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Our Delicate Ecosystem

This week’s blog was written by Laura M., a Bass alumni. She writes about what she learned during an experiment in her environmental science class.

Recently in my environmental science class, we did what is known as the bio-bottle lab. In this lab, we had to successfully create an ecosystem in a bottle with two different ecosystems being represented. We needed to have this ecosystem live for two weeks with it completely sealed up. We could not open the bottle if we noticed the organisms dying or for any other reason. We could only observe and watch the events as they played out. What we learned during this experiment was unexpected, and the end results were much different than we expected.

Here is our design for the Bio-Bottle.

For my group, we had a terrestrial ecosystem on top and a freshwater aquatic system on the bottom. We had intentionally put in soil, grass, worms, grasshoppers, slug eggs, and a cricket. At the end of the experiment, we found that we put a millipede in there too. For the aquatic system, we put in rocks with algae on them, wild celery, elodea, snails, and a stonecat (we named him Alexi). We later found a little fingernail clam. We got the grass, soil, grasshoppers, and millipede from my backyard, and we got the slug eggs from soil near a creek and the cricket from the pet store (we were originally going to put five crickets instead of three grasshoppers and one cricket in the bottle, but the crickets ate each other before being put into the bottle, so we added grasshoppers too). We got all of the aquatic elements from the Susquehanna River. Originally, we thought that our terrestrial system was going to survive better; however, our end results were drastically different than what we anticipated.

This is Alexi, our adorable stonecat catfish.

Throughout the two weeks, the cricket and three grasshoppers died in the terrestrial system. The grasshoppers ate a lot more grass than we anticipated. They decimated the grass within the first couple of days. As a result, the crickets died immediately, and the grasshoppers died just after a week. We never believed that the grasshoppers would eat that much grass, so in the future, if we were to repeat this experiment, we would probably only have one grasshopper or only have a cricket or two. We weren’t really sure about the exact cause of death for the grasshoppers and cricket. We suspected that it was because of a lack of oxygen or a lack of food. However, after the grasshoppers died, the grass started to regrow, so we could not test oxygen levels to see if that was the cause of death. In the aquatic system, two of the snails died. We didn’t have an idea about the cause of death because there was plenty of food and oxygen. However, they could have just got sick or died from other natural causes.

Throughout this experiment, we learned just how delicate ecosystems are. Our terrestrial ecosystem would probably have been fine if we had just had it balanced better. We needed to have fewer grasshoppers at the top so they wouldn’t eat everything. If this were to happen in a larger environment, the effects would be even greater. If there is too much of one thing in an ecosystem, the effects can be disastrous.

A similar experiment was done on a larger scale in the construction of Biosphere 2. This was a massive, artificial ecosystem that was done to see if an artificial ecosystem could be created to replace the one we already have (Earth) in case it was completely destroyed. However, this experiment was not a success. It showed that people could not replicate Earth’s natural processes on a large scale for us to survive in case of an emergency. Because of this, people should acknowledge that they need to protect the earth that they already have. If we don’t take care of what we have now, we won’t be able to be here in the future. We need to remember that resources are limited, and when they are gone, they are gone forever.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

February Student of the Month – Kaylyn W.

Our February student of the month is Kaylyn W., who has been hard at work representing Wildlife Leadership Academy and the outdoors as a Conservation Ambassador in her home community and around the state!

Kaylyn is an equal-opportunity ambassador: she has completed projects in many different categories of outreach so far: she has done education projects like interviewing with the Juniata Sentinel newspaper, who then published an article about her experience at WLA, to giving presentations with her trifold, and creating a quiz booklet where you can “Test Your Knowledge” about trees and leaves. Not to mention, Kaylyn represented Wildlife Leadership Academy admirably at a recent meeting of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission in Harrisburg, where she attended with Michele (our Executive Director), and talked about her field school experience at PA Bass.

Kaylyn has also worked on projects like getting friends outdoors for fun activities, teaching skills to younger kids, and exercising her handy abilities by building a wooden toolbox (which she submitted to the Juniata County Fair and won first place + Grand Champion!!) When she’s not acting as a mentor for community members, Kaylyn is also flexing her creative abilities – her Early Bird record book submission showed off an awesome wooly bugger fly she tied, as well as a lovely painting:

We are delighted with Kaylyn’s many accomplishments, and she is clearly multi-talented. We are looking forward to seeing the many and varied projects she is sure to work on in the future. Kaylyn is a hardworking, talented individual, and we are proud to have her in the WLA family!

An Otter’s Winter

This week’s blog was written by Paige F., a Bass alumni. She tells about the unique ways that otters survive the winter.

As winter approaches and the days get shorter, many animals migrate to the south for warmer weather. Others undergo hibernation and sleep the days away, but some animals have the ability to stay active all winter and outlast the bitter cold. The river otter is one of those amazing animals that can last through Pennsylvania’s winters. River otters are semi-aquatic animals, meaning that they live both on land and in the water. This may raise the question of how they could live through the winter since most of their diet is comprised of fish and water freezes over during the cold temperatures. Since only the surface of water bodies freezes over, otters just need to find a way to access the water below. Getting below the ice isn’t a problem for otters, as they’ll mainly stick near rivers or steam, places with flowing water because the flowing water won’t freeze over like a lake or pond. When they don’t have access to flowing water, otters have also been known to break into beaver dams for access to water or dig up hibernating frogs for food. Otters have a special coat of fur with guard hairs to keep out the elements, and wavy underfur to trap in warm air. This special fur combined with oil to keep out water acts as a winter coat for the otters. With all the protection from the cold, otters can freely swim and dive through the icy waters. With the playful nature of river otters, they can often be seen sledding down hills on their stomachs or playing in the snow. While many animals can’t take the cold of Pennsylvania’s winter, the river otter is able to stick around because of their amazing adaptations.

