The birds of Hubbard Brook, Part II

In Part I, you examined patterns of total bird abundance at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. These data showed bird numbers at Hubbard Brook have declined since 1969. Is this true for every species of bird? You will now examine data for four species of birds to see if each of these species follows the same trend.

Red-eyed vireo in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Red-eyed vireo in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

The activities are as follows:

It is very hard to study migratory birds because they are at Hubbard Brook only during their breeding season (summer in the Northern Hemisphere). They spend the rest of their time in the southeastern United States, the Caribbean or South America or migrating between their two homes. Therefore, it can be difficult to tease out the many variables affecting bird populations over their entire range. To start, scientists decided to focus on what they could study—the habitat types at Hubbard Brook and how they might affect bird populations.

Hubbard Brook Forest was heavily logged and disturbed in the early 1900s. Trees were cut down to make wood products, like paper and housing materials. Logging ended in 1915, and various plants began to grow back. The area went through what is called secondary succession, which refers to the naturally occurring changes in forest structure that happen as a forest recovers after it was cut down or otherwise disturbed. Today, the forest has grown back. Scientists know that as the forest grew older, its structure changed: Trees grew taller, the types of trees changed, and there was less shrubby understory. The forest now contains a mixture of deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter (about 80–90%; mostly beech, maples, and birches) and evergreen trees, mostly conifers, that stay green all year (about 10–20%; mostly hemlock, spruce, and fir).

Richard and his fellow scientists already knew a lot about the birds that live in the forest. For example, some bird species prefer habitats found in younger forests, while others prefer habitats found in older forests. They decided to look carefully into the habitat preferences of four important species of birds—Least Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and American Redstart—and compare them to habitats available at each stage of succession. They wondered if habitat preference of a bird species is associated with any change in the bird populations at Hubbard Brook since the beginning of succession.

  • Least Flycatcher: The Least Flycatcher prefers to live in semi-open, mid-successional forests. The term mid-successional refers to forests that are still growing back after a disturbance. These forests usually consist of trees that are all about the same age and have a thick canopy at the top with few gaps, a relatively open area under the canopy, and a denser shrub layer close to the ground.
  • Black-throated Green Warbler: The Black-throated Green Warbler occupies a wide variety of habitats. It seems to prefer areas where deciduous and coniferous forests meet and can be found in both forest types. It avoids disturbed areas and forests that are just beginning succession. This species prefers both mid-successional and mature forests.
  • Red-eyed Vireo: The Red-eyed Vireo breeds in deciduous forests as well as forests that are mixed with deciduous and coniferous trees. They are abundant deep in the center of a forest. They avoid areas where trees have been cut or blown down and do not live near the edge. After an area is logged, it often takes a very long time for this species to return.
  • American Redstart: The American Redstart generally prefers moist, deciduous, forests with many shrubs. Like the Least Flycatcher, this species prefers mid-successional forests.

birds

Featured scientist: Richard Holmes from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Data Nugget written by: Sarah Turtle and Jackie Wilson.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.6

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

There are multiple publications related to the data included in this activity:

  • Holmes, R. T. 2011. Birds in northern hardwoods ecosystems: Long-term research on population and community processes in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Forest Ecology and Management doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.06.021.
  • Holmes, R.T., 2007. Understanding population change in migratory songbirds: long-term and experimental studies of Neotropical migrants in breeding and wintering areas. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 2), 2-13.
  • Townsend, A. K., et al. (2016). The interacting effects of food, spring temperature, and global climate cycles on population dynamics of a migratory songbird. Global Change Biology 2: 544-555.

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The birds of Hubbard Brook, Part I

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding nestlings. Nests of this species are built typically less than one meter above ground in a shrub such as hobblebush. Photo by N. Rodenhouse.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding nestlings. Nests of this species are built typically less than one meter above ground in a shrub such as hobblebush. Photo by N. Rodenhouse.

The activities are as follows:

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is an area where scientists have collected ecological data for many years. It is located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Data collected in this forest helps uncover environmental trends over long periods of time, such as changes in air temperature, precipitation, forest growth, and animal populations. It is important to collect data on ecosystems over time because these patterns could be missed with shorter observation periods or short-term experiments.

