Winter is coming! Can you handle the freeze?

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Doug with the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

The activities are as follows:

Doug is a biologist who studies plants from around the world. He often jokes that he chose to work with plants because he likes to take it easy. While animals rarely stay in the same place and are hard to catch, plants stay put and are always growing exactly where you planted them! Using plants allows Doug to do some pretty cool and challenging experiments. Doug and his research team carry out experiments with the plant species Mouse-ear Cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana. They like this species because it is easy to grow in both the lab and field. Arabidopsis is very small and lives for just one year. It grows across most of the globe across a wide range of latitudes and climates. Arabidopsis is also able to pollinate itself and produce many seeds, making it possible for researchers to grow many individuals to use in their experiments.

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Doug, and two members of his team, setting up the reciprocal transplant experiment in Scandinavia.

Part I: Doug wanted to study how Arabidopsis is able to survive in such a range of climates. Depending on where they live, each population faces its own challenges. For example, there are some populations of this species growing in very cold habitats, and some populations growing in very warm habitats. He thought that each of these populations would adapt to their local environments. An Arabidopsis population growing in cold temperatures for many generations may evolve traits that increase survival and reproduction in cold temperatures. However, a population that lives in warm temperatures would not normally be exposed to cold temperatures, so the plants from that population would not be able to adapt to cold temperatures. The idea that populations of the same species have evolved as a result of certain aspects of their environment is called local adaptation.

To test whether Arabidopsis is locally adapted to its environment, Doug established a reciprocal transplant experiment. In this type of experiment, scientists collect seeds from plants in two different locations and then plant them back into the same location (home) and the other location (away). For example, seeds from population A would be planted back into location A (home), but also planted into location B (away). Seeds from population B would be planted back into location B (home), but also planted at location A (away). If populations A and B are locally adapted, this means that A will survive better than B in location A, and B will survive better than A in location B. Because each population would be adapted to the conditions from their original location, they would outperform the plants from away when they are at home (“home team advantage”).

In this experiment, Doug collected many seeds from warm Mediterranean locations at low latitudes, and cold Scandinavian locations at high latitudes. He used these seeds to grow thousands of seedlings. Once these young plants were big enough, they were planted into a reciprocal transplant experiment. Seedlings from the Mediterranean location were planted alongside Scandinavian seedlings in a field plot in Scandinavia. Similarly, seedlings from the Scandinavian locations were planted alongside Mediterranean seedlings in a field plot in the Mediterranean. By planting both Mediterranean and Scandinavian seedlings in each field plot, Doug can compare the relative survival of each population in each location. Doug made two local adaptation predictions:

  1. Scandinavian seedlings would survive better than Mediterranean seedlings at the Scandinavian field plot.
  2. Mediterranean seedlings would survive better than Scandinavian seedlings planted at the Mediterranean field plot.
Doug's team in the Mediterranean prepped and ready to set up the experiment.

Doug’s team in the Mediterranean prepped and ready to set up the experiment.

Part II: The data from Doug’s reciprocal transplant experiment show that the Arabidopsis populations are locally adapted to their home locations. Now that Doug confirmed that populations were locally adapted, he wanted to know how it happened. What is different about the two habitats? What traits of Arabidopsis are different between these two populations? Doug now wanted to figure out the mechanism causing the patterns he observed.

Doug originally chose Arabidopsis populations in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean for his research on local adaptation because those two locations have very different climates. The populations may have adapted to have the highest survival and reproduction based on the climate of their home location. To deal with sudden freezes and cold winters in Scandinavia, plants may have adaptations to help them cope. Some plants are able to protect themselves from freezing temperatures by producing chemicals that act like antifreeze. These chemicals accumulate in their tissues to keep the water from turning into ice and forming crystals. Doug thought that the Scandinavian population might have evolved traits that would allow the plants to survive the colder conditions. However, the plants from the Mediterranean aren’t normally exposed to cold temperatures, so they wouldn’t have necessarily evolved freeze tolerance traits.

