Do you stop to inspect the small details of nature? Do you ever pause, perhaps stoop down low to the ground, and soak in all the amazing and interlocking parts of God’s creation? In my Ecology class this semester, I was inspired to take more time to observe the small details of the natural world.
This inspiration began earlier this year with my trip to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in March. One of the plenary speakers was David George Haskell, author of the book The Forest Unseen. He spoke about this book project, which involved his journey into the woods of Tennessee on a regular basis to observe the activity and intricacies of nature in a one square meter area of the forest. His vibrant way of describing this endeavor heightened my excitement over teaching Ecology the following semester. His insights ranged from using our sense of smell to gain insight into the microbial world that our naked eyes cannot detect to the idea of trees using Wi-Fi (volatile chemical signals) and wired connections (mycorrhizae) to give and receive information.
During my first week of class in the fall semester, my ecology students and I went out to the natural areas around campus to similarly study the small, often unobserved, or simply overlooked aspects of nature. Although not a time course study like Haskell’s, this gave us a chance to brainstorm about all the things we could see upon taking the time to simply sit still and be observers. We also took time to consider the things for which we could see evidence if not all the actual processes or players involved and how our small area of observation might be representative of the larger ecosystem.
Each person was stationed in a different location along the forested creek corridor or by the native plant basin. We observed pollinators, evidence of herbivory (including the trail of a leaf miner in the leaf of a white snakeroot plant), the complexity of the detritus on the forest floor, and the diversity of plants that can be found in a small area. Coming back together as a group to discuss our observations, we particularly noted how this activity prompted us to think more about the processes that are unseen, such as decomposition and nutrient cycling, that are so critical to the maintenance of ecosystem health.
Consider going out there and making your own observations of God’s wonderful creation (Haskell in particular was undaunted by the chill of winter to do so!), or perhaps for the winter consider curling up to read The Forest Unseen to gear you up for the spring.
Here's another guest post on this semester's stewardship efforts.
On September 22, our lab time was spent in the Lake Katherine Nature Center along the Cal Sag River bike path. The topography of the land we were working at was a rising, man-made hill covered in prairie grasses and small trees. When constructing the Cal Sag channel, the developers brought the dirt, top soil, and other parts of the natural habitat up out of the riverbed and onto where it is today, creating a bluff. The prairie land, therefore, is not natural. However, the Lake Katherine environmentalists have worked to create a natural habitat using organisms native to the area.
We were tasked with removing all invasive species from the area. These species are not Illinois native plants, but do extremely well in these conditions. Because of this, they take off and intrude on the native species, crowding them out of the ecosystem. Plants like honeysuckle and buckthorn were among the invasive species we were trying to get rid of. By using our hands and clippers, we cleared out the prairie land for a couple hours.
It was an important task for us to partake in because it showed the community the service that we as Christians should look to practice daily. It displays that environmental stewardship is important as worshippers of the Creator, and that we are willing to donate our time and effort to help manage the environment.
I'm pleased to share a guest post from one of the students in my Environmental Science class.this semester.
Lake Katherine is one of the beauties of God’s creation set just outside of Chicago. Our class worked near the Cal-Sag trail and channel where lovers of nature and boaters come to embrace the fall scenery. Much of its landscape consists of milkweed, New-England aster, compass plant, and other native prairie species. However, many invasive species were also found such as buckthorn and honeysuckle. An invasive species is a plant or animal that is not native to an ecosystem that could cause harm to both humans and native species. Invasive species take up sun and space (growing room) for the native species, essentially killing them.
Ecological restoration involves restoring damaged ecosystems with the help of humans. We aided in the ecological restoration of Lake Katherine by pulling the invasive species. As I learned, burning sometimes takes place at Lake Katherine to kill invasive species and allow for only native plants to grow back. In addition, we found many plastic bottles and cans, and properly disposed of them so chemicals from the plastic and aluminum do not affect any animals, plants, or water ways. We were trying to fix what was damaged (invasive species taking over the land and litter) and restore what was originally there (native species). By participating in ecological restoration, we are being stewards to God’s creation and taking care of what He has given us.
I've finally had a chance to put together some photos and videos from my Conservation Biology class last fall. We had a great time learning about God's creation together and exploring local conservation issues.