Richard Holmes is an avian ecologist who began this study because he was interested in how bird populations were responding to long-term environmental change.

Richard Holmes is an avian ecologist who began this study because he was interested in how bird populations were responding to long-term environmental change.

Each spring, Hubbard Brook comes alive with the arrival of migratory birds. Many come from the tropics to take advantage of abundant insects and the long summer days of northern areas. In the spring, avian ecologists, or scientists who study the ecology of birds, also become active in the forest at Hubbard Brook. They have been keeping records on the birds that live in the experimental forest for over 50 years. These data are important because they represent one of the longest bird studies ever conducted!

Richard is an avian ecologist who began this study early in his career as a scientist. He was interested in how bird populations respond to long-term environmental changes at Hubbard Brook. Every summer since 1969, Richard takes his team of trained scientists, students, and technicians into the field to identify which species are present. Richard’s team monitors populations of over 30 different bird species. They count the number of birds that are in the forest each year and study their activities during the breeding season. The researchers wake up every morning before the sun rises and travel to the far reaches of the forest. They listen for, look for, identify, and count all the birds they find. The team has been trained to be able to identify the birds by sight, but also by their calls. Team members are even able to identify how far away a bird is by hearing its call!

The study area is located away from any roads or other disturbed areas. To measure the abundance, or number of birds found in the 10 hectare study area, the researchers used what is called the spot-mapping method. They use plastic flags on trees 50 meters apart throughout the study area to create a 50×50 meter grid. The grid allows them to map where birds are found in this area, and when possible, where they locate their nests. Using the grid the researchers systematically walk through the plot several days each week from early May until July, recording the presence and activities of every bird they find. They also note the locations of nearby birds singing at the same time. These records are combined on a map to figure out a bird’s territory, or activity center. At the end of the breeding season they count up the number of territories to get an estimate of the number of birds on the study area. This information, when paired with observations on the presence and activities of mates, locations of nests, and other evidence of breeding activity provide an accurate estimate for bird abundance. Finally, some species under close study, like American Redstart and Black-throated Blue Warbler, were captured and given unique combinations of colored bands, which makes it easier to track individuals.

By looking at bird abundance data across many years, Richard and his colleagues can identify trends that reveal how avian populations change over time.

Featured scientist: Richard Holmes from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Data Nugget written by: Sarah Turtle, Jackie Wilson and Elizabeth Schultheis.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.3

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

There are multiple publications related to the data included in this activity:

  • Holmes, R. T. 2011. Birds in northern hardwoods ecosystems: Long-term research on population and community processes in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Forest Ecology and Management doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.06.021.
  • Holmes, R.T., 2007. Understanding population change in migratory songbirds: long-term and experimental studies of Neotropical migrants in breeding and wintering areas. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 2), 2-13.
  • Townsend, A. K., et al. (2016). The interacting effects of food, spring temperature, and global climate cycles on population dynamics of a migratory songbird. Global Change Biology 2: 544-555.

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Keeping up with the sea level

A view of salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) growing in a marsh

A view of salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) growing in a marsh

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are ecosystems that occur along much of the coast of New England in the United States. Salt marshes are very important – they serve as habitat for many species, are a safer breeding location for many fish, absorb nutrients from fertilizer and sewage coming from land and prevent them from entering the ocean, and protect the coast from erosion during storms.

Unfortunately, rising sea levels are threatening these important ecosystems. Sea level is the elevation of the ocean water surface compared to the elevation of the soil surface. Two processes are causing sea levels to rise. First, as our world gets warmer, ocean waters are getting warmer too. When water warms, it also expands. This expansion causes ocean water to take up more space and it will continue to creep higher and higher onto the surrounding coastal land. Second, freshwater frozen in ice on land, such as glaciers in Antarctica, is now melting and running into the oceans. Along the New England coast, sea levels have risen by 0.26 cm a year for the last 80 years, and by 0.4 cm a year for the last 20 years. Because marshes are such important habitats, scientists want to know whether they can keep up with sea level rise.

