12 Aug 2016

Life and Death in the Salish Sea

By Claire Eamer
An orca, or killer whale, in the Salish Sea near Nanaimo.
Alan Daley photo

My husband, Alan, and I live on a small island in the Salish Sea, the body of water that lies between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Our place is on a low cliff overlooking the sea, and we spend a lot of time watching what goes on out on the water. That's what Alan was doing one afternoon early in May this year when he spotted a pod of orcas (killer whales). Here's his description of what he saw.

Alan speaking now:

Whales mill about a sea lion, its flipper visible in the turmoil.
Alan Daley photo
I discovered orcas just below off the cliff. They were milling about, and I noticed there was a sea lion in their midst. It was just lying still in the water for the most part. 

The whales repeatedly passed close to it, sometimes passing under it and flinging it partly out of the water. 

A sea lion tries to grab a breath, as killer whales attack it.
Alan Daley photo
Occasionally, I saw the sea lion put its head up and take a breath of air, but when it showed any signs of life, the beating intensified. 

There were a total of six whales. Two large males mostly hung out upwind/seaward of the action, and slapped the water occasionally with their tails. The smaller whales did most of the work. 

They seemed to have a strategy of exhausting the sea lion through physical beating and preventing it from breathing by huge splashes that sent it underwater. 

The injured sea lion is tossed into the air again.
Alan Daley photo
After I had watched for more than an hour, they headed off north with the sea lion seemingly moving without making any swimming motions. A couple hours later, I saw the body drift back down past the cliff.

Alan contacted the Orca Network to report the sighting and  included a couple of his photographs.

Howard Garrett of the Orca Network showed the photos to an expert, Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research. He identified the two large males as T19B and T19C, members of a pod of Bigg's killer whales -- also called transient killer whales.

Bigg's killer whales live in small family groups led by a female. They prey mainly on sea mammals, hunting up and down the coast of northwestern North America.

The kind of behaviour Alan watched might have been hunting lessons for young members of the pod or simply hunting practice. Steller sea lions are roughly the size of a bear and have formidable teeth and claws, so buffetting them with waves and tail-swipes keeps the whales safely away from the sharp bits.
Whales circle the sea lion, now seriously injured or dead. Alan Daley photo
The Salish Sea is also home to resident pods of killer whales. The resident whales live very different lives -- eating fish, mainly salmon, rather than sea mammals. They have different behaviour patterns, different dialects, and different cultures, and the two killer whale cultures seem to have very little contact with each other.

There's a wealth of information about both resident and Bigg's killer whales on the Orca Network website. And if you happen to be near the Salish Sea and spot some killer whales, let the network know. Every bit of information helps us understand and protect these amazing animals.

5 Aug 2016

Who Knew What Grew on Poo?

A large colony of Pilobolus, also called the
Hat Thrower or Dung Cannon 

I don’t want to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities (or maybe I do!), but this post is about poo. More specifically, it’s about a secret world that grows on poo, a secret world than can be fascinating and sometimes—of all things!—strikingly beautiful.
This Eyelash Cup (Cheilymenia stercorea) grew on deer droppings.

I'm talking about coprophilous, or dung-loving, fungi. These fungi are our friends, as are all decomposers. They help dispose of what we don't want to see, breaking it down until it's nutritious compost—for the forest floor, the field, the garden. 

Some coprophiles are big. A few, like portobello and button mushrooms are good edibles (you did know that they're grown on a pasteurized substrate that contains manure, didn't you?). But most are so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them. These are the guys I'm interested in.

This deer pellet has three species growing on it. The tiny white
ones  grew into the smallest gilled mushrooms I've ever seen.

Right now, in fact, I'm trying to grow some of these mini characters on what used to be our dining-room table. 

About a week ago I was given a few samples of dried animal dung that are older than I am. At one time, these bits of dung had been studied, and then dried and stored, because interesting little fungi had been growing on them. The question is, are the spores that this dung holds still viable? Will fresh fungi appear? I have a bit of cow, goat, deer and rabbit dung, each now rehydrated and sitting in a moist chamber. Not much is happening yet, but I have high hopes.
The wee black cones at the top of this rabbit pellet are a kind of Podospora.

These samples I'm nursing originally grew either nondescript lumps called Sporormiella (a Latin genus that when spoken aloud makes you sound drunk) or cuter ones from the genus Podostroma. I found some Podostroma a couple of years ago on a rabbit pellet. Though it's not the prettiest fungus, it has very nifty black spores that sport see-through tails.

Podospora spore—with see-through tails at both ends!

The Royal Ontario Museum's fungarium has an immense collection of fungi, over half a million, a large proportion of which are dung-lovers, because one of the early directors of the collection, Roy F. Cain, was a world-renowned dung-loving fungi lover. But what's to love about about these lowly characters? 

I found this amazing furry Phycomyces fungus on raccoon scat.
Well, besides some being pretty, many have adapted to their chosen dung homes in downright astonishing ways.

