food source is krill, which are small crustaceans that live under sea ice. As sea ice disappears, the number of krill is getting lower and lower. Humpback whale population recovery may be limited because their main food source is threatened by ongoing ocean warming.
DSC_0060Lizards, iguanas, and snakes! Oh my!Central Arizona–Phoenix LTER Lisa Herrmann3People have dramatically changed the natural riparian habitat found along rivers and streams. In many urban areas today, these riparian habitats are being rehabilitated with the hope of bringing back native species, such as reptiles. Reptiles, including snakes and lizards, are extremely important to monitor as they play important roles in ecosystems. Are rehabilitation efforts in Phoenix successful at restoring reptile diversity and abundance?
Bringing back the Trumpeter SwanKellogg Biological Station LTER & Kellogg Bird SanctuaryLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3Trumpeter swans are the biggest native waterfowl species in North America. At one time they were found across North America, but by 1935 there were only 69 known individuals in the continental U.S.! In the 1980s, many biologists came together to create a Trumpeter Swan reintroduction plan. Since then the North American Trumpeter Swan survey has been conducted to measure swan populations and determine whether this species is recovering.
DSC_0060Growing energy: comparing biofuel crop biomassKellogg Biological Station LTER & University Wisconsin-Madison GLBRCLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3Corn is one of the best crops for producing biomass for fossil fuels, however it is an annual and needs very fertile soil. To grow corn, farmers add a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their fields. Other crops, like switchgrass, prairie, poplar trees, and Miscanthus grass are perennials and require fewer fertilizers and pesticides to grow. If perennials can produce high levels of biomass with low inputs, perhaps they could produce more biomass than corn under certain low nutrient conditions.
A difficult droughtKellogg Biological Station LTER & University Wisconsin-Madison GLBRCLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas2Biofuels are made from plants that are growing today, and are being considered as an alternative to fossil fuels. To become biofuels, plants need to go through a series of chemical and physical processes that transform the sugars into ethanol. Scientists are interested in seeing how yeast’s ability to transform sugar into fuel is affected by environmental conditions in fields, such as temperature and rainfall. They used data from a year with drought and a year with normal rainfall to determine if plants that grew under drought conditions were lower quality for ethanol production.
DSC_0060Fertilizing biofuels may cause release of greenhouse gassesKellogg Biological Station LTER & University Wisconsin-Madison GLBRCLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3One way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere could be to grow our fuel instead of drilling for it. Unlike fossil fuels that can only release CO2, biofuels remove CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow and photosynthesize, potentially balancing the CO2 released when they are burned for fuel. However, the plants we grow for biofuels don’t necessarily absorb all greenhouse gas that is released during the process of growing them on farms and converting them into fuels.
DSC_0060The ground has gas!Kellogg Biological Station LTER & University Wisconsin-Madison GLBRCLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3Nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the warming of the global average temperature that is causing climate change. Sometimes soils give off, or emit, these greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere, adding to climate change. Currently scientists figuring out what causes differences in how much of each type of greenhouse gas soils emit.
A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.Mowing for monarchs, Part IKellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas2During the spring and summer months, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed plays an important role in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. When milkweed is cut at certain times of the year new shoots grow, which are softer and easier for caterpillars to eat. Scientists set out to see if mowing milkweed plants could help boost struggling monarch populations.
Mowing for monarchs, Part IIKellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas2When the scientists mowed down milkweed plants for their experiment, they changed more than the age of the milkweed plants. They also removed other plant species in the background community. Perhaps the patterns they were seeing were driven not by milkweed age, but by eliminating predators from the patches they mowed.
Blinking out?Kellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas2Many people have fond memories of watching fireflies blink across open fields and collecting them in jars as children. This is one of the reasons why fireflies are a beloved insect species. However, there is concern that their populations are in decline. Scientists turned to the longest-running study of fireflies known to science to see if this is the case!
DSC_0060Invasion Meltdown: will climate change make invasions even worse?Kellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3Humans are changing the earth in many ways, including adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change, and introducing species around the globe, which can lead to invasive species. Scientists wanted to know, could climate change actually help invasive species? Because invasive species have already survived transport from one habitat to another, they may be species that are better able to handle change, such as temperature changes.
DSC_0060Springing forwardKellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas1 & 3What does climate change mean for flowering plants that rely on temperature cues to determine when it is time to flower? Scientists who study phenology, or the timing if life-history events in plants and animals, predict that with warming temperatures, plants will produce their flowers earlier and earlier each year.
DSC_0060Cheaters in nature – when is a mutualism not a mutualism?Kellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas4Mutualisms are a special type of relationship in nature where two species work together and both benefit. This cooperation should lead to each partner species doing better when the other is around – without their mutualist partner, the species will have a harder time acquiring resources. But what happens when one partner cheats and takes more than it gives?
DSC_0060Fair traders or freeloaders?Kellogg Biological Station LTERLiz Schultheis & Kara Haas3One example of a mutualism is the relationship between a type of bacteria, rhizobia, and plants like peas, beans, soybeans, and clover. Rhizobia live in bumps on the plant roots, where they trade their nitrogen for sugar from the plants. Rhizobia turn nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. Under some conditions, this mutualism could break down, for example, if one of the traded resources is very abundant in the environment.
DSC_0060The mystery of Plum Island MarshPlum Island Ecosystems LTER & The TIDE ProjectDavid Moon3Salt marshes are among the most productive coastal ecosystems, and support a diversity of plants and animals. Algae and marsh plants feed many invertebrates, like snails and crabs, which are then eaten by larger fish and birds. In Plum Island, scientists have been fertilizing and studying salt marsh creeks to see how added nutrients affect the system. They noticed that fish populations seemed to be crashing in the fertilized creeks, while the mudflats were covered in mudsnails. Could there be a link?
DSC_0060Urbanization and estuary eutrophicationPlum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon4Estuaries are very productive habitats found where freshwater rivers meet the ocean. They are important natural filters for water and protect the coast during storms. A high diversity of plants, fish, shellfish and birds call estuaries home. Estuaries are threatened by eutrophication, or the process by which an ecosystem becomes more productive when excess nutrients are added to the system. Parts of the Plum Island Estuary in MA may be more at risk from eutrophication due to their proximity to urban areas.
