Going underground to investigate carbon locked in soils 

Mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) at the bottom of a test tube in a salt solution.

The activities are as follows:

Soil is an important part of the carbon cycle because it traps carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and locked underground. At a global level, the amount of carbon stored by soil is more than is found in all of the plants and the atmosphere combined. Carbon trapped underground does not contribute to the rising carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere that leads to climate change. For decades, scientists have been researching how much carbon our soils can store to understand its role in slowing the pace of climate change.

Carbon enters the soil when plants and animals die, and their organic matter is decomposed by soil bacteria and fungi. Sometimes it is broken down into very small molecules. These molecules become attached to minerals in the soil, like clay particles. We call this mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM). The carbon is connected to minerals with very strong chemical bonds. Because these bonds are hard to break, the carbon stays in the soil for long periods of time and accumulates on clay minerals. 

Some studies have shown that the carbon in MAOM can be trapped in soils for thousands of years! When more of the carbon in the soil is attached to minerals and locked in the soil for longer time periods, the ecosystem is serving an important role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Ashley in the lab, using a saltwater solution to isolate mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) from soil samples.

Ashley is working to understand how much stable carbon there is in soils, and the role of climate. Microbes work faster in warmer and wetter conditions, which results in quicker decomposition. Ashley thought this rapid decomposition would cause organic matter to be broken down into smaller particles sooner. Therefore, she thought that in warmer or wetter environments, more soil carbon would attach to minerals and become stable MAOM. In colder or drier environments, she expected this process to happen more slowly, leading to a smaller amount of MAOM in the soil.

To test these ideas, Ashley used soil samples from forests with different climates throughout the Eastern United States. Soil samples were collected from New Hampshire to Alabama by teams of researchers using the same sampling protocol. The samples were mailed to Ashley’s lab at Indiana University for analysis. Ashley measured the amount of MAOM in each soil sample by taking advantage of a key feature: MOAM is heavy! Ashley submerged each soil sample in a saltwater solution, and the parts that floated were discarded, while the parts that sunk to the bottom were classified as MAOM. She then rinsed the salt off and measured the amount of carbon in the MAOM with an instrument called an elemental analyzer. She compared this number to the amount of carbon in the whole soil sample to calculate what percentage of the total soil carbon was attached to minerals.

Featured scientist: Ashley Lang from Indiana University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.8

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Mowing for monarchs

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.
A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.

With their orange wings outlined with black lines and white dots, monarch butterflies are one of the most recognizable insects in North America. They are known for their seasonal migration when millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada south to Mexico in the fall. Then, in the spring the monarch butterflies migrate back north. Monarch butterflies are pollinators, which means they get their food from the pollen and nectar of flowering plants that they visit. The milkweed plant is one of the most important flowering plants that monarch butterflies depend on.

During the spring and summer months female butterflies will lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed plays an important role in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. It is the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on. Caterpillars hatch from the butterfly eggs and eat the leaves of the milkweed plant. The milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars will eat until they become butterflies.

A problem facing many pollinators, including monarch butterflies, is that their numbers have been going down for several years. Scientists are concerned that we will lose pollinators to extinction if we don’t find solutions to this problem. Doug and Nate are scientists at Michigan State University trying to figure out ways to increase the number of monarch butterflies. They think that they found something that might work. Doug and Nate have learned that if you cut old milkweed plants at certain times of the year, then younger milkweed plants will quickly grow in their place. These new milkweed plants are softer and more tender than the old plants. It appears that monarch butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on the younger plants. It also seems that the monarch caterpillars prefer to eat the younger plants.

Britney and Gabe are two elementary teachers interested in monarch butterfly conservation. They learned about Doug and Nate’s research and wanted to participate in their experiment. The team of four met and designed an experiment that Britney and Gabe could do in open meadows throughout their community.