My favourite is Pilobolus, also known as the hat-thrower or cannon fungus. These sparkling jewels don't look very fungal. Each has a skinny stem that rises only a few millimetres above the cow patty or horse puck it grows on. At the top of the stem there's a bulbous, transparent, fluid-filled "head," a head that wears a black "hat." Clustered beneath the hat are its spores.

Close up of the Hat Thrower or Dung Cannon
So how do the spores of these fungi get into the dung in the first place? They're ingested by the animal. And no, horses and cows don't eat poo. In fact, they shun it just like you do. Pilobolus's brilliant solution to this problem is to blast their spores away from the poo they grow on—up to two metres away. Recent research has determined that their spore-carrying "hats" can reach a speed of 25 metres a second. But the most amazing part is the acceleration, which is the greatest of any living thing! Pretty impressive for something that's less than a millimetre in diameter.

Pilobolus head & spore capsule "hat" under the microscope
When I squashed it under a slide cover, the spores were released.
Not only do these little guys shoot their spore capsules a distance away, they're capable of aiming with the help of a light sensor inside their stems. On top of that, they also have a sticky coating on the exterior of their black "hats" that makes them stick to nearby plants, where they cling at the perfect height to be eaten by a passing quarter horse or Holstein. 

The black dots are Pilobolus spore capsules or "hats" that stuck to
the wall of the plastic container I put the horse dung in. 

How can you not love dung-loving fungi when there are characters like this around?

If you'd like to read more about Pilobolus and other fascinating fungi, (including a couple of other dung-lovers—Eyelash Cups on Moose and Deer Droppings and A Poop and Scoop Cup Fungus), check out my fungi blog, Weird & Wonderful Wild Mushrooms.

29 Jul 2016

They're Back!

by Helen Mason

Adult male piping plover on the beach at Presqu'ile Park.
This spring, after an absence of 100 years, piping plovers again nested on the sandy beaches of Lake Ontario in Presqu'ile Park near Brighton. It all began with two brothers born at Wasaga Beach last year. In April, the pair landed on a sandy stretch of Lake Ontario shore accompanied by a female born in a different nest at Wasaga Beach, also last year.

Piping plovers are a sand-coloured shorebird about the size of a sparrow. They share some similarities with Killdeer, their more-common relative, but are much smaller, paler in colour, and have orange-yellow legs.

The three plovers at Presqu'ile sported breeding plumage, which includes a black band around their neck, a black forehead patch, and a bright orange bill with a black tip.

The author (left) holds a log book in front of the roped-off area.
They must have spent the winter along the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts, where piping plovers breed on the salt flats. As northern summer approached, they may have watched other piping plovers head north to the prairies or along the Northern Atlantic Coast where the largest group of piping plovers lives. These three flew toward the Great Lakes.

They're part of a species that lost much of its breeding habitat when people began developing shorelines during the 1900s. By 1985, when piping plovers were listed as endangered, there were only 17 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes population, all in Michigan. Thanks to American protection, the numbers have now started to climb.

The Canadian Wildlife Service bands the 10-day-old chicks.
In 2007, piping plovers returned to Canada, first nesting at Sauble Beach on Georgian Bay. Soon, there were also nests at Wasaga Beach, where the Presqu'ile trio were born last year. When the three exhibited breeding behaviour, volunteers quickly roped off an area about half the size of a soccer field. Once the female chose a nesting site, they placed a large wire cage around it.

Both the cage wire and the fence allow the birds to enter and exit, but discourage people and predators from doing the same. Protected by teams of volunteer guardians, the female laid four eggs in late May. While she and the male incubated the eggs, the guardians kept beachcombers informed of what was going on, encouraged them to stay away from the protected area, shared what they knew about the species, and wrote down fresh observations.

An adult broods the young. How many legs do you see?
Once the eggs hatched starting June 28, volunteers were kept busy trying to keep track of three chicks. (The fourth egg had been damaged and didn't hatch.) This became more difficult when the young quickly started to run along the beach in search of their diet of insects, spider, larvae, and small crustaceans. It became even harder when the balls of down began to flap their wings and make short flights on July 19.

Guardian Leslie Abram keeps a photographic diary.
By the end of July, volunteers were anxiously watching interactions between gulls and the plover babies, hoping that the juveniles would ward off any attacks and live to fly back south and have their own young.

When this article was written on July 27, the three babies were still alive and being watched by their father and a rotating shift of about 50 volunteers. The mother headed south around the middle of July. Once the babies fully fledge, it is expected that the father will migrate as well. The babies aren't expected to leave until the middle or end of August.

And what about the other brother? Just after the chicks hatched, an unbanded female turned up on the Presqu'ile Beach. The unmated brother and this female disappeared soon afterwards, possibly to a southern beach where they can breed.

Helen Mason is an author who has written 32 books, most of them for young readers. She also reviews books for ResourceLinks.

