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Coral Reefs and Why They Need to Be Conserved

This week’s blog was written by Abbey T., a Bucktails alumni. Abbey enjoys studying animals in their natural habitats as well as how their presence is able to impact the environment they live in. She isn’t sure what career she would like to pursue, but she is interested in possibly being a biologist, environmentalist, or doing something in Nature Conservation. Abbey wanted to attend the Academy because she really wanted more experience in conservation and ways that she could apply that knowledge.

Coral reefs are formed over decades at a time, by the skeletons of marine life, usually by the exoskeletons of other corals, which are able to produce layers of calcium carbonate. These layers are what help other corals attach themselves to a coral reef until they die and produce their own additional layer of calcium carbonate, repeating the process of coral formation. Essentially, skeletons of other species, like fish, can also contribute to the formation of coral reefs; not just the remains of other corals.

This is the Great Barrier Reef, located off of the coast of Australia!

The largest coral reef system in the world is the Great Barrier Reef, which is located off the coast of Australia. It is one of the many coral reefs at risk of dying out due to many factors. Climate change is the main contributor to the decline of all coral reef systems because, genetically, many species of coral are susceptible to high temperatures, and cannot tolerate the increase of the ocean temperatures. In fact, some species of coral are more susceptible than others. Based on recent studies, it has been seen that warmer colored corals (red, orange, yellow, etc.) are able to survive in higher temperatures, rather than those of cooler colors (blue, purple, brown, etc.) which are less likely to survive. Water pollution, ocean acidification (decrease in pH of the ocean), coral bleaching (absence of zooxanthellae), overfishing, and the general damages of coral reefs (natural and human-caused) are other factors that are diminishing the world’s coral reef systems.

This is seagrass, typically found around coral reefs. It is another essential part of the biodiversity of coral reefs.

Coral reefs are incredibly important, not only for the environment and the balance of the food chain in the oceans but also for many people’s way of life. Like the Great Barrier Reef, many corals protect coastlines from erosion and additional damages from storms and hurricanes. In turn, this protects many communities that live close to the ocean. Some local communities even depend on coral reefs for their economic success through the fishing industry, tourism, as a food source, and for other standards of income. It is even estimated that half a billion to one billion people rely on coral reef systems for food alone. All of this shows how critical it is to establish protection for all coral reefs and to continue to find more ways to preserve and restore coral reef systems.

This is a close-up look at a coral reef. Essentially, coral reefs are fossilized, and life off of the skeletons of their ancestors and other species that live in the coral reef.

The Reef Life Foundation has formed a newer technology that is helping in coral repair, by using nanotechnology to create this material called Oceanite. It is this mineral compound that is coined as an ‘artificial reef-system,’ but it can be used to quickly restore coral reefs so there is not a massive loss in biodiversity of a damaged coral reef system. Oceanite can also be altered for use with any coral species, meaning that it can be used worldwide in any coral reef system. There are also fewer long-term solutions to repairing coral reef systems like creating a solution of sand to make a plaster-like material that mimics the way calcium carbonate forms coral reefs. This plaster can be used to reattach recently separated pieces of coral and is more useful for repairing reef damages after storms. There are also things that we can do in our everyday lives to help protect coral reefs. Choosing more sustainable ways of life is a crucial consideration to take; like eating viable seafood, decreasing the greenhouse gases produced by your household (ex: buying more efficient appliances and LED light bulbs), and conserving water (ex: take shorter showers).

The photos used in this blog were sourced from the internet! They can be found here, here, and here.

A Day at the Preserve

This week’s blog was written by Allie F., a Bucktails alumni. Allie is a high school sophomore who plans to pursue a career in medicine. She decided to attend the Wildlife Leadership Academy due to her interest in biology and nature. In her spare time, she enjoys music, dance, and hunting.

While the pandemic has made it difficult to participate in my normal activities, I have attempted to find other ways to spend my time. One of these methods that I found was visiting the Montour Preserve. Its extensive list of outdoor activities gives an interesting way to spend a day, while being able to learn more about the nature around me.

Sunset over Lake Chillisquaque

Montour Preserve houses a large variety of habitats and ecosystems, including forests, ponds, fields, streams, wetlands, and a large lake. It spans over one thousand acres and has many activities that intrigue and attract the public. The preserve offers boating, fishing, and ice fishing on Lake Chillisquaque. It also has hiking and walking trails that cover more than 12 miles. The trails lead through the beautiful scenery surrounding the lake and allows access to seasonal activities, such as cross-country skiing. The preserve also offers more unique and engaging activities that would especially appeal to young children. There is an acre-large fossil pit where families can look for small, fossilized animals that are able to be taken home and kept.

