Have you heard the frog songs coming from ponds and puddles lately? In early spring, frogs and salamanders travel to water to lay eggs. Spring pools are a critical part of their life cycle. Join us on this week’s virtual field trip to learn how it works!
Virtual Field Trip: Friday, March 26, 2021 at 10:30 am
Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:15 AM, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods for anyone who wants to join. This week, we’ll visit a vernal pool with some nets. What do you think we’ll find living there?
If you haven’t registered for our field trips before, register here to get the link in your email:
Teachers: Your class is welcome to join this public virtual field trip. You can also contact us to schedule a virtual field trip just for your class, which sometimes works better. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vernal pools are small ponds that form in the spring rain. They dry up in early summer when the rain slows down. Fish don’t live in them, and they look more like puddles than anything else. But, if you approach them slowly and quietly, you’ll notice that they are full of life.
A long time ago, about 200 million years, amphibians (frogs and salamanders) became the first animals to walk the earth. They grew legs and tough skin so they could leave the water. This helped them find food and less crowded homes.
Amphibians sometimes have lungs. But they mostly breathe through their skin. Their skin is smooth and covered with mucus, so they can filter oxygen from the air. They have to stay damp, even though they don’t have to stay in the water anymore.
The ability to leave the water became the blueprint for life on earth. And amphibians still go back and forth between water and land today.
Newts and salamanders are some of the coolest, most secretive animals in Ohio. Most species spend most of their days hiding under fallen trees or leaves. This keeps them cool and wet. At night, they come out to eat. They’ll devour bugs, shrimp, and pretty much anything that moves.
On the first warm, rainy nights of spring, hordes of salamanders march to vernal pools. They meet to breed and lay their eggs. Typically they attach their eggs to sticks and plants in the pool, like in this picture.
Because there are no fish in vernal pools, salamander eggs are less likely to get eaten there!
Once the eggs hatch, the salamander larvae then swim around for a little while. Their limbs grow. They munch on the insect larvae they find inside the pools.
Once salamanders have legs, they move out of the pool and into the forest floor. Usually, they stay there the rest of their lives. They only return to water when it’s their turn to lay eggs each spring.
The red-spotted newt is special because it changes color as it grows. Once it crawls onto land, it turns bright orange. It lives in the forest for 3 or 4 years like this.
Then its skin changes color to yellow-brown. At this adult age, these newts go back to living in water! You can see them swimming around pools hunting and protecting their eggs.
Some salamanders do things slightly differently. Mud puppies, hellbenders, and dusky salamanders live their whole life cycle in streams and rivers. Red-backed salamanders lay their eggs on land, and they don’t hatch until the larva have grown adult legs!
For the rest of Ohio’s salamanders, though, vernal pools are essential.
Just like salamanders, many frogs use vernal pools for their eggs. Wood frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools in March. Ever hear a “quacking” sound from a pool, but don’t see any ducks around? It’s probably a wood frog!
Wood frog tadpoles spend their first few months in the pool, growing strong.
Eventually, they absorb their tadpole tail into the rest of their body. Scientists are studying the chemical that lets frogs absorb their tail. They hope humans might be able to use it to fight cancer!
Once they look like frogs, they are ready to hop out into the wild.
Gambling with weather
While vernal pools don’t last more than a few months, they are very important for the life cycles of some of our most interesting animals.
Using vernal pools for your eggs is a gamble, though. If rain and temperatures aren’t right, you might lose your eggs or tadpoles! Climate change has made weather less predictable for frogs and tadpoles.
If there isn’t enough rain…
Frogs and salamanders will find their usual pools are dry. They might have to lay their eggs in ponds or lakes, where there are more predators. This means the chance that the eggs will survive is lower.
If there is too much rain…
They might lay their eggs in a puddle that isn’t deep enough. This means the pool could dry up before the babies are able to grow.
Your turn: explore a vernal pool
Look for flat places in the forest where vernal pools can form. Slowly and quietly approach it.
If you are patient, you may get to see some things movin’ around! Check out our post last year for ideas on where to look, and what you might find:
Turn over some logs around the pools to spot some grown-up amphibians.
Look through the leaves and plants for eggs.
And share what you find in the comments!
Get your hands wet and dirty before touching frogs and salamanders!
Dip your hands in the frog’s vernal pool or pond. Remember, they breathe through that skin you are touching! Oil, soaps and other things on human hands can harm them. You should also put rocks and logs back where you found them.
