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Ecosystems: Kelp Forest Part 2

Last week’s adventures took us through the California Science Center Exhibit- Ecosystems. Continue the Journey with us this week as we learn about life inside wild Kelp forests. 


In the wild, the bottom level of the ocean is known as the benthic zone. All bodies of water have a benthic zone where creatures like snails, sea stars, oysters lobsters, and other crustacean reside. Organisms living in the benthic zone are called benthos and play a fundamental role in ecosystem management. Since light does not often penetrate the benthic zone, benthos feed on the dead and decaying matter found on the ocean floor, benthic algae, and young kelp.  Areas outside of the ocean’s benthic zone are either a part of the supratidal and subtidal zones (the areas found on the coastline that are impacted by high and low tide), the neritic zone (the shallow part of the ocean that extends to up to 200 meters in depth) or the pelagic zone (the area between the benthic and neritic zones). Most of the sea life that lives away from land or outside of the benthic zone is found in the pelagic zone.

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Often miscategorized as a plant, kelp is actually a species of brown algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), that grows in dense groupings, similar to the way a wooded forest grows on land.  The strands of kelp found in the controlled environment of the California Science Center grow to an impressive height, but are significantly smaller than the wild kelp forests, which can reach up to 175 feet in length. Kelp is prolific in growth and in ideal circumstances, can gain anywhere from 10 and 12 inches in a single day.

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Kelp. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Much like a buoy, the gas-filled bladders located at the base of the kelp leaf are responsible for holding up the kelp as it spreads from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Once the kelp has reached the surface, it forms a dense canopy that provides shelter and food for thousands of invertebrates, fish, and marine mammal species.

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp forests cross the benthic, pelagic, and neritic zones, and are home to a diverse group of marine life. In fact, the kelp forests found off of the California coast can accommodate over 1,000 species in a single forest, and are among the most diverse ecosystems found on earth!  Many organisms use the dense blades of the kelp to hide from predators and rear their young. Seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, fish, gulls, and other sea birds are some of the many animals found in the canopy’s armor.  Rich in varied food sources, the kelp forest ecosystem offers a perfect example of the hierarchical nature of the food web. As numerous species thrive in the shelter of the kelp, predators have greater access to food.  For example, kelp is eaten by tubeworms who are then gobbled up by birds and fish. Fish are the principal food source for baleen whales and sea lions.  Sea lions become the prey of the ocean’s top carnivores including sharks and killer whales (pictured below).

Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Killer Whale on the Hunt. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal (a Sea Lion). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Like the tubeworm and other small invertebrates, the primary food source of the sea urchin is kelp.  However, urchins present a huge problem in kelp forest management because of the alarming rate in which they consume the algae matter. Sea otters and spiny lobsters are the natural predator of the sea urchin, and as such their role in the ecosystem is vital.  When an urchin population balloons, kelp forests run the risk of depletion and the animals that use the canopy as shelter become vulnerable to predation. In order to manage urchin populations and conserve the delicate ecosystem, California Science Center staff and volunteer divers have joined local forces to remove over 100,000 sea urchins from the Palos Verde Peninsula. Considered a delicacy in fine dining cultures around the world, these sea urchins are often captured and sold to the restaurant industry.

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Close-Up of the Urchin's Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Close-Up of the Urchin’s Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Currently, the California Science center offers visitors the opportunity to pet urchins, sea slugs, eninimes, and other invertebrates. During our visit, I felt like a child who had returned to the coastal tide pools I loved so much as a kid. Using two gentle fingers (as advised), I stroked the back sides of sea slugs, explored the spines of urchins, and shook tentacles with an anemone.

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Throughout history, humans have devised numerous uses for kelp.  During World War I, kelp was harvested to make potash, a manufactured salt that contains potassium in water soluble form. During the war, potash was a major component of fertilizer and gunpowder. Following a German embargo on potash in 1914, American scientists and businessmen turned to the sea to extract potash from California’s giant kelp. By the 1930s, food and pharmaceutical corporations began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, and gelling agent from kelp. Currently, algin is a popular additive used in a number of processed foods.

