Rare, Bizarre Creatures from the Deep: An Unexpected Nature Study

I grew up on the Oregon Coast in beautiful Bandon by the Sea. I spent many a day on the shoreline investigating the marine invertebrates under the rock crevices and walking the sandy beaches. My brothers and I longed for the minus tides, providing us the rare opportunity to go spelunking in the sea caves just off shore. These rocky islands are now protected areas for marine bird nesting habitat but back in the 70s, it was our playground.

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Dune geology features: foredune and deflation plain

Tracking Marine Debris

In all the years I have spent on the beach, I have found a diverse amount of debris and organisms in varying states of decay. I probably spend an equal amount of time sifting through the wrack on the high tide line as I do in wave zone digging in the sand looking for mole crabs.

I have found marine debris from Japan evidenced by the kanji script. An occasional flip flop or fishing net remnants are not uncommon. While immersing myself in marine biology courses at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology one summer, I even found several squid egg cases that washed ashore after a winter storm, providing my peers and I an opportunity to observe the development up close. Yet, once in a while, I am still surprised at what washes ashore.

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Walking along the ATV trail across the deflation plain

This past holiday weekend, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely walk on the beach near our home. Our goal was to field test a new marine debris app, a joint initiative between the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative. The tracker app allows you to help make a difference by checking in when you find trash on our coastlines and waterways.*

We drove out to the North Spit and thereafter began our excursion through the deflation plain. We soon discovered, however, that there was too much standing water to stick to the trail that meandered through the wetland area. We thus walked along the ATV road until we reached the small foredune. Just a few feet up and over and we arrived on the sandy beach.

No sooner did we arrive at the shore and we immediately were captivated by the presence of a strange organic material that was strewn across the beach for miles. Upon first glance, it looked like a hard plastic tube resembling a sea cucumber. My first suspicion turned out to be incorrect, however. Upon returning home, I learned that what we had found were actually colonial tunicates. Fascinating!

tunicates rare creatures

Planktonic salps, Pyrosoma atlanticum, strewn across the beach.

What are Tunicates?

This bizarre and rarely-seen creature is called a pyrosome, a species of pelagic colonial tunicates. Their scientific name, Pyrosoma atlanticum, is derived from the Greek words pyro meaning ‘fire’ and soma meaning ‘body’ which refers to the fact that they are known for bright displays of bioluminescence.

Pyrosoma atlanticum are one of the few pyrosomes that make it to the west coast of the U.S. The species found here are less than a foot but can get as long as 24 inches. Largely colorless, they can show up as pink, grayish or purple-green.

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A specimen of the colonial tunicate, Pyrosoma atlanticum 

These massive colonies of cloned creatures are related to a kind of jellyfish called a slap. A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata, which is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords.

Each individual organism is about 1 cm long – less than a third of an inch. They are all connected by tissue and in turn form this colony that looks like a plastic tube. The recent winter storms have caused them to strand on the shores and have been found in all areas of the coast.

Usually found in temperate waters as low as 800 meters. The colony of animals is comprised of thousands of individual zooids and moves through the water column by the means of cilia (an organelle found in eukaryotic cells that project from the much larger cell body).

As they move through the water column, sometimes close to the surface and sometimes as far down as 2600 feet, they filter plankton out of the water for food. As it sucks water in, it then pushes it back out, thereby propelling it through the ocean. It does all this via one opening only, so it moves incredibly slow.

For more images of Pyrosoma, check out Bob Perry’s photographs. Included in his work are a few pseudoconchs (false shells) of the pelagic mollusk Corolla which we similarly found.zoologyIf you are interested in learning more about invertebrates with your students, I encourage you to look into the Amazing Animals curriculum unit I have written to introduce middle level students to zoology. This 10-week unit is full of inquiry-based activities and lesson plans fully outlined for you.

Due to our fascination with these rare creatures, we didn’t spend as much time with the debris tracking app as I had intended. We’ll give it a go another time.

Problem Based Learning with William & Mary

This past school year, my kids and I have been inundated in the study of coastal ecology. The kids worked through the curriculum along side me. Memorizing vocabulary and understand the ecology concepts came easily to them as I’ve immersed them in nature studies since they were toddlers.