Bridge over creek at Montour Preserve

In addition to the expansive outdoor lands, Montour Preserve offers a Visitor’s Center that showcases the natural wildlife and history of the preserve. They have a collection of taxidermized animals that are native to the area, as well as information about them. They include animals such as eagles, fish, otters, racoons, and even a bear cub. These animals are used to inform and teach the public about nature, and how it survives. The preserve gives presentations at the Visitor’s Center as well, like offering the Hunter’s Safety Course.

Taxidermized Raccoons with corresponding information
Bald Eagle in Visitor’s Center

I greatly enjoy visiting the Montour Preserve and find it very educational and fun. I like to be able to photograph the beautiful surroundings, as well as learn about the different animals that reside there.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

The Music of Nature

This week’s blog was written by John B., a Brookies alumni. John is a senior in high school. He found out about the academy from his Chinese teacher who thought that he would enjoy it. John figured he would enjoy the camp because he enjoyed a conservation camp that he attended previously. John loves spending time outdoors, and often goes fishing. His plan is to attend college next fall to pursue biology and possibly Chinese too.

This past January, I didn’t manage to get out and brave the cold and snow much. I have been playing and listening to a lot of music in my free time, and it has me thinking about the music of nature! Such calming sounds like running water, singing birds, and rustling leaves are absent now in winter but will soon return in the Spring. I wanted to learn why so many animals choose to sing to each other and how they do it.

Songbirds are the first example most people will think of when it comes to the music of nature. You may be familiar with the phenomenon of the dawn chorus: where many different bird species seem to wake up and start singing just before sunrise. Beautiful as the singing is, it is thought that most male birds sing at this time to defend their territories from other males. The singing often continues throughout the day though as male songbirds are trying to prove their worthiness to any potential female mates. Birds have an organ called the syrinx similar to human vocal cords that let them create such wide ranges of sounds. Its secret is that two airway passages lead into the syrinx, so birds can produce different pitched sounds at the same time; one good example of this is the Wood Thrush’s song.

Here is the first songbird I saw this year! It is not the best picture of a Robin, but I was excited and surprised to see one so early.

When we take a look at the mammals, there are many that produce vocalizations. Coyote howls and elk bugles are good examples, but I was interested in looking into whales. Although many species are known to use echolocation and clicks, there are 5 known species of whales to sing, most notably being the humpback whale. Similar to songbirds, it is suspected whales sing mostly to attract females or for communication’s sake. The anatomy that allows these whales to sing is quite fascinating. They have an organ known as a laryngeal sac, that fills with air they push out of their lungs and through their vocal cords. Not only does this then act as an amplification chamber, but the air can also be pushed from the sac back into the lungs, so the whale can sing for long periods of time without needing to surface for air each time. Whale songs have also been shown to have repeating patterns and themes just like a pop song you could hear on the radio!

Overall, whether it is their instincts or emotions that compel them to, animals of all shapes and sizes are constantly making music. Even insects barely weighing grams can produce impressively loud noises. On your next spring day hike, I challenge you to focus on your sense of hearing rather than sight. Walk as quietly as you can without talking, and you will get to listen in on aspects of the forest you probably have never noticed!

The photo used in this blog belongs to the author.

Nature’s Architects

This week’s blog was written by Melinda J., a Bucktails alumni. Melinda has been interested in nature throughout her life, which is why she attended Wildlife Leadership Academy. She enjoys watching shows, reading books, and learning. Eventually, she would like to find a career in STEM.

When I walk around my neighborhood in winter, one of my favorite things to do is look up at the trees and see nests that would usually be hidden by leaves. It’s always amazing to spot a new nest settled between some branches above your head and think about the birds that made it. So many little architects fly through our skies and build homes out of twigs, leaves, and grass that are strong enough to support them and their families. These architects exhibit great workmanship, using only their beaks as tools to carry and weave their materials together.

The nests that I see in my neighborhood are cup or cupped nests, which are shaped like cups, as the name suggests. Of the many types of nests, cupped nests tend to be the strongest, warmest, and most complicated. These nests are situated on the tree branches; some are supported by branches beneath the nest while others are suspended by branches on the side of the nest. Usually, cupped nests are made of grasses, twigs, leaves, and other flexible materials, but some birds use mud, saliva, hair, or spiderwebs as well to build their nests in order to make them more sturdy.

A nest in a tree in my front yard.

Birds begin building their nests by bringing materials to the base and laying them on top of each other. A crucial part of this process is turning in the nest to tuck the material into the cup. As birds continue weaving new materials into their nest, a cup shape will form. The outer part of the nest tends to be more compacted to keep the nest durable, and the inside is usually made of softer material. Some birds such as hummingbirds will use saliva to help anchor their nests to trees and spider silk to keep the nest flexible and help it stick to branches.

Another nest by my house.

