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Posts from the ‘community science’ Category


West Nile Virus Notes


2014 budget is $30,097,170 than last year.  Failing to solve the problem means more money and resources (personnel) involved the next time there’s a spike in temperatures and drop in precipitation.

Current drought map

Drought monitor archive

CDC West Nile Virus stats (2002-2012) PDF archives

Mother Jones (2012) interactive maps

The middle class suburban areas appeared to support the appropriate combination of vegetation, open space, and potential vector habitat favoring WNV transmission. Wealthier neighborhoods had more vegetation, more diverse land use, and less habitat fragmentation likely resulting in higher biological diversity potentially protective against the WNV human transmission, e.g. the avian host “dilution effect” [45].

CDC WNV stats 2002-2012 by state


 TIME 2/28/2014

The biggest indicator of whether West Nile virus will occur is the maximum temperature of the warmest month of the year, which is why the virus has caused the most damage in hot southern states like Texas.

The UCLA model indicates that higher temperatures and lower precipitation will generally lead to more cases of West Nile



2012 Scientific American

A nearly frost-free winter followed by the summer’s drought has worsened the epidemic


West Nile Virus outbreak map

west nile virus


Rubik’s cubes, Probabilities, and Patterns

One of the most interesting things to study is the question of “what are the chances of that happening?”  We hear about “an infinite number of monkeys could type up Shakespeare’s Hamlet, given enough time”… but teachers are unlikely to be able to buy up an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters (not to mention an infinite number of editors to look for the patterns of letters that are words in the play, “Hamlet”) on a teachers’ salary.

Understanding and using patterns is an important part of scientific inquiry and research.  The human brain tends to see patterns in all sorts of things (shapes in clouds, for instance, or star patterns) — some of which is just coincidence or culture and some of which is meaningful.   One of the most important activities in science is separating out patterns that are coincidence from patterns that are meaningful.  One of the simplest ways of teaching this is by using something that a teacher can easily purchase for a few dollars — a Rubik’s cube.

Show the cube to the kids and define the “solved” puzzle as the “scientific answer.”  Ask them what the odds are of having any one color (say, blue) land face up — and you can easily answer that it’s one chance in six.  Ask them to count the number of squares on each face (this will vary depending on what kind of cube you have.)

From this point you can:
* demonstrate percentage of color on surfaces and compare to the percentage of the “solved” cube
* have a number of students scramble cubes (have them all take the same number of “scrambling turns”) and graph the number of colors on each face and look for patterns
* talk about processes and patterns to solve cubes
* figure out how to make patterns (such as checkerboards or cube-within-cubes) on each face (this one takes a long time)

Some challenge patterns here:

An introductory video by Mr. Buffington (math teacher) on Rubik Cube probability is here:


Playing With Science — Surface Tension

Water impact (image courtesy Wikipedia commons)

In 1648, William Chillingworth wrote humorously about a religious dispute over “Whether a million of angels may not sit upon a needle’s point.” Although we can’t do experiments with angels or spirits, you can amuse yourself with informal investigations on surface tension and liquids using an eyedropper (or a something like a bottle for eye drops), a penny, and ordinary liquids, including water.

The volume of liquid that you can “pile up” in a single spot (like a penny) depends on the surface tension of the liquid — the way the liquid behaves when it comes into contact with the air (or another gas). The greater the surface tension, the more drops you can put on a penny before the liquid spills over the edge of the glass (or the surface of a penny.)


The Science Challenge:

Use a dropper to drop water onto the face of a penny, one drop at a time. How many drops will the penny hold before the water spills?  Run the test three times — what was the greatest number of drops of water you could put on the penny before surface tension broke and the water spilled?

Once you know that, it’s time to see how your water “shapes up” compared to other liquids (such as the bottled flavored teas I drink sometimes)

Bottled water vs tap water
Tap water of different cities
Water vs milk
Water vs olive oil (or any other oil — the results may surprise you)
Water vs salt water
Water vs tea with sugar
Water vs detergent
Water vs soda
Water vs beer or wine
Soda vs beer or wine
Soda vs diet soda
Disinfectants vs water
… let your imagination run wild! Any liquid in any form can be tested against another liquid or against water.

