Volume 10, Issue 6
Biology T-shirt design by Kyle Cassling
To get yours, place an envelope with your name and $10 in the Tri-Beta PO Box before Thursday, April 5. Shirts will be blue.
By Jon Henn '12, Christina Herron-Sweet '12, and Rachel Wieme '12
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the 2011-2012 winter was the fourth warmest on record in the United States. The lower 48 states experienced the third-least snowy January in the last 20 years. Here on the hill was no exception; the snow that usually blankets our campus all interim was spotty, and it was T-shirt and shorts weather by the middle of March! (Visit the Regents Hall Environmental Monitoring site to play around with graphs of temperature and precipitation and compare this year to previous ones at www.stolaf.edu/regentshall/enviromon/index.cfm).
This unusual weather has wide-ranging consequences around the country, from shortages in drinking water to decreased revenue for snow-dependent businesses like ski resorts. It is also significant for plants and animals that time their life cycles or behavior to changes in the weather. This was the subject of discussion a few weeks ago on Science Friday, a 20 minute broadcast on National Public Radio. Entomologist Dr. Tom Turpin from Purdue University and botanist Dr. Kristin Schleiter from the New York Botanical Garden discussed how a warm winter and an early spring could be (and is) affecting the flora and fauna around the country.
Many plants are blooming earlier than usual because of the warming temperatures. Dr. Schleiter expressed concern that there is some risk of a cold snap that might cause plants to lose bloom, which would also mean that they would not produce fruit for the season. Earlier flowers could also lead to a mismatch between when plants are ready to be pollinated, and when the insect pollinators are actually out doing the pollinating. In some cases, if plants flower earlier than their pollinators are out, then the flower might not be able to fruit and the pollinator would miss a big source of food. However, Dr. Turpin pointed out that plants and pollinators have co-evolved for millions of years, so they “probably are keying in on the same environmental factors. So I think... the pollinators would be out there if those plants are in fact blooming.”
The episode also mentioned a shift in the “planting zones” caused by long-term weather changes. This refers to the Plant Hardiness Zones set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to guide growers as to what plants are likely to thrive in certain areas. The hardiness zones themselves are based on the average annual extreme minimum temperature over the past 30 years (from 1976-2005) for each given area. The fact that certain areas are being assigned different hardiness zones than in years past can indicate two things: one is that the methods for determining the zone are becoming more refined and the zones are able to be divided on a finer scale. However, it may also reflect a shift in weather patterns: moving from zone 6 to 7 indicates that area is not experiencing minimum temperatures as cold as they were in winters past (the average has increased). This trend is being shown. The new map is generally a half zone warmer throughout many areas of the US when compared to the map from 1990. Northfield is one such area; since 1990 we have moved from a 4a to a 4b hardiness zone. You can check out the new map (and its interactive version) at http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov.
The early spring definitely seems to be affecting the plants and animals here on the hill. This is the 3rd year that the student naturalists have been monitoring spring phenology, and looking back over the years we are seeing a lot of spring events earlier this year. In 2011 we had a relatively late spring while the 2010 spring came early like this spring. One of the sure signs of spring is the sound of red-winged blackbirds on the wetlands in the prairie or behind Regents. This year we heard our first red-winged blackbirds on March 9th, compared to March 18th in 2011 and March 11th in 2010. Even more amazing, the first western chorus frog calls were heard around March 14th this year compared to April 1st in 2011 and March 20th in 2010. The ice on Skoglund Pond also opened up much sooner this year, bringing waterfowl such as hooded mergansers to campus as early as March 18th compared to April 8th in 2011 and March 27th in 2010.
On the plant side, we are getting much earlier emergence, budding, and blooming than previous years. We were surprised on February 24th, our first phenology walk, to find live green false rue anemone already growing! This is remarkable because false rue anemone was not found until around April 1st during Spring 2010. The elderberry buds burst around March 18th this year compared to April 8th in 2011 and April 9th in 2010. We even have many spring ephemerals such as bloodroot blooming right now, where you would have had to wait until April 15th in 2011 and April 9th to view these blossoms in the past.
The earliness of these events have made this spring very exciting so far. We have already seen so many changes as plants turn green and animals become active but there is so much still to come! We are expecting Neotropical migrants like warblers, hummingbirds, and swallows to arrive and more wildflowers to show us their flowers soon, so keep an eye out! Join us, the Student Naturalists, on our weekly phenology walks and enjoy this beautiful spring weather.