We enjoyed several memorable field trips whereupon we developed a list of questions based on our observations: Roosevelt Elk at Dean’s Creek & Foraging for Mushrooms.

We also engaged in several nature study investigations to learn more about the organisms we had observed: Slugs, Snails, and Sea Hares Our Native Maple Trees.

I received this product for free and am being compensated for the time to write the review.  This is an honest review of the product.problem based learning

Yet all along, I knew in my heart that something was missing. While they were engaged in our lessons and activities, they were not captivated. I wanted them to be challenged. I wanted them to struggle to find answers to their questions. I wanted a problem based learning experience.

The units created by William & Mary from Kendall Hunt Publishing provide the perfect challenge. The books provide a wonderful framework for getting students to think, presented in such a way that they want to solve the problem. Along the way, students experience the processes and tools a scientist may use when presented with a difficult problem.

What is Problem Based Learning?

Problem Based Learning is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem. Students gain content knowledge and develop skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

When I was given the opportunity to review the William & Mary problem based learning materials, I immediately jumped at the chance. The Animal Populations unit (designed for grades 6-8) was the perfect fit to further our understanding of ecology and wildlife sciences.

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Problem Based Science Units by William & Mary 

The William & Mary science units introduce real-world problems to initiate scientific investigations. All units incorporate a problem based learning scenario as the catalyst for initiating the discussion of content and scientific investigation.

Students not only focus on specific content learning in science, but they also develop scientific investigation skills as a way to develop the thinking skills of a scientist. Students pose questions, then conduct experiments to answer those questions. They also identify independent and dependent variables, constants, and controls as a guide for quality investigations.

Animal Populations Unit

Animal Populations is centered around the problem of a growing population of deer in a fictitious rural community and the increasing number of people afflicted with lyme disease. The story begins with an email a mother writes to her spouse relaying the symptoms their son has developed.

Immediately, both kids were intrigued and were searching for possible causes. As the story unfolded with newspaper articles and additional personal accounts, they began to collaborate to find solutions to the problem.

In addition to staging the problem, the lessons lead students through the process of inquiry and experimental design. Each step is clearly outlined and in context with the big picture or ecology. We started each lesson with a discussion on the vocabulary and review of where we left off in our previous lesson.

I was really impressed with the lessons on the concept of models. While we are all familiar with physical models, the lessons clarified the meaning of conceptual and mathematical models in-depth. The lessons built on each other and really helped the kids (myself included!) understand the mathematical models of a deer population: exponential growth model and logistic growth model.

deer populationsOur favorite lessons were the field studies whereby we implemented a transect survey. We were fortunate at the time we implemented this unit to be able to partner with a local agency to take part in an ongoing bio-monitoring project at the national estuarine research reserve. Not only was our data useful in the context of our lesson but it was also critical for the success of their long-term estuarine research.

We all enjoyed this unit study as it was both challenging and fun. I look forward to implementing more problem based units in the near future.

Other Science Units

Kendall Hunt Publishing offers several other William & Mary science units to choose from, several have received National Association for Gifted Children’s Curriculum Studies awards.

* Where’s the Beach?—Grades 2-4 
* What A Find!—Grades 2-4  (See Erin’s review at Royal Baloo)
* Acid, Acid Everywhere—Grades 4-6
* Electricity City—Grades 4-6
* Nuclear Energy: Friend or Foe?—Grades 6-8
* Something Fishy—Grades 6-8
* No Quick Fix—Grades 6-8

Unit content has been aligned to national standards and meets national grade level standards as well as standards for grades that are two to three levels above the current grade.

Connect with Kendall Hunt

Follow Kendall Hunt Publishing on your favorite social media. By connecting with them you will get regular updates, information about their products, encouragement for teaching gifted learners as well tips and ideas.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature’s Engineers {Middle School Unit Study}

North American Beaver (Castor Canadensis) play a critical role in the ecology of our streams. Their dams create pooling of water upstream, which creates wildlife habitat for many dozens of wetland and slow-moving water species that wouldn’t otherwise be in such riparian habitats.