Birds are truly nature’s architects, creating sturdy homes and using materials that will best benefit them. Although I’ve seen dozens of nests around my neighborhood, I can’t wait until spring when I can see some birds building new nests and witness the architects at work.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Flowery Fungi: Winter’s Forest Beauty

This week’s blog was written by Emma C., a Bucktails alumni. Emma is an avid student, ballet dancer, and nature lover. When not at dance or school, she enjoys hiking, photography, painting, watching musicals and movies, learning interesting histories, and especially reading. She is particularly interested in science at this time, advancing to the state science fair last year. She was extremely excited to attend the Academy because as she puts it, nature is her, “safe place” where she feels at home. Her favorite quote is by the brilliant scientist Rachel Carson, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”

I think people can often be put off from hiking during winter, but I personally love it. Although the cold can be biting, there is something noticeably serene, calming, and magical about nature at this time of year. It is as though everything is at rest, and you can just bask in the beauty before you. There is a common perception that there is nothing interesting to find or look at, but the fungi I observed during a wintery stroll proved otherwise. Just like hiking during the colder months, people do not usually seem to have the best opinion of fungi. However, the fungi I saw on my walk brought so much color and life to the woods and was in fact quite beautiful.

Upon further research, I learned that the fungi popping up along my hike are specifically called shelf or bracket fungus–scientifically, this group is known as polypores. Shelf fungus covers a diverse range of species with many colors, shapes, and textures. The fungus I observed was mostly blue, green, white, and purple with just a dash of orange to finish it off. Further, they can be found in unique shapes and configurations. For instance, I observed fungus on a stump formed in little circular patterns that appeared flower-like. However, later on I also saw a branch that had more of the classic individual brackets of fungus running down its side. This fungus usually grows on fallen trees, branches, or stumps, creating these brackets so that they can grow above ground. In addition to being found above the forest floor, they differ from mushrooms in that instead of gills they have pores that help to produce more fungal spores (thus their name polypores meaning many pores). They can be found across the face of North America, Asia, and Europe mostly in hardwood forests.

Sideview of a stump with bracket fungus, Renfrew Museum and Park, Waynesboro, PA

Shelf fungi are an integral part of the forest regeneration process. A parasitic species, they decay the wood of their host, until the infected tree eventually collapses. This process helps clear old, weakened trees that decompose and become important nutrients for the soil, and makes way for new trees to grow. This decomposition additionally recycles carbon, as the fungi breaks down the cellulose in the bark of the tree and returns the carbon back to the atmosphere. Shelf fungi are also a microhabitat in themselves, providing essential living spaces for many species including various birds, arthropods, small amphibians, insects, and mites.

Close-up of bracket fungus, Renfrew Museum and Park, Waynesboro, PA

Although these fungi play an essential role in their environments, to some they are pests. Their parasitic nature slowly destroys the bark of the tree over time. Although this is a natural process, sometimes these fungi can infect too many trees, and decompose more than is environmentally beneficial. This loss is also a big blow to the lumber industry and can cost millions to be lost in decaying wood. However, this damage may be in part due to human error. When the bark of a tree is breached, it leaves this tree open to infection by the fungi. This exposure can occur when people carve into trees, or through invasive species that burrow into the wood of trees. The fungus does the actual damage, but humans can exacerbate the problem.

Bracket fungus on branch, Renfrew Museum and Park, Waynesboro, PA

Despite its potential detriment to the lumber industry, this fungus has been used to human advantage for many notable purposes. In terms of art, the fungus is often made into beads as it is a very durable substance. Due to this strength, the fungus is also used to make etchings, with people carving the spores down into different-sized pieces to create very intricate pictures. When it comes to improving human health, fungus has been used for centuries in herbal medicines. For instance, the species Piptoporus betulinus was found in the bag of a 5,300-year-old Ice Man mummy. Since it is often so tough, it is usually ground up to make tea, but some species are a bit more tender and when cooked can be directly eaten. The fungus is also sometimes used in traditional Asian medicines.

Top view of stump with bracket fungus, Renfrew Museum and Park, Waynesboro, PA

I will admit, I never paid much attention to this fungus before. Despite the fact that it is around all year long, my attention was always drawn to the bright flowers, large trees, and playful animals causing me to often overlook this interesting and vital part of the environment. It took the more subdued surroundings of the winter woods for my attention to finally be turned to the fungi. This experience has reminded me that beauty can be found where we least expect it. I think the more flashy elements of nature often catch our attention so that we neglect to notice the more demure parts, despite the fact that they are just as important and interconnected with the rest of the environment. Nature is so delicate, and one out-of-place component can topple the whole system. We must always remember to look closer and think deeper. The tiniest insect can contain multitudes within its thin body, and the simplest-looking plant can be the most interesting of all. I certainly would have never discovered my new winter flowers without doing a double-take, and I hope you will too.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author. The informational sources the author used can be found here, here, and here.