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Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Winter Wetlands: Virtual Field Trip

The Rutherford Wetland near Carbon Hill this winter. Photo: Emily Walter

A frozen lake, pond, or wetland might be a tempting ice-skating rink. But a thick layer of ice on top doesn’t stop aquatic life from calling these places home. This week, we explore how animals survive when their home freezes into ice. You can:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, February 19th at 10:30 am on Zoom.

Find a winter nature spot to make observations. The more you visit, the more you’ll notice!

Virtual Field Trip, Feb. 12 at 10:30 am

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll be investigating frozen ponds and those who live in them.

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.

Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.

The birth of a wetland

By Emily

Last week, Sarah and I visited the Rutherford Wetland at the Ora Anderson Nature Trail outside Carbon Hill. I have visited countless wetlands in my life, both near my home in Athens County and far. I am always struck by how beautiful and calm these places can be. I love to see waterfowl like ducks and blue herons. But, this wetland is especially interesting to me.

The Rutherford Wetland hasn’t always been water. It used to be woods along Monday Creek, and sometimes the woods flooded. Then, all the trees were cut down to make farms. And a railroad was built right through these low-lying farm fields.

In the 1990s, the Wayne National Forest took over the land, and it began to change again. Beavers moved in. The beavers dammed up the farm fields, flooding them. That created the diverse wetland I saw last week.

Beaver Dams

A beaver dam blocks a stream, creating a wetland on the right. Photo: Fred Dunn.

Beavers create or change wetlands with their dams. The dams are walls of sticks and mud. These walls block streams from flowing freely. The water usually gets deeper and spreads out into a pond or wetland. Plants change, and animals are drawn to the habitat. This is how a bunch of fields turned into the Rutherford wetland!

I find the Rutherford Wetland so interesting because its story shows how wetlands can adjust to new conditions. This land was stripped of all its trees, heavily farmed, and had an industrial railroad running through it. But now it’s a healthy ecosystem for beavers, fish, ducks, and songbirds.

Wetlands get to work

All wetlands have ways to deal with flooding and pollution. Wetlands soak up extra water that human concrete keeps from soaking into the soil. They absorb lots of rainwater, too.

Wetlands hold onto that water and release it more slowly. This prevents floods when it’s too rainy. And when the weather is too dry, wetlands keep streams flowing with all the water they saved up.

The quality of our water is improved when it goes through a wetland. Wetlands filter out pollutants from our lawns, cars and factories. This makes our drinking water safer and better for animals to live in. This isn’t an excuse to dump our waste in wetlands, but they do a good job cleaning up what mess we do make.

A wetland comeback story

Madison shared with me a great story about a wetland in New Jersey that was mistreated. But like the Rutherford wetland, it bounced back with human help. Now it provides habitat to fish, crabs, and seabirds. Listen to me read it, if you’d like:

A picture book about why we should protect wetlands.

Wetlands, and the critters inside them, also adapt to winter. When Sarah and I were at Rutherford last week, the whole wetland was frozen. The best way to start understanding these changes? Make your own observations!

Outdoor activity: Watching the seasons change

A beautiful winter pond Sarah observed. Photo: Sarah Haney

You will need:

  • Paper or a notebook
  • Something to write or draw with

Now is a great time to observe winter changes—Athens County is currently in a level 2 snow emergency. This is some pretty beautiful winter weather, but it’s also recommended you don’t drive. So pick an outdoor area near your home to make your winter observations.

Your nature spot doesn’t have to be big. A pond, little stream, or small garden is nice. But even a patch of grass or bushes is fine.

At your spot, observe nature and take detailed notes or drawings. Do it over and over and over and over and over again! Why? If you watch day after day, you’ll be an eyewitness to the wonders of the changing seasons. Winter into spring is a magical time when little details change each day. Some things you can only see at this time of year.

You might write or draw:

  • What you see
  • What you hear
  • What the weather feels like
  • What stands out to you about the area
  • How has snow, ice or cold changed the area?
  • What are plants and animals doing during this cold time? Do you see any evidence of them?