While I was photographing the otters I accidentally woke one up.
Otters love swimming, no matter what time of year it is.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.

Winter is Coming

This week’s blog was written by Jocelyn G., a Drummers alumni. She writes about the ways that meteorologists are able to predict the weather.

Anyone else wondering what this winter is going to be like? Well, I am personally I would like to see a lot of snow days this year! So how can we tell what this winter is going to be like? Well if you are interested in knowing how scientists predict what our winter is going to be like I’m here to help explain.

There are many meteorologists out there studying what this winter will bring they all use a lot of different technologies and methods to make these predictions. Something that helps these scientists figure this out is the climate patterns. This is a very interesting thing to look at now because our climate is constantly changing due to global warming. El Nino affects the water temperature of the Pacific Ocean. So if there is El Nino the water and land will be warmer than usual, affecting the winter weather.

A picture from last winter on a snow day!

Another thing scientists will look at is the jet stream. The jet stream is the border between the warm air and the cold air. So if the jet stream is pushed farther south more cold air will cover the land and there will be less warm air. This is why when there is what they call “a dip in the jet stream” we experience colder temperatures.

So what are they saying about this winter? Well, you can’t be one hundred percent sure, in fact, there are many different predictions and some of them are way different than others. From what I have gathered, in general, it seems that in Pennsylvania this winter the coldest weather will come in January or February. With this, we will have average and above-average snowfall in these months. It seems that December will not bring much winter weather though.

The photo used in this blog belongs to the author.

About those flowers on the side of the road…

This week’s blog was written by Francesca R., a Drummers alumni. She writes about the plants that you can find on the side of the road.

Have you ever thought about those plants on the side of the road, the “wildflowers”? What about those white, pretty flowers that little children find to give to their mothers? Have you ever thought about how dangerous those plants could be for our environment and so many animals who would be better off without them?

During my time at the Wildlife Leadership Academy, I have had the opportunity to learn about numerous plants and their purpose in nature encompassing us, but what intrigued me about the plants in our area was the fact that many of them are not supposed to be here and, in turn, tend to destroy many of the habitats of animals, like deer, grouse, many other birds and land animals in Pennsylvania. These forceful plants are called “invasive,” and rightly so because of their vigorous and effective way of taking over the forests and areas surrounding it, like your backyard, even.

Some Plants on the Side of the Road

Although it may come as a surprise that Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), a beautiful looking plant that many children pick to give their mother, are poisonous weeds that are incredibly harmful to Pennsylvania’s environment. During my time at the Wildlife Leadership Academy last summer, I was tasked with finding and pressing a series of individual plants. While I was adequately picking the plants I wanted, I realized that Queen Anne’s Lace was indeed everywhere, like any other invasive species. It grew in abandoned fields, on the sides of roads, and, well, pretty much anywhere there is room for it to grow. Native to temperate regions of Europe and southwest Asia, this subspecies of wild carrot (yes, wild carrot) has been carefully observed so that it doesn’t take over too much of forest land where trees and other native plants could potentially grow. If you do not want to see these white, lacey, flowery, weeds in your yard, cutting your grass before they develop can help get rid of these weeds before they start to grow.

Queen Anne’s Lace along with some other Plants

Two other invasive plants I found interesting are both native to Japan. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) are both taking forests’ and their native species’ spaces to grow by storm. Although the Japanese barberry may be an excellent plant for landscape designers because it “…exhibits a high ornamental value plus it responds very well to pruning…” according to the Ecological Landscape Alliance, it does not do any help to the wildlife here in the U.S. It grows and spreads, taking over and killing native species of plants that are supposed to flourish as they take care of the various animals in the area. These shrubs can vary in size and color depending on what kind of soil they grow on. Japanese barberry shrubs grow to be quite tall compared to the Japanese stiltgrass, small grass plants that can be found nearly everywhere in the forests around North Eastern and Central Pa. They eat and scour and grow in any space that they can. Every inch that the forest leaves open, it steals. The Japanese stilt grass creates an inhospitable environment for many native species of both animals and plants alike because of its changing of natural soil conditions. Cutting your lawn may not help when trying to get rid of this plant since it is a type of grass. Instead, try to use some mulches, dive into hoeing, and hand weeding. These tactics may help when trying to control this seemingly uncontrollable, yet beautiful, plant.

Flowers that you May See on the Side of the Road

With all being said, do we need to find a way to get rid of these plants for good? Do we have to abolish these plants? I think not! Although they may seem considerably dangerous, they do help individual animals in a few cases. For example, the grouse uses the Japanese barberry shrub for cover from impending threats. In my opinion, and because it would be almost impossible to remove all that Japanese stiltgrass, we should carefully watch how much space these plants are taking. They may overtake places where trees need to grow, so with careful attention and regularly taking out the surplus of invasive species, I believe our forests and animals might have a better chance of getting through a much more significant threat – humans, our deforestations, and ruining of habitats. Therefore, we must make an effort to help the environment and its animals so that not only we might have a better future but for the whole earth.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.