Britney and Gabe chose ten locations for their experiment. In each location they set aside a milkweed patch that was left alone, which they called the control.  At the same location they set aside another milkweed patch where they mowed the milkweed plants down. After a while, milkweed plants would grow back in the mowed patches. This means they had control patches with old milkweed plants, and treatment patches with young milkweed plants. Gabe and Britney made weekly observations of all the milkweed patches at each location. They recorded the number of monarch eggs in each of the patches. By the end of the summer, they had made 1,693 observations!

Featured scientists: Doug Landis and Nate Haan from Michigan State University and Britney Christensen and Gabe Knowles from Kellogg Biological Station LTER.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.2

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget:

Trees and bushes, home sweet home for warblers

Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu – a team of scientists at Andrews Forest, measuring bird populations.

The activities are as follows:

The birds at a beach are very different from those in the forest. This is because each bird species has their own set of needs that allows them to thrive where they live. Habitats must have the right collection of food to eat, places to shelter and raise young, safety from predators, and the right environmental conditions like temperature and moisture. 

The vast coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest provide rich and diverse habitat types for birds. These forests are also a large source of timber, meaning they are economically valuable for people. Disturbances from logging and natural events result in a forest that has many different habitat types for birds to choose from. In general, areas of forest that have been harvested more recently will have more understory, such as shrubs and short trees. Old-growth forests usually have higher plant diversity and larger trees. They are also more likely to have downed trees or standing dead trees, which are important for some bird species. Other disturbances like wildfire, wind, large snow events, and forest disease also have large impacts on bird habitat.

At the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, scientists have spent decades studying how the plants, animals, land use, and climate are all connected. In the past, Andrews Forest had experiments manipulating timber harvesting and forest re-growth. This land use history has large impacts on the habitats found in an area. Many teams of scientists work in this forest, each with their own area of research. Piece by piece, like assembling a puzzle, they combine their data to try to understand the whole ecosystem. 

Collecting data on a warbler.

Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu have been collecting long-term data on the number, type, and location of birds in Andrews Forest since 2009. Early each morning, starting in May and continuing until late June, teams of trained scientists hike along transects that go through different forest types. Transects are parallel lines along which data are collected. At specific points along the transect, the team would stop and listen for bird songs and calls for 10 minutes. There are 184 survey locations, and they are visited multiple times each year.

At each sampling point, Matt, Sarah, and Hankyu carefully recorded a count for each bird species that they hear within 100 meters. They then averaged these data for each location along the transect to get an average number for the year. The scientists were also interested in the habitats along the transect, which includes the amount of understory plants and tall trees, two forest characteristics that are very important to birds. They measured the percent cover of understory vegetation, which shows how many bushes and small plants were around. They also measured the size of trees in the area, called basal area. 

Using these data, the research team is looking for patterns that will help them identify which habitat conditions are best for different bird species. With a better understanding of where bird species are successful, they can predict how changes in the forest could affect the number and types of birds living in Andrews Forest and nearby.  

Wilson’s Warblers and Hermit Warblers are two of the many songbirds that these scientists have recorded at Andrews Forests. Wilson’s Warblers are small songbirds that make their nests in the understory of the forests. Therefore, the team predicted that they would see more of Wilson’s Warblers in forest areas with more understory than in forest areas with less understory. Hermit Warblers, on the other hand, build nests in dense foliage of tall coniferous trees and search for spiders and insects in those coniferous trees. The team predicted that the Hermit Warblers would be observed more often in forest plots where there are larger trees.  

Featured scientists: Hankyu Kim, Matt Betts, and Sarah Frey from Oregon State University. Written with Eric Beck from Realms Middle School and Kari O’Connell from Oregon State University.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

Getting to the roots of serpentine soils

Alexandria in the field observing the plants and soil.

When an organism grows in different environments, some traits change to fit the conditions. For example, if a houseplant is grown in the shade, it might grow to stretch out long and thin to reach as much light as possible. If that same plant were grown in the sun, it would grow thicker stems and more leaves that are not spread as far apart. This response to the environment helps plants grow in the different conditions they find themselves in.

