Monday, May 13, 2013

Ferns Unfurling into the Future

Since spring is the time of transition, this blog is transitioning too.  It is time for my final outdoor classroom blog post.  Next time, I will return to my original "Biological Thinking" blog of discovering biological phenomena in everyday encounters with nature.  I hope you stay tuned if you have enjoyed my site-specific posts.  Thank you for reading!
A Fern Leaf
Our final topic: ferns.  Ferns are so common in the South that it is easy to overlook their strange beauty.  In the summer, many people display ferns in baskets outside their homes or apartments.  If you walk through the woods, ferns contribute to much of the background green of the understory.  Their repetitive intricate form makes them ideal for adding greenery to bouquets.  They are so familiar, yet they are so unusual. 
Fern spore-producing structures called sporangia.
Most plants we know of produce flowers and seeds to grow their offspring.  Seeds are tiny plants with a starter food supply wrapped in a protective coating.  They are produced from flowers.  When a seed grows, the tiny plant in it gets larger until it is a hackberry tree or a clover plant or, well, you get the idea.  Ferns, however, do not make flowers or seeds.  Fern plants make spores.  Spores are microscopic bits that are so light they can blow for miles on the wind.  When they land, if conditions are moist, they can grow into a small green leaf-like flat structure called a gametophyte.  The gametophyte looks nothing like a fern - just a tiny green patch.  The gametophyte grows for a while on its own, then it produces structures that can grow into a full-grown fern.

It's difficult to find gametophytes, but its easy to find spores.  Just look for dots on the bottom sides of fern leaves - those are pockets filled with microscopic spring-loaded spore-launchers called sporangia.  If you could shrink yourself, you could hang out under a fern leaf just for the fun of watching the tiny sporangia catapult their spores.  Nature's microscopic fireworks!
How leaves of flowering plants open up.

Another difference between ferns and flowering plants is how their new leaves open up.  The above plant, a flowering plant, has new leaves that are enlarging and opening by unfolding.  The young leaves are small and creased, the mature leaves are open and flat.  Below you see a fern leaf opening up.  Young fern leaves are small and curled up.  When they grow, they unfurl or unroll.  Young fern leaves look like the tops of violins (also called fiddles), so young fern leaves are called fiddleheads.  Fiddleheads might be green or brown or hairy or look quite different than the leaves they mature into.  It's easy to find fiddle heads in the spring and early summer - just look around the base of fern leaves, which we have in abundance all over our outdoor classroom.
Fern fiddlehead with a spore-producing leaf behind it.
There is a term for the unfurling of fiddleheads, of course, since there is a term for everything in science.  It is perhaps my favorite scientific term: circinate vernation (pronounced SIR-sun-ate ver-NAY-shun).  Look at the first word: circinate.  What other word starts with circ-?  Circle!  Circinate means circling or spiraling.  The second word might be tougher to figure out.  It derives from the word 'vernal', which means spring.  So circinate vernation is literally the unfurling of the spring, which is what ferns do.
More fern fiddleheads.
Ferns are ancient plants on earth.  Well, the plants in our outdoor classroom plant beds aren't ancient - they are the same age as their flowering neighbor herbs.  What I mean is that ferns were present on earth before flowering plants evolved.  They were some of the earliest plants in the fossil record, and they used to be the dominant type of plant on earth.  Now ferns are all fairly small plants, but before there were trees like we have now, ferns could be any size up to as large as small trees.  Ferns spores are a limitation that requires moist habitat, so ferns can't grow everywhere.  When some plants evolved the ability to form flowers and seeds, they could live in many types of habitats, so the flowering plants out-competed the ferns and became the dominant types of plants on earth. 
This fern leaf is almost completely unfurled.
All plants, including ferns, use photosynthesis to capture the sun's energy and make food.  Like flowering plants, ferns have xylem and phloem vessels for transporting food and water.  There are even more simple and ancient plants still easily found, even in our outdoor classroom: the mosses.  Take a look at the plants covering the rocks behind with waterfall.  They are mostly mosses, which don't have flowers, seeds, xylem or phloem.  They still photosynthesize, and they make spores like ferns do.
Moss - an even simpler plant than ferns.
If you want a more ancient plant than moss, you have to look into the pond at the algae.  Which brings us back to the very first topic we started with in August! 