Water is one of the stickiest substances around. If you put anything in water, the water will cling to it — in other words, it becomes wet. But sometimes we don’t WANT the water sticking to an object (like windshields or dishes) and in that case we turn to chemistry to look for a process or chemical that makes water less “sticky.”

Cleaning products like soaps that reduce the surface tension are among our most useful chemical compounds. To be a good surfactant (an acronym for SURface ACTive AgeNT), the chemical compound must have two parts on the molecule that react with water — a “water loving” (polar or ionic) and a water hating (hydrocarbon or fluorocarbon) part in the same molecule. These chemicals don’t combine with water to form a new compound but instead float on top of the water with the “water loving” part touching the water and the “water hating” part touching the air. The hydrocarbon or fluorocarbon parts of the surfactant interfere with the bonds between the water molecules at the surface of the water.


Pigging out at TRAC

I’ve been volunteering at Trinity River Audubon Center since 2009; long enough to be allowed to do “special projects” for them; projects that will start with research and end with publications in magazines and (hopefully) journals or conference presentations.

TRAC is 200 acres of a “blackfield remediation” site — an illegal dump that had polluted the Trinity and the neighborhood for over 30 years which was reclaimed and turned into an Audubon center.  A recent decision by the City of Dallas to turn a part of the Trinity River corridor area next to the center into a golf course has chased the feral hogs from there onto our property, with the result that we’re seeing a lot of landscape damage from these animals.



This is a section of the trail near the building, where the hogs have been rooting all along the gravel walkways.  The damaged landscape left by their actions is vulnerable to erosion, and any native plants in this area that are destroyed are often replaced by invasives, which represents a step backwards in the effort to recreate a “pristine prairie environment” similar to what would have been here fifty or a hundred years ago.   The idea that you can take a damaged piece of land and magically return it to a pristine state is a bit of a pipe dream — we have been fighting a constant war with invasive species since the center’s opening.

So, this is my new research — find out about the hogs on THIS piece of property and see if we can manage them — because they are also destroying the juniper forest, as you can see in the two photos below.


IMG_20131220_142132I’m going to focus on “manage them to minimize damage” rather than “eliminate” since much of the research indicates that they’re difficult to eradicate and that habitats free of hogs are just an invitation for other hogs to move in.

Here’s what I know:

* There are two to four different herds.  I’ve set up a cheap game camera (and am hoping it works) to start to get pictures of the pigs so we can identify them.

* the pigs are mainly going for areas with Johnson grass and areas with junipers (cedars).  There’s minor damage in other areas, but the Johnson grass places and juniper forest are the places that are most heavily damaged.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

* that it might be possible to landscape the area (brush piles and so forth) to make it less convenient habitat for the pigs.

* that when they tear up the invasive Johnson grass, they’re doing us a favor.  We can plant over those areas with native grasses and the hogs have done a lot of the removal and soil tilling work for us.

* would a maintained and controlled herd keep other herds from entering the land?

* Are there certain types of landscapes that the pigs don’t like?  In other words, do they avoid walking over cobblestone-sized rocks or do they avoid brush piles — what do they avoid and what do they prefer?

My research assistant, John Snodgrass, is hunting up web pages for me to look at on wild hogs, but so far the information seems to come down to: they breed rapidly, they’re destructive, trapping and killing are the best ways to get rid of them, and Wild Hogs Are Tasty.

So — I’m also soliciting thoughts and observations here — if you have a thought or an observation or an idea about hogs (remembering that this will be done by One Small Woman… so don’t advocate putting up 30 miles of barbed wire fence, ’cause it just ain’t happening), let me know and I’ll add it to my list.

Alternatively, if you have a game camera to loan me or want to help me come map the trails on the property with a GPS or help map the damage), let me know and you can be part of the team.