To see whether freeze tolerance was driving local adaptation, he set up an experiment to identify which plants survived after freezing. Doug again collected seeds from several different populations across Scandinavia and across the Mediterranean. He chose locations that had different latitudes because latitude affects how cold an area gets over the year. High latitudes (closer to the poles) are generally colder and low latitudes (closer to the equator) are generally warmer. Doug grew more seedlings for this experiment, and then, when they were a few days old, he put them in a freezer. Doug counted how many seedlings froze to death, and how many survived, and he used these numbers to calculate the percent survival for each population. To gain confidence in his results, he did this experiment with three replicate genotypes per population.

Doug predicted that if freeze tolerance was a trait driving local adaptation, the seedlings originally from colder latitudes (Scandinavia) would have increased survival after the freeze. Seedlings originally from lower latitudes would have decreased survival after the freeze because the populations would not have evolved tolerance to such cold temperatures.

Featured scientist: Doug Schemske from Michigan State University (MSU). Written by Christopher Oakley from MSU and Purdue University, and Marty Buehler (RET) from Hastings High School.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 12.0

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

Agren, J. and D.W. Schemske (2012). Reciprocal transplants demonstrate strong adaptive differentiation of the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana in its native range. New Phytologist 194:1112–1122.

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

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

Can a salt marsh recover after restoration?

Students collecting salinity data at a transect point. The tall tan grass is Phragmites.

Students collecting salinity data at a transect point. The tall tan grass is Phragmites.

The activities are as follows:

Éste Data Nugget también está disponible en Español:

In the 1990s, it was clear that the Saratoga Creek salt marsh was in trouble. The invasive plant, Phragmites australis, covered large areas of the marsh. Thick patches of Phragmites crowded out native plants. There were very few animals, especially migrating birds, because the plants grew too densely for them to move around.

Salt marshes are wetland habitats near oceans where water-tolerant salt-loving plants grow. Usually native grasses dominate the marsh, but where humans cause disturbance Phragmites can start to take over. Human disturbance was having a huge effect on the health of Saratoga Creek by changing the water coming into the marsh. Storm drains, built to keep rain water off the roads, were adding more water to the marsh. This runoff, or freshwater and sediments from the surrounding land, made the marsh less salty. The extra sediment made the problem even worse because it raised soil levels along the road. Raised soil means less salty ocean comes into the marsh during high tide.

In 1998, scientists, including members of the Rockport Conservation Commission and students from the Rockport Middle School science club, began to look at the problem. Phragmites grows best when salt levels are low. When salt levels are high, native grasses do better. The scientists thought that the extra fresh water and sediments added by the storm drains into the marsh was the reason Phragmites was taking over.

The scientists wanted to see if a restoration could reverse the Phragmites invasion. In 1999, a ditch was dug along the side the road to catch runoff before it entered the marsh. A layer of sediment was also removed from the marsh, allowing ocean water to reach the marsh during high tide once again. Students set up sampling areas, chosen to observe and record data, called transects. Transects were 25 meters long and students collected data every meter. The transects made it possible to return to the same points in the marsh year after year. Along the transects, students counted the number of Phragmites plants and calculated abundance as the percent of points along the transect where they found Phragmites. They also measured the height of Phragmites as a way to figure out how well it was growing.

The students compared Phragmites data from before 1999 and after 1999 to see if the restoration made a difference. They predicted that the abundance and height of Phragmites would go down after runoff was reduced by the restoration.

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View of Saratoga Creek Salt Marsh several years after restoration, showing location of one of the transects. Native grasses are growing in the foreground.

View of Saratoga Creek Salt Marsh several years after restoration, showing location of one of the transects. Native grasses are growing in the foreground.

