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Friday, October 14, 2011

Biodiversity Scavenger Hunt

If you're in Laramie and are looking for a fun, family activity today and this weekend, check out the Berry Center's UW Biodiversity Scavenger Hunt!  There are nine questions and clues that will lead you all over the main part of campus where you'll discover some surprising and fascinating biodiversity tidbits.  

How to Scavenge: 

Wander around campus today (you need to visit some of the locales during business hours today - see the clue sheet for more information) and tomorrow to find the answers.

Once you've completed as many questions as you can, submit your answers online.

The Prizes:
The three individuals or groups (you can work in groups of no more than three people) with the most correct answers will win a ticket per person to one of the following locations (winner chooses):
  1. Denver Zoo (rawr!)
  2. Denver Museum of Nature and Science (best museum ever!)
  3. Denver Botanic Gardens (purdy!)

Email or call 307-766-6240 or stop in Berry Center 231 with any questions.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Snow Falling on Sedums

October 7 marked Laramie's first day of winter.  Not according to the calendar of course, but according to the weather.  And while it was a surprise to wake up on Saturday morning to three inches of snow, I'm sure the plants in the Berry Prairie were even more confused.  (Or maybe not... do they know more than we do?  Could they sense the snow?  Watch the next episode of the Twilight Zone to find out...)

The Berry Prairie was covered with snow on Monday morning.

But in any case, the snow on the Berry Prairie exemplifies one of the questions we have about how this green roof will over winter.  See the photograph above.  There is at least an inch of snow covering those plants, which is 1) maybe good for the plants (insulation for the winter, water supply, erosion protection, etc.), and 2) strange, considering most of the snow elsewhere had melted by Monday morning.

The roof over the Vertebrate Collection extends precisely to that line of snow-no snow boundary.
Monday, October 10

As you see in the photo above, the snow that is above the Vertebrate Collection, including the Berry Prairie and the patio directly south of it, hadn't melted even though snow on the rest of the true ground had. 

Is that a good or bad thing?  How will it influence plant survival over the winter?  Will there be other effects from the roof, light heating from below that causes the plants to not freeze over the winter?

What are your guesses?  Any thoughts on how snow piling and this roof-top environment will fare?

By now, much of the snow is turned to usable precipitation for the plants.  But that was just the first of many snowfalls this winter.  Stay tuned!

Most of the snow has melted by Tuesday morning.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nomenclatural Frustration

Agropyron molle, Agropyron smithii, Agropyron smithii var. molle, Agropyron smithii var. palmeri, Elymus smithii, Elytrigia smithii, Elytrigia smithii var. mollis and Pascopyrum smithii are all names for western wheatgrass. Is this a mess, or what? We’ve all heard the argument that scientific names are preferable to common names because they are unambiguous and understood all around the world, but clearly this is not always true.

Of course, I’ve deliberately chosen an exceptionally messy example, but gardeners and botanists have all experience an inconvenient name change in a favorite plant. (Should pasque flower be Anemone or Pulsatilla? Is pincushion cactus Coryphantha or Escobaria?) Why can’t scientists make up their minds and settle on a single name? The answer: that is not the nature of science.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of
scientific nomenclature
Taxonomists, like all good scientists, adjust their hypotheses and conclusions when new evidence becomes available, and in the last decades a wealth of new evidence has become available. Since the time of Linnaeus (1707-1778), characteristics of the sex organs of flowers have been the most important features used in taxonomy, so that plants with similar flowers were placed into the same group. Linnaeus’s goal of organization, however, is not the goal of contemporary taxonomists. Now, we strive to organize plants into “natural groups,” groups that reflect common ancestry, not morphological similarity (though that can be a valuable clue).

In the last 30 years, many mysteries of molecular evolution have been at least partially resolved. Complex algorithms and DNA sequencing have made it possible to propose new taxonomic categories that more closely reflect our understanding of evolutionary patterns of both genotypes and phenotypes, and this has led to the rearrangement of groups and consequent necessary name changes. These changes have occurred at all taxonomic levels, from phylum down to subspecies, but are most noticeable when genus or species names are changed. Don’t be annoyed—think of it as progress and be glad that some botanist likes your favorite plants enough to work on them. Besides, since taxonomists don’t all agree on which algorithm is best, or on which DNA sequence most reliably represents evolution of the group, and new algorithms and genes are proposed, we can expect the changes to keep on happening.

Western wheatgrass

So, which name for western wheat grass is best? That depends on just which characteristic you think is most important in discriminating among species in the complex group that includes western wheat grass. In this case, the best name might just be the common one—we all agree on that one.

Written by Dorothy Tuthill—who used to be known by a different name

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cities as Bee Meccas

The BBC published an article in early August with an intriguing spin on pollinator conservation: bring them into the cities!  The UK-based research/survey project is trying to determine how many and what kinds of pollinators use urban gardens as their food and shelter oasis.  What do you think - a reasonable idea?

Click here to read the article.

Byson, a student who visited the Berry Center this summer with the Children's Discovery Center in Cheyenne, made friends with a bumblebee who landed on his finger.  Read about their visit here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sun-Diet for Plants?

Harebells were the first plant
to bloom this summer, and the last
plant to bloom this fall.
Plants are shutting down now, as we approach the end of the growing season.  Thanks to the uncharacteristically warm weather in Laramie the past couple of weeks, grasses are still holding their seeds and harebells, which are the most persistent and stubborn bloomers I've ever seen (I'm half-way convinced they'll still bloom in the dead of winter), are still pushing out new flowers.

Sun-Hungry Plants?
But here's a little food for thought, now that we've moved from the season of greens to the season of oranges and reds.  The Berry Prairie is sandwiched between the Geology building (to the east, or the left in the picture below) and the Berry Center to the west.  With our shorter days, enhanced by the shade from these buildings, the Berry Prairie receives full sunlight from approximately 11:00am to 3:30pm - and it'll be this way in the spring too.  In comparison, plants that are on the actual prairies outside of Laramie receive full sun from about 6:30am to 7:00pm this time of year.  Horticulturalists define "full sun" as 6 hours of direct sunlight, which the Berry Prairie currently doesn't receive.

At the end of June, the green roof was entirely sunny at 9:30am.
In the beginning of October, the green roof is entirely shaded at 9:30am.

So what will happen to the plants on the green roof, which have evolved to soak up twice the insolation they currently get?  It's like the plants are on a sun-diet, the vegetative version of Atkins.  Will they notice the reduction in this vital resource?  How could they not?  How will they react as a result?  

Any guesses?

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center