How would you send help in an emergency if you couldn’t drive or fly?
Imagine you live in Alaska in winter, 1925. There’s a pandemic: children in Nome are getting sick with a disease called diphtheria. Your town needs medicine fast. But the closest medicine is over 600 miles away.
Boats can’t sail there, because the sea is frozen.
Trains can’t move, because ice blocks them.
Planes can’t take off, because they are covered in snow.
There is only one kind of transportation that you know will work. Alaska Natives have been traveling this way for thousands of years:
To get the medicine there as fast as possible, 20 mushers (people who run dog teams) and about 150 dogs worked together to travel the 674 miles to Nome. They took turns, like a relay race, taking over when one dog team got tired. Two heroic dogs, Balto and Togo, led the team that brought the serum to Nome.
To celebrate this brave journey, mushers from all over the world gather yearly to follow Balto’s footsteps. They run a race called the Iditarod–a 1,049 mile race that runs in Alaska from Anchorage to Nome.
On this week’s virtual field trip, I’ll share what it’s like to grow up with sled dogs, and you can meet a musher–my mom! It may change your ideas of what dogs and humans can do together
Virtual Field Trip: Friday, February 26 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 meet a musher, a person who runs teams of sled dogs.
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.
What makes these dogs so good at pulling sleds?
It’s tough to travel by land in the arctic. Animals need to stay very warm and move over deep snow. They have to find food when no plants grow for months.
There are wild animals that can do these things. But dogs were the only Alaskan animal that listen well to humans! Alaska Natives and Siberians were the first to use dogs to pull stuff around. Some people still use them for everyday life today.
So what makes a sled dog different from other dogs?
They have two layers of fur:
A short, thick, fuzzy bottom layer close to their skin. This keeps them warm.
A slick, oiled top layer. This keeps the snow off their bodies.
They can eat lots of blubber and fat, just like polar bears and in traditional Alaskan diets.
They have stout, strong bodies.
They can do well even with low oxygen. That means they can run longer without having to catch their breath!
When you think of a sled dog, you probably picture something like this:
This guy is called a Siberian husky. They have big, thick coats to keep them warm, and are often seen in movies about sled dogs. These pups are really smart and strong. They are still used today for transportation in winter. But they are a little bulky for going fast.
In the actual racing sled dog world, we use dogs called Alaskan Huskies. They are smaller, sleeker, and have bodies shaped for running long distances.
These dogs aren’t technically a “real breed” of dog. Although sled dogs have been distinct for a long time, they also are mutts mixed with other good working dogs, like german shepherds, greyhounds and other huskies. Any smart, strong, and fast dog breeds are probably distant cousins of Alaskan huskies.
How to race a sled dog team
Hooking the dogs up
Look closely at how the dogs are “hooked up” to the sled. They wear harnesses (like some pet dogs wear for clipping to leashes). The harnesses connect them to one long rope by their necks and backs.
The main line is called a “gangline”. The gangline connects to the sled. The “neckline” connects each dog’s neck to the gangline. The line that they pull with their backs is called a “tugline”.
They sometimes have to wear “booties”, which are basically puppy socks, if there’s a lot of ice or if they are running a very long way. But usually they are happy to have their bare feet in the snow. They have plenty of extra toe fur and special toe fat to protect them.
Before you get all the harnesses, lines, and booties on the dogs, you almost always have to tie a “snow hook” to your sled and bury it deep in the snow. This is like an anchor. The dogs get so excited to take off, they run the risk of pulling the sled away without you!
And they’re off!
When you’re on your sled and ready to go, you pull out the big snow hook, bend your knees, and shoot off down the trail.
To race, teams start at different times. They are timed during the race, and given updates at checkpoints. (Can you imagine if it was like a human race, and a bunch of dog teams all took off at the same time? It’d be a huge mess).
The trails are clearly marked. But how do the dogs know which way to go?
The best listeners of your team are placed in the front. They are called “leaders”. They learn terms and phrases from their mushers to know which direction to go in:
“Gee” (pronounced like “oh geez” without the z) -means to turn right.
“Haw” means to turn left.
“Woah” means to slow down and stop.
“Let’s go” “get up” or “hike” means to get up and start running! (You don’t always need that one. They are usually really excited to do what they love: running really fast).