Flexibility is especially important when a plant is living in a harsh environment. One such environment is serpentine soils. These soils are created from the weathering of the California state rock, Serpentinite. Serpentine soils have high amounts of toxic heavy metals, do not hold water well, and have low nutrient levels. Low levels of water and nutrients found in serpentine soils limit plant growth. In addition, a high level of heavy metals in serpentine soils can actually poison the plant with magnesium!

Combined, these qualities make it so that most types of plants are not able to grow on serpentine soils. However, some plant species have traits that help them tolerate these harsh conditions. Species that are able to live in serpentine soils, but can also grow in other environments, are called serpentine-indifferent.

Alexandria has been working with serpentine soils since 2011 when she was first introduced to them during an undergraduate research experience with her ecology professor. Alexandria was especially intrigued by this challenging environment and how organisms are able to thrive in it, even with the harsh characteristics.

Dot-seed plantain plants in the growth chamber.

To learn more, she started to read articles about previous research on plants that can only grow in serpentine soils. Alexandria learned that these plant species are generally smaller than closely related species. This was interesting, but she still had questions. She noticed the other experiments had compared plant size in different species, not within one species. She thought the next step would be to look at how plants that are the exact same species would respond to serpentine and non-serpentine soil environments. To explore this question, she would need to use serpentine-indifferent plant species because they can grow in serpentine soils and other soils.

Just as a houseplant grows differently in the sun or shade, plants grown in serpentine and non-serpentine soils might change to survive in their environment. Alexandria thought one of these changes could be happening in the roots. She decided to focus on plant roots because of their importance for plant survival and health. Roots are some of the first organs that many plants produce and anchor them to the ground. Throughout a plant’s life, the roots are essential because they bring nutrients to above-ground organs such as leaves. Because serpentine soils have fewer plant nutrients and are drier than non-serpentine soils, Alexandria thought that plants growing in serpentine soils may not invest as much into large root systems. She predicted plants growing in serpentine soils will have smaller roots than plants growing in non-serpentine soils.

To test her ideas, she studied the effects of soil type on a serpentine-indifferent plant species called Dot-seed plantain. She purchased seeds for her experiment from a local commercial seed company. About 5 seeds were planted in serpentine or non-serpentine soils in a growth chamber where growing conditions were kept the same. After the seedlings emerged, the plants were thinned so that there was one plant per pot. The only difference in the environment was the soil type. This allowed Alexandria to attribute any differences in root length to serpentine soils. At the end of her experiment, she pulled the plants out of the soil and measured the root lengths of plants in both treatments.

Featured scientist: Alexandria Igwe (she/her) from University of Miami

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget:

The topics described in this Data Nugget are similar to the published research in the following article:

  • Igwe, A.N. and Vannette, R.L. 2019. Bacterial communities differ between plant species and soil type, and differentially influence seedling establishment on serpentine soils. Plant Soil: 441: 423-437

There is a short video of Alexandria (Allie) sharing her research on serpentine soils.

There have been several news stories and blog posts about this research:

Mangroves on the move

mangrove in marsh
A black mangrove growing in the saltmarshes of northern Florida.

The activities are as follows:

All plants need nutrients to grow. Sometimes one nutrient is less abundant than others in a particular environment. This is called a limiting nutrient. If the limiting nutrient is given to the plant, the plant will grow in response. For example, if there is plenty of phosphorus, but very little nitrogen, then adding more phosphorus won’t help plants grow, but adding more nitrogen will. 

Saltmarshes are a common habitat along marine coastlines in North America. Saltmarsh plants get nutrients from both the soil and the seawater that comes in with the tides. In these areas, fertilizers from farms and lawns often end up in the water, adding lots of nutrients that become available to coastal plants. These fertilizers may contain the limiting nutrients that plants need, helping them grow faster and more densely.

