Volume 10, Issue 5
By Jon Henn '12, Christina Herron-Sweet '12, and Rachel Wieme '12
“Phenology” literally means “the science of appearance.” Practically speaking, phenology refers to the timing of biological events such as hibernation, migration, reproduction, leafing, and flowering in reference to changes in season and climate. Seasonal and climatic changes that can trigger these biotic responses in plants and animals include variation in temperature, light, or precipitation.
Phenological activity is most evident – and highly anticipated – in the spring. Here at St. Olaf the Student Naturalists have been monitoring and recording spring phenology events for the past two years. By recording the timing of important biological events in relation to abiotic factors over the course of several years, we can track how species respond to environmental change. Phenology is increasingly used to investigate the impacts of climate change on particular species as well as whole ecosystems. This is important because as the timing of spring weather changes (such as earlier warming temperatures) biotic events within an ecosystem may become out of sync. For instance, if a bird begins its migration in accordance with the amount of daylight, its timing may not change. Once it gets to its breeding grounds however, it may find a scarcity of food because the insect it usually depends on for food may emerge in response to rising temperature, which may happen later than it typically would.
Phenology is important for other reasons as well. Changes in phenological events can significantly impact the economy and human health. Agricultural success is wholly dependent on the flowering, fruiting and seeding of crops. In addition, many people have allergies to plant pollen, and would be affected by a changing or lengthening of the growing season.
While many people anticipate the first signal of spring as the first traces of green and colorful flowers popping up along the running trails in the prairie, we’d like to remind you of another great place to go to witness the first blooms of spring emerge from the ground: the woodland areas, especially Norway Valley. This section of preserved Big Woods habitat is home not only to the characteristic maples, basswoods, oaks and other trees that make up the Big Woods, but dozens of wildflowers as well -- many of which are spring ephemerals. Spring ephemerals are wildflowers that appear in the earliest stages of spring as soon as the weather improves and the ground thaws in order to take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the ground before the upper tree canopy fills with leaves and that light is blocked. Ephemerals need to complete their life cycle before they are shaded out, so they are short-lived, but they provide the first patches of green along the forest floor to brighten our spring.
One such ephemeral to watch for in our very own Norway Valley is Sanguinaria canadensis, or Bloodroot. Bloodroot is one of the first spring ephemerals to flower (as early as late March), and it produces a large, single white flower with a golden center which opens and closes each day. The name bloodroot comes from the bright red stem and underground root system that will ooze a red-orange sap when broken apart. Bloodroot is still easy to identify early in the spring: the stem, leaf, and bud all emerge together, and the dark green, lobed leaf with a pinkish stalk will be wrapped around the bud. Once it does flower, Bloodroot is commonly pollinated by bees, and the mature seeds are later dispersed by ants. Be sure to watch for Bloodroot emerging in Norway Valley this March, along with the other spring ephemerals, which can be found here on the Natural Lands website!
As spring approaches and green returns to the landscape, the air fills with the songs of birds. Bird migration is an amazing phenomenon that has intrigued birders and scientists for ages (see the November issue of Biomass for more information on bird migration). The trigger that brings birds back north is still a mystery. Changes in day length are important in getting the birds moving but as the climate warms birds seem to arrive north earlier and earlier. One of the best ways to find out which birds are present is to simply listen carefully. As the temperature rises this spring, you’ll start to hear more and more unique songs added to the chorus – and if you’re dedicated, you can figure out which song belongs to which bird!
One of the first birds that we hear calling their name across campus is the black-capped chickadee. The chickadees appear first because they were never actually gone, just quiet. Because they put up with the winter in Minnesota, these small birds are some of the first to start claiming territory and building nests. Chickadees are secondary cavity nesters; they nest in holes in trees but unlike woodpeckers, they can’t make the holes themselves. They move into previously used cavities or take advantage of the nest boxes scattered around campus. St. Olaf has 64 bird houses that were put up in the early 1990s to provide homes for bluebirds. The natural lands workers and student naturalists have monitored these houses for the last 17 years and while the houses have been home to many bluebirds, other species such as chickadees, tree swallows, and house wrens also nest in these boxes. As early as late March you start to see the small moss nests of chickadees and grass/feather nests of tree swallows start appearing in the boxes. More information on the “bluebird trail,” can be found here.