22 Jul 2016

Forensic Science: Not As Seen On TV

by L. E. Carmichael

Why do TV shows have science consultants when they clearly don't listen to what their consultants tell them?
I have often wondered this. Generally while watching forensics procedurals.
I still haven't recovered from that episode of Bones where Dr. Jack Hodgins, in shocking defiance of sterile protocol, sorts through a fecal sample and then grabs a lamp with his dirty glove. GAH!
The one that really gets me, though, is "zoom and enhance," a ubiquitous trope so blatantly impossible that every seventh grader in every class I've ever visited knows it could never happen. As does anyone who's tapped on a cell phone pic and watched it pixilate.

(I have a friend who does special effects for these shows. He HATES "zoom and enhance," because he's the guy that has to stitch together the distance shot and the completely separate close shot to make it look like that actually works.)
Lighten up, Lindsey, you say - these shows are for entertainment, not education! Thing is though, a lot of viewers, particularly young ones, don't make that distinction. And the inaccuracies in television dramas create misconceptions about how forensic science works in the real world.
Case in point, the CSI Effect. Many lawyers and judges contest that watching TV crime shows has biased jurors' reactions to evidence presented in real trials. Jurors have acquitted people due to a lack of DNA evidence, despite the fact that not all crimes naturally involve the transfer of DNA. Regardless of the weight of other evidence, jurors expect forensic evidence in every trial. Police and CSIs know that, and have dramatically increased the volume of evidence they collect at crime scenes.... which seems like a good thing until you realize that real-life crime labs (unlike the ones on TV) have small staffs, limited budgets, and enormous backlogs of unprocessed evidence.
It is possible that the CSI Effect is not a real thing (scientific studies of the phenomenon are mixed). But if a fictional effect has created a real shift in evidence-gathering behaviour, that creates a real life problem, the ramifications of which are not yet fully known.
I blame Hollywood. But I still watch forensic shows, because they are some of the only shows on TV where scientists get to be stars.
Are you a fan of forensic shows? Which ones are your favourites? Have you given up on shows because they just can't get the science right?
Want me to talk to your seventh graders about forensic fact and fiction? I'm a member of the Nova Scotia Writers in the Schools Program and the Writers' Union of Canada, both of which offer subsidies to help bring writers into the classroom. Contact me for details.
You can also pre-order my new forensic book for grades 3-6, Discover Forensic Science.

8 Jul 2016

Do Kids Know That Word?

Choosing Age-appropriate Vocabulary in Science Communication

by Adrienne Montgomerie

Choosing words for kids' science materials can be tricky. Kids who are into science know a lot of vocabulary that isn’t in the curriculum. On the other hand, there’s no knowing whether any of the terminology taught in school is remembered. Heck, adults don’t remember most of the terms they were tested on in school.

But we have to start somewhere. And the easiest place to start is with the school curriculum.

Word lists such as the Children’s Writers Word Handbook, Dolche, and Modingler examine the number of times a child will be exposed to a given word at a given age. These systems survey literature that kids that age typically read. For my science vocabulary list, I took a much more restricted view, and examined only the elementary and high school curriculum expectations from the various ministries of education across Canada (as it became available and continues to change). The list records in which grade kids are exposed to various scientific terms. Of course, we can’t account for how often kids will see these terms, or for the impact of really keen or even disinterested science teaching, but the curriculum expectations provide a sort of baseline.

Why does this help? Because we can have a reasonable expectation that teens will recognize the term adaptation, because it is addressed in three grades by the time they are 15. And we can know to take extra care to explain the term heat sink because most teachers won’t cover that until Grade 10, when kids are about 14 years old, and they’ll learn about it only that one time. But even though climate is never presented as a key term, we might well expect people of all ages to have a sense of how the term is used, even if they can’t define it. Climate is used when discussing habitats in Grade 2 (ON), adaptations in Grade 3 (ON), and climate change in Grade 10 (ON), and we hear it in the news frequently.

Two other insights come out of this list:
  1. The spread of topics addressed across the country. Geology is a topic examined almost exclusively in British Columbia (in general science courses), for example. That should inform writers to always explain subduction zone and other seismological terms.
  2. The level of understanding the audience might have. To wit, a subject studied at Grade 11 will likely be understood at a more detailed and sophisticated level than a subject that was studied at Grade 3, even if we exclude the factor of how long there has been to forget.
Writers need to do some extrapolation from the lists that I have been compiling. Because I culled the stated vocabulary from the curriculum expectations, there are other, collateral terms, that writers could reasonably assume teachers are using. For example, characteristics must be talked about when discussing rocks in Grade 2 (BC) or classifications in Grade 6 (ON). The term chlorophyll is never listed in the expectations, but teachers might be assumed to talk about it when discussing chloroplasts in Grades 6, 8, and 11 (ON). Where it seemed reasonable, I included these terms and marked their grade level in brackets.

Field testing with your audience is a most useful test, and this vocabulary list will set you off on the right track.

How do you vet the vocabulary in your writing? Leave a comment below, join the discussion on Facebook, or Twitter @scieditor .

Adrienne Montgomerie is a science and education editor who helps publishers and businesses develop training resources. She believes we can make even the most complex ideas and procedures easy for learners to take in, maybe even to master.