Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mid-Michigan Habitats - Emergent Marsh

An Emergent Marsh is a type of wetland found in shallow water along the shores of ponds, lakes, and rivers.  Emergent Marsh is one of the most common habitat types found in Mid-Michigan (and around the entire state).  This type of wetland is characterized by narrow and broad leaved herbacious plants and grasses that float on the surface or emerge above the surface of the water (including water lilies, water plantains, arrowheads, grasses, sedges and cattails).  Surface water may dry out seasonally, but groundwater is never far below the surface.  While trees and shrubs are sometimes found in Emergent Marshes, the saturated soil prevent most woody species from becoming established.  Emergent marshes are usually named aftert their dominant plant type (e.g. a cattail marsh).  Emergent marshes are among the most biologically diverse forms of habitats and can be home to thousands of species of plants and animals.  Among the species of animals that we associate with emergent marshes are the Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) and the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Selected Plants of the Emergent Marsh

Northern Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
Bur Marigold (Bidens cernua)

Bur Reed (Sparganium eurycarpum)

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia)

Common Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Marsh Vetchling (Lathyrus palustris)

Lizard's Tail (Saururs cernuus)

Mad-dog Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

Narrow-leafed Cattail (Sagittaria latifolia gracilis)

Narrow-leafed Cattail (Typha angustifolia)

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)

Spotted Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus)

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata)

Water Plantain (Alisma triviale)

White Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata)

Yellow Water Lily (Nuphar variegatum)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Five Science Things - Firsts in American Space Flight

My wife has a growing collection of space exploration memorabilia, including a number of buttons commemorating American space missions.  I thought I would share five of these buttons.

The first button commemorates the first earth orbit by an American astronaut.  Lt. Colonel John Glenn orbited the earth three times on 20 February 1962 aboard the Friendship 7.  Glenn was the third American (and 5th human) successfully launched into space.  John Glenn was one of the original seven American astronauts (Mercury 7) and is the last surviving member of that group.  In addition to being the first American in orbit, John Glenn later became the oldest person in space when he participated flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95 (29 October - 07 November 1998).

The second button commemorates the flight of the Gemini 3 spacecraft.  Nicknamed "Molly Brown", Gemini 3 was the first flight of the Gemini space program and launched on 23 March 1965.  Crewed by astronauts Virgil I "Gus" Grissom and John W. Young, Gemini 3 was the first American space flight crewed by two men.  Gemini 3 was also the first spacecraft to perform an orbital maneuver - using rockets to maneuver the craft in space.  Gus Grissom would later die in a fire aboard the Apollo 1 capsule during a training exercise (27 January 1967).  John Young would remain with NASA until the 1980s and fly in a total of 6 space missions.  He would land on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission (16 - 27 April 1972) and command the first Space Shuttle Mission STS-1 (12 April 1981).

The third button commemorates the Gemini 4 mission (3 June - 7 June 1965).  This mission was crewed by astronauts James McDivitt and Edward White.  This mission saw the first American walk in space when floated outside the exited the Gemini capsule and floated alongside for approximately 20 minutes.  White (like Gus Grissom) died aboard the Apollo 1 capsule.  McDivitt would fly in space one more time during the Apollo 9 mission.  Later McDivitt became Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program before retiring from NASA in 1972.

The fourth button commemorates the flight of Apollo 8 (21 - 28 December 1968).  Crewed by astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, Apollo 8 was the first manned flight to orbit the moon.  The craft orbited the moon 10 times over the course of 20 hours before returning back to Earth.  This marked the last space flight for Frank Borman - he also commanded the Gemini 7 flight (4 - 18 December 1965).  Apollo 8 was the only space flight for William Anders.  Apollo 8 was the third space flight of Jim Lovell.  He had previously flown on Gemini 7 and Gemini 12.  Later he would command the Apollo 13 mission (11 - 17 April 1970).  Apollo 13 was supposed to land on the moon, but the mission was aborted due to an explosion on the command module.  Lovell and the other two astronauts (Jack Swigert and Fred Haise) were able to safely pilot the Apollo 13 lunar module safely back to Earth.