I will leave you with one last picture of a fiddlehead getting ready to open up and live its life in the world.  It's so full of possibility!
A young fiddlehead.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hello! I'm Veronica. I'll Be Your Nectar Guide Today

The plant below is called Veronica.  That's its scientific name and its common name.  In our outdoor classroom, it's located on the rocks behind the pond, and it's blooming like crazy right now.  Veronica flowers have something really neat called nectar guides. 

Nectar Guides on Veronica Flowers

Nectar guides help bees find flowers.  They point to the part of the flower that contains the nectar, which is what bees are looking for.  Nectar is sugary plant sap found in the base of many flowers, and it is perfect bee food.  I like to think of nectar guides working a lot like the stripes and lights on airport runways telling airplane pilots where to land their planes.

Why would flowers advertise where their nectar is?  It turns out flowers are offering the nectar in a bargain.  Do you see those tiny white structures poking out of the flowers in the picture above?  Those are anthers, and they contain a dust called pollen.  Flowers must have pollen moved from one flower to another in order to be able to grow seeds to grow a new generation.  While a bee sips the nectar in a flower, those anthers are in the perfect place to dab some powdery pollen onto the bee.  Then the bee rubs off the pollen at the next flower it goes to.  The flowers are giving the bees a meal in return for moving their pollen from one place to another.  (Do you remember the name for a close relationship between two organisms where both organisms benefit?  The answer is at the bottom of this page.)

Bee-pollinated flowers usually have nectar guides.  Flowers that are small, fragrant and with a shallow cup for nectar are usually bee-pollinated, and we have lots of bee-pollinated plants at our outdoor classroom to discover.  You may not always notice nectar guides on bee flowers because sometimes the guides are invisible to human eyes.  Strangely enough, there are more colors of light than humans can see.  Rainbows actually have more stripes than humans see, in colors we haven't imagined.  Bees can probably see one more stripe on the rainbow than we can.  We call this color ultraviolet, and know it exists because we can detect ultraviolet with machines.  But how do we know bees can see ultraviolet?  Because scientists have given bees eye tests!  Scientists tested bees' eyesight by making fake flowers.  On some flowers, they painted nectar guides with an ultraviolet dye.  When you offer fake flowers to bees, the bees are way more curious about the ones with the ultraviolet nectar guides than the ones without nectar guides.  Scientists have detected ultraviolet nectar guides on real flowers (sunflowers have ultraviolet nectar guides).

Go back to the picture above and see if you can find the nectar thief.  A nectar thief is something that steals nectar without moving pollen - a parasite!  The nectar thief on our Veronica flowers is an ant toward the left of the picture.  As we learned last week, ants eat sugar, so it's no surprise that they would like flower nectar.  The ants are too small for the anthers to dust them with pollen, so they slip in, drink the nectar and slip out again without helping the plant.  Ants mostly use smell and taste to find their way in the world, so they probably don't even notice the nectar guides.  If you are jealous of bees for seeing one more color than we do, then you're really going to be mad at ants.  Scientists think ants can smell and taste an enormous number of things humans can't, with much more precision.  If you don't believe me, try closing your eyes and finding your way around using just your nose and tongue, and you will appreciate just how much better ants' senses are.

Answer: Mutualism

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Down on the Aphid Ranch

Originally this post was just going to be about vines.  There are four basic plant forms: trees, shrubs (small, branched trees), herbs (non-woody, soft plants), and vines.  Vines are woody but not strong, and they grow as tall as trees by climbing up other structures, often trees, and they usually have roots that are good for holding on, like this:

English ivy with roots that are good for holding on to buildings or trees.
 Some vines are evergreen like the English ivy on the back wall of our classroom:
English ivy doesn't lose its leaves in winter.
And some are deciduous like the milkweed vine on the lamppost by the playground:
Milkweed vines lose their leaves in winter.
Like I said, I was originally going to post about vines.  BUT when I was looking through my vine pictures, I noticed a very lucky but accidental detail on this picture of the English ivy:
New growth on the English ivy with some curious dots on the stem.
Look very closely at the stem, and you will notice there are ants walking on that stem:
Ants going up and down the ivy stem.
I started to wonder what ants were doing walking on an ivy stem, since there is not likely to be much ant food at the top of an ivy vine.  Then I looked even closer and I saw this:
An farmer ant and her aphids.
Now we have a story!!!  The picture is a little blurry, which means you're going to have to go out to the outdoor classroom and see this for yourselves.  The dark spots are insects called aphids (which can also be whitish or greenish), and the reddish brown spot is an ant.  What the ant is doing is called aphid farming.  It's a bit gross, but it's so amazing that it's completely worth learning about.

