Posts tagged ‘New York Times’

May 21, 2013

Pull Out Your Magnifying Glasses…the Cicadas are Coming!

by Melissa Harding

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In 1996, millions of little cicada larvae, freshly hatched out of their eggs, jumped out of the trees where they were born and burrowed down deep into the soil to take a nap. Well, not to nap exactly, but rather to spend a peaceful spell quietly sucking the juices from tree roots. For the last seventeen years, they have been minding their own business and growing into adulthood. Soon, however, they are getting ready to come back to the surface. When they do, they will do it en masse.

What they really want to do is mate; for cicadas, this is the largest singles cruise ever. The males will clamber into the trees and signal to potential mates by snapping rigid plates on their abdomens. The females will coyly reply by clicking their wings together. All of this makes quite a racket, but doesn’t last for long. Potential matches will quickly find each other and mate, lay their eggs (up to 600 per female!), and then die shortly afterward. Upon hatching, the larvae will swan dive out of the trees and head for the soil, starting the seventeen year cycle all over again.

Cicadas may not be the most attractive insects on the planet, with their bulging red eyes and large size, but they are as harmless as kittens.  They don’t eat anything above ground, using their time in the sun solely for reproduction. They won’t bite or harm you in any way, though they are hapless fliers and one or two may run into your screen door. If this still makes you nervous, don’t worry – one group of critters that will be very excited about the cicadas are birds. It’s not very often that a buffet comes zooming out of ground and right onto their plates. They don’t know it yet, but they will be feasting like kings! This is the reason that cicadas all emerge at the same time; they are not particularly adept at defending themselves, being bad at flying and evading predation. However, millions of cicadas are more than the birds can possibly eat, leaving some left for reproduction.

These exciting critters will only be out and about for a short period of time. This is an excellent chance to grab a few and observe them with your child. Unlike other insects, they are utterly defenseless, so catching cicadas is safe and a great way to get a good look at them. You can watch their bodies move as they hum and buzz, observe the hard chiten of their exoskeletons and check out their beautiful eyes. Additionally, look for molted exoskeletons on trees and buildings; these are wonderful for observation as well. Remember, while it is a great science lesson to observe cicadas up close, it is important to always treat them gently and release them after you are done.

A number of news outlets have been running stories about the upcoming cicadas emergence; they are helpful resources to learn more about cicadas and their life spans, as well as some interesting research on cicada genomes. Did you know that the name for seventeen year cicadas is “magicicicadas”? Or that the ground needs to be exactly 64F before they emerge? Check out Carl Zimmer’s fabulous article in the New York Times, this fun piece by the Associated Press and this segment from Talk of the Nation. Watch one molt in this great piece from NPR’s Robert Krulwich!

The above photo is courtesy of the New York Times.

March 26, 2013

You Might Want to Sit Down for This…

by Melissa Harding

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It can be easy to spend most of the day sitting: drive to work, sit at your desk, drive home, sit at home. This is especially true in the winter, when cold temperatures make us feel sluggish, like hibernating bears. Even though it can be wonderfully relaxing to spend the evening hours reading a good book or watching a movie, it may actually be doing more harm than good. The phrase “sitting is the new smoking” is a buzzword in the health community, where more and more research is being done on what has been dubbed “the pandemic of inactivity”. Richard Louv, nature writer, advocate and director of the Children and Nature Network, has just published a short article compiling some recent findings. The results may just shock you right out of your seat.

The average American sits 9.3 hours every day. Out of 24 hours in a day, minus the average 7.7 hours for sleeping, we spend over half of our waking hours on our bottoms. Children, who often do not have control over their actions, have it even tougher. While adults can take a break to walk up and down the halls, take a walking meeting or do some stretching, children are expected to sit still for their entire day at school. Even going to the bathroom requires permission and a hallpass. Although some schools try to get kids moving, time spent in recess is a small portion of the day. That is not to mention the fact that even after work or school many of us spend our leisure time sitting in front of screens. Sitting is so pervasive and natural to us that we don’t question how much of it we should be doing.

So why is all of this sitting a problem? Recently The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, published a series of reports that confirm physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for deaths due to non-communicable diseases.  According to the New York Times, an Australian study found that for each additional hour of television watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent.  Excessive sitting, which the study defines as nine hours a day, is a lethal activity.

While it may seem so, exercise is not the antidote to sitting. When a person is sitting, electrical activity in his muscles drops, which leads to harmful metabolic effects. His calorie-burning rate drops to about one per minute, a third of what it is walking. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing diabetes and obesity rises. This adds up over a lifetime. According to Harold “Bill” Kohl, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health, “Although regular physical activity is critical for weight control, it is equally or more important for lowering risk of many different chronic diseases such as heart disease, some cancers, osteoporosis and diabetes.”

