Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mapping the Forest

Today, I caught a red-backed vole, which was fun. She was feisty and weighed 17 grams. How much is that in ounces?

We also walked a trail in the forest searching for any signs of animal life. We had a GPS with us so we could mark down the latitude and longitude of the big trees in the forest and any big turns in the trail. You'd be surprised how many signs of animal life you miss when you're not looking for them.

Challenge: name three different ways you can tell an animal has been somewhere in the forest without seeing the animal itself.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Today we visited a forest that is also a Christmas tree farm. Yes, we have been visiting the forest all along, but this was a different forest: a managed forest. We have seen forests that have been clear cut and then allowed to grow back in a natural way and forests that have been left alone--or old-growth forests. For instance, yesterday we saw a hemlock forest. Each of these is its own biome.

A managed forest like the one we saw today is one in which some trees are cut down in order to encourage the growth of others. Kevin, the man who owns the forest land, told us that he carefully picks trees that he knows will grow tall and strong, such as spruce. The ones that he grows as Christmas trees are balsam firs, but even those are selected for the best ones. Below, baby Christmas trees grow in a clearing surrounded by managed forest. Kevin said he is going to let this piece of land return to all trees because it is too far into his land. He makes some of his money by having a cut-your-own-tree business at Christmas.

Kevin does not use any fertilizer or pesticide on his trees.
What do you think some effects of that might be?
What does fertilizer do for trees?
Do you think that they have any bad effects?

What about pesticides? Kevin said that having large, healthy trees--his managed forest--around the Christmas tree farm helps protect his trees in a number of ways. One is that birds live in the older spruce trees. What do birds eat? Yes, bugs! So Kevin allows the birds in the forest to help control the bugs. He said that if the bugs are starting to harm the trees, he might release some helpful bugs like ladybugs into the forest to help take care of the bugs that eat trees.

Another way the forest helps protect the smaller trees is related to wind. What do you do on a windy day? Try to stay up against a building or near shelter, right? The large trees act as wind breakers so that the small trees aren't pounded by strong weather. Nova Scotia is on the Atlantic and the Bay of Fundy and gets its share of hurricanes. Small trees can't withstand that on their own. The little tree at right will not grow up. Would you want a tree this color and shape as your Christmas tree?

We also put out more small animal traps today, so I am hoping when we go back tomorrow, we will have some little creatures to count. We have moved to a different area, one that is old-growth unmanaged forest and a more open field. Small animals live in small areas and the small differences between lots of places to hide and nuts and grass to eat can lead to very different numbers and types of animals. We learned a math formula that will help us make an estimate of how many animals in total are living in one spot. By the end of the week, I should be able to give you some idea what we found, but the scientists have been collecting this data for 12 years, so what my team is doing is just a tiny piece of the whole project.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I Touched a Vole and I Liked It

Yesterday we checked the traps we set Tuesday. Dr. Buesching said we probably wouldn't find any animals in the morning because it was cold over night and the animals would just stay burrowed under ground for warmth. When we went to check our traps, we were surprised to find that three of the doors  were closed. What do you think it means if the trap door is closed? You're right, it means that something is probably inside. The traps have food and bedding We eagerly looked in all the traps, but they were all false alarms. There is one animal that can get into the traps and then get out again. It's a shrew. Why do you think the scientists would allow shrews to escape? Hint: Think about what animals need to survive and what we put into the traps.

In the afternoon, we caught two red-backed voles! Very exciting. One was in a trap that I set. It is a girl. We weighed her with a spring scale and then took her back to the spot where we found her and released her. It's OK that she is in a plastic bag because she is tiny and doesn't need that much oxygen.

There are several differences between a mouse and a vole. Do you know what they are?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Getting Down to Business

Today we were out in the field doing what we came here to do--lay down traps for small mammals. Our core mechanic over the next week will be to check the traps we set to see if any mammals are in them and to reset them with more food and bedding for the next day. We will be doing that twice a day for the rest of the week. The traps, which I will talk about in detail further down, are designed to catch mice and voles.