To explain aphid farming, we have to go back to plant sap.  Remember plants do photosynthesis and make sugars, which are dissolved in plant sap, making plant sap slightly sweet?  Aphids have pointy, needle-shaped mouthparts they poke into soft plant tissues, and they suck the plant sap out of plants for their own food - much like the psyllids we learned about back in the fall.  Since aphids live closely with plants, they are said to be in a relationship called a symbiosis.  In this relationship, the aphids are harmful to the plants because they 'sap' their energy.  The aphids benefit by getting food.  A symbiosis where one organism benefits and the other is harmed is called parasitism. 

Here's where it gets slightly gross.  Aphids drink a lot of plant sap, and they digest most of the sugar in it, but not all.  The leftover sap with a tiny bit of sugar in it goes on through and out the other end of the aphids' digestive system.  In all other organisms, this substance would be called feces or poo, but in aphids, the substance is a clear and sugary liquid, so it's called honeydew.  (Do NOT confuse this kind of honeydew with the delicious green melon you find in the produce section.)  If you have ever noticed sticky, clear spots on the hood and windshield of your car if you park it under a tree in summer, you have seen the results of the mist of honeydew that rains from the aphids in the tree.  Take a deep's really only plant sap run through an aphid!

OK, here's where it gets really gross, but also really, amazingly neat.  The sugars in the honeydew are technically a food source (like any other sugar), and ants eat sugar.  Put those two facts together, and you know what that ant is doing with the aphids on the leaf in the picture above.  Yes, some ants eat honeydew.  The ants know a good food source when they find it, so they protect the aphids and fight off aphid predators.  They even move the aphids around to better sap sources if their honeydew production slows down.  Some ants even keep aphid eggs in their ant nests in the ground during winter and place them on new plant growth in the spring so the aphid eggs have food when they hatch.  The ants are said to farm the aphids - just like humans farm cattle!  Dairy cattle ranchers protect the cows and move them around to new pastures with more food.  Cattle farmers also protect calves and raise them to adults.  And cattle are farmed to provide a liquid food source: milk! 

It's amazing to me that humans are not the only type of organism that does farming.  Ants live in groups and have very complex behaviors, as exhibited by the aphid farming.  Their behaviors often mimic human behaviors: they have 'jobs', fight battles, farm aphids (and fungi - neat story for another time), build large complicated structures and much more.

Ants and aphids are in a symbiosis - they live very closely together.  Their symbiosis involves both organisms benefiting from each other.  The aphids get protection, and the ants get food.  A symbiosis where both organisms benefit is called a mutualism.  Humans and cattle are in a similar mutualism.

The new growth on our ivy is very likely to have a constant supply of aphids and ants, so you should be able to find them any time!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Hackberry: A Lesson in Bark