Visiting the synthetic kelp forest at the California Science center was truly a treat. Now, it is time to put on my fins and explore the wild forests off of the California Coast. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity to dive into the ocean ecosystems, but no matter where you live, some form of wilderness is available to you. Remember to get outside, ask questions, search for answers, and explore your world!

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Inside the Ecosystems- Kelp Forests Part 1

The Ecosystems exhibit at the California Science Center is a permanent fixture of their wide-ranging offerings. Visitors of the museum can explore eight diverse environments and ecosystems alternating between the “Extreme Zone” and “Rot Room” to the “Forest”, “Island,” and “River” zones. On Saturday August 26th, 2017 the Havasi Wilderness Foundation was given a private tour of the Kelp Forest exhibition, which has been open to the public since 2010. Dr. William Johns, Director of Life Support Systems at the California Science Center, acted as our personal guide for the day.


Beneath the floors of the California Science Center a deep humming emanates from a complex electrical grid that powers much of the facility. Thick pipes carrying water to and from the 188,000-gallon salt water tank housing the Kelp Forest Ecosystems exhibit line the walls and ceiling of the ground level. The area is cooler, wetter, and louder than most other parts of the museum, but the constant purring of water rushing through the pipelines had a soothing effect on me.

The kelp forest at the California Science Center is home to hundreds of marine animals across dozens of species, ranging in size from a microscopic crustacean to a five-hundred-pound giant sea bass. To feed the animals, on-staff divers and volunteer divers are employed to enter the tanks. Some fish require spot feeding methods (picture a scuba diver using tongs to feed chopped pieces of fish or crustacean to other carnivorous fish) to ensure that they receive the proper nutrients. The marine life in the kelp forest ecosystem exhibit eat and excrete several times a day, generating a sizeable amount of waste. Engineers and Technologists at the California Science Center work to develop systems that manage all of the waste.

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Just around the corner from the bottom floor elevator, sits an intricate filtration system comprised of giant cylinders measuring eight feet round and sixteen feet long. Dr. Johns explained that these tanks are packed with pressed gravel to filter out large and small waste matter from the water so that it can be recycled back into the kelp forest ecosystem. Unlike the Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums which discharge their marine exhibit waste back into the ocean, the California Science Center relies on sophisticated equipment to recycle and treat their wastewater. After the wastewater is filtered from the aquatic tanks, it starts a complex process wherein the concentrated salt byproduct from filtered saltwater must be flushed with fresh water to avoid an over-concentration of salts, maintaining the delicate salt to water ratio in treatment facilities.

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Fifteen minutes into the tour, the elevator dings and the doors slide open, inviting us to move on. We exit and begin our exploration of the dark rooms that provide an ideal viewing space for the saltwater tanks that make up the kelp forest installation. The exhibit itself is two stories tall. At the bottom level, visitors discover the ecosystem from the perspective of the marine life inside of the kelp forest.  As we approach the glass, I see two giant sea bass weaving between the leopard sharks and bright-orange garibaldi that surround them. In the corner of the tank, a moray eel pops its head out from behind a rock and floats, one eye locked warily on visitors to its home.  Three large splashes coming from the top of the exhibit indicate that it is feeding time. The divers, who are extensively trained to distinguish between different species of fish, pull out their tongs, grab a chunk of fish meat, and get to work. When we meet with a shivering volunteer diver later that day, he explains that the challenges of spending an hour in 56-degree water include being extremely cold. “However”, he says, “I love coming to the California Science Center to learn more about the marine life that we feed, and cold or not– I would gladly give up a few of my weekends to keep doing it.”

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Stay tuned next week as we explore the bottom level of the ocean floor and take an educational tour through the wild kelp forests.

 

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

 

Panama Stories Part 1: Feeling Antsy

With its ever-changing landscape and an expanse of tropical rainforests, the Central American country of Panama offers visitors and residents the opportunity to travel from a cityscape teaming with wildlife to the crystal blue waters of a Caribbean paradise in little to no time at all. Millions of years before the formation of Panama, North and South America were two distinct landmasses separated by vast ocean waters.  A shift in tectonic plates and the eruption of several underwater volcanoes aided in the construction of a slender land bridge called an isthmus, which joined together the two American continents. This change took place over the course of millions of years, and at its constitution, the isthmus rerouted the global ocean currents that once flowed freely between continents. As a result, the world experienced a transformation in marine habitats and oceanic species were divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.