By Charlie Reinertsen '13
The moon hasn’t risen yet, and the stars light up the sky. The days’ warmth has been replaced by the chill of the night, and coyotes are calling in the not-so-far-off distance. Our fearless leader, Steve Freedberg, leads the way, gardening hoe in one hand and black light in the other. Every few steps, he uses the hoe to lift a rock and flashes his light on the ground. Tonight, we are on the hunt for scorpions. Nighttime is ideal for scorpion hunting because their exoskeletons fluoresce under the black light. This is just one of the many cool things I learned while exploring the southwest on the Desert Biology trip.
Each day was a unique adventure in an amazing place. One of our first stops was Douglas, Arizona where we met up with turtle biologist Justin Congdon. Justin is currently studying the Sonoran mud turtle, which is endemic to a small region in the southwest. When we arrived at Justin’s house, he showed us the results of his research and explained his research methods. Later, we headed out into the field in search of turtles to contribute to his data set. We piled into the vans and Justin led us to an ice-cold, cattle-manure-infested pond. He told us to jump in and start reaching under ledges to find the turtles. A few of the more courageous individuals jumped in immediately and soon began pulling out turtles. The water was unbelievably cold but the thrill of catching turtles kept our minds off of our freezing joints. We tagged and recorded information for 21 turtles in just a few hours, and afterwards we returned to Justin’s for a barbeque. This was our first experience in the desert, and we couldn’t think of how it could get any better.
Over the next few weeks, we moved from one incredible adventure to another. While camping in Catalina State Park, we found gila monsters, diamond-back rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, and scorpions with the help of a dream team of five desert wildlife experts. In Organ Pipe National Park, we designed and conducted both a group research project on the creosote bush and individual research projects. While camping in Death Valley, we explored canyons, tasted salt flats, and jumped off sand dunes. Finally, many hikes, adventures, and campfires later, we stood in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
The Desert Biology course gives you the opportunity to conduct research, meet with researchers, and learn about the desert biome, all while exploring the amazing and diverse desert of the southwest. Camping in tents underneath the starlit sky while surrounded by saguaro cacti is an unforgettable experience. From diving for mud turtles in freezing water to finding scorpions with black lights, Desert Biology is a class unlike any other.
By Andrew Kaul '13
Jesse Ausubel, the director of the program for the human environment at Rockefeller University in New York reports that, “in our most recent studies looking at over 200 countries, we found that over the last 15 years, 69 countries now have increasing forests, 92 still have decreasing forests.” He emphasizes how encouraging these numbers are considering their historical context. Since the start of modern humankind’s reign on the earth about 10,000 years ago, 1830 was the first year it could reliably be said that a country (France) had an increasing number of trees.
Currently there are more countries losing trees annually than gaining them; this is the global trend as well. However, it may be deceptive to reduce the state of global forestry to a negative balance considering that according to Ausubel, “If you subtract Indonesia and Brazil then the world's forests since 1990 grew by 2 percent.” It seems the majority of severe forest depletion is occurring in only a few places on the globe. Not only developed nations are succeeding in efforts to reforest their land, but also, India, China, Turkey, and the Ivory Coast have increased the size of their forests in recent years. On top of these successes, there is reason to believe that the countries still in the negative won’t be for long, since Brazil saw its smallest annual decrease in tree cover area in recent history in 2005.
It seems that while deforestation is still a global concern, there are many nations making steps in the right direction. Stories like that of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, which have led to the planting of over 40 million trees in Africa, give hope to those concerned for the future of earth’s forests, but how does the U.S. fit into this picture? The United States has been the world’s most productive reforesting country since 1990 in terms of volume of wood added annually to forests.
Minnesota, specifically, has made tremendous progress, as is evidenced by recent surveys. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota is now home to over 6.5 million hectares of forests, which cover about a third of the state. They estimate that around 15 million seedling trees are planted each year. Minnesota’s turn around in recent years has been in no small part due to policy. Since Minnesota’s rate of deforestation (driven by the logging industry) peaked in 1899, pioneering policies have helped Minnesota’s forest industry become less destructive. Some of these include the inception of the Minnesota Forest Service in 1911, the introduction of burning permits in 1919, the establishment of a state nursery in 1931, and the first tree farm in 1941. Many new choices concerning forestry in Minnesota have also been crucial, such as passing the Sustainable Forest Resource Act of 1995, which balances environmental and economic considerations on forestry.
