Today the class went to the Burke Museum on UW campus. The tour was of the interworking of the museum and everything that it does that you don’t get to see when you just visit to look at the exhibits. Robert Faucett, the man who gave us the tour wanted to make sure that if we only took away one piece of information from him, it would be that a museum was like a library, and he the librarian. It is filled with many different specimens from many different species that range through time and locations. Someone who comes up with a question will have these resources to be able to find an answer. Robert took us to look specifically at their collection of birds, but when he talked about how the museum worked, made it clear that you could replace ‘bird’ with any other type of animal, such as mammals.
What they try to do is get as many different portrayals of a species as possible. They preserve skeletons which are good representations of how large an animal was when it was alive its shape and what things that it was capable of. Another kind of representation is a skin specimen, which is the skin of an animal that has been stuffed with cotton. These are used to identify the species by the coloring and patterns of the skin, fur, or plumage. These are not good representations of the size or shape of an animal because skin is very much like a bag that will stretch and morph when stuffed with cotton. A good example would be that of a rail bird. In life they are very skinny, but their stomachs push out in front of them instead of to the sides. In a skin specimen they look fat side to side but skinnier front to back. This will allow the bird to lay properly on their back without rolling over, but it is the completely wrong shape. Those two samples alone, however, cannot give a full representation, especially for a bird, because the skin specimens are rigid and pulled together, so it is impossible to look at the specific feathering pattern in the wings. In order to look properly at those they prepare spread wings. In these a single wing is pinned on a board spread wide. This gives the best view of plumage patterns. We saw an example of this in the Black Footed Albatross, where the skin sample showed us very well what it looked like, but the wings were tight against the side. Robert pulled out a spread wing and we were able to clearly see the growing patterns for the feathers. It was plain to see that they grow feathers three at a time. The three on the tip were very torn up while the next three were perfectly fresh, and the following three were slightly less pristine than the second group. This showed us that three feathers would fall and begin to regrow at a time. The last kind of sample that is kept in the museum is the tissue sample which can show us the DNA and proteins from a specific specimen. These we were not able to see for multiple reasons, one being they had to be kept at a very low temperature (40 below zero) and the second was that they are not interesting to look at because they are just in little plastic tubes.
A good example of a question these records have been able to answer is how the Townsend Warbler and the Hermit Warbler populations have been changing. They have been able to collect specimens of these two species from all over the west coast from here to northern Alaska. With these they have been able to determine how they have been interbreeding and how the frequencies of these populations have been changing in specific locations.
I spent the weekend on Lopez Island Flat Point. There were multiple types of habitats in a very small area. There was a sand and small rock beach with a low incline which was right next to a wetland tall grass field. Right on the other side of the field was an evergreen forest seemingly dominated with Cedars and Douglas firs.
I started by walking along the beach where I found many different shells; evidence of oysters, clams, and scallops. The water was high enough that we could not see any living. I also saw evidence of a moon snail. I came upon a scallop shell with a perfectly round hole drilled into the top, which is the mark that a moon snail leaves on the shell. Another kind of shell I found was possibly that of a small gooey duck. I don’t know what else has a shell of that shape, but it seemed small to be a gooey duck. One clam shell I found had a few barnacles on the inside, which is often what causes them to die. I’m not completely sure what the mechanics are behind barnacles killing clams though.
A seagull landed nearby with a purple sea star in its mouth. The bird was flinging it about either tearing it into smaller bites or getting rid of the legs that have tentacles. I would naturally assume the first, but when I went to inspect the remains of the sea star, all five of the legs were left which made me think there could be a reason for not wanting to eat the legs. Maybe the tentacles can attach to their throat, which could cause them to choke. I tried getting closer to the bird in order to get a picture but when it noticed me approaching, the bird flew off, landing near another bird with which it shared the remains of the fish. I could not get a close enough look at the bird to tell what kind of seagull it was. The legs of the sea star were still moving about as though they were still alive.
Down the beach a bit more standing in the shallow water was a great blue heron. It also got nervous as I got closer but once I stopped moving it seemed to stop noticing me. It stood very still for a long time in the water before diving its head under water and coming up with a fish. It was fascinating to see how patient it was. In that same area there were other birds consisting of four or five crows and even more sea gulls. They didn’t seem to be doing much, just walking about every once in a while. A bald eagle came flying by near where all the birds were. All the crows quickly gathered to begin cawing at it and chasing it out of the area.
I continued down the beach to where I could see the grass field. This field was absolutely full of red winged black birds. They would pop up out of the grass constantly and sit on the tips of the tall grass for a short while before flying off or returning to below the grass where I could not see. I wondered if they took turns keeping an eye out for danger while the rest resided below the grass line. There would often be five sitting on top of the grass or more. A few times I would see one fly into a tall nearby tree. There were other birds that were less in numbers such as swallows and robins and gold finches. There were also humming birds and I got to witness what I believe to be a humming bird mating dance. I saw this done in the grass and also a small bush where I had a better view. The female (presumably) would be sitting at the bottom of the bush or in the grass, while the male flew high up in the air, possibly 30 or 40 feet, and then dive straight down to the ground right in front of the female. He would swoop up just barely missing the ground and let out a small tweet (too too-too). He would do this maybe five times and she would just watch. There was also a time when I saw what seemed to be two males fighting over a female. One chased the other off and then returned to his little show of manliness.