DSC_0060Does sea level rise harm saltmarsh sparrows?Plum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon3For the last 100 years, sea levels around the globe have increased dramatically. Salt marshes grow right at sea level and are therefore very sensitive to sea level rise. Saltmarsh sparrows rely completely on salt marshes for feeding and nesting, and therefore their numbers are expected to decline as sea levels rise and they lose nesting sites. Will this threatened bird species decline over time as sea levels rise?
DSC_0060Keeping up with the sea levelPlum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon3Salt marshes are very important habitats for many species and protect the coast from erosion. Unfortunately, rising sea levels due to climate change are threatening these important ecosystems. As sea levels rise, the elevation of the marsh soil must rise as well so the plants have ground high enough to keep them above sea level. Basically, it is like a race between the marsh floor and sea level to see who can stay on top!
DSC_0060Is your salt marsh in the zone?Plum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon3Beginning in the 1980s, scientist James began measuring the growth of marsh grasses. He discovered that their growth was higher in some years and lower in others and that there was a long-term trend of growth going up over time. Marsh grasses grow around mean sea level, or the average elevation between high and low tides. Are the grasses responding to mean sea level changing year-to-year, and increasing as our oceans warm and water levels rise due to climate change?
Marsh makeoverPlum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon3The muddy soils in salt marshes store a lot of carbon, compared to terrestrial dry soils. This is because they are low in oxygen needed for decomposition. For this reason they play a key role in the carbon cycle and climate change. If humans disturb marshes, reducing plant diversity and biomass, are they also disturbing the marsh's ability to sequester carbon? If a marsh is restored, can the carbon holding capacity also be brought back to previous levels?
DSC_0060Invasive reeds in the salt marshPlum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon2Phragmites australis is an invasive reed that is taking over saltwater marshes of New England, outcompeting other plants that serve as food and homes for marsh animals. Once Phragmites has invaded, it is sometimes the only plant species left, called a monoculture. Phragmites does best where humans have disturbed a marsh, and scientists were curious why that might be. They thought that perhaps it was caused by changing salinity, or amount of salt in the water, after a marsh is disturbed.
DSC_0060Can a salt marsh recover after restoration?Plum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon2Before restoration began, it was clear the Saratoga Creek salt marsh was in trouble. Invasive Phragmites plants covered large areas of the marsh, crowding out native plants and animals. Human activity was thought to be the culprit – storm drains were dumping freshwater into the marsh, lowering salinity. In 1999 a restoration took place to divert freshwater away from the marsh in an attempt to reduce Phragmites numbers. Did it work?
DSC_0060Make way for mummichogsPlum Island Ecosystems LTERDavid Moon4Mummichogs are small fish that live in tidal marshes all along the US Atlantic coast. Because they are so widespread and can be found in most streams, they are a valuable tool for scientists looking to compare the health of different marshes. The absence of mummichogs in a salt marsh is a sign that it is highly damaged. Students collected data on mummichog numbers before and after a marsh restoration. Did the restoration successfully bring back mummichogs to the marsh?
The case of the collapsing soilFlorida Coastal Everglades LTERNick Oehm4The Everglades are a unique and vital ecosystem threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change. Recently scientists have observed in some areas of the wetland the soils are collapsing. What is causing this strange phenomena? Sea level rise might be stressing microbes, causing carbon to be lost to the atmosphere through increased respiration.
The carbon stored in mangrove soilsFlorida Coastal Everglades LTERNick Oehm2Mangroves are globally important for many reasons. They form dense forested wetlands that protect the coast from erosion and provide critical habitat for many animals. Mangrove forests also help in the fight against climate change by storing carbon in their soils. The balance between how much carbon is added to the soils and how much is released might be dependent on a variety of factors, including tree size and amount of disturbance to the site.
Are forests helping in the fight against climate change?Harvard Forest LTERClarisse Hart & Katharine Hinkle3In the 1990s, scientists began to wonder what role forests were having in the exchange of carbon in and out of the atmosphere. Were forests overall storing carbon (carbon sink), or releasing it (carbon source)? To test this, they built large metal towers that stand taller than the forest trees around them and use sensors to measure the speed, direction, and CO2 concentration of each puff of air that passes by. These long term measurements can tell us whether forests help in the fight against climate change.
A window into a tree’s worldHarvard Forest LTERClarisse Hart & Katharine Hinkle2Scientists are very interested in learning how trees respond to rapidly warming temperatures. Luckily, trees offer us a window into their lives through their growth rings. Growth rings are found within the trunk, beneath the bark. These rings provide a long historical record, which can be used to study how trees respond to climate change.
Love that dirty waterHarvard Forest LTERClarisse Hart & Katharine Hinkle4As green spaces are lost to make room for homes and businesses, there are fewer forests and wetlands to filter our drinking water. A team of scientists used the New England Landscapes Future Explorer to study this challenge for the Merrimack River, an important river for the people of New England.
These are two different experimental plots within the large field experiment at Konza Prairie Biological Station. The one with lots of trees is an unburned plot, the one with lots of grass is a burned plot.Fertilizer and fire change microbes in prairie soilKonza Prairie LTERJill Haukos4Prairies grow where three environmental conditions come together – a variable climate, frequent fires, and large herbivores roaming the landscape. However, prairies are experiencing many changes. For example, people now work to prevent fires, which allows forest species take over. In addition, land previously covered in prairie is now being used for agriculture. How do these changes affect the plants, animals, and microbial communities that inhabit prairies?
A bison mom and her calf.Does more rain make healthy bison babies?Konza Prairie LTERJill Haukos2The North American Bison is an important species for the prairie ecosystem. Bison affect the health of the prairie in many ways, and are also affected by the prairie as well. Each year when calves are born, scientists go out and determine their health by weighing them. This long-term dataset can be used to figure out whether environmental conditions from the previous year affect the health of the calves born in the current year.
Trees and the cityMinneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area LTERMeredith Keller3Trees provide important benefits, such as beauty and shade. The number and types of tree species that are planted in a neighborhood can increase the benefits received from trees in urban areas. Based on her own observations, Adrienne started conversations with her colleagues about differences in urban landscapes. They conducted a study to see how social demographics of neighborhoods may be related to tree species richness and tree cover.