Here is an example from my time by a pond:

Feel free to add drawings or pictures to your observations!

It’s okay if you can’t identify all the plants or animals you see. Describe them the best you. If you want to, you can look for them in field guides later.

Now that we know more about wetlands, let’s look at the animals who live in them in winter.

Animal adaptations: Tools for Survival!

By Sarah

How do humans adapt to winter? You may think of putting on coats, mittens and hats to stay warm.

Now imagine that you live in a frozen wetland. How could you keep yourself warm while being wet? This might be difficult for us people, but animals have many adaptations to handle it.

What are adaptations? Think of adaptations as tools that animals are born with that help them survive in their environment. Living in the wild is a rough life. You are exposed to wind, storms, and heat. So animals have adaptations to help them live in harsh weather conditions. The wild also has predators and no grocery stores, so animals also have adaptations to help them hide, fight, and get food.

Temperature difference in frozen ponds. Graphic: Emily Walter

How might an animal adapt to a pond freezing? The water is chilly, there’s less food, and ice keeps you from the surface. Yet the layer of ice on top actually helps keep the water below warmer.

  • Fish survive the winter by hanging out near the bottom of the lake, where the warmest water is. They enter a winter rest state, when their heartbeat slows down. They need less food and oxygen.
  • Turtles burrow into the mud at the bottom of the pond, where it’s even warmer. Like fish, their bodies slow down, and they switch to breathing out their butt!
  • Wood frogs leave the pond, and bury themselves in the ground in the woods nearby. They have a special chemical in their body that lets them freeze solid, like a popsicle! They thaw out in sprin and hop off.

Let’s look more closely at how one species in particular is adapted to life in the winter wetland. It’s the species that built the Rutherford Wetland: the beaver.

How Beavers Have Adapted

The American beaver, sitting right up! Photo: Wikipedia

The arrows point at unique features the beaver has to live in wetlands! Such wild wetland areas are vast and you need to be able to swim well throughout the water. How does the beaver do this? How do you make a house on the water? You need to have some good tools to start. All these adaptations the beaver needs to live in a wetland!

The green arrow: two big teeth for chewing wood. The two square teeth at the front of beavers’ mouths are called incisors. This adaption is a tool for cutting! Remember this by thinking…

“I use scissors to cut paper and beavers use incisors to cut trees down!”

Beavers need these incisor teeth to cut down trees. They use these to build lodges, their homes. The beavers need lodges to stay warm during the winter. Lodges also are a safe place to be, because their entrance is underwater. There aren’t many other animals who can swim underwater, then crawl up into a dry lodge.

Beavers also use the incisors to gnaw on the outer layer of sticks. Beavers eat the just the bark of sticks and vegetation in the water. They don’t eat the full-sized trees they bite down. Before winter, they store lots of these sticks in the water. The cold water acts like a refrigerator, keeping their food fresh all winter.

Beaver chew marks eat away at a standing tree. Photo credit: Sarah Haney

The red arrow: feet for swimming. Beavers feet remind me of a scuba diver’s flippers. While a beaver is quite slow on land, they move quickly through the water. Did you know beavers can hold their breath and swim underwater for up to fifteen minutes? That’s pretty impressive!

The blue arrow: a wide tail. A beaver’s tail has many uses! Like their feet, their tail makes them good swimmers. Beavers also use their tails for communicating. If they think a predator is nearby, they will slap their tail against the water. The slap warns each other of danger, and hopefully scares off any predator, before they dive into the water.

Beavers wouldn’t survive winter if it wasn’t for their tails. In the summer, beavers stock up on snacks to build extra fat to keep them warm and well fed in the scarce, winter months. This fat is stored in their tails. When winter rolls around, the fat will trickle out of their tails into the rest of their body. Beaver’s tails are almost like their pantry and coat closet in one, stocking up on food and warmth.