The land barrier known today as the country of Panama has provided the backdrop for one of the most biologically diverse spaces in the world.  Join me over the next few weeks as we journey together through the rainforests, jungles, and cities of Panama to explore their wildlife and learn more about a diverse ecosystem that could one day provide a cure for some of humanities most serious illnesses.

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

 

It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.

While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation.  Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us.  Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface.  I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.

Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities.  Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.

Hitchiking leafcutter ant, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.

As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight.  picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant,  I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.

Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.

As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!

 

 

 

Sticking to the Mountains: Nature’s Tiny Actors

Hiking back, a bit breathless and winded from the crisp mountain air and altitude, my eyes were drawn to a light tan stick on our window. We had just hiked through mountain trials and there was plenty of sticks and leaf litter everywhere but there was something about this particular twig . . .

This little guy was on our window

This little guy was on our window

For one thing it was vertical on the window screen and the oddness of it made me stop to take a closer look. Quickly looking around for a source plant, I noticed that there weren’t any trees nearby that would match that type of thin light tan stick. The closest trees where more evergreen and oak-like than this reedy looking tan twig. As I drew closer, I grinned. I had fallen for the illusion–it was not a dead twig as I had originally thought. It was not even from a plant. It was a living moving and incredibly fragile stick insect!

This wild “stick bug” was almost as long as my hand and was just hanging out on our screen. We had walked through forests and trees for hours earlier and had only heard some bird calls from a distance. I had been a bit disappointed that we hadn’t seen much of anything interesting or unusual on our hike. But now here I was right back at our cabin and here was an animal I had never seen in the wild. And it had never even crossed my mind to think that stick insects were native to Running Springs, California. Did you know that stick insects can live in most of the world? They are found (in different shapes, sizes, and colors) from North America to Southeast Asia, the tropics to the subtropical regions of our world.

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SLIME: Snails Save the Day

snail

Two snails cross the road to get to the other side.

Why would anyone want to study snails? A common reaction whenever people see a snail is to cry out “Ew! Gross!” or to try to smash it immediately. But snails are not gross in fact snails are incredible and they are actually a special species that tells scientists whether or not an environment is healthy! If there are snails and slugs that means that the environment is healthy because snails are considered to be an indicator species.

An indicator species is a species that is vital to the environment, and often are the most sensitive species in a region or ecosystem! Does that mean that their feelings get hurt a lot? Or they are super emotional? Not necessarily. . . it just means that these particular animals (for example snails) respond to disease, pollution or even climate change in such a dramatic way that they are considered to be an early warning to monitoring biologists. Why does that matter? Well in order to make sure that the environment is healthy for all the wildlife (and ourselves) monitoring biologists will give these indicator species extra special attention!

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The Language of Flowers: A Valentine’s Day Tradition

Even though Valentine’s Day has recently passed us by, every year as Valentine’s Day approaches the stores are becoming increasingly stocked with large red and pink hearts, chocolates and. . . flowers! We hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day with someone special with family members, good friends or a “sweet heart.”

Flowers communicate so many things

Flowers can communicate so much more than just beauty.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday we Americans celebrate with incredible gusto every year, with lavish gifts, chocolates. . . and flowers. But how do you know what kinds of flowers to get? Is it random? Do you pick their favorite flower? Do you know their favorite flower? Do flowers even matter? If you are asking yourself any of these questions, it is not too late. When stress is running at an all-time high for making a “perfect day” a very comforting and traditionally special gift is flowers. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Observation: Drought in California Chaparral

When I visited my grandparents for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, we took a family hike up in the chaparral region near Ojai and Lake Casitas. Growing up we visited that area incredibly frequently, but I had not been there in over 3 years! My grandparents had lived there for many years and I was very familiar with the trees and the wildlife that live there. If you have never visited, I highly recommend it. It is an incredibly beautiful example of our native California wildlife and of the incredible native plant species. While we were hiking we saw quails, migrating birds, pomegranate trees, mistletoe, California live oaks, western sycamore trees, coyote bush, and many other plants and animals.