Featured scientists: Liz Duff from Mass Audubon, Eric Hutchins from NOAA, and Bob Allia and 7th graders from Rockport Middle School

Written by: Bob Allia, Cindy Richmond, and Dave Young

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.9

For more information on this project, including datasets and more scientific background, check out their website: Salt Marsh Science

Invasive reeds in the salt marsh

Culverts run under roads and allow water from the ocean to enter a marsh. Phragmites can be seen growing in the background.

Culverts run under roads and allow water from the ocean to enter a marsh. Phragmites can be seen growing in the background.

The activities are as follows:

Phragmites australis is an invasive reed, a type of grass that grows in water. Phragmites is taking over saltwater marshes in New England, or wetland habitats near the Atlantic Ocean coast. Phragmites does so well it crowds out native plants that once served as food and homes for marsh animals. Once Phragmites has invaded, it is sometimes the only plant species left! Phragmites does best where humans have disturbed a marsh, and scientists were curious why that might be. They thought that perhaps when a marsh is disturbed, the salinity, or amount of salt in the water, changes. Phragmites might be able to survive after disturbances that cause the amount of salt in the water to drop, but becomes stressed when salinity is high.

Students collecting data on the plant species present in the marsh using transects. Every 1m along the tape, students observe which plants are present. Phragmites is the tall grass that can be seen growing behind the students.

Students collecting data on the plant species present in the marsh using transects. Every 1m along the tape, students observe which plants are present. Phragmites is the tall grass that can be seen growing behind the students.

Fresh water in a marsh flows from the upstream source to downstream. Saltwater marshes end at the ocean, where freshwater mixes with salty ocean water. One type of disturbance is when a road is cut through a marsh. Upstream of the road, the marsh is cut off from the salt waters from the ocean, so only fresh water will enter and salinity will drop. Downstream of the road, the marsh is still connected to the ocean and salinity should be unaffected by the disturbance. Often, a culvert (a pipe that runs under the road) is placed to allow salt water to pass from the ocean into the marsh. The amount of ocean water flowing into the marsh is dependent on the diameter of the culvert.

Students at Ipswich High School worked with scientists from the Mass Audubon, a conservation organization, to look at the Phragmites in the marsh. They looked at an area where the salinity in the marsh changed after a road was built. They wanted to know if this change would affect the amount of Phragmites in that marsh. In 1996, permanent posts were placed 25 meters apart in the marsh. That way, scientists could collect data from the same points each year. At these posts, students used transects, a straight line measured from a point to mark where data is collected. Then they collected data on all the plants that were found every meter along the transects. Data has been collected at these same points since 1996. In 2005, an old 30cm diameter culvert was replaced with two 122cm culverts. These wider culverts allow much more salty ocean water to flow under the road and into the marsh. Students predicted that after the culverts were widened, more ocean water would enter the marsh. This would make salinity go up, making it harder for Phragmites to grow, and it would decline in numbers. Students continued to survey the plants found along transects at each permanent post and documented their findings.

Featured scientists: Lori LaFrance from Ipswich High School, Massachusetts and Liz Duff from Mass Audubon. This study was part of the PIE-LTER funded by the NSF.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

To access the original data presented in this activity, and collected by students, access Mass Audubon’s Vegetation Data, available online. To access the salinity data related to this activity, and collected by students, access Mass Audubon’s Salinity Data, available online. Scroll down to “Ipswich, MA, Town Farm Road” for data from the site discussed here.

View of the two new culverts.

View of the two new culverts.

The old pipe that was removed.

The old pipe that was removed, and the new culvert.

 

 

 

Arial view of the upstream and downstream research sites.

Arial view of the upstream and downstream research sites.

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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Is chocolate for the birds?

Cocoa beans used to make chocolate!

Cocoa beans used to make chocolate!

The activities are as follows:

About 9,000 years ago humans invented agriculture as a way to grow enough food for people to eat. Today, agriculture happens all over the globe and takes up 40% of Earth’s land surface. To make space for our food, humans must clear large areas of land, which creates a drastic change, or disturbance, to the habitat. This land-clearing disturbance removes the native plants already there including trees, small flowering plants, and grasses. Many types of animals including mammals, birds, and insects depend on these native plants for food or shelter. Large scale disturbances can make it difficult to live in the area. For example, a woodpecker bird cannot live somewhere that has no trees because they live and find their food in the trees.