This year, the Student Naturalists will continue to collect phenology data of spring events. This will be the third year of this project, and will help illuminate how varying patterns of seasonal change affect the plants and animals that live in Natural Lands. Join us for a pleasant walk through from Regents to the big pond every Friday starting February 24th.
By Natalie Hofmeister '13
At any institution, students who graduate with distinction (or with honors) have achieved excellence in both their studies and a research-based “thesis” project. This project can build on independent research that the student has completed at St. Olaf, an REU, or during another research opportunity.
Formulated by the student, this thesis is a study and analysis of a significant question in biology. It should be clear that the question(s) investigated are both interesting and important. Over the course of the year, the writing process is advised by a mentor within the Biology department. Although not necessarily for publication, this manuscript includes a hypothesis, methods used to test this hypothesis, results and a discussion of the broader significance of the work. In addition, the project is presented during a poster session or department seminar.
Students considering applying for distinction submit a pre-application during the first semester of their senior year. These students must have a biology GPA of 3.50 or higher. The pre-application includes:
A faculty committee will then review the pre-applications and select that year’s candidates for distinction. If selected as a distinction candidate, the student will then write a thesis. Along with the transcript and an updated personal statement, this thesis will be evaluated by two Biology faculty members. At a departmental faculty meeting prior to Honor’s Day, the mentor and the two reviewers present the student as a candidate.
By Andrew Kaul '13
With over 200 officially recognized clubs on campus, it can be hard to keep them straight or to know which ones are for you. However, if you are interested in the green movement, student activism, or making positive and tangible change on our campus and globally, joining the Environmental Coalition is an opportunity you won’t want to miss. The E.C. is categorized as an “awareness” organization, but it aims to do much more than just spread awareness of environmental concerns. Members are currently formulating several plans to enact change in the St. Olaf community.
The Coalition has a long history of educating the campus on issues such as sustainable agriculture, energy saving techniques, and reducing waste. They have communicated with the student body and the administration through tabling, hosting speakers, organizing panel discussions, starting petitions, and writing proposals to improve the sustainability of the ole lifestyle.
The E.C. meets weekly for about an hour. The first half of each meeting is open-floored, and devoted to announcements about activities both on campus and in Northfield, such as events in the Green and Wendell Berry honor houses, seminars, speakers, and other events coming to the area. In recent weeks, meetings have focused on organizing events such as the Dorm Wars, high-density studying, and No-power Hour. During the second half of E.C. meetings, members separate into various sub-committees, each with a singular focus. The focuses of these groups include composting to minimize food waste going to land fills, banning water bottles for social justice and minimizing plastic waste, working with Bon Appétit to increase the amount of whole foods available, and increasing the efficiency of the recycling program on campus.
If you are interested in joining or want to learn more about the St. Olaf Environmental Coalition and its plans for a greener future please visit http://www.stolaf.edu/orgs/ec.
Picture: E.C. members planting trees on St. Olaf’s campus.
Anna Ballard '13 and Natasha Seliski '12
This past interim, we were part of a group of 10 students that embarked on an exploration of advanced technology and cellular phenomena in the course “Research in Electron Microscopy”. Led by Professor Eric Cole and research associate Erica Zweifel, our experience included spending a week at the University of Colorado-Boulder research facilities, where we were given the opportunity to work with transmission electron microscopes (TEMs). We also utilized the facility’s three-dimensional imaging technology to visualize and model the conjugation junction of mating Tetrahymena thermophila during pronuclear exchange. By compiling tomographic data from a series of TEM images captured as our specimen was tilted in the microscope, models were constructed by drawing contours around organelles, and connecting these contours to visualize them in three dimensions. In contrast to traditional images taken by transmission electron microscopes, these models allowed us to observe and analyze Tetrahymena conjugation in a more detailed and holistic manner. By doing so, our research group made new observations concerning the ultrastructure associated with the nuclear exchange junction, which raised additional questions and hypotheses that we’re continuing to investigate in the Cole lab this semester.
“Research in Electron Microscopy” was a unique academic experience at St. Olaf due to the collaborative and investigatory environment created by this research-intensive course. We were able to network with researchers in Boulder while maintaining our St. Olaf identity. The ability to completely immerse ourselves in the research project and dedicate all of our time and energy to building and analyzing our three-dimensional models was, while challenging, a very rewarding experience.
Picture: A flowchart depicting the modeling process.