These industrious mammals provide a fascinating topic for middle school science investigations. Here you will find a variety of resources and materials to engage middle schoolers in real science related to nature’s engineers, Castor canadensis.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Anatomy & Physiology

Beavers are the largest rodents in North America, and they spend most of their time in the water. To protect themselves from the cold and wetness they have waterproof reddish brown or blackish brown hair. They have small, round, brown ears, and powerful back legs for swimming. A beaver’s front legs are not as large or as strong as its back legs.

Beaver skulls and teeth are very big. The two front teeth are orange colored, and they can be up to 5 mm wide and between 20 and 25 mm long. These teeth grow throughout the animal’s life, and they are used for cutting wood. Without these teeth beavers could not cut down or eat trees and wood. Beavers also have see-through eye lids, and closable nostrils and ears for swimming underwater.

Beavers also have anal and castor glands, which they use to mark their territory. These glands are located beneath the tail. The beaver utilizes the oily secretion (castoreum) from these scent glands to also waterproof its thick fur.

The beaver has a thick layer of fat under its skin that helps keep it warm underwater. Beavers have long sharp upper and lower incisor teeth that they use to cut into trees and woody vegetation. These teeth grow throughout the beaver’s life. A beaver’s tail is broad, flat, and covered with large black scales.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.net

Beaver Ecology & Natural History

Important natural processes, such as energy flows and chemical cycles, result from the interaction of species within a community. Food webs of trophic (trophic – pertaining to nutrition) interactions among species are one example of how multiple soil-plant, plant-plant, plant-animal, and animal-plant relationships link together within a functioning community. Some species can be highly influential in their communities, even if they occur at relatively low population densities. When the presence and actions of this species tend to form the foundation of how other species relate to each other in the community, we often call the influential plant or animal a keystone species.

“Keystone” is a metaphor equated to the stone in the middle of an arch in a building. Removal of the keystone leads to destabilization if not outright collapse of the other elements that “lean on” or depend upon that keystone.

A Look at the Industrious Beaver: Nature's Engineers (A Middle School Unit Study) @EvaVarga.netThe beaver is often cited as an example of a keystone species because through its dam-building behaviors it has major influences on both the vegetation of an area and the water table. In turn, these factors have strong influences on the abundance and quality of habitat for many other plant and animal species within the community. They engineer, or create, habitat that supports greater biodiversity that would otherwise not exist.

No other animal with the exception of man can significantly alter its habitat to suit its own needs and desires. Native Americans revered the beaver and referred to them as “Little People” for this reason.

In one of the first images of its kind, night-vision cameras recently captured photos of native beavers and invasive nutria working together to build a dam across a channel at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in Portland, Oregon.

Beaver Unit Study Resources

Act out a short skit to teach others about the natural history of the beaver – its adaptations for its environment as well as the impact humans have had on it throughout history.

Dress up a volunteer as you learn about the structural and behavioral adaptations of beavers.

Explore the website Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife to learn more about beavers and their impact on the ecology.

Learn about the history of the Fur Trade and Beaver Ecology including numerous Historical Source Documents.

Learn about Beavers and Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – A Report from Wild Earth Guardians.

Download the Beaver Monitoring App and help scientists study how beavers could be used as a tool for stream restoration and mitigating impacts of climate change.

Reach out to your local watershed associations to learn about watershed monitoring and restoration projects that impact beavers. How can you get involved?

Visit and observe an ecosystem created by beavers in your local area (contact Fish & Wildlife for assistance in locating a dam if you are unfamiliar). Keep a journal of your observations.

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You might also be interested in my 10-week inquiry based science unit introducing middle level students to the study of animals: Zoology: Amazing Animals. Lessons include scientific classification, identifying animal tracks, ecology, and animal behavior.

 

Agriculture in the Classroom: Free Teaching Resources

As we become for technologically advanced and our urban cities grow, I believe it is increasingly important for our youth to have an understanding of where our food comes from – both historically and today.

Whether you live in Atlanta or rural Nebraska, in the mountains or along the coast, engaging students in real world experiences and developing an awareness of agricultural practices is not difficult. There are many free teaching resources available for educators of all ages.

By encouraging teachers to integrate agriculture into their classroom via authentic, core curriculum concepts, Agriculture in the Classroom partners have collaborated to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the food and fiber system that we all rely on every day.