However, some agriculture might help some animals because they can use the crops being grown for the food and shelter they need to survive. One example is the cacao tree, which grows in the rainforests of South America. Humans use the seeds of this plant to make chocolate, so it is a very important crop! Cacao trees need very little light. They grow best in a unique habitat called the forest understory, which is composed of the shorter trees and bushes under the large trees found in rainforests. To get a lot of cacao seeds for chocolate, farmers need to have large rainforest trees above their cacao trees for shade. In many ways, cacao farms resemble a native rainforest. Many native plant species grow there and there are still taller tree species. However, these farms are different in important ways from a native rainforest. For example, there are many more short understory trees in the farm than there are in native rainforests. Also, there are fewer small flowering plants on the ground because humans that work on cacao farms trample them as they walk around the farm.

rainforest and cacao plantation

Part I: Skye is a biologist who wanted to know whether rainforest birds use the forest when they are disturbed by adding cacao farms. Skye predicted she would see many fewer birds in the cacao farms, compared to the rainforest. To measure bird abundance, she simply counted birds in each habitat. To do this she chose one rainforest and one cacao farm and set up two transects in each. Transects are parallel lines along which the measurements are taken. She spent four days counting birds along each transect, for a total of eight days in each habitat. She had to get up really early and count birds between 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning because that’s when they are most active.

Part II: Skye was shocked to see so many birds in cacao farms! She decided to take a closer look at her data. Skye wanted to know how the types of birds she saw in the cacao farms compared to the types of birds she saw in the rainforest. She predicted that cacao farms would have different types of birds than the undisturbed rainforest. She thought the bird types would differ because each habitat has different types of food available for birds to eat and different types of plants for birds to live in.

Skye broke her abundance data down to look more closely at four types of birds:

  1. Toucans (Eat: large insects and fruit from large trees, Live: holes in large trees)
  2. Hummingbirds (Eat: nectar from flowers, Live: tree branches and leaves)
  3. Wrens (Eat: small insects, Live: small shrubs on the forest floor)
  4. Flycatchers (Eat: Small insects, Live: tree branches and leaves)

skyecacao

Featured scientist: Skye Greenler from Colorado College and Purdue University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

  • The research described in this activity has been published. The citation and a PDF of the scientific paper can be found here:
  • The complete dataset for the study has been published to a data repository and is available for classroom use. This dataset has even more data than what is in the Data Nugget activity. While the Data Nugget has data for just two habitats (cacao and rainforest), the full dataset also includes two other agroforest habitat types. The dataset also includes data for every species (169) recorded during the study, whereas the Data Nugget only has data for four families (toucans, wrens, flycatchers, hummingbirds).
  • Study Location: Skye’s study took place in a 10 km2 mixed rainforest, pasture, agro-forest, and monoculture landscape near the village of Pueblo Nuevo de Villa Franca de Guácimo, Limón Province, Costa Rica (10˚20˝ N, 83˚20˝ W), in the Caribbean lowlands 85 km northeast of San José.
  • For more background on the importance of biodiversity, students can eat this article in The Guardian – What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us?

About Skye: As a child Skye was always asking why; questioning the behavior, characteristics, and interactions of plants and animals around her.  She spent her childhood reconstructing deer skeletons to understand how bones and joints functioned and creating endless mini-ecosystems in plastic bottles to watch how they changed over time.  This love of discovery, observation, questioning, and experimentation led her to many technician jobs, independent research projects, and graduate research study at Purdue University.  At Purdue she studies the factors influencing oak regeneration after ecologically based timber harvest and prescribed fire.  While Skye’s primary focus is ecological research, she loves getting to leave the lab and bring science into classrooms to inspire the next generation of young scientists and encourage all students to be always asking why!

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