LTER Data Nuggets: Breathing new life into long-term data

The original blog post can be found on the KBS LTER website here.


Each year the KBS LTER program awards graduate students summer fellowships. Here Elizabeth Schultheis and Melissa Kjevik, now both postdoctoral researchers with Michigan State University, describe the project their summer fellowship supported.

Today it is apparent that students and the public continue to struggle when faced with data and its interpretation. When asked to make sense of data taught in their science classrooms, gathered during classroom inquiry projects, or found in the news, students are unable to connect quantitative information to explanations of the way the world works. Without exposure and practice, a large dataset or complicated graph can seem insurmountable. In collaboration with K-12 teachers, the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) GK-12 programBEACON, and the LTER, we created Data Nuggets to help students overcome roadblocks when working with and interpreting data.

Data Nuggets are targeted classroom activities focused on developing quantitative skills for K-16 students. They are created from recent and ongoing research, bringing cutting edge science into the classroom and helping scientists share their work with broad audiences. The standard format of each Data Nugget provides background information about a scientist and their research, along with how they became interested in their research questions and system that they study. Each Data Nugget includes a real dataset for students to graph, interpret, and use to construct an explanation.

Scientist Mélanie Banville searching for reptiles in the Central Arizona-Phoenix LTER. Her and Heather Bateman’s Data Nugget, “Lizards, Iguanas, and Snakes! Oh My!”