Next time you are walking with friends, pretend you are a musher: to make each turn, would you shout “gee” or “haw” to your team?
Typically, dog teams run about 9-15mph. That means, when you’re on the sled, you’d better hold on real tight! It may seem like the dogs do all the work. But you have to be very strong and quick to keep track of your team.
When going uphill, you have to step off the sled and run next to the dogs. When going downhill, you have to bend your knees and press on your brakes a little. If you don’t, the dogs could get tangled up in the lines.
You have to use your whole body to turn the sled around curves. Otherwise, you could shoot into a snowbank, like my mom did in this video:
Doing all this in heavy warm gear, while keeping tack of your team and trying to go really fact, is a LOT of work!
At the end of the race
At the end of the race, you unhook and feed your dogs. Then you run inside for cocoa and chili to wait for the awards ceremony. Prizes vary, but the person who comes in last always gets the same thing: a red lantern, in hopes that in the next race you will find your way.
People and their dogs
So why do we do it? Sometimes I think my mother is crazy for investing so much time and energy into this sport. But when you think about it, people have evolved with dogs for a long time. Sledding is a very traditional, natural form of transportation. Mushing lets us preserve this history and relationship with animals.
There are a lot of myths about mushing. People worry about the dogs staying outside. Movies and TV shows have displayed mushers whipping, beating, or abusing their dogs in other ways.
As someone who has grown up around mushers and sled dog races, I have to say, this could not be further from the truth. The people who choose to do this sport love their animals dearly (how could you not?). They spend countless hours and resources protecting, feeding, and taking care of them.
These dogs are quite literally built for doing what they do. I like to think of them like very nice coyotes: wily, smart, and loving of the outdoors. Living outside all year round makes them happy and healthy! Playing in the snow in the winter, rolling around in the mud in the summer, tracking down whatever small animals they can find. They love it! (Just a heads up, chickens and sled dogs do not go well together. We have tried many times).
Some people even build really intricate trailers to take their dogs to races, like this one:
There are also “dog boxes”, like this one my mom used to use when she first started out.
Mushers typically have someone with them to help them take care of the dogs. These people are called “handlers”. They are in charge of feeding, scooping poop, and harnessing the dogs before the race. Sound fun?
Sled dog racing is very dependent on teamwork between dogs and people. The mushers have to work with their handlers. The dogs have to work with their mushers.The dogs have to work with each other. Everything depends on a good, supportive team.
Your life vs. a sled team
1. If you have a dog at home (or know one), compare it to a sled dog. What kind of fur does your dog have? What does their body make them good at? Could they and other dogs their size pull you on a sled through an icy blizzard? What are their favorite activities?
2. Mushers spend a lot of their time training their dogs, figuring out which place in the team works best for them. Each member of the team has a very important role.
If YOU were a sled dog, where do you think you or your family members would fit best? You might be…
a leader: smart and good at following directions
one of the hind dogs: strong and steady, pulling most of the weight of the sled
a middle dog: fast and good at keeping your team on track
3. Think about all the things you would need in a sled. What would happen if you got lost or stranded? What materials do you think you would need to have? We will go over them in the virtual field trip, but try to come up with a good list and compare it to what we talk about.
Working as a team: Sled dog game
Next time you are with your friends, imagine you are a sled dog team. Hold onto a rope together. Work together to move smoothly dow na path or pull something. Where would everyone fit in the team? Are you struggling to keep the rope straight, or are you able to move something?
If you only have two people, make an obstacle course by placing a few harmless objects on the ground. One person is blindfolded. The other is the “musher,” giving instructions. The musher must help the blindfolded person walk past the objects without stepping on them. Try using the words sled dogs hear when they are running: “gee,” “haw,” “woah,” and “let’s go!”
Watch a race
On February 26th, the “Copper Dog” race is happening in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We would usually participate in this race! If you’d like to see a race in real time, they have a livestream of the teams taking off. You can watch it here.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
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)
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 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 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 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!
Look on trees, rocks, and other flat surfaces.
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?
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!
Have you ever been out in the woods, seen a decomposing log on the ground, and flipped it over to see what’s hiding underneath? Were you surprised at what you found? Grubs and worms and snails–and all the other squishy bugs and animals that help the forest floor do its thing.
Join us on Zoom for a virtual field trip to explore the forest floor this Friday, November 13, 2020. Or read on for ideas for exploring the forest floor yourself!
