Hello, my name is Mr. Schaefer. Join me as I travel to New Orleans to study Climate Change and Caterpillars!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When very little data can be a good thing...

September 29, 2010
I was watching an episode of the Big Bang Theory some time ago where Sheldon screws up an experiment. It may have even been the one where he went to the North Pole and failed to find out that string theory was, in fact, the relativistic "rule of thumb" for the behavior of the universe.
I was reminded of that today. Our team headed out into the woods into the Pearl River Wildlife Management area to do two plots. At both locations, we were in a relatively shady spot. In both locations, we had a multitude of species of plants, primarily oak, hawthorne, climbing vines, magnolia, poison ivy, and holly. And at both locations, it was very difficult to find specimens. This, despite using the "beat the tree" method after our initial attempts to search in the plots were less than helpful.
Getting GPS coordinates of the plot

Beating the tree

Checking the "beat the tree" data
Does a lack of data tell a scientist anything?
Mark Fox thinks it had something to do with the dark shady nature of the plots. Without sun to have fresh growth of plants, caterpillars may not have wanted to feed. We did see evidence of older damage due to caterpillars, so perhaps this is logical. Perhaps this can lead to some new ideas.

THIS IS SCIENCE!! Even a lack of data doesn't mean a lack of science.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sample Data Types (for science teachers following this blog)

September 28th, 2010
So, in conversations with Jim Merritt, he wanted some data that he can use with his students after I Skype to his classes. The data they have collected here over the past 14 years is simply enormous. Today, to enter the data into the computer, we had to know:
  • Plot details - each plot is a circle with radius of 5 meters. Each plant in the plot must be listed by type, number of leaves up to 7 feet or so, total number of leaves, and a percentage of leaves that have been eaten.

  • Caterpillar details - each found caterpillar must be ID'd by family, genus, and species, as well as given an "Instar number" (essentially, the number of times it has molted, although frankly, that's a guess based only on size of the caterpillar), and what type of plant species it was found on

  • Data details - such as date collected, person collecting, and individual caterpillar number.

I can only imagine just how much data they have. It's a monumental task that Rebecca and Mark, our fearless leaders, should be running as soon as we leave, ad nauseum, to get correlation between several factors involving caterpillar development.

Those factors, however, seem critical for the work I am doing. Let's examine them below:

  • SPECIES RICHNESS - a strict measure of the number of species of caterpillars or flora found in a single plot. This can change drastically based on invasive species entering an ecosystem, or massive environmental degredation (the last here were the hurricanes that blew through). People here are looking at something called parasitoids - organisms that lay their eggs in caterpillars, which later hatch, destroying the host. How this relationship has changed is a focs of the researchers, over a VERY long haul.

  • SPECIES DIVERSITY - a measure that combines species richness with species abundance. Invasive species and environmental change also alter this data.

  • TROPHIC LEVELS - as a canopy opens up, the ground clutter changes significantly. That usually has a negative impact on species diversity. Opening of a canopy happens, once again, during severe weather, or human influences. A trophic cascade can have a change that carries an affect far beyond its initial level. Increasing biodiversity can have a cascade affect on additional biodersity as well! (as it was explained to me, like "steps on a waterfall")

So which is better? A plot with 10 species, and 5 individual members of each species in that plot, or a plot with 25 species, one member being represented by 100 individuals, and the other species with 2 or fewer representatives?

The answer seems obvious to me.

So, begins a series of hypothetical data points for this experiment. Use any of them as you see fit.

CHINESE FALLOW - data set one

A very invasive species, brought here originally to make candles out of it.

Plot # # of plant species # of caterpillar species # of individual tallow samples









More (hypothetical) data tables to come...

Monday, September 27, 2010

And I thought everything was bigger in TEXAS

September 27th, 2010
It has been such an interesting time down here. Not precisely roughing it, but we have been inundated with so very much to do. Yesterday, we learned the ins and outs of the lab work, where we bag and tag (but not seel to the butcher) the samples, and update the database that the researchers have developed since 1998. According to my records, they have almost 14,000 individual samples! It's probably the 2nd most tedious work here.
Today, they took us out to the field for the first time. We were able to collect a variety of species, and then started to learn how to do the plots....which involve three steps:
1) Mark out a central tree and determine a circle around the tree with a radius of 5 meters:

2.) Collect all caterpillars found in that area, including with a beater to knock them out of the trees.

3.) Easily the worst part - counting every leaf on every plant in the plot area. This is what one of my colleagues, Shirley, looked like during that tedious task...

It's going to be an interesting week...

but the point of my blog today was to share with you the size of the creatures that we have encountered since our visit.

"Tame" crocodile

Giant grasshopper

Giant collected caterpillars

Spider stretched over our trail

More giant grasshoppers

Love and best wishes to you all, talk to you tomorrow

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Orientation and Disorientation

September 25th, 2010

New Orleans is about heat and humidity, for sure. It's about green, EVERYWHERE. It's about a new-found love of the Saints, EVERYWHERE. It's about fun and frolic and history. But more than anything, New Orleans is about the music. I remember from some years ago that you couldn't go two blocks in the French Quarter without hearing a random band on the corner. Times haven't changed. I was interrupted on a walk by a random parade at 2 in the afternoon, when bars had bands playing (it only gets more rowdy as the evening progresses).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Day Before

September 23,

Just getting to this point has been a trial - but tomorrow, I leave for New Orleans, to help out a research project and get me one of those "Po-Boy" sandwiches I have been missing since my last trip to the Big Easy for the Sugar Bowl in 1991 (the infamous ND "Cereal Bowl" Game.)

Welcome to James Merritt's Bio Classes in Marshfield MA for help with the "Live from the Field" correspondence.

More details to come!