Researcher Sam Bond taking Sediment Elevation Table (SET) measurements in the marsh

Researcher Sam Bond taking Sediment Elevation Table (SET) measurements in the marsh

When exploring the marsh, Anne, a scientist at the Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site, noticed that the salt marsh appeared to be changing over time. One species of plant, salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), appeared to be increasing in some areas. At the same time, some areas with another species of plant, salt marsh hay (Spartina patens), appeared to be dying back. Each of these species of plants is growing in the soil on the marsh floor and needs to keep its leaves above the surface of the water. 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!

Anne and her colleges measured how fast marsh soil elevation was changing near both species of plants. They set up monitoring points in the marsh using a device called the Sediment Elevation Table (SET). SET is a pole set deep in the marsh that does not move or change in elevation. On top of this pole there is an arm with measuring rods that record the height of the marsh surface. The SETs were set up in 2 sites where there is salt marsh cordgrass and 2 sites where there is salt marsh hay. Anne has been taking these measurements for more than a decade. If the marsh surface is rising at the same rate as the sea, perhaps these marshes will continue to do well in the future.

Featured scientist: Anne Giblin from the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research site

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.1

Does sea level rise harm Saltmarsh Sparrows?

Painting of the saltmarsh sparrow

Painting of the saltmarsh sparrow

The activities are as follows:

For the last 100 years, sea levels around the globe have increased dramatically. The cause of sea level rise has been investigated and debated. Data from around the world supports the hypothesis that increasing sea levels are a result of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. As we warm the Earth, the oceans get warmer and polar ice caps melt. The dramatic increase in sea level that results could seriously threaten ecosystems and the land that humans have developed along the coast.

Salt marshes are plains of grass that grow along the east coast of the United States and many coasts worldwide. Salt marshes grow right at sea level and are therefore very sensitive to sea level rise. In Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Tide Gauge has measured a 21mm rise in sea level over the last 8 years. That means every year sea level has gone up an average of 2.6mm since 2008 – more than two and a half times faster than before we started burning fossil fuels! Because sea level is going up at such a fast rate, Robert, a scientist in Boston, became concerned for the local salt marsh habitats near his home. Robert was curious about what will happen to species that depend on Boston’s Plum Island Sound salt marshes when sea levels continue to rise.

Robert preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys.

Robert preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys.

Robert decided to look at species that are very sensitive to changes in the salt marsh. When these sensitive species are present, they indicate the marsh is healthy. When these species are no longer found in the salt marsh, there might be something wrong. The Saltmarsh Sparrow is one of the few bird species that builds its nests in the salt marsh, and is totally dependent on this habitat. 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. Robert heard that scientists studying Connecticut marshes reported the nests of these sparrows have been flooded in recent years. He wanted to know if the sparrows in Massachusetts were also losing their nests because of high sea levels.

For the past two decades Robert has kept track of salt marsh breeding birds at Plum Island Sound. In his surveys since 2006, Robert counted the number of Saltmarsh Sparrows in a given area. He did these surveys in June when birds are most likely to be breeding. He used the “point count” method – standing at a center point he measured out a 100 meter circle around him. Then, for 10 minutes, he counted how many and what kinds of birds he saw or heard within and just outside the circle. Each year he set up six count circles and performed counts three times in June each year at each circle. Robert also used sea level data from Boston Harbor that he can relate to the data from his bird surveys. He predicted that sea levels would be rising in Plum Island Sound and Saltmarsh Sparrow populations would be falling over time.

Featured scientist: Robert Buchsbaum from Mass Audubon. Written by: Wendy Castagna, Daniel Gesin, Mike McCarthy, and Laura Johnson

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.5

Saltmarsh-Sparrow-104-crAdditional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

coordinates

station locations

What do trees know about rain?

A cypress pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates.

A cypress pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates.

The activities are as follows:

Did you know that Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world? Because it is so dry, we need to be able to predict how often and how much rain will fall. Predictions about future droughts help farmers care for their crops, cities plan their water use, and scientists better understand how ecosystems will change. The typical climate of arid northwest Australia consists of long drought periods with a few very wet years sprinkled in. Scientists predict that climate change will cause these cycles to become more extreme – droughts will become longer and periods of rain will become wetter. When variability is the norm, how can scientists tell if the climate is changing and droughts and rain events today are more intense than what we’ve seen in the past?