One day while Candy, a scientist, was out in a saltmarsh in northern Florida, she noticed something that shouldn’t be there. There was a plant out of place. Normally, saltmarshes in that area are full of grasses and other small plants—there are no trees or woody shrubs. But the plant that Candy noticed was a mangrove. Mangroves are woody plants that can live in saltwater, but are usually only found in tropical places that are very warm. Candy thought the closest mangrove was miles away in the warmer southern parts of Florida. What was this little shrub doing so far from home? The more that Candy and her colleague Emily looked, the more mangroves they found in places they had not been before.

Candy and Emily wondered why mangroves were starting to pop up in northern Florida. Previous research has shown nitrogen and phosphorus are often the limiting nutrients in saltmarshes. They thought that fertilizers being washed into the ocean have made nitrogen or phosphorus available for mangroves, allowing them to grow in that area for the first time. So, Candy and Emily designed an experiment to figure out which nutrient was limiting for saltmarsh plants. 

mangrove saltmarsh researchers
Candy (right) and Emily (left) measure the height of a black mangrove growing in the saltmarsh.

For their study, Candy and Emily chose to focus on black mangroves and saltwort plants. These two species are often found growing together, and mangroves have to compete with saltwort. Candy and Emily found a saltmarsh near St. Augustine, Florida, in which they could set up an experiment. They set up 12 plots that contained both black mangrove and saltwort. Each plot had one mangrove plant and multiple smaller saltwort plants. That way, when they added nutrients to the plots they could compare the responses of mangroves with the responses of saltwort. 

To each of the 12 plots they applied one of three conditions: control (no extra nutrients), nitrogen added, and phosphorus added. They dug two holes in each plot and added the nutrients using fertilizers, which slowly released into the nearby soil. In the case of control plots, they dug the holes but put the soil back without adding fertilizer.

Candy and Emily repeated this process every winter for four years. At the end of four years, they measured plant height and percent cover for the two species. Percent (%) cover is a way of measuring how densely a plant grows, and is the percentage of a given area that a plant takes up when viewed from above. Candy and Emily measured percent cover in 1×1 meter plots. The cover for each species could vary from 0 to 100%.

Featured scientists: Candy Feller from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Emily Dangremond from Roosevelt University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3

A window into a tree’s world

Neil taking a tree core from a pine tree.

The activities are as follows:

According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the years 2015-2018 were the warmest recorded on Earth in modern times! And it is only expected to get warmer. Temperatures in the Northeastern U.S. are projected to increase 3.6°F by 2035. Every year the weather is a bit different, and some years there are more extremes with very hot or cold temperatures. Climate gives us a long-term perspective and is the average weather, including temperature and precipitation, over at least 30 years. 

Over thousands of years, tree species living in each part of the world have adapted to their local climate. Trees play an important role in climate change by helping cool the planet – through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and evaporate water into the air. 

Scientists 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. Each year of growth has two parts that can be seen: a light ring of large cells with thin walls, which grows in the spring; and a dark layer of smaller cells with thick walls that forms later in the summer and fall. Ring thickness is used to study how much the tree has grown over the years. Dendrochronology is the use of these rings to study trees and their environments.

Different tree species have different ranges of temperatures and rainfall in which they grow best. When there are big changes in the environment, tree growth slows down or speeds up in response. Scientists can use these clues in tree’s rings to decipher what climate was like in the past. There is slight variation in how each individual tree responds to temperature and rainfall. Because of this, scientists need to measure growth rings of multiple individuals to observe year-to-year changes in past climate.

Jessie taking a tree core in the winter.

Jessie and Neil are two scientists who use tree rings for climate research. Jessie entered the field of science because she was passionate about climate change. As a research assistant, Neil saw that warming temperatures in Mongolia accelerated growth in very old Siberian pine trees. When he later studied to become a scientist, he wanted to know if trees in the eastern U.S. responded to changes in climate in the same way as the old pine trees in Mongolia. As a result, there were two purposes for Jessie’s and Neil’s work. They wanted to determine if there was a species that could be used to figure out what the climate looked like in the past, and understand how it has changed over time.