Scientist Mélanie Banville searching for reptiles in the Central Arizona-Phoenix LTER. Her and Heather Bateman’s Data Nugget, “Lizards, Iguanas, and Snakes! Oh My!”

LTER Data Nuggets

The collaboration between Data Nuggets and the LTER is a mutually beneficial fit. LTER scientists help strengthen the Data Nuggets project by increasing the diversity of data and research available to students. In turn, Data Nuggets provide an avenue for LTER scientists to share their work and findings with a broad audience of students, teachers, and fellow scientists. Sharing research findings with the non-science public is an important part of the science process, yet is often one of the most challenging to achieve. With broader impacts a factor in most grants, finding effective methods of communication and transmission is key. Researchers who create Data Nuggets must dig deep to uncover the core messages of their research and think back to the big question that got them passionate about the research in the first place. Also, by creating a Data Nugget and practicing communicating research to a 6th grader, scientists can rest assured that at their next conference they’ll be better able to discuss their work with collaborators and those outside their field!

Researcher Sam Bond taking Sediment Elevation Table measurements in Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site. For more information on this research, check out Anne Giblin’s Data Nugget, “Keeping Up With the Sea Level”.

Researcher Sam Bond taking Sediment Elevation Table measurements in Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site. For more information on this research, check out Anne Giblin’s Data Nugget, “Keeping Up With the Sea Level”.

Most importantly, a great outcome of using LTER data to create Data Nuggets is that teachers and students will directly benefit from additional resources that highlight the importance of data and science in an authentic context. Activities aiming to improve quantitative skills are more effective if they’re grounded in real world situations that students can relate to. Connecting science to a student’s experiences and local ecosystems makes the content more accessible, particularly for culturally and linguistically diverse students. These connections also allow students to envision a place for themselves in science. To assist with place-based learning, each Data Nugget is categorized and searchable by the location where the study occurred, allowing teachers to connect data to their students’ environment. In this way, LTER Data Nuggets have the potential to increase interest and engagement with science and data, in both students and the public.

Robert Buchsbaum, from Mass Audubon, preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys. Find out more about his research on the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow in his Data Nugget, “Does Sea Level Rise Harm Saltmarsh Sparrows?”

Robert Buchsbaum, from Mass Audubon, preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys. Find out more about his research on the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow in his Data Nugget, “Does Sea Level Rise Harm Saltmarsh Sparrows?”

Working with LTER Scientists and Educators

This past summer (2015), we received support from the LTER Summer Fellowship program. This support allowed us to continue our work with Data Nuggets, and to strengthen their connection to the vast stores of data available through the LTER, including the KBS site and the other 24 sites in the LTER Network. While the LTER Network has conducted over three decades of amazing research, spanning diverse ecosystems and taxa, LTER education and outreach specialists are still finding creative new ways to share this important research with the public. Data Nuggets can breath new life into long-term

datasets, opening them up to the public and future scientists. These funds were used to support training workshops at the LTER All Scientists Meeting (ASM) in Estes Park, CO in August and at KBS in July. These two workshops supported early and late career scientists (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and REUs) and many LTER education and outreach specialists looking to broaden the impact of the LTER’s research and improve their communication skills. In addition, at the LTER ASM we participated in a poster session to reach out to those who were unable to attend our workshop. Our outreach efforts strengthened the connection between Data Nuggets and the LTER, and resulted in the creation of nine (and counting!) new Data Nuggets based on LTER research. Additionally, in August, we spoke to the teachers working with the KBS K-12 Partnership, connecting them with the LTER Data Nuggets and the vast pool of LTER data, freely available online.

When reflecting back on this summer, it was so great to work with a diversity of LTER scientists across the network. We enjoyed learning new science stories and are very happy to now include coastal, urban riparian, and other ecosystems in the Data Nuggets collection. Please feel free to contact Melissa or Elizabeth if you would like more information or to get started creating your own Data Nugget! For a list of all the Data Nuggets created by LTER scientists and outreach leaders, click here!

Increase your broader impacts with Data Nuggets! LTER ASM Meeting 2015

DSCN7466Sharing research findings with the non-science public is an important part of the science process, yet is often one of the most challenging to achieve. With broader impacts a factor in most grants, finding effective methods of transmission is key. Data Nuggets, a GK-12 initiative from the Kellogg Biological Station is a practical, high-impact solution to this conundrum. If you need to increase broader impacts for your research and want to further develop your communication skills, come to our hands-on workshop and create a Data Nugget based on your research!