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An agriculturally literate person is defined as “one who understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life.”

Take some time to explore the variety of resources available – I share a few of my favorites below. You can put together an entire semester course or pick and choose a few lessons to augment your current studies.

 

Plant & Animal Science

Agriculture has traditionally been defined by the production of plants and animals. Today, science and technology have added new areas of research, and investigation to the agriculture field.

agricultureExtension 4-H professionals have developed a wealth of curriculum materials and a variety of hands-on agriculturally based activities to promote agricultural literacy among young people. Much is available for free but some curriculum modules are available for purchase.

Soil Science

To help educate students about the important role soil nutrients play in feeding our world, the Nutrients for Life Foundation sends out a monthly newsletter that will provide you with new ideas and tips for teaching plant and soil science while providing creative activities to bring into your classroom. They have also developed numerous modules for elementary, middle and high school classrooms to provide STEM activities and lessons.

soilscienceSoil Science Reader :: A digital science journal specifically designed for grades 7-8 (graphics and photographs capture interest) introduces soil formation and soil horizons with a fun edible soil activity. Other topics include the nitrogen cycle, plant nutrition, and fertilizer basics featuring the 4R Nutrient Stewardship.

Soil Reader :: Written specifically 5th & 6th grade students, this 18-page digital journal features an interview with an agriculture engineer and features puzzles, quizzes, and visuals to enhance a teacher’s soil unit.

For complete curriculum, posters, games, flashcards, and much more – visit the Nutrients For Life webstore. Everything is FREE!!

Invasive Species

Hundreds of invasive plants and animals have become established across the country and are rapidly spreading each year. These invaders are negatively impacting our waters, our native plants and animals, our agriculture, our health, our economy, and our favorite recreational places.

Prevention is the most effective strategy in managing invasive species. To increase public awareness of invasive species issues and promote public participation in the fight against invasive species and their impacts on our natural resources, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife have developed curriculum and materials available free to schools and educators.invasivespecies

Stop the Invasion :: Students will learn about six different invasive species, the damage they cause, and how to stop their spread.

If you reside in California, you may also be interested in the community action week with events across the state and a youth art contest. Similar programs may exist in your state. Contact your local department of fish and wildlife or county extension agency to learn more.

Junior Explorers Brings the World Ecosystems to You

I was recently sitting on the pool deck one afternoon waiting for our kids to finish swim practice. As summer was still just a few weeks away, a few moms and I got to talking about activities to keep the kids engaged through the hot summer.

One mom suggested a subscription kit. “Yeah, but there are so many available today,” one mom replied. “How does one choose?”

I was delighted to share with them my experience with Junior Explorers. When choosing a subscription box – either as a gift or as a curriculum enrichment – my suggestion is to keep the interest and passion of the recipient in mind.

While my son is in the target age, a child passionate about animals would be the ideal recipient for Junior Explorers. I knew the perfect little zoologist – my friend, Liam, who was recently promoted to first grade! I was delighted to be able to assign him his first mission, Mission Amazon.

I received the Junior Explorers mission kit in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are true and completely our own. Please see my disclosure policy for more information. This post contains affiliate links.

Explore the World with Junior Explorers @EvaVarga.netLike many children, Liam loves animals and while waiting for his big brother at swim team, he will often role-play what he has learned in school or in the books he has brought along with him.

Junior Explorers helps foster that love to inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. Junior Explorers is a subscription program for kids 6-11 that teaches them all about wildlife and nature through exciting adventures that are sent home each month. Every month kids receive a kit in the mail sending them to a new ecosystem to solve a mystery in nature.

Each monthly mission focuses on a new ecosystem with real facts about wildlife and the environmental threats today. This can be a hard conversation to have with kids, but Junior Explorers introduces the topics in an easy-to-understand and solution oriented way.

The monthly kit contains cool collectibles like figurines, animal trading cards, temporary tattoos, stickers, and more. Every kit also includes a secret code to access a wealth of activities, games, and additional learning materials.

Liam loved the animal trading cards with facts about the featured animals best. “Did you know there are frogs that sweat poison?!” he exclaimed. I didn’t get a chance to elicit more details, he hopped off in delightful imaginary play.

