Friday, January 9, 2015

Park Scientists

You know I am a huge fan of the Scientists in the Field series.  I write about them often, including my most recent post, here. One of the things I love most about this series is how accessible they make science for kids.  I believe that the word 'scientist' most often conjures up an image of a person in a white coat with goggles on, in a sterile lab, standing behind smoking test tubes.  But this series brings readers to interesting places, where research takes place out in the world.  Many of the places this research takes place are exotic - Australia, Africa and New Zealand.  Those are amazing places, and I am fascinated with  Park Scientists because it takes place here, "in America's own backyard."

First, Carson gives a little of the history of the National Parks and some of their locations.  In the United States, we tend to think of the national parks as fun places to visit on a trip, camp in, or explore.  But the author points out that scientists benefit the parks, and parks benefit the scientists.  One of the biggest benefits to doing research in a national park is that "Because national parks are protected places, researchers are able to do long-term studies of ecosystems, geysers, and climate.  Scientists can collect data for years or decades without worrying about a highway going in or a meadow being plowed under.  Parks are like natural laboratories." (p. 1)  I think that is an important idea for readers to grasp - that science is going on all around them.  And the idea of the national park being a stable environment makes so much sense - of course these are the places where external factors can be controlled  We all want our national parks to be preserved, and this is another reason to add to the list.

Carson takes in-depth looks at researchers in three national parks in very different climates and parts of the United States.  Of course, I was very excited to see that the first national park was my state's Yellowstone National Park.    Each national park's section begins with a page of facts about the park, including size, age, websites and reasons to go visit that park.  Did you know that Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the very first national park?  The reason Yellowstone was created was due to its geysers, which is the first item researchers are studying in this book.  Readers go out on the trail with two NPS geologists towards Norris Geyser Basin.  There have been reports of possible new hydrothermal activities there, and the geologists need to survey the site, to monitor what's happening.  They take temperatures and measurements before moving on to other activities.  Of course, when researching boiling hot geysers, the geologists have to wear special protective gear, including heat-resistant boots and wool socks.  Their scientific gear includes "temperature guns, an infrared camera, notebooks, regular cameras, temperature probes, a psychrometer, and gas detectors." (p. 9)  That's a lot of stuff!

At Yellowstone, geysers aren't the only thing being researched.  Another group being studied are the grizzly bears.  Wildlife scientists at Yellowstone research many factors in bear behavior, including hibernation and the way mother grizzlies give birth during the winter (stay tuned for another book review on grizzlies soon!).  There is an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team at Yellowstone that studies these bears.  They use many pieces of equipment to track bears throughout the 19,000 square miles around Yellowstone that is grizzly territory.  There are telemetry collars, that send signals to researchers of a bear's location.  There are also GPS collars, that collect data and store it.  When the electronic clock located within the collar signals that time is up, the collar unlocks and drops off.  Cool, huh?  Scientists then use telemetry to find the collar and download and analyze its data.  "Study Team scientists collect information on what bears eat, as well as bear signs - tracks and trails, scat and fur, claw and rubbing marks, and whatever else the bears leave behind." (p. 24)  For example, grizzlies eat the seeds of the whitebark pine prior to hibernation.  The seeds are oily and help grizzlies store calories for the winter.  But these trees are dying, so researchers must find other alternatives to introduce.

The next national park is Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona.  The first type of scientist featured who works in Saguaro National Park is a herpetologist.  You might think that the natural reptile being studied in a desert environment would be a rattlesnake, but you'd be wrong.  This herpetologist studies Gila monsters.  I'd lived in central Arizona for a few years, and this chapter taught me so much - I really knew nothing about Gila monsters.  I had no idea that Gila monsters have a venomous bite!  I guess it was lucky for me that I never saw one in the wild, then.  They are primarily nocturnal and live in underground burrows, so scientists track them using telemetry also.  Gila monsters haven't been studied much, so there is much to learn.  "Scientists  don't even know the time of year the lizards are born.  Gila monster moms lay eggs in underground burrows in the late summer, and baby Gila hatchlings leave burrows the following spring.  When exactly they hatch during those eight to ten months is their well-kept secret." (p. 31-2)

One of the coolest things happening in Saguaro National Park during the time Carson documents is something called "citizen science".  This is focused around a program called BioBlitz, "a twenty-four hour scientific inventory of every species in Saguaro National Park" (p. 34).  The BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park took place in 2011, and included five thousand volunteers who counted "more than 1,200 kinds of plants, insects, animals and fungi." (p. 48).  What an awesome experience!  Carson tells readers that one BioBlitz a year is taking place until 2016 - if you are interested in learning more, you can go here. - this site has lots of resources to create your own BioBlitz, which I think is great!  But the 2015 BioBlitz is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park this May - sign me up!

So this section of the book takes place during the 2011 BioBlitz, and another thing I love is that teenagers get involved with surveying saguaro cactus (what else?).  The scientist who is helping them complete their survey thinks this is crucial: "Saguaro National Park's future depends on young people becoming real, true stewards of this park." (p. 48).  These teens are in Section 17 of the park, measuring saguaros, counting arms and nest holes, adding to a database that covers seventy years of cactus data.  Section 17 has been the site of an ongoing study since 1941, trying to find the cause of saguaro deaths.  The teens and the information they collect are part of an enormous longitudinal task.

Finally, there is a section about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches across Tennessee and North Carolina.  The first species being studied here exists nowhere else in the world except sections of the national park.  It is the red-cheeked salamander.  This salamander is unusual because it is terrestrial.  But these salamanders must live where there is high humidity and cool temperatures.  "The longer a salamander must be out looking for food in the open air, exposed to wind and warmth, the more water it loses." (p. 53).  There are very few places these salamanders can live successfully.  "Only 575 square miles of the park has a cool and humid enough climate at a high enough elevation - a suitable microclimate - for them" (p. 54).  One of the pieces of this chapter that will pique readers' interest is the background of the evolutionary ecologist.  She tells how her interest in animals got her started in her career, and how those qualities help her today.

The last section is about an expert on fireflies, and a phenomenon that also happens only in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Each summer, synchronous fireflies light up the sky around Elkmont, Tennessee.  Synchronous male fireflies blink in unison to attract females.  Even more amazing than the phenomenon is the fact that while Elkmont natives had known about these fireflies for generations, science believed that these fireflies did not exist until 1993.  Again, the habitat of the Great Smoky Mountains is a factor in the large number of fireflies within the park - there are lots of moist forest trees and leaves there.

This book obviously had lots of great information and facts that I had never known before.  Carson organizes most of this information in sidebars on each page, and this can include additional facts, maps, and statistics on the national parks.  There are also graphs and charts to assist readers.  This large amount of information within the text, though, means that there is less back matter.  There is a glossary, index, and lots of detailed source notes, alongside bibliographic citations.  One of the things Carson takes pains to point out is how much impact the researchers had on the book.  They all reviewed their own sections of the book.  I think this is important for young readers to understand - how important it is to get others' words right.

This book (and this whole series) are great additions to school libraries.  There is a large emphasis on science in our schools and as a career choice, particularly for girls.  This series can really bring that occupation to life.  And there is such diversity in this book from the topics studied to the people involved.  It was as fun to read as it was educational.

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard .  Mary Kay Carson; with photographs by Tom Uhlman.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library.

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