Data Nuggets are targeted classroom activities that emphasize developing quantitative skills for K-16 students. They are created from recent and ongoing research, bringing cutting edge science into the classroom and helping scientists share their work with broad audiences. The standard format of each Data Nugget provides a brief background to a researcher and their study system along with a dataset from their research. Students are challenged to answer a scientific question, using the dataset to support their claim, and are guided through the construction of graphs to facilitate data interpretation.

DSCN7474We are currently seeking to add to our collection of Data Nuggets to showcase science done at LTER sites across the country. See examples of LTER Data Nuggets and learn more about our project by clicking on our LTER tag. During the workshop we will walk you through our templates for experimental and observational data, and help you identify a proper dataset, scientific question, and hypothesis for students of many ages. In order to finish a Data Nugget within the allotted time, participants must come to the workshop with a dataset already selected and analyzed.

  • Workshop info can be found here.
  • Organizers: Mary Spivey, Elizabeth Schultheis, and Melissa Kjelvik
  • Monday, August 31st – Working Group Session II

Which tundra plants will win the climate change race?

Some arctic Tundra plant species monitored in this experiment.
Arctic tundra plant species monitored in this experiment.

The activities are as follows:

The Arctic, the northernmost region of our planet, is home to a unique biome known as tundra. While you might think of the arctic tundra as a blanket of snow and polar bears, this vast landscape supports a diversity of unique plant and animal species. The tundra is an area without trees that supports many species of plants, mammals, birds, insects, and microbes. 

Arctic environments present many challenges to plants. Temperatures only creep above freezing for about three months each year. This short arctic summer means that the species that live there only have a brief period to grow and reproduce. From mid-May to the end of July the sun doesn’t set, so there’s plenty of light available. Plants need this light for photosynthesis to make sugars for food. 

Even when there is light, plants need to wait until the snow has melted and the soil has thawed enough for them to grow. Tundra plants have short roots since they can’t grow through frozen ground. These roots try to get nutrients the plant needs from the soil. But with the soil so cold, decomposition is very slow. This means that microbes cannot easily convert dead plant material into nutrients that plants need such as nitrogen and phosphorus. For this reason, the growth of tundra plants is usually limited by nutrients.

Climate change is altering the arctic environment. With warmer seasons and fewer days with snow covering the ground, soils are thawing more deeply and becoming more nutrient-rich. With more nutrients available, some plant species may be able to outcompete other species by growing taller and making more leaves than other plant species. This means that climate change may alter the whole ecosystem game in the tundra. Instead of nutrients limiting plant growth, it may shift to a game of competition between plants reaching for light.

Gus (left) and Jim (right) set up a weather station to monitor air temperature and humidity on the tundra.
Gus (left) and Jim (right) set up a weather station to monitor air temperature and humidity on the tundra.

To simulate the environmental conditions, we can look at long-term data from two scientists, Gus and Terry, who started working at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska in the 1970s. They conducted a series of experiments and learned that two nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, limited plant growth in the tundra. Then, in 1981, they set up a new experiment where they added both nutrients to experimental plots every year. Gus and Terry compared plant growth between these fertilized plots and control plots that were not fertilized. They wanted to figure out how each plant species would respond to more nutrients over the long term and what would happen to the plant community to see if some species would outcompete others in the fertilized conditions. This experiment is one way to mimic future conditions and test hypotheses about what we might expect to see.

The fertilizer was added every year in early June after the snow melted off the plots. Beginning in 1983, other scientists, such as Laura and Ruby, began to sample these plots. They dug out small 20-centimeter by 20-centimeter samples of tundra and brought them back to the nearby Toolik Field Station. In the lab, the tundra sample was separated into individual plant species and “plucked” to sort by different plant tissue types: leaves, stems, and roots. Then these plants were dried and weighed to determine the biomass (mass of living tissue) of each species in the sample. The fertilized and non-fertilized plots were sampled and plucked six times between 1983 and 2015. This means that many of the scientists who sampled the plots in 2015 had not yet been born when the experiment started in 1981!

Featured scientists: Gus Shaver (he/him), Jim Laundre (he/him), Laura Gough (she/her), and Ruby An (she/her) from Toolik Field Station, Arctic Long-term Ecological Research Site

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.6

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

A difficult drought

A field of switchgrass studied by biofuels researchers.

The activities are as follows:

Most people use fossil fuels like natural gas, coal, and oil daily. We use them to generate much of the energy that gets us from place to place, power our homes, and more. Fossil fuels are very efficient at producing energy, but they also come with negative consequences. For example, when burned, they release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. The right balance of greenhouse gasses is needed to keep our planet warm enough to live on. However, because we have burned so many fossil fuels, the earth has gotten too hot too fast, resulting in climate change. Scientists are looking for other ways to fuel our lives with less damage to our environment.