The fifth and final button commemorates the Apollo 11 mission (16 -14 July 1969).  This was the first manned space flight to land successfully on the moon. At 10:56AM on July 20th, Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon's surface.  Later he was joined by Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon's surface.  Armstrong and Aldrin spent approximately 2 hours walking on the moon's surface.  Armstrong and Aldrin remained on the surface of the moon in the lunar module for 20 hours before reuniting with the orbiting command module.  Michael Collins orbited the moon in the command module during the mission, but did not land on the surface.  Apollo 11 was the second (and last) space flight for all three astronauts.  Armstrong had previously flown on the Gemini 8 mission, Aldrin on Gemini 12, and Collins on Gemini 10.  The US would return astronauts to the moon only five more times, the last time in 1972 (Apollo 17).  A total of only 24 humans have orbited the moon and of those 24, twelve have stood on the surface of the moon.  There are no current plans for the United States to return astronauts to the moon.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fall Photo

Today I stayed home sick from work.  Just thought I would share a single photo of fallen leaves from last year.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Tree Might Forgive, But It Never Forgets

I recently started doing a program on plant adaptations for 4th grade classrooms.  One of the things that we discuss in this program is the idea that plants can defend themselves.  They do this either through chemical means (such as being toxic or tasting bad) or physical means (such as prickly leaves, thick bark, prickers, etc.).

I have a tree in my backyard that has taken physical defense to an extreme level.

Honey Locust thorns

Those long three-pronged thorns belong to a Honey Locust  (Gleditsia triacanthos).  The Honey Locust is a deciduous tree that native to the central United States from the west slope of the Appalachians westward to a line running from central Texas north to central Kansas and eastern Nebraska.  It ranges south to the Gulf Coast and north as far as Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In Michigan it is native only to the southern tier of counties.  The Honey Locust can grow to heights of 80 feet and commonly lives 120 to 150 years.  It has compound leaves and as a member of the Bean Family (Fabaceae) it produces long seed pods with large seeds.

Honey Locust seed pod and leaves

The Honey Locust developed its impressive thorns to deter herbivores from browsing its leaves and branches.  This seems like a sensible approach, many other species have developed similar defenses (roses, raspberries, prickly ash, etc.).  Let's take a closer look at those thorns to see if they would be a good defense.

Honey Locust branch with leaves removed to show thorns

The thorns are certainly impressive and would seem to be enough to deter the average herbivore, but lets add a ruler for scale.

Honey Locust branch with 12-inch rule for scale

Those thorns seem to rather far apart to deter an herbivore like a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  The thorns spiral around the branch and are all at least three inches apart.  The distance between any two thorns on the same side of branch may be greater than eight inches.  It would not be too difficult  for a deer to avoid.  Also the length of the thorns seems a little more than is needed to deter a deer.  Many of the thorns are over 4 inches long! 

This Honey Locust thorn measures more than four inches long!

Just for fun here is picture of one of the thorns with my hand for scale.  I have repeatedly stepped on fallen limbs in my yard and stuck those small thorns in the soles of my shoes.  I definitely do not want to close my hand around them.

A Honey Locust thorn in hand

So these thorns are a little big to be defense against herbivores like White-tailed Deer.  Just what is the Honey Locust trying to protect itself against?

The Honey Locust, like most plants, has a long memory.  A very long memory.  While each individual tree might only reach an age of 150 years, the memory of the species goes back much further.  When the tree species was developing those thorns there were much larger herbivores walking around North America.  

How much larger?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Geology Photographs - Great Lakes Dunes

One more post for the week focusing on geology.  Here are some photographs of Great Lakes dune habitats from around the state of Michigan.  The dunes are created by the actions of water and wind.  Waves and currents in the Great Lakes bring sand from the bottom of the lakes and deposit it on beaches.  Wind then blows the sand inland, depositing it in dunes. In Michigan, major dunes can be found along shore of Lake Michigan from the the Indian Border to the Straits of Mackinaw and along the south shore of the Upper Peninsula.  Lesser dune complexes can be found in areas along the Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair shorelines.