To make rainfall predictions for the future, scientists need data on past rainfall. However, humans have only recorded rainfall in Australia for the past 100 years. Because climate changes slowly and goes through long-term cycles, scientists need very long term datasets of rainfall.

Scientist Alison coring a cypress pine

Scientist Alison coring a cypress pine

The answer to this challenge comes from trees! Using dendrochronology, the study of tree rings, scientists get a window back in time. Many tree species add a ring to their trunks every year. The width of this ring varies from year to year depending on how much water is available. If it rains a lot in a year, the tree grows relatively fast and ends up with a wide tree ring. If there isn’t much rain in a year, the tree doesn’t grow much and the ring is narrow. We can compare the width of rings from recent years to the known rain data humans have collected. Then, assuming the same forces that determine tree ring width are operating today as in the past, we can go back and interpret how much rain fell in years where we have no recorded rainfall data. This indirect information from tree rings is known as a proxy, and helps us infer data about past climates.

For this study, the scientists used cypress-pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates and is long lived enough to provide data far back in time. Fortunately, scientists don’t have to cut down the trees to see their rings. Instead, they use a corer – a hollow metal drill with the diameter of a straw. They drill it through the tree all the way to its core, and extract a sample of the tissue that shows all the tree rings. The scientists took 40 cores from 27 different cypress-pine trees. The oldest trees in the sample were more than 200 years old. Next, they developed a chronology where they lined up ring widths from one tree with all the other trees, wide with wide and narrow with narrow. This chronology gives them many replicate samples, and data going back all the way to the 19th century! Next, they used a dataset of rainfall from rain gauges that have been set out in Australia since 1910. They then take this precipitation data and overlay it with the tree ring widths since 1910. For tree rings before 1910, they then project back in time using a rainfall formula.

These videos, demonstrating the science of dendrochronology, could be a great way to spark class discussions:

Featured scientist: Alison O’Donnell from University of Western Australia

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.0

Earth Science Journal for KidsThis Data Nugget was adapted from a primary literature activity developed by Science Journal For Kids. For a more detailed version of this lesson plan, including a supplemental reading, videos, and extension activities, visit their website and register for free!

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Growth rings from a Callitirs tree.

Growth rings from a Callitirs tree.

Is your salt marsh in the zone?

Scientist James collecting plants in a Massachusetts marsh, part of the Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site

Scientist James collecting plants in a Massachusetts marsh, part of the Plum Island Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research site

The activities are as follows:

Tides are the rise and fall of ocean water levels, and happen every day like clockwork. Gravity from the moon and sun drive the tides. There is a high tide and a low tide, and the average height of the tide is called the mean sea level. The mean sea level changes seasonally due to the warming and cooling of the ocean throughout the year. It also changes annually due to a long-term trend of ocean warming and the melting of glaciers. Scientific evidence shows that climate change is causing the sea level to rise faster now than it has in the past. As the climate continues to warm, it is predicted that the sea level will continue to rise.

Salt marshes are wetlands with plains of grass that grow along much of the ocean’s coast worldwide. These marshes are important habitats for many plants and animals, and protect our shores from erosion during storms. They grow between mean sea level and the level of high tide. Marshes flood during high tide and are exposed to the air during low tide. The health of a salt marsh is determined by where it sits relative to the tide (the “zone”). A healthy marsh is flooded only part of the time. Too much flooding and too little flooding are unhealthy. Because they are so important, scientists want to know if salt marshes will keep up with sea level rise caused by climate change.

A picture of James’ “marsh organ” which holds plants at different elevations relative to mean sea level. He gave it that name because it resembles organ pipes!

A picture of James’ “marsh organ” which holds plants at different elevations relative to mean sea level. He gave it that name because it resembles organ pipes!

In the 1980s, scientist James began measuring the growth of marsh grasses. He was surprised to find that there was a long-term trend of increasing grass growth over the years. James wanted to know if grasses could continue to keep up with rising sea levels. If he could experimentally manipulate the height of the grasses, relative to mean sea level, he might be able to figure out how grasses will do when sea levels are higher. To test this, James invented a way to experimentally grow a marsh at different elevations relative to mean sea level. He built a device he called the “marsh organ”. This device is made of tubes that stand at different elevations and are filled with marsh mud and planted with marsh grasses. He measured the growth of the grass in each of the pipes. If grasses will continue to grow taller in the future with higher water levels, then plants growing in pipes at lower elevations should grow more than plants growing in pipes with higher elevations.