Substituting fossil fuels with biofuels is one of these options. Biofuels are fuels made from plants. Unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form, biofuels are renewable. They are made from plants grown and harvested every few years. Using biofuels instead of fossil fuels can be better for our environment because they do not release ancient carbon like burning fossil fuels does. In addition, the plants made into biofuels take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.

To become biofuels, plants need to go through a series of chemical and physical processes. The sugar stored in plant cells must undergo fermentation. In this process, microorganisms, like yeast, transform the sugars into ethanol that can be used for fuels. Trey is a scientist at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center. He is interested in seeing how yeast’s ability to transform sugar into fuel is affected by environmental conditions in fields, such as temperature and rainfall.

When there was a major drought in 2012, Trey used the opportunity to study the impacts of drought. The growing season had very high temperatures and very low rainfall. These conditions make it more difficult for plants to grow, including switchgrass, a prairie grass being studied as a potential biofuel source.

Trey knew that drought affects the amount and quality of switchgrass that can be harvested. He wanted to find out if drought also had effects on the ability of yeast to transform the plants’ sugars into ethanol. Stress from droughts is known to cause a build-up of compounds in plant cells that help them survive during drought. Trey thought that these extra compounds might harm the yeast or make it difficult for the yeast to break down the sugars during the fermentation process. Trey and his team predicted that if they fed yeast a sample of switchgrass grown during the 2012 drought, the yeast would struggle to ferment its sugars and produce fewer biofuels as a result.  

To test their idea, the team studied two different sets of switchgrass samples that were grown and collected in Wisconsin. One set of switchgrass was grown in 2010 under normal conditions. The other set was grown during the 2012 drought. The team introduced the two samples to yeast in a controlled setting and performed four fermentation tests for each set of switchgrass. They recorded the amount of ethanol produced during each test.

Featured scientists: Trey Sato from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Written by Marina Kerekes.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.2

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

There are other Data Nuggets that share biofuels research. Search this table for “GLBRC” to find more! Some of the popular activities include:

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has many biofuel-related resources available to K16 educators on their webpage.

For activities related specifically to this Data Nugget, see:

Size matters – and so does how you carry it!

The activities are as follows:

Stalk-eyed fly copulation.

In the wild, animals compete for limited resources. Things like food, water, shelter, and even reproductive mates can be hard to come by. Animals with traits and behaviors that make them more likely to survive and reproduce are said to have higher evolutionary fitness. Some animals have evolved special traits that advertise their fitness to potential mates. Male deer, elk, and moose have large antlers that they use to compete with other males, which demonstrates their fitness to females. Another interesting example is the stalk-eyed flies, in which the males grow long eye stalks to attract a mate. In these cases, females are more likely to choose males with the biggest traits.

Scientists have long predicted that these traits come with both benefits and costs. Large antlers or eyestalks may help a mate notice you, but also come with some costs. Extra weight takes more energy to move around and could make it more difficult to escape from predators. And yet, many studies have failed to find any measurable costs to males having these seemingly impractical traits.

This scientific mystery puzzled Jerry and John, who study stalk-eyed flies. They had failed to identify and document any costs to having longer eyestalks, measured as the distance between the eyes, or eyespan. Common sense told them that having longer eye stalks should make flying more awkward for these flies. However, their data did not support this hypothesis. “When I started collecting data, I focused a lot on the performance costs and got kind of fixated on that,” John says of the team’s initial research. “It was frustrating when we couldn’t identify any actual decline in performance.”

John in the field when he first started his research – many decades ago!

The team began looking for an alternative explanation. They read about research supporting a new idea in a completely different kind of flying animal – barn swallows. Male barn swallows have long, ornate tails. These tails make male barn swallows less aerodynamic during flight. But males have also evolved to have larger wings relative to their body size. This could help them compensate for the extra burden associated with their long tails.

Jerry and John wondered if a similar thing might be at work in stalk-eyed fly wings. Perhaps the male stalk-eyed flies, like male barn swallows, had evolved to have larger wings relative to their body size to help them compensate for long eye stalks when flying. If this were the case, then they expected to see a positive correlation between wing size and eyespan. Could this be why they were unable to measure any disadvantage associated with having longer, more awkward eye stalks? In other words, male stalk-eyed flies with larger wings would be able to support longer eye stalks.

Eyespan (horizontal arrow) and body size (vertical arrow) of a stalk-eyed fly.

Jerry, John, and their team decided to test their new hypothesis by raising stalk-eyed flies in the lab to maturity, then collecting data about their body length, eyespan, and wing area.