Jessie and Neil decided to focus on one particular species of tree – the Atlantic white cedar. Atlantic white cedar grow in swamps and wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from southern Maine to northern Florida. Atlantic white cedar trees are useful in dendrochronology studies because they can live for up to 500 years and are naturally resistant to decay, so their well-preserved rings provide a long historical record. Past studies of this species led them to predict that in years when the temperature is warmer, Atlantic white cedar rings will be wider. If this pattern holds, the thickness of Atlantic white cedar rings can be used to look backwards into the past climate of the area. 

To test this prediction, Jessie and Neil needed to look at tree rings from many Atlantic white cedar trees. Jessie used an increment borer, a specialized tool that drills into the center of the tree. This drill removes a wood core with a diameter about equal to that of a straw. She sampled 112 different trees from 8 sites, and counted the rings to find the age of each tree. She then crossdated the wood core samples. Crossdating is the process of comparing the ring patterns from many trees in the same area to see if they tell the same story. Jessie used a microscope linked to a computer to measure the thickness of both the early and late growth to the nearest micrometer (1 micrometer = 0.001 millimeter) for all rings in all 112 trees. From those data she then calculated the average growth of Atlantic white cedar for each year to create an Atlantic white cedargrowth index for the Northeastern U.S. She combined her tree ring data with temperature data from the past 100 years.

Featured scientists: Jessie K Pearl, University of Arizona and Neil Pederson, Harvard University. Written by Elicia Andrews.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.9

Suggestions for inquiry surrounding this Data Nugget:

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

The carbon stored in mangrove soils

Tall mangroves growing close to the coast.

The activities are as follows:

In the tropics and subtropics, mangroves dominate the coast. There are many different species of mangroves, but they are all share a unique characteristic compared to other trees – they can tolerate having their roots submerged in salt water.

Mangroves 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. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is a main driver of climate change. During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants in a mangrove forest. When plants die in mangrove forests, decomposition is very slow. The soils are saturated with saltwater and have very little oxygen, which decomposers need to break down plants. Because of this, carbon is stored in the soils for a long time, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Sean is a scientist studying coastal mangroves in the Florida Everglades. Doing research in the Everglades was a dream opportunity for Sean. He had long been fascinated by the unique plant and animal life in the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America. Mangroves are especially exciting to Sean because they combine marine biology and trees, two of his favorite things! Sean had previously studied freshwater forested wetlands in Virginia, but had always wanted to spend time studying the salty mangrove forests that exist in the Everglades. 

Sean Charles taking soil samples amongst inland short mangroves.

Sean arrived in the Everglades with the goal to learn more about the factors important for mangrove forests’ ability to hold carbon in their soils. Upon his arrival, he noticed a very interesting pattern – the trees were much taller along the coast compared to inland. This is because mangroves that grow close to the coast have access to important nutrients found in ocean waters, like phosphorus. These nutrients allow the trees to grow large and fast. However, living closer to the coast also puts trees at a higher risk of damage from storms, and can lead to soils and dead plants being swept out to sea. 

Sean thought that the combination of these two conditions would influence how much carbon is stored in mangrove soils along the coast and inland. Larger trees are generally more productive than smaller ones, meaning they might contribute more plant material to soils. This led Sean to two possible predictions. The first was that there might be more carbon in soils along the coast because taller mangroves would add more carbon to the soil compared to shorter inland mangroves. However, Sean thought he might also find the opposite pattern because the mangroves along the coast have more disturbance from storms that could release carbon from the soils. 

To test these competing hypothesis, the team of scientists set out into the Everglades in the Biscayne National Park in Homestead, Florida. Their mission was to collect surface soils and measure mangrove tree height. To collect soils, they used soil cores, which are modified cylinders that can be hammered into the soil and then removed with the soil stuck in the tube. Tree height was measured using a clinometer, which is a tool that uses geometry to estimate tree height. They took these measurements along three transects. The first transect was along the coast where trees had an average height of 20 meters. The second transect between the coast and inland wetlands where trees were 10 meters tall, on average. The final transect was inland, with average tree height of only 1 meter tall.  With this experimental design Sean could compare transects at three distances from the coast to look for trends. 