Look at the shape of a beaver’s tail. How do you think that shape help the tail work well? Photo: Tobyotter 

Of course, fur also keeps beavers cozy, even when there’s ice on the pond. Beavers have two layers of fur. The inner layer keeps their body heat in and the cold out, like a parka. The outer layer of fur makes water roll off, like a raincoat. The drier you are, the warmer you are.

Indoor activity: Design like a beaver!

Beaver Lodge covered with snow. Photo: Sarah Haney

Beavers build lodges similarly to how pioneers built log homes: by cutting down the trees around them. Pioneers used axes to cut down a tree. The beaver use their own tool, their large incisor teeth, to cut down the tree. Beaver lodges are also made with grasses, mosses and mud!

Beaver lodges come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the key elements of the beaver lodge include…

  • An entry point (You can see how beavers enter and leave their lodge in this picture )
  • A place to store food, sticks and twigs, for the winter
  • A dry spot to sleep

Get a piece of paper and start drawing! Imagine you are a beaver living in a wetland: what does your lodge look like? Where is the dam? Do you live with a family of beavers? Where do you keep your beaver snacks? What other animals and plants live there?

We’d love to see your drawings in the comments or at the virtual field trip this week!

Categories
Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Lichens: Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 8

Our friend Emily found these “British Soldier” lichen on Christmas Eve. Photo: Emily Walter.

What is so tough that it can survive on bark, rocks, dirt, and even outer space? A little organism called lichen.

You might have seen it before: lichen is that flat, green or blue, flakey stuff on tree bark or rocks. Sometimes people think it’s moss, but it’s not. Actually, I wondered on my last walk, what exactly is this weird thing?

On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll find out just what lichen is and what it does!

CHOOSE YOUR LICHEN ADVENTURE:

Attend the virtual field trip, Friday, January 8 at 10:30. We’ll find out what lichen is and how it can survive harsh places!

Learn what lichen is: Read and look at pictures of lichen.

Look for lichen outside: What kind can you find? Does it tell you anything about the ecosystem?

Virtual Field Trip, Jan. 8 at 10:30am

Some lichen is so small that it looks like little dots on rocks. Photo: National Park Service/Jesmira Bonoan.

Every Friday from 10:30 to 11-ish am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll look at what lichen is, how it survives crazy conditions, and how you can recognize it!

If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:

The same link works each Friday.

What is lichen?

If you’ve ever noticed something that…
… is grey, blue-ish, green or lime green;
… growing off a tree, a rock, cement or just on the ground;
…looks like flakes, dots, or dust;

…then you might have seen a lichen! Here are pictures of common lichens here in southeast Ohio:

A lot of people think lichen is moss. But moss is a completely different organism. Here’s a picture of moss. Can you tell the difference?

Moss is a plant, with roots, leaves and stems. But a lichen is not a plant at all!

Lichen is actually part algae and part fungus*. These two organisms join together and live like one! It’s a little like Frankenstein’s monster, except helpful instead of scary. When two organisms work together like this, it’s called symbiosis.

Lichen is made up of algae and fungus, living together like one organism.

What is the algae’s job in the lichen? The algae makes its own food from the sun (also known as photosynthesis). The algae shares this food with its partner fungus.

The fungus’ job is making the lichen’s structure. Like a house, it gives the algae a safe place to live.

Do you think lichens are producers, decomposers, or consumers in the food web? Why?

Lichens do not have stems, roots, or leaves to move water, air and food around. Instead, lichens use all the cells in their body to breathe, eat and drink. They breathe in EVERYTHING that surrounds them. This makes them very sensitive to the air around them, like Goldilocks. Certain lichens can only grow in very clean, very filtered air, while others can handle harsher conditions. 

Because they are so sensitive, scientists use lichens as bio-indicators–a living thing that shows how healthy their environment is. The number, health and kinds of lichen we find give us clues about how healthy the whole ecosystem is.

In North America, 3,600 species of lichen have been discovered so far! More are being discovered every day.