To account for natural variation in body size among stalk-eyed flies, the team needed to use “relative” measurements based on body size. With these kinds of measurements, a value of zero (0) means that wing size or eyespan is exactly what you would predict for a fly of that body size. Negative values mean that wing size or eyespan are smaller than you would predict for that body size, while positive values mean that wing size or eyespan is greater than you would predict for that body size. For example, if a fly has a relative eyespan of -0.010, then the distance between the eyestalks was 0.010 millimeters shorter than expected based on its body size.

Featured scientists: Jerry Husak from the University of St. Thomas and John Swallow from the University of Colorado-Denver. Written by: Sam Holloway

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.8

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

You can find lessons to accompany many of John’s studies with insects on the Data Nuggets website! Check out the following Data Nugget activities!

A peer-reviewed journal article: Husak, J. F., Ribak, G., Wilkinson, G. S., & Swallow, J. G. 2011. Compensation for exaggerated eye stalks in stalk‐eyed flies (Diopsidae). Functional Ecology, 25(3), 608-616.

A video of a stalk-eyed fly in flight:

Trees and the city

A neighborhood with many tree species and a lot of tree cover.

The activities are as follows:

We often imagine nature as being a place outside of cities. But within our cities, we are surrounded by nature – in fact, most human interactions with nature happen within urban areas. Picturing a tree, we might imagine it in a remote forest, yet many trees are planted by residents and local governments within cities. Trees provide important benefits, such as beauty and shade. The number and types of tree species that are planted in a neighborhood can increase the benefits received from trees in urban areas.

When Adrienne first moved to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, she started exploring Minneapolis and St. Paul by bike. Biking is done at a slow enough pace that she can travel long distances but still make observations about neighborhoods in these cities. As an ecologist, she naturally found herself looking for patterns in trees. For example, she noticed some older neighborhoods in St. Paul have a lot of large trees that provide plenty of shade and tree cover. In other neighborhoods, Adrienne saw fewer types of trees and noticed that she spent less time shaded by branches and leaves.

Adrienne biking around Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Adrienne started conversations with her colleagues about their observations of differences in urban landscapes. They discussed the ways in which laws, policies, and practices (“the way things are done”) give advantages to certain groups of people over others. These advantages are woven into our cultural systems.

Adrienne and her fellow researchers expected that neighborhoods with wealthier and more white residents would have benefited from a long history of greater investment.

Therefore, these neighborhoods were expected to have greater tree cover from the large old trees that have been growing there for many years. They also expected these neighborhoods would have more types of trees. In contrast, the researchers expected that less wealthy neighborhoods and those with a greater percentage of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) would have less tree cover and fewer types of trees because of chronic lower investment in these neighborhoods.

To research these ideas, Adrienne and her colleagues combined three different sources of publicly available data:

  • U.S. Census data, used to estimate % BIPOC and average median household income per ‘Block Group’ (similar to a neighborhood).
  • Satellite images, which are often used to estimate % tree cover, measure the percent of land area covered by the tree canopy. Adrienne looked at tree cover in the Block Group areas used in the Census.
  • City data that include the location and species for each tree planted along public streets to calculate tree species richness in each Block Group. Tree species richness is the number of different tree species in an area and is a measure of tree biodiversity used by many ecologists.

Featured scientists: Adrienne Keller (she/her) from the University of Minnesota

The data in this activity are from the MSP Long-term Ecological Research Site. The focus of the research at this site is centered on ecological interactions in urban environments. You can learn more here.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.4

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • You can have students read more about environmental justice research from the MSP LTER in this peer-reviewed article (email us at if you need a downloadable version):
    • Rebecca H. Walker, Hannah Ramer, Kate D. Derickson & Bonnie L. Keeler (2023) Making the City of Lakes: Whiteness, Nature, and Urban Development in Minneapolis. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2022.2155606
  • This short video features Adrienne as she describes the motivation and process behind her research study.

Collaborative cropping: Can plants help each other grow?

The activities are as follows:

Alfalfa (middle) planted in a Kernza® field.

Most of the crops grown on farms in the United States are annual plants, like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Annual plants die every year after harvest and must be replanted the following year. Preparing farm fields for replanting every year can erode soils and hurt important bacteria and fungi living in the soil.

One way to change how we produce food is to grow more perennial crops. Perennial plants live for many years and don’t need to be replanted. Perennials stay in the ground all year and start growing right away in the spring before annual crops are even planted. This early growth also gives perennial crops a “head-start” in competing with annual weed species that emerge later in the season.