Walking with Light

My new ebook, “Walking With Light” is available for download.  The revised version will be up in September.

It can be read online here:

PDF download for reading is here:




Exploring Mongolia by Satellite — for Science!

This is a “crowd sourced” project, where you look at high resolution satellite photos and mark things you think are weird or interesting. The researchers study the identification tags created as people look at the maps and use that to decide if there are unusual or interesting features worth examining.

Here’s a section of map showing the response I got after I tagged a photo.  As you can see, after 30 or more people have worked on these photos, some features are fairly obvious (roads, rivers.)  Although this feedback seems relatively unhelpful, I have noticed that after doing this for an hour, I am better able to notice subtle features on the satellite images. And faint roads.

Finds like this structure are always exciting.  There is a problem of scale — it’s hard to say just how big things are in these photos.   The river in the image below suggests that the spiral is pretty big, but without knowing anything about scale it’s hard to tell.

As you tag, the scenes become more fascinating.  Although the positions aren’t given, you can clearly identify some geological structures like these volcanic necks.  At this resolution, you can even see waterfalls!

So if you have a little time on your hands, come explore Mongolia as a Citizen Scientist!  You don’t even have to apply for passports!



Why We Need Insects–Even "Pesky" Ones

Press Release 12-189
Why We Need Insects–Even “Pesky” Ones

Hard evidence of evolution: a five-year study shows that plants may quickly lose important traits through evolution soon after insects are removed from the environment

Photo of yellow flowers of evening primrose in Ithaca, New York.

A large natural population of evening primrose (yellow flowers) in Ithaca, New York.
Credit and Larger Version

October 4, 2012

View a video interview with Anurag Agrawal of Cornell University.

At first blush, many people would probably love to get rid of insects, such as pesky mosquitoes, ants and roaches. But a new study indicates that getting rid of insects could trigger some unwelcome ecological consequences, such as the rapid loss of desired traits in plants, including their good taste and high yields.

Specifically, the study–described in the Oct. 5, 2012 issue of Science and funded by the National Science Foundation showed that evening primroses grown in insecticide-treated plots quickly lost, through evolution, defensive traits that helped protect them from plant-eating moths. The protective traits lost included the production of insect-deterring chemicals and later blooms that gave evening primroses temporal distance from plant-eating larvae that peak early in the growing season.

These results indicate that once the plants no longer needed their anti-insect defenses, they lost those defenses. What’s more, they did so quickly–in only three or four generations.

Anurag Agrawal, the leader of the study and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, explains, “We demonstrated that when you take moths out of the environment, certain varieties of evening primrose were particularly successful. These successful varieties have genes that produce less defenses against moths.”

In the absence of insects, the evening primroses apparently stopped investing energy in their anti-insect defenses, and so these defenses disappeared through natural selection. Agrawal says that he was “very surprised” by how quickly this process occurred, and that such surprises, “tell us something about the potential speed and complexities of evolution. In addition, experiments like ours that follow evolutionary change in real-time provide definitive evidence of evolution.”

Agrawal believes that his team’s study results are applicable to many other insect-plant interactions beyond evening primroses and moths.  Here’s why: The ubiquitous consumption of plants by insects represents one of the dominant species interactions on Earth. With insect-plant relationships so important, it is widely believed that many plant traits originally evolved solely as defenses against insects. Some of these anti-insect plant defenses, such as the bitter taste of some fruits, are desirable.

“This experimental demonstration of how rapid evolution can shape ecological interactions supports the idea that we need to understand feedbacks between evolutionary and ecological processes in order to be able to predict how communities and ecosystems will respond to change,” said Alan Tessier, a program director in NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

“One of the things farmers are trying to do is breed agricultural crops to be more resistant to pests,” said Agrawal. “Our study indicates that various genetic tradeoffs may make it difficult or impossible to maintain certain desired traits in plants that are bred for pest resistance.”