Once Sean was back in the lab, he quantified how much carbon was in the soil samples from each transect by heating the soil in a furnace at 500 degrees Celsius. Heating soils to this temperature causes all organic matter, which has carbon, to combust. Sean measured the weight of the samples before and after the combustion. The difference in weight can be used to calculate how much organic material combusted during the process, which can be used as an estimate of the carbon that was stored in the soil. 

Featured scientist: Sean Charles from Florida International University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Candid camera: Capturing the secret lives of carnivores

Erik demonstrating how to place a camera trap on a tree on Stockton Island.

The activities are as follows:

Carnivores, animals that eat meat, captivate people’s interest for many reasons – they are charismatic, stealthy, and can be dangerous. Not only are they fascinating, they’re also ecologically important. Carnivores help keep prey populations in balance. They often target old, sick, or weak individuals. This results in more resources for healthier prey. Carnivores also impact prey’s behavior and population sizes, which can have further effects down the food web. For example, if there are too many herbivores, such as deer, the plants in an ecosystem may be eaten to a point where they can’t survive. In this way, carnivores help the plant community by either reducing the number of herbivores in an ecosystem, or changing how or where prey forage for food. 

Despite their importance and our interest in carnivores, they are very hard to monitor. Not only do they have naturally low population sizes because they are at the top of the food chain, they also have a natural ability to hide and blend into their environment. Erik is a wildlife biologist who is interested in taking on this challenge. He wants to learn more about carnivores and what factors affect where they live. Learning more about where carnivores are found can help scientists with conservation efforts.

Erik lives on the southern shore of Lake Superior, the largest lake (by area) in the world. This area is home to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – including 21 islands and a 12-mile stretch of the mainland in northern Wisconsin. The Apostle Islands vary in many ways – size, distance from the mainland, highest elevation, historical and current human use, plant communities, and even small differences in climate. The islands are so remote that scientists really didn’t know which carnivores lived on the islands. There is evidence from historical reports that red fox and coyotes lived on some of the islands. More recently, black bears have been observed by visitors as they are hiking or camping. Erik wanted to know which species of carnivores are on each island. As he began to explore methods to document wildlife on the islands, Erik and his collaborators were shocked to discover that American martens, Wisconsin’s only state endangered species, live on some of the islands.

Erik thought a promising step in learning more about what drives carnivores to live on different islands in the archipelago would be to apply what has been learned from islands in the ocean. He referred to a fundamental theory in ecology called the theory of island biogeography. This theory predicts that island size and its distance to the mainland affects the biodiversity, or number of species, found on that island. Specifically, larger islands will have higher carnivore biodiversity because there are more resources and space to support more species than smaller areas. In contrast, islands farther away from the mainland will have lower carnivore biodiversity because more isolated islands are harder for wildlife to reach. 

Erik wanted to test whether the theory of island biogeography also applied to the Apostle Islands. Just like the classic research on island biogeography, some islands are closer to the mainland and they range in size. To inventory where each carnivore is found, Erik and his collaborators and students set up 164 wildlife cameras on 19 of the islands. They made their way out to the remote islands by boat and then bushwhacked their way to the sites, which are not along trails. Often this means they have to push through thick brush and climb over fallen trees, but it’s important to put the cameras in all habitat types, not just those that are enjoyable to walk through. When the research team arrived at a site, they mounted a camera on a tree at waist height. Whenever an animal came into the frame of a camera, a photo was taken and stored on a memory card. The cameras were left on the islands year-round from 2014-2019. Every 6 months Erik and his collaborators would traverse through the thick woods to swap out memory cards and batteries. During this time, they noticed that four of the cameras had not worked properly, so they used the pictures from 160 of the cameras. 