One last thing that I saw that I thought was really interesting was what I thought to be some kind of kelp that had wrapped itself around a piece of drift wood. It looked a lot like Christmas lights. The stem was long and skinny and attached to it were floating sacks that looked like little light bulbs. They were fairly evenly spread maybe eight inches from each other. The sacks were maybe an inch and a half long and three quarters of an inch wide. The shape of them was a bit like a tiny elongated lemon. I tried to figure out what its name was, but was unable to find it anywhere.
Today I took a walk around north campus to see what kinds of plants are growing at the University of Washington. The weather was nice, dry and sunny in the mid to high fifties. I went out right about an hour before sun down, maybe six o’clock, so it was getting a bit colder. Any kind of forest areas are new growth and many areas landscaped and hand planted. There were a lot of Douglas Firs, Red Cedars and Yellow Cedars, Madrones, and a few Pines of various sorts.
I never paid much attention to what was growing on campus before, but I saw many native plants. I think I was expecting to realize that it was all landscaped with all exotic plants, but I was delightfully surprised when most of the plants I found were in fact native. There were, of course, some plants that aren’t, but you can’t expect too much. I finally realized the difference between Red and Yellow Cedars. Red Cedars are supposedly more abundant at lower levels where Yellow Cedars are more abundant at higher elevations; therefore I thought that the most abundant kind of cedar must be the western red. However, this is not necessarily the case on campus. The Alaskan Yellow, what I pass every day, is what is growing on the east side of the tennis courts, with drooping branches. The Western Red has the ‘J’ shaped branches and the larger scales.
There are a few more plants I saw that I will have to do some searching to find out what they are. One small tree or shrub, and I’m not really sure how to tell the difference, had small oblong shaped opposite leaves with small blue berries. All the ones I could find in the ‘Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast’ field guide had alternating leaves. So it will take more digging. Something I’m very certain was hand planted was Creeping Stonecrop. I wasn’t sure if these kinds of plants were worth looking at since they are all strategically placed to be beautiful and in no way there naturally. I then decided that no matter how they got here, they are now part of this little ecosystem and have the potential to make a big impact depending on how they fair in following years.
I wonder how many of these plants are growing naturally and how many are strategically planted for esthetic purposes. The school does spend a lot of money to keep up appearances. It would be interesting to see in a year or two what plants that are obviously hand planted continue to grow on their own and spread, versus which ones have to be replanted or just don’t grow any bigger. The plants are restricted to small areas because they are surrounded by pavement on all sides. I wonder, if left completely alone, how long it would take for trees and plants to start growing through the pavement and rip it all up. Roots are pushing up asphalt all over the place, but that’s fairly soft compared to concrete.
Toda I explored the UW Biology Greenhouse during class. There were three different sections of stations that we were lead to. The first one that I went to was led by Doug who showed us a wide variety of different plants from the tropics. The first one was the seed of a cacao (Theo Broma) plant. That was very interesting because it’s something consumed prodigiously in American society, yet I had never seen where it came from before. The next thing Doug showed us was the largest seed in the world which is from a fan palm (locoicia maldivia). It is often referred to as a double coconut because of its shape which looks like two large coconuts that have been smashed together. Most seeds that size are filled with something that floats, such as air but these are filled with endosperm and do not float. They actually fall straight from the tree and start growing right there. The seed can send shoots 30 feet underground so that they aren’t growing that close to one another. That way of reproducing makes sense because if the first plant was able to grow in that area, it would be a safe guess the other would grow well there too. The seeds can grow up to 60 or 70 pounds (I can’t remember which Doug said). In order to have seeds of that size it needs a lot of water, which it gets by the shape of its leaves that pull all the rain water straight to its roots.
Doug then compared that seed to the seed of an orchid which is the smallest in the world and looks more like dust. The seeds are small enough to be blown by the wind into trees. It is an epiphyte meaning it is a plant that grows on other plants; in this case, trees. Doug did not talk much about what it does to the tree on which the orchid is growing, or any plant that hosts an epiphyte. I would be very interested to know the affects.
Another epiphyte Doug showed us was the Monstera deliciosa. Instead of having seeds small enough to blow in the wind, their seeds are skototrophic, meaning they grow towards the darkness. This makes sense because the darkest spots in a rainforest are going to be right under a tree. They then turn phototrophic once they have found a tree and climb up towards the sun. The leaves of this plant have large holes in them and no one knows why for sure, but there are many speculations.