Featured scientist: James Morris from the University of South Carolina

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget: Jim has created an interactive salt marsh model called the “marsh equilibrium model”. This online tool allows you to plug in different marsh levels to explore potential impacts to the salt marsh. To explore this tool click here.

To read more about Jim’s research on “tipping points” beyond which sediment accumulation fails to keep up with rising sea level and the marshes drown, click here.

There are two publications related to the data included in this activity:

  • Morris, J.T., Sundberg, K., and Hopkinson, C.S. 2013. Salt marsh primary production and its responses to relative sea level and nutrients in estuaries at Plum Island, Massachusetts, and North Inlet, South Carolina, USA. Oceanography 26:78-84.
  • Morris, J.T., P.V. Sundareshwar, C.T. Nietch, B. Kjerfve, D.R. Cahoon. 2002. Responses of coastal wetlands to rising sea level. Ecology 83:2869-2877.

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Invasion meltdown

The invasive plant, Centaurea stoebe

 A flower of the invasive plant, Centaurea stoebe (spotted knapweed).

The activities are as follows:

Humans are changing the earth in many ways. First, by burning fossil fuels and adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere we are causing climate change, or the warming of the planet. Scientists have documented rising temperatures across the globe and predict an increase of 3° C in Michigan within the next 100 years. Second, we are also changing the earth by movingspecies across the globe, introducing them into new habitats. Some of these introduced species spread quickly and become invasive. Invasive species harm native species and cost us money. There is also potential that these two changes could affect one another; warmer temperatures from climate change may make invasions by plants and animals even worse.

All living organisms have a range of temperatures they are able to survive in, and temperatures where they perform their best. For example, arctic penguins do best in the cold, while tropical parrots prefer warmer temperatures. The same is true for plants. Depending on the temperature preferences of a plant species, warming temperatures may either help or harm that species.

Katie, Mark, and Jen are scientists concerned that invasive species may do better in the warmer temperatures caused by climate change. There are several reasons they expect that invasive species may benefit from climate change. First, because invasive species have already survived transport from one habitat to another, they may be species that are better able to handle change, like temperature increases. Second, the new habitat of an invasive species may have temperatures that allow it to survive, but are too low for the invasive species to do their absolute best. This could happen if the invasive species was transported from somewhere warm to somewhere cold. Climate change could increase temperatures enough to put the new habitat in the species’range of preferred temperatures, making it ideal for the invasive species to grow and survive.

A view of the plants growing in a heated ring. Notice the purple flowers of Centaurea stoebe.

A view of the plants growing in a heated ring.
Notice the purple flowers of Centaurea stoebe.

To determine if climate change will benefit invasive species, Katie, Mark, and Jen focused on one of the worst invasive plants in Michigan, spotted knapweed. They looked at spotted knapweed plants growing in a field experiment with eight rings. Half of the rings were left with normal, ambient air temperatures. The other half of the rings were heated using ceramic heaters attached to the side of the rings. These heaters raised air temperatures by 3° C to mimic future climate change. At the end of the summer, Mark and Katie collected all of the spotted knapweed from the rings. They recorded both the (1) abundance, or number of spotted knapweed plants within a square meter, and (2) the biomass (dry weight of living material) of spotted knapweed. These two variables taken together are a good measure of performance, or how well spotted knapweed is doing in both treatments.

Featured scientists: Katie McKinley, Mark Hammond, and Jen Lau from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.0

Salmon in hot water

Chinook salmon in Alaska.

The activities are as follows:

Pacific salmon are important members of freshwater and ocean food webs. Salmon transport nutrients from the ocean to freshwater habitats, and traces of these nutrients can be found in everything from trees to bears! Salmon also support sport and commercial fisheries, and are used for ceremonial purposes by Native Americans. Climate change poses a threat to salmon populations by warming the waters of streams and rivers where they reproduce. To maintain healthy populations, salmon rely on cold, freshwater habitats and may go extinct as temperatures rise in coming decades. Warm temperatures can cause large salmon die-offs. However, some salmon individuals have higher thermal tolerance and are better able to survive when water temperatures rise.