Back at the college, the research team spent countless hours identifying which animals triggered the cameras. The cameras had taken over 200,000 photos over three years including 7,000 wildlife visits. Of these visits, 1,970 were from carnivores! They found 10 different kinds of carnivores, including: American marten, black bear, bobcat, coyote, fisher, gray fox, gray wolf, raccoon, red fox and weasels. After the pictures were processed, Erik used this information to map out which islands the animals were found. For this study, he used species richness, or the number of different species observed on each island, to answer his question. 

Map of the Apostle Islands with the richness, or number of different carnivore species, detected on each island.

Featured scientists: Erik Olson from Northland College, Tim Van Deelen, and Julie Van Stappen from the National Park Service. Support for this lesson was provided by the National Park Service with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 11.2

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

The study and results described in this Data Nugget have been published:

  • Allen, M.L., Farmer, M.J., Clare, J.J., Olson, E.R., Van Stappen, J., Van Deelen, T.R. 2018. Is there anybody out there? Occupancy of the carnivore guild in a temperate archipelago. Community Ecology 19(3): 272-280.

Citizen science site where students can view and identify animals found in pictures from cameras placed around Wisconsin.

There have been several news articles about this research:

Picky eaters: Dissecting poo to examine moose diets

Moose chomping on a forest plant

When you eat at a restaurant, do you always order your favorite meal? Or do you like to look at the menu and try something new? Humans have so many meal options that it can be hard to decide what to eat, but we also have preferences for certain food over others. Animals have fewer decisions to make. They have to choose from food options available in their environment. Do animals search for specific food types or eat any food they find?

Scientists who study the ecology of the remote Isle Royale National Park are interested in knowing more about how moose decide which plants to eat. Isle Royale is a large (44 miles long and 8 miles wide) island found within Lake Superior. On the island, wolves are the main predators of moose. The wolf and moose populations have been studied there for over 60 years, making it the longest continuous study of predator-prey dynamics.

In recent years, the wolf population struggled to rebound because there were very few adults reproducing. Without their natural predators, the moose population has increased dramatically, in 2000 there were approximately 500 moose, but since that time the population has grown to over 2,000 moose! Moose are browsers, meaning they eat leaves and needles, fruits, or twigs that are found on woody plants. Having too many moose on the island would take a toll on the island’s plant community. Bite by bite, moose may be chomping away at the forest and changing the Isle Royale ecosystem as we know it.

To try to fix this problem, the National Park Service is working to restore the wolf population by relocating adults from other Lake Superior packs to the island. However, this will take several years and in the meantime moose will continue to have an effect on the plant community. Scientists Sarah, John, and their colleagues realize how important it is to monitor which plants the moose are eating. The scientist team wanted to know whether moose simply eat the plants that they come across, or if they show preference for certain plants. 

Surveying woody plants in Isle Royale National Park

One thing that could affect moose food preference is the nutrition level of the different plants. In the winter, deciduous plants lose their leaves, unlike conifers that are green all year round. In the winter, moose end up eating the edges of twigs from deciduous plants, but can still eat needles of conifers. Needles are easier for moose to digest and have more nutrients than twigs so the scientists thought moose would seek out coniferous plants, like balsam fir and cedar, even if they were less common in the environment.

Starting in 2004, the scientist team selected 14 sites across the island and started collecting moose poop, also called fecal pellets, at the end of winter. Back in the lab, the fecal pellets were examined closely under a microscope to determine what the moose were eating. Many plants have identifiable differences in cellular structures, so the scientists were able to look at the magnified fragments and record how much balsam fir, cedar, and deciduous plants the moose had been eating. 

To understand preference, the scientists also needed to know which plants were in the area that the moose were living. They did plant surveys at the beginning and end of the study to estimate the percent of different woody plants that are in the forest. Because woody plants are long-living, the forest didn’t change too much from year to year. 

Once they had the forest plant surveys and the moose diets analyzed from the fecal pellets, they were able to analyze whether moose selectively eat. If a moose was randomly eating the plant types that it came across, it would have similar amounts of plants in its diet than what is found in the forest. If a moose shows preferencefor a plant type, it would have a higher percent of that food in their diet than what is found in the forest. Moose could also be avoiding certain food types, which would be when they have a lower percent of a plant type in its diet than in the environment.