The next plant we looked at was the water hyacinth (aerenchyma) which was introduced from Brazil to all over the world because of how beautiful they are. The problem with that is how well they grow. They don’t have any natural predators in the new areas and are able to grow so well that they can cover an entire pond killing every other living thin in it. Their leaves are constructed like sponges filled with holes which allow them to float.
Doug stopped for a minute to show us one last plant, a dischidia. This plant has found hollow leaves like small balls that make perfect homes for ants. The ants will use them for shelter and bring food they gathered during the day back to the pod. The plant then grows roots into the pod to collect the nutrients from the ants’ food.
At this point I moved on to the second station which was led by Susan. The plants in this section were all from the desert. The first plant we saw was Welweitschia which is dioecious, meaning it has separate plants that are either male or female. It also produced cones and pollen but no flowers which is characteristic of their taxon that also includes Douglas firs. This plant lives in an area that gets very little rain, on average 25mm a year. This also means that this plant grows very slowly. What is interesting is that the plant in the greenhouse was very large for how young it was. They got it to be that big by giving it tons of water. With other desert plants watering it too much would cause the plant to drown, but this one likes having lots of water and responds very well to it. So the plant likes lots of water, but is capable of surviving with very little. It would probably do well in other wetter parts of the world, if it didn’t have to worry about competing for sunlight. Also it has no way of migrating very quickly. This particular plant can live to be thousands of years old.
The next plants she showed us were all adapted for living where sunlight was almost too abundant. Leaves have to open pores in order to release oxygen that they produce, but in doing so they would also release water that they need to keep. An adaptation that they have evolved is transparent parts on their leaves. Some of them have a kind of transparent gel that covers the leaves in some way. The sunlight can penetrate through the gel to get to the leaves inside but the water on the inside of the leaves in unable to evaporate through the gel. One plant in particular that has that grows very low to the ground and the top of the gel like substance looks grey like rocks. This is a form of camouflage so that they won’t be eaten.
Next we moved to different types of plants from bogs. Bogs are low in nutrients so some plants have evolved to be carnivorous in order to obtain the nutrients they need. An example of this would be the Venus fly trap. We got to observe one begin the consuming process on a kind of bug.
For the last section of the green house we only talked about two plants: synsepalum dulcificum and different kinds of chilies. The first plant has chemicals in it that block certain sensors on the tongue, specifically those that taste bitter and sour. We all ate a berry from this plant and then ate slices of lemon. The lemons tasted wonderfully sweet after, as though the sour had been greatly reduced. I was still able to taste a tiny bit of sour, but the sweet was overwhelming. We tried coming up with different reasons for why the berries would have this kind of effect on people, but there is no certain answer. We also talked about reasons chilies are hot. The chemical answer is that it activates neurons that make your brain think that you are on fire wherever the chemicals touched you, which is why we think of chilies as ‘hot’ instead of some other sensation. I tried taking a bite of the hottest pepper in the world after Josh had eaten the tip. I can handle a lot of spice, I order 5 stars at restaurants and usually add a lot more spice on top of that, but this tiny bite of pepper was way too much for me to handle. My brain was convinced that I stuck my head into a raging fire and was burning to a crisp.
Today as a class we visited Mount Rainier’s Trail of Shadows, which is located next to the National Park Inn at Longmire. We were expecting it to rain but it never did, it was beautiful out the entire time. It was quite cold, however, estimated to be in the 40’s (Fahrenheit). There were large amounts of snow sitting on the ground. Some spots had three feet or more, others were packed down to a single foot, most likely from being constantly traveled on. The forest was an old growth forest entirely evergreen coniferous. I learned how to identify many different species at this location. Western Hemlock trees were highly abundant in the area and I was able to find ones of all different ages lining the trail. I am still unsure what the difference between a Western Hemlock and a Mountain Hemlock but there were both along the trail.
We found three different types of cedars which were cause for much confusion. What we thought were Red Cedars turned out to be Alaskan Yellow Cedars and there was a third type of cedar that I never quite found out what kind it was, but had some ideas. I got fairly confused as to which one is which, but by the end we got it all figured out. We also saw many trees that were covered in lichen, which is able to grow in this area because of the clean air. Many kinds of lichen are unable to grow closer to the city because air pollution can affect one component of the lichen. Even if the other component is abundant, it needs both to form a lichen. A type of lichen that we saw was Mathuselah’s Beard (Usnea longissima) which was very much like very tangled hair. Other types we saw looked more like flakes peeling paint, or even like a thin layer of dust. On some of the dead trees we saw Lipstick cladonia (Cladonia macilenta). That one was easily identifiable because of the red on its tips.
Some places where the snow had melted off we saw what was possibly deer fern. I say possibly because deer fern grows up and this fern was matted to the ground. But being packed under the snow for a majority of the year can affect how the fern grows. Sword ferns were very abundant; everywhere you looked there was bound to be some, many growing out of old stumps. There were actually old stumps that were hosting all kinds of new life, trees, shrubs, ferns, moss… etc.