Eggs used in QTL experiment

Eggs used in QTL experiment

Salmon individuals and populations may be better able to survive in warmer waters because they have certain gene variants that help them survive under these conditions. Scientists want to know whether there is a genetic basis for the variation observed in salmon’s thermal tolerance. If differences in certain genes control variation in thermal tolerance, scientists can identify the location on the genome responsible for this very important adaptation. Once identified, management agencies could then screen for these genes in populations of salmon in order to identify individuals that could better survive in a future warmer environment. Hatchery programs could also breed thermally tolerant fish in an attempt to preserve this important fish species.

Scientists working in the lab

Scientists working in the lab

To identify the genes responsible for a particular trait, scientists look for Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL). A QTL is a genetic variant that influences the phenotype of a polygenic trait, such as human height or skin color, and perhaps thermal tolerance in salmon. Scientists can find QTL by conducting experimental mattings then examining the phenotypic and genetic characteristics of the offspring. In this study, parent fish from one population of salmon, some that are tolerant to warm water and some that are not, mated and produced offspring. These offspring now had a mix of genetic backgrounds from their parents, meaning that some offspring inherited genetic variants that made them more tolerant to high temperatures and some did not. Each offspring was tested for their thermal tolerances, and had their genomes sequenced. Differences in the genome between offspring that are tolerant and those that are not reveal areas of the genome that are correlated with thermal tolerance and survival in warm water. If differences in certain genes control variation in thermal tolerance, the scientists predicted they could find regions in the salmon genome that are correlated with survival in warm water.

Featured scientists: Wesley Larson, Meredith Everett, and Jim Seeb from the University of Washington

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

Check out these Stated Clearly videos to explore DNA and genes with students!

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Growing energy: comparing biofuel crop biomass

The activities are as follows:GLBRC1

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

Most of us use fossil fuels every day. Fossil fuels power our cars, heat and cool our homes, and are used to produce most of the things we buy. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they are made from plants and animals that grew hundreds of millions of years ago. After these species died, their tissues were slowly converted into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that they are limited and nonrenewable. It takes a long time for dead plants and animals to be converted into fossil fuels. Once we run out of the supply we have on Earth today, we are out! We need to think of new ways to power our world now that we use more energy than ever.

Biofuels are made from the tissues of plants that are alive and growing today. When plants are harvested, their tissues, called biomass, can be converted into fuel. Biofuels are renewable, meaning we can produce them as quickly as we use them up. At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center sites in Wisconsin and Michigan, scientists and engineers are attempting to figure out which plants make the best biofuels.

GLBRC2

Gregg is a scientist who wants to find out how much plant biomass can be harvested from different crops like corn, grasses, weeds, and trees. The bigger and faster a plant grows, the more biomass they make. The more biomass the more fuel can be produced. Gregg is interested in maximizing how much biomass we can produce while also not harming the environment. Each plant species comes with a tradeoff – some may be good at growing big, but need lots of inputs like fertilizer and pesticide. Corn is an annual, meaning it only lives for one year. Corn is one of the best crops for producing a lot of biomass. However, farmers must add a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their fields to plant corn every year. These chemicals harm the environment and cost farmers money. Other plants harvested for biofuels, like switchgrass, prairie species, poplar trees, and Miscanthus grass are perennials. Perennials grow back year after year without replanting. Perennials require much less chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. If perennials can produce high levels of biomass with low levels of soil nutrients, perhaps a perennial crop could replace corn as the best biofuel crop.

Gregg out in the GLBRC

Gregg out in the WI experimental farm.

To test this hypothesis, scientists worked together to design a very large experiment. Gregg and his team grew multiple plots of six different biofuel crops on experimental farms in Wisconsin and Michigan. The soils at the Wisconsin site are more fertile and have more nutrients than the soils at the Michigan site. At each farm, they grew plots of corn to be compared to the growth of plants in five types of perennial plots. The types of perennial plots they planted were: switchgrass, Miscanthus grass, poplar saplings (trees), a mix of prairie species, and weedy fields. Every fall the scientists harvested, dried, and then weighed the biomass from each plot. They continued taking measurements for five years and then calculated the average biomass production in a year for each plot type at each site.