Following state trends, St. Olaf has contributed to the green movement in Minnesota by planting its own restored forests. The Natural Lands web page boasts that over 40 thousand seedlings have been planted to date, and nearly 40 hectares have been reforested. The majority of this planting was dedicated to twenty species of hardwoods in an effort to recreate the diminished Big Woods biome that once dominated the area. In addition, since 1993 about 3 hectares were planted with a variety of coniferous species characteristic of woods further north in Minnesota. All of this planting was done on land previously used for agriculture. The forestation of such land has provided advantages including increased biodiversity, habitat for many native birds, mammals, and other species, aesthetic beauty, decreased soil degradation due to runoff, and many other desirable features of a forest including opportunities for research and education.
While the loss of tree cover and forest habitat is a serious concern globally, there are many institutions and governments adopting the philosophy of sustainable development and reversing damage done locally by deforestation. The St. Olaf restored forests are a great example of how a small community can contribute to efforts statewide, nationally, and globally to preserve our valuable forest biomes.
Picture: Restored forest at St. Olaf
Stephanie Jones '13
For four weeks this January, I had the pleasure of exploring the many environments of Costa Rica with 17 other students and Professor Kathy Shea. This interim course, Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Land Use, took us through all of Costa Rica’s seven provinces: down into the lowland rainforest, up into the cloud forest, east to the coral reefs of the Caribbean, and west to the dry forest of the Pacific. Though Costa Rica has an area of just 50,000 square kilometers, its combination of extensive coastlines, a wide altitudinal gradient, and minimal abiotic pressures allows for an incredible level of biodiversity.
Our first place of study was CATIE, an institute of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management in the volcanic Central Range. From there, we made visits to sites in the surrounding area, including the largest coffee plantation in Costa Rica and a family-run, organic farm raising coffee as part of a polyculture of crops. The contrast between these two operations raised many questions about the impacts of agriculture on the natural environment that we continued to ponder for the remainder of the trip.
After leaving CATIE, we made two brief stops before heading to the lowland rainforest. The first was Yorkín, an indigenous Bri Bri community near the Panamanian border. It was a great privilege to hear this community’s amazing story about how they have preserved their traditional culture as well as the surrounding environment. Our second side trip was to Cahuita, a town on the Caribbean coast where we had a chance to see sloths and monkeys, snorkel over a coral reef, and enjoy the Rastafarian-influenced local culture.
We then arrived at La Selva Biological Station, where we conducted our first round of field research projects. We took advantage of the amazing abundance of species at La Selva by investigating behaviors of a range of animals, including termite nest distribution, peccary traffic patterns, and leafcutter ant workers that “hitchhike” on leaf fragments. We also had the opportunity to see dozens of other fascinating creatures, such as toucans, poison dart frogs, caimans, howler monkeys, and my personal favorite, Honduran white bats (fuzzy little bats with yellow ears that nest in tents they construct from leaves). It was truly an honor to stay at this top-notch research facility!
After leaving La Selva, we traveled up the slopes of the Tilarán mountain range to the Monteverde Preserve. Monteverde protects a unique type of ecosystem called the cloud forest that receives most of its moisture from condensation. During our week at Monteverde, we heard from experts about a wide range of issues currently relevant to this area, including ecotourism, climate change, and biological corridors. We also conducted our second round of field research projects, which included studies of invertebrate abundance in leaf litter, fungal infections of coffee plants, and factors affecting growth in the elfin forest sub-ecosystem. Dr. Alan Pounds, a renowned climate researcher (and just a really nice person!) who we got to know over the course of our week in Monteverde, listened to our project presentations – he asked great questions and helped us think about our projects in more depth.
Before returning to San José for our flight home, we spent several days on the Pacific coast. Here, we experienced the unique environment of the tropical dry forest, where the trees were bare of leaves but many exhibited lush displays of flowers. We also visited a beach called Playa Grande that has been the egg-laying site for thousands of leatherback sea turtles in the past, but unfortunately the leatherback population has declined drastically in recent years due to various habitat pressures imposed by humans, and no turtles appeared during our watch.
Four weeks is not nearly enough time to become fully acquainted with all the biological phenomena that Costa Rica has to offer, but our whirlwind adventure through this beautiful country gave us a great introduction. It was extremely thought-provoking to see the ways that the goals of ecotourism, agriculture, and environmental conservation can alternately reinforce each other or conflict with each other. Within the context of these broader issues, we also gained hands-on experience with the joys and frustrations of designing, conducting, and presenting original field research. Overall, the Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Land Use course in Costa Rica was an incredible opportunity to grow as scientists and as informed citizens of the world.