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Fortunately, there is a solution in sight for all of us: being outside. Nature-based exercise is good for adults and nature-based play is good for children. Some pediatricians and mental health professionals are now prescribing “green exercise” in parks and other natural settings. All this means is that kids should be engaging in more simple outdoor play, climbing trees and playing with sticks. Now that spring is around the corner, it is even easier to find fun things to do outside; planting seeds, stomping in mud puddles and hunting for blooming flowers are great April activities. No matter what outdoor activity sounds fun to you and your family, doing it together will help you stay healthier and more connected to nature.

Here are some resources to get both you and your child more active outside:
Nature Rocks: Find local natural areas, get ideas for fun outdoor activities and connect to other nature lovers
Children and Nature Natural Families Network: Learn how to start a nature club for kids and connect to other parents
Richard Louv’s Resource Supplement to Last Child in the Woods: Outdoor activities, book suggestions and helpful links
Simple Kids: Simple activity ideas to help your child explore the natural world
Home Connections: Try some of our ideas to combine outdoor exploration with fun activities

To learn more about how sitting effects your health, read the rest of Richard Louv’s article at the Children and Nature Network and check out the links to his sources scattered throughout this post.

The above photos are courtesy of brietbart.com via Google Images and Christie Lawry.

January 11, 2013

The Fungus Among Us

by Melissa Harding

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Lichens are inconspicuous organisms. These pieces of pale, calcified lace are content to sit quietly on tree trunks, tombstones, and rock ledges for decades without making much fuss; their only real threat in life is a heavy rain. Despite all that, there is much to like about lichens. For starters, they may hold the key to immortality. Scientists are finding that some organisms get stronger and larger as they age, rather than smaller and weaker. (For instance, the giant sequoia.) Lichens are just one example of this phenomenon in nature and some researchers are trying to figure out what that means for the rest of us. New York Times author Hillary Rosner explores this topic with her profile of Dr. Anne Pringle, a Harvard mycologist studying the aging process in lichens. Dr. Pringle believes that research on lichens may answer the question: Is immortality possible?

To begin with, lichens are not individuals, but rather a community of smaller organisms. Each lichen is composed of one main fungus, a group of algae and other, smaller fungi and bacteria. Since fungi are incapable of making their own food, they usually provide for themselves as parasites or decomposers. In lichen, the main fungus is essentially farming the algae for food. This means that lichens are composed of both plants and fungi, making them rather hard to classify.

Because lichens are a compound organism, reproduction can be tricky. To reproduce and expand their range, a lichen can either launch a single fungal spore that must then find a new algae to join with, or it can send out fingerlike projections called isidia, which contain both algae and fungi, to find a new home. The neat thing about lichens is that they will colonize areas that other organisms cannot. They grow on bare rock, desert sand, cleared soil, dead wood, animal bones, rusty metal, and living bark. With the right amounts of light, moisture and freedom from competition, lichens can grow anywhere. They can even survive extremes of heat, cold, and drought by hibernating. All in all, lichens are amazing organisms.

Perhaps few can appreciate them like Dr. Pringle. For eight years, she has been studying lichen formations in a Massachusetts cemetery, trying to figure out if they are deteriorating with the passage of time.  Biologists call this senescence, or declining with age.  Dr. Pringle is looking to see if the lichens are more likely to break apart over time and if their chemical or bacterial composition changes as they age, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

Though Dr. Pringle is studying lichens, what she is really interested in are the fungi inside them. Scientists have long suspected that fungi don’t age, but there has been little research to back this up. A longstanding explanation for aging is that built-up genetic mutations are activated once fertility begins to taper off.  Another theory is that aging occurs because some traits that make us more reproductively successful may also be dangerous. For example, high testosterone increases fertility, but also is a known prostate cancer risk factor. Neither theory works here, since fungi reproduce asexually using spores. In fact, fungi reproduce more as they age, not less.

Dr. Pringle’s preliminary results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die. The definition of aging changes from organism to organism. Death, as we know it now, is animal-centered. The rules for fungi, as well as the subjects of similar studies like the bristlecone pine and the wandering albatross, are something different.

To learn more about lichen and Dr. Pringle’s research, check out this article by Hillary Rosner in the New York Times.

The above photo was provided courtesy of Evan McGlinn of the New York Times.

October 26, 2012

The Importance of Observation

by Melissa Harding

“Science,” writes David Haskell, “deepens our intimacy with the world. But there is a danger in an exclusively scientific way of thinking. The forest is turned into a diagram; animals become mere mechanisms; nature’s workings become clever graphs.” Science is one story, he writes, true but not complete, and the world cannot be encompassed in one story (Source). Haskell, author of the blog Ramble and the new book The Forest Unseen, was recently profiled in the New York Times Science section about the nature observation practices he used to write his book.

Following in the footsteps of many great naturalists, Haskell decided to take himself to the woods. Not to live deliberately, in the vein of David Thoreau, but to observe. His object of observation is a small circle of forest floor, a little over a yard in diameter, and all the life that happens through it. He did no experiments and had no agenda, just a notebook and a hand lens. Haskell went to the same spot every day for a year, sitting still and recording his observations in a notebook.