We're not overly optimistic because it was so cold today that the animals are probably going to stay burrowed underground. The scientists said it was the coldest day they ever had volunteers working with them. With the wind chill it was 10 degrees and snowing! However, they also said it's very important to collect the data even if it is that we didn't catch any mammals. All information is important for the big picture of how the system is functioning and changing.

Dr. Buesching explains, above left, how to set up the traps. Each one costs $100 and we had to set 100. That's a lot of money to lose if we can't find the traps or accidentally break them. Traps have to have nice grass bedding and food in them so the mice, voles or shrews won't freeze or starve once they enter the traps. Mice have very little body fat and need to eat a lot to stay warm. How much do you think is a lot of food for a mouse? One teaspoon, one pint, or one gallon?

After the traps are ready, we set them in places where we thought small mammals would go, marked them with pink tape tied to a tree so we could find them again and covered them with grass and leaves to insulate them. In case you were wondering why learning to create grids is important, the scientists had us volunteers line up in rows and place the traps in a grid pattern. That way they can be sure that they are collecting data from the same area every time.

Above right, I am placing a trap in a spot I hope a small mammal would be likely to go. Where do you think would be some good places in the forest to put a mouse trap? Hint: Think about the places you might see a mouse running. Why do you think they run there? What places in the forest would be similar?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Looking for signs of mammals

When looking for signs of mammals, researchers don't always see the mammals themselves. Instead, they look for signs of the mammals' presence in the area.

Today we took a walk along the ocean to begin to learn what to look for and how to decide what mammal the signs went with.

Can you guess what Dr.  Chris Newman and Dr. Christina Buesching are looking at on the rock? It's something animals leave behind. If you said droppings, scat, feces, or whatever else you may call poop, you are right! This particular poop was made by a mink. We used clues, including the biome in which we found the poop to figure out whose poop it was. We also saw old bear poop, bobcat and porcupine poop. All had unique characteristics. Drs. Newman and Buesching are teaching us how to identify animals based on their poop. Scientists can tell a lot about which animals are active in the area by looking at poop.

What do you think are some characteristics that make poop identifiable as coming from a specific animal?

Other signs of life we noticed, were a small hole full of food remains that was probably made by a chipmunk or squirrel. Dr. Buesching said we could tell that because these small mammals like to pick a spot where they can easily see their surrounding and be alert to danger. She could also tell because the food was tree bits, which is exactly what those animals would eat.

One other sign of animal activity was the picked-clean leg bone of a deer. It was probably eaten by a coyote. Finally, although we will not be studying birds, we saw many lobster and crab shells that birds had dropped once they got all the good parts out.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What time is it there?

We think about time in many different ways. The main way many students access time is by looking at a clock and thinking, "How much longer is this class going to take?"
What do you know about time changes? If I look at the clock on the computer I'm typing on right now, it says 6:09 PM, but if I ask someone here what time it is, they will tell me it is 20:10.
What does that mean? What time is it here in Nova Scotia and why is it different from our time in Chicago?

Time has many intervals. Sometimes a second or even a part of a second has great importance. (Think about races.) Sometimes we count the hours, days, weeks or months and the seconds tick by without notice.

Tonight, at the beginning of this expedition, we talked about climate change, what it means and whether the efforts we make can change the course of Earth's systems and its components. In this discussion, years are irrelevant, hundreds of years, too. Geologists think in millions of years and the changes to the Earth as a system and its components (including us) over that amount of time.

What kinds of time are important to you? How do you measure them? Do you like to zoom in to a second or think in terms what Earth will look like long after we're gone?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Getting ready!

Hi all,

I'm starting to get excited and nervous about my upcoming Earthwatch expedition to Nova Scotia. So much to think about and do in addition to all the interesting quests and Boss Level at CQ.

Home Base: I'm sorry I'm going to miss most of Boss Level, but I will be Skyping and posting both here and to iremix, so please comment, ask questions and keep up with my scientific research project.

If you want some general information about the trip, you can check out the description at or you can just ask me before I go :)

Ms. Shor