While there are potential benefits of perennial crops, they are not commonly planted because they tend to make lower profits for farmers than annual crops. Crop scientists are still examining potential options to make perennial crops work at a large scale for farmers. For twenty years, researchers at The Land Institute in Kansas and at the University of Minnesota have been looking at a new perennial grain, called Kernza®, that could be used as an alternative to wheat and rye annual crops. Kernza® comes from the seeds of a plant called intermediate wheatgrass. Because Kernza® is such a new crop, scientists still have a lot to learn about it. Before it can be widely used by farmers, they want to know what field conditions help the plants grow to ensure the crop makes money for farmers.

Dr. Jake Jungers taking a soil core in a Kernza® field.

One strategy to improve field conditions for perennial crops is to plant legumes in the field alongside them. Legumes can make nitrogen, a nutrient that plants need to grow, more available to the plants around them. Additionally, farmers can select legume species that typically don’t compete with the crop but may outcompete weeds.

Jake is an ecologist who uses his knowledge about plants to make agriculture more sustainable. Jake wanted to do some research into alfalfa, a type of perennial legume that might work well with Kernza®. Jake thought that growing alfalfa alongside Kernza® would lead to increased profit and yield for two reasons. One, because it would add nitrogen to the soil to boost crop growth. Two, because alfalfa would compete with agricultural weed species, making valuable resources available for the crop plants.

To test this idea, Jake set up an experiment with his team. Alfalfa was grown with Kernza® at three different locations in Minnesota in 2019. The study was replicated four times at each site, with the same amount of alfalfa and Kernza® planted into each field. At the end of the growing season, the fields were harvested, and the plants were sorted into three categories: Kernza®, alfalfa, and weed species. He further sorted Kernza® by grain, which can be used for food, and straw, which can be used for animal feed. Jake wanted to compare yield, or plant growth per unit area, across the plant categories. To do this, he weighed all the plants in each category to get the biomass and then divided by the area of the field.

Featured scientist: Jake Jungers (he/him) from the University of Minnesota

Written by Claire Wineman (she/her)

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

Benthic buddies

Danny and Kaylie sampling benthic animals

The activities are as follows:

Lagoons are areas along the coast where a shallow pocket of sea water is separated from the ocean most of the time. During some events, like high tides, the ocean water meets back up with the lagoon. Coastal lagoons are found all over the world – even in the most northern region of Alaska, called the High Arctic!

These High Arctic lagoons go through many extreme changes each season. In April, ice completely covers the surface. The mud at the bottom of the shorelines is frozen solid. In June, the ice begins to break up and the muddy bottoms of the lagoons begin to thaw. The melting ice adds freshwater to the lagoons and lowers the salt levels. In August, lagoon temperatures continue to rise until there is only open water and soft mushy sediment.

You would think these harsh conditions would make High Arctic lagoons not suitable to live in. However, these lagoons support a surprisingly wide range of marine organisms! Marine worms, snails, and clams live in the muddy sediment of these lagoons. This habitat is also called the bottom, or benthic, environment. Having a rich variety of benthic animals in these habitats supports fish, which migrate along the shoreline and eat these animals once the ice has left. And people who live in the Arctic depend on fishing for their food.

Ken, Danny, and Kaylie are a team of scientists from Texas interested in learning more about how the extreme seasons of the High Arctic affect the marine life that lives there. They want to know whether the total number of benthic species changes with the seasons. Or does the benthic community of worms, snails, and clams stay constant throughout the year regardless of ice, freezing temperatures, and large changes in salt levels? The science team thought that the extreme winter conditions in the Arctic lagoons cause a die-off each year, so there would be fewer species found at that time. Once the ice melts each year, benthic animals likely migrate back into the lagoons from deeper waters and the number of species would increase again.

Ken, Danny, and Kaylie had many discussions about how they could answer their questions. They decided the best approach would be to travel to Alaska to take samples of the benthic animals. To capture the changes in lagoon living conditions, they would need to collect samples during the three distinct seasons.

Benthic organisms from a sample

The science team chose to sample Elson Lagoon because it is in the village of Utqiaġvik, Alaska and much easier to reach than other Arctic lagoons. They visited three times. First, in April, during the ice-covered time, again in June when the ice was breaking up, and a final time in summer when the water was warmer. In April, they used a hollow ice drill to collect a core sample of the frozen sediment beneath the ice. In June and August, they deployed a Ponar instrument into the water, which snaps shut when it reaches the lagoon bottom to grab a sample. Each time they visited the lagoon, they collected two sediment samples.

Back in the lab, they rinsed the samples with seawater to remove the sediment and reveal the benthic animals. The team then sorted and identified the species present. They recorded the total number of different species, or species richness, found in each sample.

Featured scientists: Ken Dunton, Daniel Fraser, and Kaylie Plumb from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute

Written by: Maria McDonel from Flour Bluff and Corpus Christi Schools

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include: