16 Sep 2019

Bedtime Stories

Many parents tell bedtime stories to their little children. One father, Jason Heeris, admitted on Twitter the other day that a few weeks earlier he set out to bore his three-year-old child to sleep by telling everything he knew about particle physics and nuclear physics. There was rather a lot to tell. And to his surprise, Jason said:
Every night since then, as he's falling asleep, his little voice pipes up: "tell me about atoms daddy."

Check out the thread as Jason discusses his son's engaging questions at this link. It's a charming story of how learning about science is fitting into this family's bedtime habits.

6 Sep 2019

Bird Banding! guest post by Meghan Jacklin

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a biologist? It is a truly rewarding career, but it might not be what you expect! Read on to learn about what a career in biology can be like, in a post from our guest writer Meghan Jacklin.

My name is Meghan, and I am a biologist in Edmonton Alberta. I was first inspired to care about wildlife and natural areas from a young age through my love of wolves, and my family canoeing and camping activities. I struggled to find the right education, until I heard about the Environmental sciences program at the U of A. I got my bachelors degree in Conservation Biology, and then it was time to head out into the real world!
Meghan (right) and a coworker, birding despite rain AND mosquitos!

During my degree I started volunteering for a local organization called the Beaverhill Bird Observatory. That is where things got really interesting. The Beaverhill bird observatory studies bird migration through bird banding. But what is bird banding?

Bird banding means putting a lightweight metal band with a unique number on a bird's leg. If this bird is ever caught or found dead somewhere else in the world, we have learned valuable information about that bird and where it traveled!

 Neat! But why do this?

About 40% of the worlds 10,000 bird species are migratory, meaning they spend part of the year in one place and then undertake a large movement to another location for a different part of the year. This can make them uniquely vulnerable – if their habitat, the place that they live, is destroyed or damaged in one area, but not in the other, we may not recognize what the problem is without understanding where birds are migrating to and from.

A banded Dark-eyed Junco
What else do we learn from bird banding?
We also can determine whether a bird hatched this year or is an adult. This helps us understand whether problems are occurring at the breeding grounds (if not many babies are hatching) or if problems are at the wintering grounds (there are enough babies but not many returning adults). We can check roughly how fat a bird is! This is important because some birds migrate hundreds to thousands of kilometres, sometimes without stopping. They must put on lots of weight before starting so they have enough fuel to make it to their journey's end.

How does it actually work?
We first have to get up reeeaaally early, because that is when the birds are around! We get up half an hour before the sun even rises – urg. It is worth it though! We then set up a series of very fine mesh nets, so fine that you can hardly see them. As the birds are flying through the bushes in the early morning, they don’t see the nets, and fly right in.

Can you see this songbird mist net?
Then the staff and volunteers get busy. We check the nets every 30 minutes and remove every caught bird, and place them in individual cloth baggies to bring back to our banding lab. It takes lots of training, and dexterity to carefully take the birds out of the nets! We also get our exercise in, seeing as the distance to check all the nets is around 1 km in length, and we need to walk that every 30 minutes.

Lots of birds in bags,waiting to be banded at the lab!
Once we get back to the lab, we start the banding process. We add the band using special pliers, and this part is actually pretty easy to learn. What’s harder is accurately determining the age and sex of the bird. That requires study and practise, and careful reading of the “bird banding bible” Pyle, the widely accepted expert in North America.

During the banding process, we also get pooped on… a lot! We learn a lot about birds and can help their species to thrive, but no wild bird enjoys being caught, and they let us know! We are covered in poop, and little scratches from beaks and claws by the end of a day. Most songbirds don’t hurt too much when they bite, but if we catch a bird used to cracking seeds – ouch!

An adult Great Horned Owl about to be banded.
 With all that said, bird banding is a very rewarding path for a biologist. Until you start to look and listen, you don’t realize the beautiful colours, shapes, and sizes of the birds right here in our backyards. With all the troubles that birds face, from window strikes, cat predation, habitat loss, and changing climate, it is wonderful to know I am making a difference.
If this sounds right for you, it’s never too early to get started. Many banding stations are open for the public to visit, volunteer, and learn about this important work. Look for one near you!

30 Aug 2019

When Did Humans Reach the Americas?

By Claire Eamer

Now there's a question that opens a can of worms!

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short news article -- Archaeological Find Puts Humans in North America 10,000 Years Earlier Than Thought -- for Hakai Magazine. It was about a new analysis of bones found 40 years ago in the Bluefish Caves in the northern Yukon by Canadian anthropologist Jacques Cinq-Mars. The magazine followed it up with a lengthy and fascinating piece by Heather Pringle: From Vilified to Vindicated: the Story of Jacques Cinq-Mars.

Doctoral student Lauriane Bourgeon's analysis of the bones, particularly a horse jawbone with cut marks on it, appears to confirm Cinq-Mars's original conclusion -- that human hunters were using the Bluefish Caves at least 24,000 years ago, at the height of the last glaciation. At that time sea levels were much lower than today, and people could have crossed to North America from Siberia on the wide, dry, windswept plains of Beringia, a route now blocked by the waters of the Bering Strait.
Beringia land bridge-noaagov

At the time Cinq-Mars published his first account of the excavation, the prevailing theory said humans arrived in North America from northeastern Siberia about 14,000 years ago at a time when the glaciers were finally disappearing, but when there was still a dry-land link between Asia and North America. They then followed an ice-free corridor between glaciers that led them south to the rest of the Americas. The problem with that theory is the growing body of evidence that no such corridor existed or was inhabitable at that time, as well as another growing body of evidence that people were living well south of the glaciated lands before the glaciers disappeared.

Cinq-Mars's find and Bourgeon's re-analysis of it support another theory: the Beringian standstill hypothesis. According to that theory, humans moved into the dry region linking Asia and North America 10,000 years or more before the great ice sheets melted and the sea level rose. And there they stayed, making a decent living from the animals -- both large and small -- that shared their giant refuge from the ice.

But what about those people living farther south when the ice was still melting? Current thinking suggests they might have arrived by sea, travelling down the west coast of North America, with its rich resources of shellfish and other coastal foods. A report just released dates a cache of artifacts found in Idaho to 16,000 years ago. A joint research effort by Western scientists and First Nations in British Columbia recently found even more startling evidence to support the coastal theory -- 29 footprints left, probably, by a small family walking along a beach 13,000 years ago.

Unravelling the mystery of humans in the Americas is no easy task. Much of the evidence was ground to dust by kilometres-deep ice or flooded by rising seas as the ice melted. But scientists and Indigenous peoples are working on it. It's still a can of worms, but each worm that emerges changes the picture slightly and makes it a little clearer. And a lot more interesting.

Claire Eamer's most recent book is Out of the Ice: How Climate Change is Revealing the Past (Kids Can Press, 2018).

3 Aug 2019

We're Almost Out of Sand

By Adrienne Montgomerie

Windows, concrete, silicone chips, and even water filtration systems have one thing in common, and it’s getting harder and harder to find: it’s sand.

Can you believe that? The stuff between your toes at the beach, in your bathing suit, in your bag… the stuff that is so hard to get rid of, that sticks everywhere. That sand is running out. It’s getting so hard to find that people are even stealing it, turning the sand business into a crime: a “sand mafia” that will kill to protect their sand supply.
“But what about the desert?” you ask. Well, there are two reasons desert sand can’t be used to make modern products:
  1. Desert sand is too round and smooth. River sand, worn down by water has the best shape for making all those products.
  2. Deserts are too far from factories. Sand is very heavy; just one cubic meter weighs a ton. That’s as much as small car. And that means the only way it’s affordable to make things from sand is if it comes from nearby — less than 100 km away. 
There is still sand to be mined, but the easy-to-get sand is almost gone. What does this mean for the future? “Sand is actually the most important solid substance on Earth,” says Vince Beiser author of The World in a Grain. “It’s the literal foundation of modern civilization.” Modern life relies very heavily on glass, concrete, and electronics. Reinforced concrete is what made high rise buildings possible. Bridges and huge dams too. Glass is needed for all our smartphones as well as for our solar panels.

We now use more sand each year than we did in the past 100 years, total. “We’re adding the equivalent of eight New York Cities to the world every single year,” Beiser said in an episode of 99% Invisible.

As we search for new sources of sand, we have to look in less easy places, and that means big environmental impacts. Because water’s force shapes the best sand, finding new sand means doing a lot of damage to rivers, lakes, and marshes.

Are there alternatives? Could we use bamboo or recycled materials to make concrete instead? Maybe you will be the materials scientist who finds out.

Learn more:
“The World is Running Out of Sand,” New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand

Photo of cell phone on sidewalk by olle svensson used under CC BY-2.0 license.
Photo of sand by Ian Strain used under CC BY-NC-ND-2.0 license.

26 Jul 2019

Carpenter Bees

Last weekend I had an unwelcome visitor. A carpenter bee decided that my deck would be a good place to raise a family. I disagreed. If you don’t know about these amazing insects, here goes:

 Carpenter bees are quite different from honey bees. Carpenters don't make honey and they don't live in communal hives. They seldom sting - only the female (queen) is capable of stinging. The males will buzz around you and try to intimidate you, but are actually harmless.

