Posted by: Nick Voss | September 11, 2013

“Squirrelling Away” in AP Environmental Science

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Last Friday the AP Environmental Science class took a lesson on natural selection to a higher level.  To learn this scientific theory up close and in person, each student was assigned the role of a squirrel. Each squirrel, had a specific method of gathering acorns (represented with beans). Each acorn had different ecological niches that the squirrels would have to work around.

Lowenwod “Squirrels”:                                                             Lowenwood “Acorns”

Spoon-snouted Squirrel (could only forage with a spoon)              Split-pea Acorn

Tweezer-tipped Squirrel (could only forage with a tweezers)     Kidney-bean Acorn

Five-fingered Squirrel (could forage with all five fingers)             White-bean Acorn

White-acorn-eatin-tweezer-tipped Squirrel (specific niche)          Lentil-bean Acorn

As you can see, some squirrels have gathering methods that would be more favorable, while others (like the Tweezer-tipped Squirrel) seem a bit more difficult. Nonetheless, with the proper ecological conditions that the squirrels have evolved into, all squirrels should have enough to prosper for the winter. However… it was a tough growing season. The Lentil-bean oak tends to out-compete the other oaks by producing more acorns each year, while the White-acorn-eatin-tweezer-tipped Squirrel can only eat the White-bean acorns, and is therefore threatened. How would the squirrels cope?

Instructor Andy Milbauer tossed the “acorns” into the designated forest plot, and the squirrels did all they could to forage to their best ability. Once found amongst the forest leaf litter, the acorns were kept in the squirrel’s gut (a plastic bag). When finished with the forage and back in the lab, the class did a gut analysis of what the squirrels consumed. They were able to pinpoint how many acorns, and of what variety, each squirrel consumed. At that point, they were able to answer key questions like true ecologists. Which trees are most likely to reproduce, and why? Which tree is least likely to reproduce, and why? Which squirrel is most likely to survive the winter? Which squirrel is least likely to survive the winter? How might these dynamics alter the composition of Lowenwood over time?

When the class morphed back into human students, we all realized that science, indeed, is fun!

-Nick, Academic Grad Fellow

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