Every Friday from 10:30 to 11:00am, we hold a Zoom call live from the woods. This week, our naturalists will turn over logs and dig under leaves. Let’s see what we can find when we get down low on the ground!
You’ll receive the link for the Zoom call in your email. The same link works each Friday.
~~We’ll post the recording of the field trip here the following Monday~~
Layers of the forest
As most of you know, forests are very complex ecosystems. They have many layers, all working together to keep things healthy and stable. The forest floor is one of the most important, and probably the most overlooked, of these layers.
The forest floor is the link between the above-ground plants and animals, and the underground soil and nutrients that help the forest grow. When you look at it above ground, it mostly looks like clutter–leaves, logs, bark, branches–and not much life. But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that this layer has an entire mini ecosystem of its own!
Invertebrates, fungi, algae, bacteria: these small organisms work together to decompose (break down) that layer of clutter and turn it into a beautiful, nutritious soil. Let’s learn more about what these organisms are.
Levels of Decomposition
Decomposition is essential to all life! It is the process of taking something that was once alive (like dead trees and animals) and turning it into fuel for future life.
Invertebrates are the first level of decomposition in the ecosystem of the forest floor. Invertebrates are insects and other small critters without backbones. These insects and their allies feast on the litter on the ground. For example:
Ants break down leaves and other plant parts for food. Ants dig tunnels, which helps bring oxygen into the soil. This makes room for other plants to grow. Ants also eat other, more destructive insects like termites or aphids. Termites and aphids can kill living plants before it is their time.
Snails and slugs eat a variety of plants and fungi. When they digest the plants and poop them out, they return nutrients from the plant to the soil, so other plants can use it.
Worms eat the freshly decomposed soil made by other invertebrates. They filter it through their bodies to make their own special fertilizer. However, some earthworms are invasive, or from other parts of the world. They can decompose the litter on the forest floor too quickly!
Mushrooms and other fungi are the next level of decomposition. In some places, algae is more common.
Most mushrooms are much bigger than the toadstool you see. That little aboveground mushroom is just a small growth on its large web of its underground, cobweb-like “roots.” These underground webs and strands are called mycelium.
A fungus’ mycelium can grow for miles. The mycelium will eat everything they can get into! Instead of digesting food inside of them, like we do in our bellies, they disintegrate the food all around them, then absorb it. Some of that disintegrated matter is left in the soil for other organisms. The process can even clean pollution out of the soil!
Mutualism Some kinds of mycelium and trees help each other out. The strands of mycelium grow around the roots of trees, and help the trees get water and food. The tree gives the mycorrhizae a home where it can to grow and reproduce. This is called a mutualistrelationship,which is a kind of symbiosis.
Can you think of other things in a forest that have this type of relationship?
The final level of decomposition goes to bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Bacteria are single-celled organisms (teeny tiny pieces of life). These bacteria feed on dead plants, animals, and even fungi.
Bacteria are super important to the cycling of nutrients in soil called carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are kind of like plant vitamins. Plants need them to live. So it is very important that they get returned from dead plants to living plants!
Your turn: How to explore the forest floor
You might want: a magnifying glass and a small plastic container to hold specimens
Now that you know the layers of decomposition within a forest floor, go outside and try to find some invertebrates, fungus or bacteria!
Start by flipping over rocks or logs.
What do you see?
Can you see any of the bugs (invertebrates) that help with the first layer of decomposition?
Can you find a silky substance that looks kind of like an underground spiderweb? (This is the mycelium).
What do you think these do, and how do you think they work together?
For more ideas about what to look for, try the scavenger hunt below.
Forest Floor Scavenger Hunt
Look under logs and leaf litter for these signs of decomposition:
Roly-poly (potato bug)
Slug trails or slime
Mycelium (mushroom “roots”), usually a silky substance found in the log itself. It might look like cobwebs or long skinny strands.
When you look for these things, try to use all your senses! What do they look, smell, sound, or feel like? Remember not to eat anything though, unless you have a trusted adult, or really want to eat a worm.
Remember to put everything back where you found it after checking things out! This includes rolling logs back where you found them, and returning the leaves. While it may not seem like it, the forest floor is one of the most important and delicate aspects of the forest ecosystem. Remember, leave no trace!
Take pictures or make some art based on what you find, and share in the comments below!