Using what you know about lichens so far, why do you think they are so important to an ecosystem? 

*It’s also part yeast, and maybe a few other things. We are still learning what is in lichen!

Masters of Survival

Lichens need a lot of water. They are typically found near water, or north in areas that get a lot of fog. When lichens are wet, they photosynthesize and grow. When dry, they stop doing everything: no making food, no growing. This helps them save as much water as possible. 

This dry lichen can spring back to life if it gets a bit of water. Photo: sirwiseowl

So when you spot a lichen outside, ask yourself: is it dry and brittle, or wet and spongy? The answer will tell you about how wet that place is. It might reflect recent weather. And it will tell you whether the lichen is active, or dormant! 

Because they can turn themselves on and off, lichens are known as one of the toughest, hardiest organisms found in nature. They can live in extreme conditions: everywhere from the freezing arctic tundra to the blazing hot desert. In the arctic, lichens are the main producer feeding animals, because it’s so difficult for plants to survive there. This is because they can dry out when there isn’t water, and wait for water to return. Astronauts even put a dry lichen in outer space for two weeks, and it returned just fine!

Lichen grows places that plants can’t. Once lichen is established, plants might grow on the spot it prepared. Photo: National Park Service

Because lichens don’t need roots to get nutrients, they can live on many more surfaces: you see them on rocks, concrete, dirt, and tree bark. In places that are very hard to grow–like rocks or places where volcanoes exploded–lichens might be the first organism to grow there. They prepare the ground before plants can grow. They have two parts that keep them attached to their surface. The first, rhizines, look like little twisty roots. The second, holdfasts, are often compared to an umbilical cord. They are just one thick structure that holds the entire lichen to its spot. 

Lichens have a weak spot: they need very clean air to be healthy. Since they breathe in EVERYTHING in the air around them, you might not find them in polluted areas, like cities or near factories or power plants. 

How do lichens help the ecosystem?

Many animals eat lichen. They can also use lichen as camouflage. Small birds, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, use them to build tiny nests that are hidden from predators. Gray tree frogs blend right in with them as well. The tree frogs will sit right on the lichen on the tree! 

Humans use some lichens for dyes, medicine, and as a preservative. We are even able to eat certain types! Do you have a pool at your house? The small strips you use to test the pH of your water, litmus strips, are lined with the color-changing chemicals found in lichens.

Some animals that use lichens in our neck of the woods: 

  • Lacewing insect larvae (to live in)
  • Northern Parula, ruby-throated hummingbird, and blue-gray gnatcatcher (for nests)
  • Nuthatches and brown creepers (for food) 
  • Gray tree frogs (for camouflage)
  • Flying squirrels (for food and nests)

Identifying lichen

There are three groups of lichen: Foliose, Fruticose, and Crustose. I can’t always identify what exact kind of lichen I’m looking at, but I can usually identify its group!

Foliose

A foliose lichen.

Foliose lichen have 2 sides, like leaves on a tree. There is a top and bottom. They can be flat, leafy, or full of ridges and bumps. 

Fruticose

Fruticose lichen have more fruit-like shapes, rather than being flat like a leaf. They can go straight up and down, look almost hair-like and shrubby, or look like “cups.” 

Crustose

A crustose lichen. Photo: National Park Service

Crustose are like their name: they look crusty, and are often on rocks. They are flat and often have bright colors. 

With this information, what do you think is the most common kind of lichen in Ohio?

Your turn: Look for lichens

Now that you are an expert in the functioning of a lichen, go outside to try and find some!

  1. Look on trees, rocks, and other flat surfaces.
  2. Once you’ve spotted your lichen, try to figure out which of the three categories it belongs in: fruticose, crustose, or foliose. s it bright and colorful and flat? Or does it have bumps and ridges? What was it growing on?
  3.  If you can’t find any–why do you think that is? If you find a bunch, what does that say about that environment?

After you’ve thought about these questions, share what you found in the comments! We’ll help you identify them!