It's the most wonderful time of the year! Wait, not Christmas, but that time of year when the spring wildflowers are blooming! The trees are only just beginning to show signs of spring when you can start to see industrious little plants in the forest understory bolting up out of the ground and starting to bloom. For many of these plants, their strategy is to grow quickly and soak up the spring sunshine before the trees above them leaf out and monopolize the sun. They grow, flower, produce seeds, and wilt all in short period of time. Take, for example, the Virginia bluebells (shown in the picture above intermixed with Mayapple). I've been tracking their phenology (seasonal changes) based on plants growing in my wildflower garden. Here's what I saw in 2014:
The colored bars indicate an observation date when a particular stage (called a phenophase) was occurring, and the gray bars indicate an observation when that stage was not occurring. My bluebells started growing in early April, flowered shortly thereafter, and had wilted before July rolled around. Observing these seasonal changes can be a fun way to get to know your plants. What does it look like when it's first emerging from the ground, before the leaves have even started to open? What do fruits and seeds look like, and how can you tell if they are ripe? The graph above was generated by Nature's Notebook, a citizen science project where you can enter data on the phenology of plants and animals that you observe. This project not only allows you to document your observations to reflect upon later, but the information you collect also contributes to a growing data set that can be used for scientific research. Check it out, and see what species you might be able to observe near you!
Another interesting citizen science project that I heard about recently involves the American trout lily. This species varies in the color of its pollen, and although this has long been known, apparently no one has really looked into it before. If you have this species near you, you can make observations about whether the pollen is brick red, lemon yellow, or somewhere in between and submit your findings online as part of the Trout Lily Project.
What a blessing to be able to take a walk through the woods and enjoy these little wonders of God's creation!
What does it take to get ten student presenters to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville, North Carolina? First it starts with professors and dedicated students working on research projects, applying to be a part of the conference, being accepted, and then figuring out how to get there. In this case, we loaded up ten students (from biology, art, and psychology) and two profs into a twelve passenger van and spent many hours on the road.
The conference was held at the University of North Carolina Asheville, which was the perfect place to be this time of year with beautiful flowering trees everywhere. We were able to explore talks and posters from a variety of fields, get new research ideas, take in a few sights, and support the work of Trinity students.
On the drive home, we made a short stop into the far eastern section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and enjoyed the beauty of God's creation together.
Here in Chicago we've had ten days of above average temperatures, reaching up to 10°C this Sunday (that’s 50°F for those of us still in need of fully adopting the metric system). A great way to get a perspective on global climate and temperature trends is to look at the maps available from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Here's a map comparing December 2015 to average December temperatures.
Notice how the Midwest is looking decidedly red? We'll have to wait to see the map for this January. We've had some colder weather as well in January, so it will be interesting to see how it compares. This warmer weather has me thinking about the ways that our local ecology is affected by unseasonal warmth. Species that are normally hunkered down or dormant may be receiving cues that don't line up with an average January.
On a weekend trip to the Morton arboretum, the sled dogs there for a special event had to "sled" without snow (they pulled wheeled carts instead). Other signs, as well, suggested something other than a January afternoon. A honeybee decided to land on our windshield while the car was parked. Worker bees are usually huddled together in their hive during the coldest months.
Need a flower fix in January? Witch hazel is a good bet, at least this winter. These flowers look to be just starting to open, and although they are small, a little splash of color in winter is still a treat. This is Hamamelis 'Brevipetala,' which is a cross between an Asian and a North American species of witch hazel. Although considered a winter-flowering species, I'm not sure if you can regularly find it flowering in January or not (perhaps I will have to compare in future years). Even so, what creature might be out and about in winter to pollinate such a flower? Apparently owlet moths, which can be active at night if the temperature is above freezing. Although these moths often eat sap from damaged trees, they have also been observed visiting witch hazel flowers. These industrious moths have the ability to raise their body temperature through shivering, allowing flight when other insects are grounded.
Although there's much to enjoy about a mild winter day, it's not without its concerns. Check out this article from the New York Times about the mild winter in 2012. Early warming can often be followed by freezing temperatures, leaving plants or insects exposed and vulnerable.
Have you seen anything that you might normally consider to be a "sign of spring" this winter?
Brittany & Leah with tools at the ready. Erin hauling out invasive plants.
I am happy to share another guest post from a student in Environmental Science.
How can one best enjoy the first days of beautiful autumn briskness and weather? What better way than to benefit the environment by trimming back invasive species and promoting ecological restoration? On Thursday, September 24, Dr. Schrotenboer’s Environmental Science class was able to aid in the conflict against invasive plant species in a hands-on lab session. Only about a five-minute walk from Trinity Christian College’s campus, the class was introduced to Shamim Graff, a specialist at Lake Katherine. After a brief, physical explanation of our target victims, the class got to work along the hillside prairie, cutting down and removing harmful plant species such as Buckthorn, Teasel, and Honeysuckle.