Do you remember looking at the hackberry tree last fall?  It's the big tree in our outdoor classroom by the entrance to the parking lot.  The hackberry is the tree whose leaves had hackberry leaf galls.  I promised I'd come back to the hackberry because of its unique bark.
The stem (ok, trunk) of our hackberry tree with its great hackberry bark.
The hackberry is generally an unnoticed tree in most parts of the U.S., but here in Nashville, it's so common it could be our city's official tree.  Hackberries have a huge influence on our lives here.  They provide wonderful shade for us in the summer and help keep our city air cooler and cleaner.  Hackberries can grow big and strong in the toughest of urban conditions as long as there is enough water.  They also are among the most common wild tree outside the city.  Hackberries provide lots of wildlife habitat and food.  Hackberries often have hollow portions which provide excellent homes for birds and small mammals.  The trees' berries, which are technically edible to humans, are a good source of winter food for birds.  You may have noticed when the late winter robins and starlings arrived a couple weeks ago that there were lots of purple bird bombs (bird droppings) on cars and sidewalks.  Most of those were the result of birds eating hackberries.  Nashville has felt the downside of hackberries too.  Hackberries can be a bit brittle, especially if they are hollow inside.  Tornadoes and great storms sometimes break off hackberry limbs, which can land on power lines or houses. 
Close-up of the edge of a ridge in hackberry bark showing the layers unique to hackberry bark.
To really appreciate the hackberry, you have to get up close and personal to it.  Specifically, look at its bark.  The bark of hackberries varies widely from almost completely smooth to almost completely bumpy, but there are two things it always has in common.  First, hackberry bark is always the same steely whitish gray color.  Second, the bark always has at least some bumps or ridges, which are made of layers and look somewhat like topographic maps.  No other bark that I have ever seen has layered bumps like this.
Our giant hackberry tree with very rough bark for a hackberry.
We have investigated bark before when we looked at scars in the sourwood tree, but let's dive in a little deeper - there's more good stuff here.  Bark is a plant organ.  Organs are structures that accomplish some function in an organism.  You may be more familiar with animal organs like the brain, the stomach, the skin, the lungs, etc.  Bark has two basic functions in plants: it protects the stem and it transports food all around the tree.  We have two separate organs for protection and food transport in our bodies.  Our skin provides protection from the outside, and our blood vessels transport blood around the body.  Blood carries digested food and many other things all around the body.  Let's investigate bark's two functions a little closer.

First: protection.  Bark seals off the tree from the environment.  It prevents the tree from drying out in the heat or getting soggy in the rain, just like our skin protects us.  Bark also keeps out insects and diseases, also like skin.  The stuff in bark that forms a seal against the world is called cork.  Cork is a spongy, softer material found in most types of bark, and it is waterproof due to the presence of a wax called suberin.  Some trees make more cork than others, and humans harvest cork for sealing bottles from the corkiest tree - the cork oak.  In most trees, the cork is interspersed with harder material in the outermost part of the bark.  The ridgy bumps as well as the smooth parts of hackberry bark both contain enough cork to protect the hackberry tree.

The second function of bark is food transport.  Trees and plants use the sun to make their energy in a process called photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis is the name for the chemical reaction that plants do to make sugar, and that chemical reaction is powered by sunlight.  Plants' basic food is sugar, which they can use for energy (just like you do) or for building other necessary plant parts.  Trees do photosynthesis in their leaves, but they need food in all parts of the plant.  The sugars from photosynthesis combine with water in the tree to form a liquid called sap, and liquid sugar is easy for trees to move around.  Tiny tubes in the bark transport dissolved sugars in the form of tree sap from the leaves to the rest of the plant, which is very similar to how the tiny tubes called blood vessels transport blood (which contains dissolved sugars too!) all around your body. 

If you've ever tasted maple syrup, you have tasted the concentrated tree sap taken from maple bark.  Maple syrup is sweet because maple trees' leaves did photosynthesis using the sun to make sugar.  Unfortunately the way I've explained this makes me think of maple syrup as tree blood, but that's really not quite true.  Blood is way more complex than sap, and blood has many more functions in our bodies than sap has in trees, but that's a story for another day. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Tadpoles in the Pond

We have several tadpoles in our classroom's pond.  To see them, you have to be a little bit lucky.  Now that it's warm, the fish are easy to see - they are out in the open water, swimming smoothly and darting skillfully.  But tadpoles are a different story.  They lurk near the bottom in the leaves and muck.  Every once in a while, they clumsily wriggle from one spot to another.  The best time to see them is when you first walk up to the pond - they will wriggle to a hiding spot in response to the shadow you cast over the pond (they respond as if you were a predator!).  If you don't see one right away, wait around and watch - it might be your lucky day.  You could also take matters into your own hands and scoop through the bottom of the pond with a net.  If you do, please keep the tadpole in the water - they are very fragile and can't survive being dry or being squished.
A tadpole in our pond at the outdoor classroom.
Tadpoles are truly strange creatures.  They are the larval (young) form of frogs.  Frogs lay eggs in water, each of which will hatch into a tiny tadpole.  The tadpoles use gills to breathe water - just like fish do.  Tadpoles swim and eat and grow larger and larger, all underwater.  Eventually when conditions are right and they have had enough food, the tadpoles' bodies change form completely.  Their bodies digest and absorb their tail, and they grow tiny forelimbs (arms) and hind legs.  As they change external forms from tadpole to frog, their internal structures change too.  They grow lungs for breathing air!  Adult frogs hop out of the water and live their adult lives mostly on land but near water.  A change in body form like tadpoles have is called a metamorphosis.  If your body changed and suddenly grew wings for flying, that would be a type of metamorphosis.  Other animals that do metamorphosis are insects (maggots become flies, caterpillars to butterflies, etc.).