Sometimes dunes are created atop bluffs.  These dunes are known as perched dunes.  In the Great Lakes, perched dunes can be found along the south shore of Lake Superior near Grand Marais, MI and along the Lake Michigan shoreline on the northwest side of Michigan's Lower Peninsula

Tower Hill - Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer, MI

Grand Sable Dunes - these perched dunes are located on the shore of Lake Superior near Grand Marais, MI

Grand Sable Dunes - perched on the Grand Sable Banks near Grand Marais, MI

Grand Sable Dunes
From left to right: beach, foredune, interdunal swale, back dune - P.H. Hoeft State Park near Rogers City, MI
Vegetation stabilizes the backdune, interdunal swales, and foredune at P.H. Hoeft State Park

Forested backdune - P.H. Hoeft State Park

Perched dunes - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, MI

Perched dunes at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore - perched dunes on South Manitou Island are visible in the background

Bedding in the dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire, MI

Interdunal wetland and foredune on North Manitou Island with perched dunes on South Manitou Island in the background - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Leland, MI

Small foredune and perched backdune on North Manitou Island - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Somehow I completely forgot that last week was Earth Science Week.  Because of that, I think I am going to continue my geology theme with photos of a few of Michigan's waterfalls.

Michigan has nearly 200 named waterfalls, all but one of which are in the Upper Peninsula.  A good place to start looking for information on Michigan Waterfalls is the book A Guide to 199 Michigan Waterfalls by Bill J. Penrose and Laurie Penrose.  This book is available in most public libraries throughout the state of Michigan.  In Isabella County it is available at all branches of the Chippewa River District Library system.  In Gratiot County it is available as a reference book at the Alma Public Library.

I remember taking several camping trips to the Upper Peninsula when I was a kid.  One of the things my family always did on these trips was look at waterfalls.  I know that as a kid, I didn't always appreciate these trips, but after I moved back to Michigan as an adult I wanted to go visit some of those places again.  So in 2007 and 2008, Shara and I went on camping trips to the Upper Peninsula.  On both of those trips we spent a lot of time looking at waterfalls.

Here are a few of the photos from those trips.

Upper Tahquamenon Falls is probably the most famous waterfall in the Michigan.  It is one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.  It is 200 feet wide and drops 50 feet.  When we visited Tahquamenon, water levels were very low, but at peak levels over 50,000 gallons per minute have been recorded flowing over the falls.

Upper Tahquamenon Falls - near Paradise, MI

Some of my favorite waterfalls in the UP are very small ones.  Scott Falls is a small 10 foot waterfall along the roadside just west of Munising.

Scott Falls - near Munising, MI

While the eastern UP has the most famous set of falls (Tahquamenon), the western half of the Upper Peninsula has many more falls.  One of the most spectacular falls is Canyon Falls.  Located on the Sturgeon River near Alberta, MI, Canyon Fall drops about 15 feet into the mouth of the Sturgeon River Canyon.

Canyon Falls - near Alberta, MI

One of my most memorable waterfalls in the UP is actually a rapids.  Located on the Paint River near Crystal Falls, Horserace Rapids runs for nearly 100 yards along the base of an 80 foot tall bluff.  When we visited Horserace Rapids a pair of kayakers were preparing to make a run through the rapids.  Just then I completely filled the memory card for my camera and I didn't have an extra one with me! I very quickly looked through the memory card and erased several pictures.  I had just enough time to catch the kayakers as they came through the rapids.  This is still one of my favorite photos.

Kayakers running Horserace Rapids - on the Paint River near Crystal Falls, MI

There are a few falls that we visited on both trips (in 2007 and 2008).  One of those falls was Wagner Falls.  Located just south of Munising on Wagner Creek, Wagner Falls is maintained by the Michigan DNR as a "natural area".  Here are two pictured of Wagner Falls.  The first is from July of 2007.

Wagner Falls (2007) - near Munising, MI

The second photo is from June of 2008.  Water levels were slightly higher in 2008, but very little changed over the course of a year.

Wagner Falls (2008) - near Munising, MI

Finally I mentioned that all of the named waterfalls in the state are in the Upper Peninsula - except one.  Ocqueoc Falls is located in Presque Isle County in the northeast part of the Lower Peninsula between Onaway and Rogers City.  It is only 2 1/2 hours from Mid-Michigan and is a great summer roadtrip destination.