But why go through all the work of removing these plants in the first place? Years ago, before human settlement, Lake Katherine would have been an untouched wooded, prairie, and wetlands landscape, filled with native plant species that grew and flourished harmoniously. However, as civilization arrived and settled in the region, foreign plant species began to feel very at home, as well. Before long, the unmonitored intruders began choking native species as they quickly reproduced, blocked out sunlight, and altered the soil balance; crucial elements to survival and health of the pre-existing plants. Additionally, as Graff added, “Invasive plant species can be very tricky to remove. Buckthorn, for instance, should only be removed by trimming, as pulling by the roots will upset the soil. Control burn can sometimes be an effective approach to a more permanent elimination, but in today’s day-in-age the actually undertaking can be difficult to coordinate and monitor.”
Ultimately, the day proved successful with large areas of prairie cleared, plenty of fresh air, and trivial poison ivy exposure. Students experienced a valuable lesson in ecological care and restoration, with a special benefit being the project area was located in the campus’ own backyard.
This is a guest post written by a student in my Environmental Science class this fall.
On the fateful afternoon of Thursday, September 24, 2015, the students in Environmental Science from Trinity Christian College marched toward Lake Katherine, led by their fearless leader, Commander S. While dodging cars and carrying their packs under the hot sun, the students were preparing for battle with the aliens that had landed next to the Cal-Sag trail. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the forward officer who had been holding down the fort, Shamim Graff. General Graff gave directions on how to identify the invaders who had camouflaged themselves into the hillside, and soon the battle began. But these aliens could not be fought with lightsabers or phasers – instead they had to be fought with clippers and gloves, for these aliens were not extra-terrestrial beings, they were invasive plants.
Long before the Chicagoland was settled, the area now known as Lake Katherine flourished with native species: switchgrass, milkweed, oak trees, and many more. But as the area became more urban and people began planting foreign flowers and trees for aesthetic reasons, the native species began to disappear as the new species took hold, stealing valuable resources such as sunlight and soil nutrients. Buckthorn, Phragmites, and Teasel all began to grow, replacing the natural prairie with foreign plants. Because of this, efforts have been made to remove the invasive species, and promote native species, so that the natural ecosystem can continue to exist. Many animals and insects depend on the native species, and would die out with the native species. Removal of the invasive species allows the native species to get the sunlight and nutrients they need and have ample space to grow and flourish again.
The battle was fierce. “These things are everywhere!” quipped Sergeant Brady Otte as he chopped down another Phragmites plume. One particular challenge was the steep slope on which the plants were growing. Students had to discern what plants were invasive as they clung to the side of the hill, wary of tumbling to the trail below. Luckily, no students fell as they worked, but many who had foregone gloves experienced small cuts on their hands, and students wearing shorts frequently checked for poison ivy. By the end of the day, the hill had been cleared of invasive species leaving the native plants behind, and the students were victorious. Commander S. gave the following summary during the victory celebrations: “It is really rewarding to see the work that can be accomplished with so many people working hard at removing the invasive species. By removing the shrubs that could shade the prairie, we are allowing a lot more light to reach the prairie plants, which will help them thrive.” Clearly the actions of the students had a positive impact on the ecosystem of the lake, and the students marched back to campus, celebrating their victory.
~Lucas Vander Wal
Gensbug-Markham prairie with blazing star, goldenrod, and wild quinine.
The prairies of the Chicago area are ablaze with summer wildflowers. I've been out trying to enjoy what I consider to be one of the best times of year to see the prairies. One of my favorite wildflowers is dense blazing star, Liatris spicata, which has spikes of purple clusters of flowers. A recent visit to Gensburg-Markham prairie, part of the Indian Boundary prairies, did not disappoint. The mix of blazing star, towering grasses, and other wildflowers displays the beauty of God's creation.
I was also treated to a spectacle of monarch butterflies. Although in years previous I had only seen a few monarchs all summer, I saw at least a dozen (probably more) during one morning walk. With monarchs in decline in the Eastern United States for several years, this makes me hopeful that they may be making a rebound. As you may know, monarchs are amazing in their migration ability. Several generations live all their lives in our part of the world, and then in the fall, a new batch of butterflies makes the migration south (mostly to Mexico), never having been there before. Hopefully there will be good reports about the migrants that make the flight to Mexico this fall and overwinter there.
Monarch butterflies on blazing star and rattlesnake master flowers.
Another fun place to visit not far from Trinity is the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. The grounds near the nature center feature a rain garden demonstration and a restored prairie, and some remnant areas of prairie are just a short hike down well maintained trails.
Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center, with wild bergamot blooming in the foreground.
Where ever you are, I hope you have a chance to get out and explore the beauty of God's world.
Little explorer at Gensburg-Markham prairie
I'm a biology professor at Trinity Christian College. I'll be using this page to share interesting stories related to ecology and conservation at Trinity and in the Chicago area (although I might be tempted to expand my geographic focus upon occasion).