Tadpoles and frogs are vertebrates.  Vertebrates are any animals that have an internal skeleton with a backbone.  That means mammals, birds, reptiles and fish are also vertebrates.  Can you think of animals that don't have backbones? (Answer below*.)  Any vertebrate that starts its life in the water and undergoes metamorphosis is called an amphibian.  The word amphibian makes sense if you know what the parts of it mean: amphi- means both, and -bian means life form.  Amphibians include frogs, toads, newts and salamanders. 

Why do you think fish are such better swimmers than tadpoles?  Compare the body shape of a tadpole to a fish, then try an experiment.  First, find a pool and a life guard.  Then jump into the swimming pool and swim like normal using your arms and legs to help you.  Then hold your arms and legs into your body and try to swim - it's not so easy without appendages, is it?  Tadpoles do not have fins like fish do, and fins are great for steering while you're swimming.  They have only a tail to help push them along.  That's why tadpoles wriggle around so strangely and fish swim with ease.

How do you think the tadpoles got to our pond?  Frogs had to have laid the eggs that grew into these tadpoles, but how did the frogs get to our pond?  They have to stay near water, and there aren't other ponds nearby.  Frogs could not have gotten to our pond to lay eggs!  One possible answer could be related to the fact that frog eggs are somewhat sticky.  If a bird stood in a different pond and frog eggs stuck to its feet, then the bird came to our pond, it could have brought the eggs that hatched to our tadpoles.  That makes frog eggs disperse just like the kinds of seeds that stick to animal fur - which would be animals imitating plants!

*Invertebrates include insects, spiders, clams, snails, sponges, jellyfish, sea stars, and thousands more types of organisms.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sycamores, Trees of Wonder

If you were to decide to learn only one tree in your life, I would recommend learning the sycamore (though I don't recommend learning only one tree).
A stately sycamore between our outdoor classroom and playground.

A friend once told me that sycamores are easy to recognize because they are the only tree that wears pants.  A sycamore's upper limbs are white and appear to be uncovered, and its lower trunk is covered with brown, patchy bark - the sycamore's pants.  Sycamore bark consists of three layers: the outer is brown, the middle is greenish and the inner bark is white.  Sometimes you can see all three layers together in a camouflage-like pattern.  The outer two layers peel off of the upper limbs, leaving bone-like white branches that look spectacular against a blue sky.  Scientists aren't sure why the upper bark peels off, but some people think it falls off to prevent vines from being able to grow up into the treetops. 

Sycamores tend to grow near water, and since their white branches are visible from a distance, they are useful for finding water if you are ever lost in the forest.  Early explorers used them to find water sources across North America, but they used sycamores for lots of other things too.  Sycamores are very fast-growing, so they produce a lot of wood.  Though sycamore wood is twisty, it is extremely strong and light, and Native Americans and settlers both used it to make just about everything you can make out of wood.  Before North American forests were logged, most forests contained trees that were a lot older, therefore they were bigger than trees we have now.  Old sycamores tend to be shockingly enormous compared to other trees, and they are often hollow (here's a medium-sized one, and possibly the world's largest), so sometimes they were used by people as a shelter or to corral animals.
A drift of sycamore seeds and a few pieces of fallen sycamore bark.
The sycamore tree at our school is making a mess right now.  While more northern parts of the country still have snowdrifts, here in Middle Tennessee, we get drifts of sycamore seeds.  Sycamores hold their seed balls (technically fruits) up on their branches all winter, but now the seed balls are dispersing their seeds.  Every ball contains hundreds of wind-dispersed seeds that each have a few feathery hairs to catch the wind.  Some of the seed balls break apart while they are on the tree, and the seeds are dispersed from high in the sky.  Many seed balls fall onto the ground as well.  Mostly the seed balls break apart when they fall off the tree.  The seeds are only loosely-held together, so the seed balls usually smash to smithereens on impact with the ground.  If you're lucky, you may find a whole seed ball, which is exceedingly enjoyable to break apart for yourself.
A sycamore seed ball with a few seeds falling out.
 If you lightly crush the seed ball, you can see how the seeds fit together so tightly. 
A lightly-crushed sycamore seed ball.
Once you have completely crushed the seed ball, look for the hard structure inside.  That structure is the base of where the seeds are produced, and it looks like the strangest type of seed or fruit you've ever seen, but it's neither seed nor fruit, just stem.  Many naturalists have been confused when trying to identify these structures when they find them without the surrounding furry sycamore seeds.
A fully-crushed seed ball.
Soon our sycamore will look very different.  It will be covered with giant plate-sized sycamore leaves, but you will still be able to recognize it by its beautiful white branches.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mosses, Lichens and Succession