 LAKE CASITAS BOAT RAMP FAR-FAR OUT OF THE PRESENT WATER LEVEL.

Lake Casitas boat ramp far from the water level

But as we walked, it became increasingly apparent that the California drought we have been experiencing has taken a toll on the native plants. While the open grasslands were beautiful and amber colored, the dry grasses only scratched the surface of the lack of water. The drought is evident in the withered plants, in the stressed leaves, and in the dry grasses. Then there were the trees that broke up the dry grasses. The tall oak and western sycamore trees and others broke up the dry yellowed stalks of grasses. But their green leaves were curled up or clustered in small bunches. Many trees had lost a good majority of their leaves prematurely—not due to fall. Those that were still with leaves upon closer inspection had marks of struggle, the leaves were browned or broken or insect eaten/diseased. These trees are fighting so hard to survive in an extended four year (at least) extreme drought period! Continue Reading →

The Sweet Ingredient in Allergy: poisonous plants & food allergies

Oak tree and poison oak

Oak tree and poison oak camouflage

I know one of my grandfather’s first rules of taking me hiking was teaching me to look out for potentially dangerous plants. We would go hiking quite regularly (even when I was a little kid) through the rugged areas of Southern California chaparral. One of the first California native “look don’t touch” plants that he pointed out to me was poison oak. He taught me, “Leaves of three let it be” and every time we would go out and walk he’d be sure to give me a pop quiz. The crazy thing about poison oak is that it is so potent that it can even cause a reaction if you touch something that has touched poison oak. How does poison oak work? This plant uses biologic warfare to protect itself from predators. The “poison” in poison oak is more to do with a human allergic reaction to a chemical that the plant possesses. Urushiol oil is what the poison oak leaves exude when it is damaged by contact. When it comes in contact with skin it causes an allergic reaction also known as “contact dermatitis”  in four-fifths of humans. Usually the allergic reaction it causes is itching and sometimes a rash which can last for 3-10 weeks. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: International Journey to Braunschweig, Germany

Germany

Amazing fall trees in Germany

I just spent the past week recuperating from jet lag but I wanted to share some of my international nature observations! I spent about a week in a relatively urban/suburban German town and really was able to see so many animals and plants thriving in an urban setting. Everywhere I looked there were cobbled streets with grasses and dandelions or other green things sprouting up. And then there were the trees! Germany is so much greener and full of trees than California. There were big tough trunks and large deciduous trees that were beginning to shake off their leaves. I was in heaven, it was finally fall! Not just the time of the year for fall, but the fall weather was in full swing. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. The dry cold wind blowing was enough to make you gasp for breath, but added to the fall beauty. The crisp breezes caught and tugged at the clinging yellow and orange leaves, tossing them into the gray sky and onto the gray road. It was a refreshing break from the excessively hot and humid fall we have had in California this year, which has felt more like summer than fall.

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The Value of Acorns and Oak Trees

Acorns

Coast Live Oak acorns

When I was growing up in Southern California, some of my favorite hiking trails were through the oak groves of Ojai. As we would hike through the shade, my grandfather would teach me about the plants and the animals in the ecosystem around us. I remember collecting the acorns that had fallen and wondering why an oak tree wasn’t called an acorn tree.
Not only do these amazingly gnarled old oak trees provide shade for hiking trails, but these trees have an ancient past and are incredibly valuable. Oak trees play an important role in the environment, human history and economics. In California these amazing oaks have a history that goes back to the Ice Age, tens of thousands of years ago! Pieces of these trees have been preserved in the Ice Age La Brea tar pits, where these oak trees were ancient food sources and shade for animals like the saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths. Many years later, people migrated to the Americas and began to use these oak trees even more intentionally. Oaks, specifically acorns, were an important part of Chumash cultural festivities and trade. They would eat meals from crushed acorns, but the Chumash were not the only people to discover the value of oak trees.

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