A carpenter bee, without a tool belt.
Photo: Daniel Schwen.

How do you recognize a carpenter bee? If you’re lucky you may also be able to see one wearing a tiny tool belt, with saw, hammer, pliers etc. Otherwise they look a lot like bumble bees, but they have a black shiny bum, instead of a furry one. But the dead giveaway is that they drill beautifully round ½” holes in any piece of wood that they fancy for a nursery. 

This carpenter bee chose a tree.
Photo: ZooFari.
 Here’s a picture of the hole that “my” carpenter bee drilled under the railing of my deck. 

 This is actually the second hole. The light-coloured stuff is Play-doh which I used to fill in the first hole, in a vain attempt to stop her. I chased her off the second time and sprayed the hole with insecticide which evidently she didn’t like.  

Carpenter bees are good pollinators and we need them, so perhaps I should have been more generous. But I selfishly want to keep my deck, and carpenter bees don’t really care. If I had let this queen carpenter alone, she would have drilled out a long (about 6 inches) passage at right angles to the initial hole. She would have alternated filling the chambers of the passage with pollen and eggs. The eggs would have hatched and larvae would have fed on the pollen. Then the larvae would have become pupae which would have become adult carpenter bees, The process would have taken seven weeks to produce a bunch more carpenter bees to continue carving up my deck. 

You can see why I didn’t want my deck to become a carpenter bee nursery.

12 Jul 2019

Snakes at the Seaside and Birds in the Bush

By Claire Eamer

"Snake!" yelled 8-year-old Carys, and dove for the grassy bank beside the trail. She emerged clutching a deeply puzzled garter snake at least 60 centimetres long, with elegant checkerboard markings on its sides and a jagged yellow stripe running the length of its back.
Western garter snake, found at Pipers Lagoon Park, Nanaimo.
The rest of the group -- more than two dozen kids and adults, with an age range from 8 to 80-ish -- crowded around to admire her catch. Our leader, biology professor Tim Goater of Nanaimo's Vancouver Island University (VIU) identified it as a female western garter snake (Thamnophis elegans), almost certainly pregnant, and the largest specimen he had seen at Pipers Lagoon, the small seaside park we were exploring. Western garter snakes have a variable diet, depending on where they live, he explained. Carys's prize catch would specialize in hunting intertidal fishes among the park's rocks and tidepools.

Professor Tim Goater with
a large clam at Pipers Lagoon.
Once everyone had admired the snake, we put her back on the slope beside the trail and watched, fascinated, as she disappeared into the grass and undergrowth in less than a second.

The mixed group of kids and adults wasn't just a casual group of visitors to the seashore. We were students in a class called Explorations of Animal Diversity, one of 10 offerings at this year's edition of Grandkids University. The two-day program is open to kids aged 7 to 13 and to their grandparents or grandparent-equivalents (other senior relatives or special friends).

Carys, left, entranced by birdbanding.
Carys and I (I'm her great-aunt) were in our second year at Grandkids University this year. Her brother, Rowan, was in his third year. He and his special friend, Susan, spent two days in the chemistry lab, making soap, slime, invisible ink, instant ice cream, and pop-bottle rockets -- and learning a considerable amount of chemistry along the way.

Over two days, Carys and I got to see and handle garter snakes both in the lab and in the field, peer at insects through a dissecting microscope, search for animals in the intertidal zone, visit a bird-banding station, dissect a ratfish in search of parasites, and tour VIU's International Centre for Sturgeon Studies.

Master bander Eric Demers shows the wing feathers
of a Common Yellowthroat.
And, at the end of the two days, we all attended a graduation ceremony in the university's theatre. VIU's symbols -- a mace and a beautifully decorated steering paddle -- were formally piped through the theatre to the stage. Then, the VIU registrar, in full academic robes, presented each adult and child with a completion certificate. Kids and adults who had attended Grandkids University for 5 years also received "Masters" medals. (Both Rowan and Carys are determined to get their Masters!)
A female American Goldfinch receives its individualized band.
This is the 11th year for VIU's Grandkids University, and it drew a record 163 participants. Almost a dozen former kid participants have grown up to become VIU students, and a number of the participating adults also take VIU classes. Clearly it's part of the university's recruiting program, but it does more than just generate students.

Carys found a seastar that had lost one arm
and was still regrowing its replacement.
Both the kids and the grandparents learn things -- about the subject they are studying and about each other. For two days, they are equals, experiencing the pleasure of learning something new and interesting. The kids can see that adults don't know everything, but that they can learn. The adults get a chance to see how bright and capable the kids are.

And everyone is reminded that learning isn't drudgery. It's fun.

All photos by Claire Eamer.