Featured scientist: Dr. Gregg Sanford from University of Wisconsin-Madison

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

This Data Nugget was adapted from a data analysis activity developed by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). For a more detailed version of this lesson plan, including a supplemental reading, biomass harvest video and extension activities, click here.

This lesson can be paired with The Science of Farming research story to learn a bit more about the process of designing large-scale agricultural experiments that need to account for lots of variables.

For a classroom reading, click here to download an article written for the public on these research findings. Click here for the scientific publication. For more bioenergy lesson plans by the GLBRC, check out their education page.

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

As a hook before beginning the Data Nugget, students can watch the following video for an introduction to biofuels:

For more photos of the GLBRC site in Michigan, click here.

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Springing forward

Scientist Shaun collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. He is recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

Sean Mooney, a high school researcher, collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. He is recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

The Reading Level 1 activities are as follows:

The Reading Level 3 activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

Every day we add more greenhouse gases to our air when we burn fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas. Greenhouse gasses trap the sun’s heat, so as we add more the Earth is heating up! What does climate change mean for the species on our planet? The timing of life cycle events for plants and animals, like flowering and migration, is largely determined by cues organisms take from the environment. The timing of these events is called phenology. Scientists studying phenology are interested in how climate change will influence different species. For example, with warming temperatures and more unpredictable transitions between seasons, what can we expect to happen to the migration timings of birds, mating seasons for animals, or flowering times of plants?

Scientists collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment. They are recording the date that the first flowers emerge for dame’s rocket.

Scientists collecting phenology data in the climate change experiment.

Plants are the foundation for almost all life on Earth. Through photosynthesis, plants produce the oxygen (O2) that we breathe, food for their own growth and development, food for animals and microbes, and crops that provide food and materials for human society. Because plants are so important to life, we need to find out how climate change could affect them. One good place to start is by looking at flowering plants, guided by the question, how will increased temperatures affect the phenology of flowering? One possible answer to this question is that the date that flowers first emerge for a species is driven by temperature. If this relationship is real, we would expect flowers to emerge earlier each year as temperatures increase due to climate change. But if flowers come out earlier and earlier each year, this could greatly impact plant reproduction and could cause problems for pollinators who count on plants flowering at the same time the pollinators need the pollen for food.

Shaun, Mark, Elizabeth, and Jen are scientists in Michigan who wanted to know if higher temperatures would lead to earlier flowering dates for plants. They chose to look at flowers of dame’s rocket, a leafy plant that is related to the plants we use to make mustard! Mark planted dame’s rocket in eight plots of land. Plots were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. Half of the plots were left to experience normal temperatures (normal), while the other four received a heating treatment to simulate climate change (heated). Air temperatures in heated plots increased by 3°C, which mimics climate change projections for what Michigan will experience by the end of the century. Mark, Elizabeth, and Jen measured the date that each plant produced its first flower, and the survival of each plant. The scientists predicted that dame’s rocket growing in the heated plots would flower earlier than those in the normal plots.

 Featured scientists: Shaun Davis from Thornapple Kellogg Middle School and Mark Hammond, Elizabeth Schultheis, and Jen Lau from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = The Reading Level 3 activity has a score of 9.2; the Level 1 has a 6.4.

Flowers of Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket), a species of mustard that was introduced to the U.S. from Eurasia.

Flowers of Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket), a species of mustard that was introduced to the U.S. from Eurasia.

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • If you would like your students to interact with the raw data, we have attached the original data here. The file also includes weather data over the course of the experiment if students want to ask and explore independent questions.
  • For a lesson plan that uses citizen science phenology datasets to examine changes in phenology over 30+ year timespans, and address the scientific question, “Do we see evidence for climate change in the phenology of plants and animals?”, click here.
  • Many phenology datasets are freely available online (many collected by citizen scientists). These datasets are extremely useful because scientists (and your students!) can examine average trends in timing shifts over periods of decades and often in different regions. Phenology datasets available online:
  • NY Times article on research showing what happens when climate change shifts phenology – “5 Plants and Animals Utterly Confused by Climate Change

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