Life has a way of taking over here on Earth.  Any surface without living things on it will eventually have life growing on it if you wait around long enough.  A new sidewalk of poured cement will have plants growing through cracks after twenty years.  New roofs will eventually become soft and covered with mold, moss and even plants.  Fresh lava from a volcanic eruption will cool, harden and in several decades be covered by a forest (Neat example here).  The invasion and growth of life on nonliving surfaces is called succession, and it's happening right here in our classroom.

Green and grey lichens growing on rock.
The nonliving surfaces we have at the classroom are mostly the rocks.  The big boulders and the flat rocks around the pond are too recently dug from the ground to have life on them yet, but they probably will by the time you graduate from high school.  The rocks with the waterfall behind the pond and the rocks that make up the wall at the back of the classroom have been exposed at the Earth's surface for long enough to have some neat life growing on them. 

Organisms that can colonize bare rock are called pioneer species.  Lichens are usually the first pioneer species, and they look like color splotches on the surface of rocks - white, green, grey, yellow or even orange.  Lichens are actually two organisms for the price of one: a fungus and an alga living together.  The fungus and alga form a mutualism - an interaction where both organisms benefit.  If you remember from the beginning of the year, algae grow in our pond - algae can only live where they don't dry out.  In lichens, they live surrounded by cells of fungus so they can live outside of a pond.  In return for this good protection, the algae provide the fungus with food from doing photosynthesis.  Together, the organisms that form lichens make acids that slowly dissolve the rock on which they grow, which makes tiny crevices in the rocks.
White, green and grey lichens plus dark green mosses growing on a rock.
Once lichens have been growing on rocks for a while, mosses are able to survive there too.  Mosses are plants that don't have flowers or stems or roots - just tiny green leaf-like structures and microscopic hair-like structures.  Mosses send their hair-like structures into the crevices the lichens made in order to anchor themselves on the rock.  Then the mosses grow bigger.  They die back during harsh weather and grow more in good weather.  As they die back, their dead parts decompose in place, and they turn into a tiny bit of soil.  After several years, mosses build up enough soil underneath themselves that other plants can move in.  Mosses can also start to grow in cracks and pockets in rocks.

Just as mosses build habitat for small flowering plants, the flowering plants provide habitat and food for more creatures.  Flowering plants have roots that hold the soil in place, and they also add to the soil as they die back each winter and decompose.  Mosses and plants can host tiny insects, adding to the variety of life growing on a formerly bare rock.  As the years go on, the soil builds and builds and larger plants, shrubs and eventually trees can grow on what was once bare ground.  Eventually a mature forest might be found where once there was bare rock, and succession has been a success.
A rather large moss behind the waterfall.
Next time you are near an older neighborhood or a vacant lot in Nashville, see if you can recognize succession.  Old houses have mossy roofs.  Ancient stone walls are covered in plants with trees growing through them and lizards living between the stones and roots.  Old parking lots or yards are infiltrated with weeds and dotted with butterflies drinking from the weeds' flowers.  You can see the results of succession at the River Campus too.  Most of what is now the wetland used to be an open farm field with only grass - only 15 years ago!  Now it has grown into a young forested wetland with lots of plants and small trees.  Life certainly does take over!