Featured scientist: Sarah Hoy, John Vucetich and John Henderson from Michigan Technological University.Support for this lesson was provided by the National Park Service with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

The study and results described in this Data Nugget have been published. If students are curious to know more about the study design and how sites were selected, there is an approachable methods section available in the article:

  • Hoy, S.R., Vucetich, J.A., Liu, R., DeAngelis, D.L., Peterson, R.O., Vucetich, L.M., & Henderson, J.J. 2019. Negative frequency-dependent foraging behavior in a generalist herbivore (Alces alces) and its stabilizing influence on food-web dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology.

There have been several news stories about this research:

Website with more information on the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, including additional datasets to examine with students.


Testing the tolerance of invasive plants

Casey out in the field.

The activities are as follows:

Casey is a biologist who grew up with dogs as pets. His dogs were all the same species and had some things in common – they all had a tail, ears, and fur. But, each dog also had its own unique appearance – tail length, ear shape, and fur color. These things are called traits. Casey became interested in how slight differences in traits make individuals unique. 

As Casey observed in dogs, not all individuals in the same species are exactly alike. This is also true in plants. When we look closely at individual plants of the same species, we often see that each is slightly different from the next. Some grow faster. Some have more leaves than others. Some are better at defending themselves against herbivoresthat might eat them. 

People move species around the globe, and some of these species cause problems where they are introduced. These trouble-making species are called invasive species. Casey wanted to apply what he knew about trait differences to the environment around him, so he chose to study invasive plants and their traits. He wants to know what it is about invasive species that make them able to invade. Casey thought that maybe certain traits cause invasive species to be more troublesome than others. The individual plants that have invaded other parts of the world might have different traits that made them successful in that environment. Plants in their new invasive range might be slightly different than plants in the native range where they came from.  

Along with other members of his lab, Casey is studying an invasive plant species called burr clover. The lab collected seeds of burr clover from all different parts of the world. Some of the seeds came from the native range around the Mediterranean Sea (e.g. Italy, France, and Morocco) and some came from areas where they are invasive (e.g. Japan, Brazil, and the United States). The plants from the invasive range have already proven that they can invade new areas. Studying traits in native and invasive ranges would allow Casey to learn more about how those individuals invaded in the first place. Because Casey thought trait differences might have caused certain individuals of burr clover to become invasive, he predicted that individuals from the invasive range would have different traits than those from the native range. 

Casey’s field site where he studies Burr Clover

The lab decided to look at one trait in particular – how much an individual plant was affected by herbivores, which is called tolerance. The most tolerant individuals can still grow and produce fruits, even when herbivores eat a lot of their tissue. Casey thought that individuals from the invasive range would be more tolerant than individuals from the native range. One reason the invading individuals may have been successful is that they were more tolerant of herbivores in their new environment.The fruits contain seeds that make new plants, so plants that make more fruits can invade more easily. If individuals from the invasive range can make more fruits, even when herbivores are around, then they may reproduce and spread more quickly. 

So, Casey and his lab collected seeds from 22 individual plants from the native range and 22 individual plants from the invasive range. Each plant produces many seeds, so they collected several seeds from each individual. They created 24 2×2-meter plots in a field in California. Into each plot they planted 2-4 seeds from each individual plant and the seeds were planted in a random order in each plot. In all, there were 3,349 plants! In half of the plots, they removed any insects that might eat the plants. To do this they randomly chose half of the plots and sprayed them with insecticide, which kills insects. They sprayed the other half of the plots with water as a control. They wanted to know how many fruits were made by plants under good conditions so they could compare to plants that are being eaten by herbivores. After the plants grew all spring, they measured how many small, spiky fruits each plant produced. They compared how many fruits each plant produced in the plots with insects and the plots without insects. 

Featured scientist: Casey terHorst from California State University, Northridge

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.3