“Usually, if you stay here for a while, something is going to happen,” he says.

There is a lot to learn from Haskell. His attitude of being still and using his senses to take in his surroundings is a good model for learning more about the natural world. Deepening our understanding of nature is a way to gain both perspective and empathy; whether is is through watching a spider build a web or birds searching the ground for insects, there is no greater way to learn than through observation. Nature is not a paradise, nor is it scary and unknown, but rather a little bit of both. Getting to know your own bit of land, your backyard or some grass in the sidewalk, is a sure way to gain appreciation for the world around you.

This is an especially important skill for children. Instilling in your child an enthusiasm for the natural world is critical to their future attitudes towards stewardship and conservation. Studies have shown that having positive outdoor experiences with a trusted adult or caregiver – a teacher, a grandparent, a babysitter – is a strong predicter of a child’s future conservation attitudes (Source). While this is important, it is not hard. Taking a nature walk, making observations out the window, and even just watching a plant grow are simple activities that will have a big impact in your child’s life. Mentoring your child in stewardship is beneficial for you both; not only will it bring you and your child closer to each other, but also to the world outside your door.

As Haskell wrote in a recent column commemorating the anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, “So our homework assignment from Carson, fifty years after Silent Spring, is to get to know a tree, to listen to a bird and to smell the beauty of soil. By giving our attention to the ecology of our homes, we’ll find Carson’s most important legacy: wonder.”

Bring a sense of wonder to your life. Go outside and be still.

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

August 29, 2012

Should We Minimize Risk in Environmental Education?

by Melissa Harding

Much has been made recently of “risk-averse” nature play. From David Sobel’s article Look, Don’t Touch to Ken Finch’s But…Isn’t It Dangerous?, bloggers, authors and parents alike have been concerned about the state of outdoor play at both nature centers and schools. Many of these authors feel that creating risk-averse environments for children, especially during what has traditionally been messy and unstructured outdoor play, is both detrimental to the development of children and distorts their view of nature.

For Ken Finch, founder and president of The Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, nature play is meant to be risky. Children may be injured, but that is not always a bad thing. Children may always be injured as they learn how to manage themselves in an environment with inherent risks, whether it is determining how high they should climb or whether a rock is slippery. However, children need to learn to manage risk in their lives; the inherent risk in outdoor play is no reason to keep children from engaging in the outdoors. Finch argues that without taking risks no child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike, let alone learn to manage the complexity of an adult life.

All of this seems to point to how we perceive the amount of risk inherent in a situation. Human beings are very poor at judging risk. We base our perceptions of risk more on emotion and instinct than fact and reason (Source). This is the same mindset that makes us more afraid of sharks than driving a car; a car accident is statistically much more likely than a shark attack (Source), yet many people drive all the time and are afraid of the ocean. Maybe our fear of risk, yet proven inability to correctly assess it, is part of the problem; maybe nature play isn’t as risky as we think.

For Finch,  valuable learning occurs when children are allowed to play away from adults and without structure. Nature can be a testing ground where children use their imaginations to act out conquests and challenges. This is what many adults remember from their own childhoods, yet are afraid to let their children experience. Finch argues for the use of comparative risk; the risk of letting children play in nature is far less than the risk of keeping them away from it. He fears that this current culture will create children who find nature boring and restrictive, seeing no need to care for it. His solution, allowing risk but managing clear hazards, allows children to feel unhampered by rules yet still be safe from real injury.

David Sobel has a similar argument; he feels that the joy of children exploring the world on their own terms is no longer allowed. He takes environmental education to task, citing its “look, don’t touch” mentality as a stumbling block to its true goal of reconnecting children to nature in a meaningful way. He also cites a number of programs that celebrate wild nature play and accept risk as part of the deal.

Finally, Kay Wyma of the New York Times’ Motherlode column, talks about an experience her son had climbing trees. A well-intentioned neighbor admonished her child for climbing and asked her “What if he falls?”. The answer to that question, that he would learn his boundaries, is the basis of her column. She argues that children need to learn to do for themselves, to learn boundaries, and maybe even to fail and fall a little – even, or maybe especially, outside.

Taken all together, where do these articles put us?

I’m not sure. As an educator, I feel very strongly that we need to make nature more accessible to our students. Without hands-on experiences, I fear our students will see ecology as dry and boring instead of exciting and teeming with life. However, I also understand the natural desire to minimize risk; no one wants to see any child hurt.

So this is where we can all draw our own conclusions.  I encourage you to read all of the articles and opinions cited here, as well as find your own. Whatever the answer is, we all need to work together to ensure that our children are given the ability to bond with nature and fall in love with it. That way, there is someone left to preserve it.

The above picture is taken by Christie Lawry.

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