Send your child on wild adventures with Junior Explorers subscription boxes! Join Now!

At the end of every mission, kids see a handful of not-for-profit projects doing front-line conservation in the ecosystem they just visited. Kids select their favorite real-world project and watch as their earned points are converted into a real dollar donation.

Junior Explorers is a certified B-Corporation and while this may not mean anything to Liam, us moms can smile knowing that the company has met rigorous standards and been designated as a company that is doing good for the world.

Shipping is only $2 per month to send your child on wild adventures with Junior Explorers subscription boxes! Join Now!

 

The Silent Killer: Ecology Lessons with Rachel Carson

Ecology Lessons with Rachel Carson @EvaVarga.netThis post contains affiliate links.

Marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, whose writing on pesticides helped to launch the modern environmental movement, was born on 27th of May in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Carson published her famous work Silent Spring in 1962 which documented the dangers of indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides, especially on bird populations. Though its publication was met with strong opposition from the chemical industry, the scientific community largely supported her conclusions. Silent Spring also served as a rallying point for the young environment movement just gaining momentum at the time of its publication.

In nature nothing exists alone.

The book fueled public interest in environmental and public health issues and, within a few years, the Nixon Administration formed the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the EPA’s early work focused on issues raised by Carson’s work such as a 1972 law regulating pesticides and a US ban on the agricultural use of DDT.

Biography

Rachel CarsonRachel grew up in a tiny, wooden house with no electricity, heat or plumbing. As a young girl, she was fascinated with the outside world. She spent a great deal of time in the woods and beside streams learning the names of birds, insects, and flowers.

Rachel’s best friend was her mother, Maria Carson, with whom she enjoyed taking long walks with in their nearby woods. Maria had been a teacher before she married and she taught Rachel the names of plants, birds, insects, and animals they encountered. It didn’t take long before Rachel was able to identify dozens of wild things.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find resources of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

In Rachel’s second year of college, she took a biology course that sparked her interest in this area. She graduated from college with honors and decided to specialize in Marine Biology- the study of animal life in the ocean. In 1929, she won a full scholarship to John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland to obtain her graduate degree in this field of study.

After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1932 (MA in Zoology), she began a career in the federal service as a scientist and editor and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to the well known Silent Spring, she wrote several other articles designed to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world, including “Help Your Child to Wonder,” (1956) and “Our Ever-Changing Shore” (1957). Woven throughout her writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.

Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.

Rachel Carson died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer. Her witness for the beauty and integrity of life continues to inspire new generations to protect the living world and all its creatures.

Ecology Lessons with Rachel Carson @EvaVarga.netBring It Home

With Rachel Carson as a guide, students can learn how environmental concerns affect their lives and community. High students should be encouraged to read Silent Spring. Middle school students may be more comfortable reading selected chapters; I recommend the first chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which can be previewed online. [Tip: Do a search on the chapter title to find the full text, which is available from various sources.]

  • Read a biography:
  • Watch the compelling documentary film American Experience: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
  • Have the students write a short story about how they think the world will change in the next ten years.
  • Ask students how they perceive our oceans being polluted today and let them come up with ways we can contribute to the efforts of protecting our sea life.
  • Have students research the toxic effects of DDT on the body, where it might be used today, and what alternatives can be used in its place.
  • Ask students to make a booklet on ways to live that can reduce an individual’s impact on the environment. Examples of subjects include saving water, gardening, cleaning and maintenance around the house, your car, renewable energy, air pollution, and the environmentally aware consumer.
  • Interview a person who has lived in the community for 30 years or longer. Suggested questions might include:
    • How has our community’s environment changed over the time you have lived here?
    • What was the environment of our community like when you first lived here?
    • What changes made the greatest impact on the environment?
    • Have the changes been for the better? Why do you feel this way?
    • In retrospect, compare the benefits and detriments of the impact of people on the land.

What about us? Can we avoid the “silent spring” that Carson predicted? In the 53 years since Silent Spring first appeared, people have grown far more aware of our impact on the environment. But we still use many potentially deadly chemicals.”There remains, in this space-age universe,” wrote Rachel Carson, “the possibility that man’s way is not always best.” We would do well to remember her warning.

Science Milestones