In addition, oils produced by evening primroses have been used medicinally for hundreds of years and are beginning to be used as herbal remedies. Agrawal’s insights about pests that attack these plants and about chemical compounds produced by these plants may ultimately be useful to the herbal and pharmaceutical industries.

Agrawal says that most previous real-time experiments on evolution have been conducted with bacteria in test tubes in laboratories. “One of things we were excited about is that we were able to repeat that kind of experiment in nature. You can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing in future. We will keep our experiment running as a long-term living laboratory. ”

More information about this study is available from a Cornell University press release.


Media Contacts

John Carberry, Cornell University (607) 255-5353

Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation (703) 292-8310

Program Contacts

Alan Tessier, National Science Foundation (703) 292-7198

Principal Investigators

Anurag Agrawal, Cornell University (607) 254-4255

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, its budget is $7.0 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards nearly $420 million in professional and service contracts yearly.


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Current Community Science Projects


The Arlington Archosaur site is closing for the remainder of the summer (as is usual) — in August it’s just Too Darned Hot to dig.  They will return later in the year.

Trinity River Audubon Center’s Third Thursday will have Frogwatch, Amphibian Watch, and National Phenological Database expedition as well as a Chimney Swift watch and possibly an Owl Prowl (whew!)  This time we’ll also be doing a “transect survey” for dragonflies.

Botannical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) has an ongoing need for volunteers to help with their databases (indoor work!) and do some field research.  Contact them for details.


GENERAL EDUCATION, public welcome

Connemara Conservacy has an astronomy walk (August 18th) and an evening Open House (September 23.)  See website for details.

The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center has a First Saturday Walk & Talk Bird Tour.    9:00 – 11:00 am; $10 includes admission if you’re not a member; $5 for members.

Botannical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)’s Science Saturday – open plant ID, exhibits, demonstrations, tours, etc First Saturday of every month at  10:00 – 2:00.  This is a fun place to visit, even if you’re not really into plants.



The John Bunker Sands Wetland Center is planning to start some Citizen Science initiatives in the near future.  I will be in a planning meeting about this effort at the end of August.



This Thursday at Trinity River Audubon Center

Community Science Initiatives logo

This Thursday is the Third Thursday at Trinity River Audubon Center (which means “it’s free all day!  Come see us!” here in Dallas, and it’s time for Community Science (after my snake-handling, gecko-handling, and tarantula wrangling demonstrations.)  With the growing concern about the drought in the US, I want to re-document our ponds so that I can compare them to what happened during the drought last year.

In addition, I’m partnering with the National Phenology Network to start monitoring some key species of plants, animals, amphibians, and insects.  So I’ll be finding “target trees” to monitor and trying to collect our very first sample to enter into the database.

Sometime during the day I’ll be trying to catch and band our mourning doves for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dove Banding Project.  There should be a big crowd along for Frogwatch/Turtle watch as well.

Tentative schedule:

  • 3pm Dove banding (MAYBE), trek to farthest pond to photograph and document.  No equipment needed, but DO wear long pants and socks and hiking shoes and wear sunscreen.  Take water.
  • 4pm-5:30 pm (animal encounter, hike, whatever TRAC needs help with.  Also, noshing on some of the locavore food (yum!) from the vendors)
  • 6 pm — Stroll to identify (and GPS tag) monitoring areas for USANPN database.
  • 6:30 pm — Turtle Watch/Frog Watch — no special equipment needed.  I’m providing all the forms and collecting them.  Since we’ll have a big group, it’ll be divided so that we can monitor ALL the ponds at the same time.
  • 8:00 pm — Ben Jones will be leading the Owl Prowl.  We’ll have flashlights.

I’ll have forms/documents/guides/scavenger hunt games (a sneaky way of recording phenology.)  Turtle and Frog watch are suitable even for people with disabilities.  Mapping and other documentation projects require walking on our (level) paths in the afternoon/evening heat for about 30 minutes apiece.



Community Science Initiatives

Want to get your hands on science?  Here’s a list of sites and places around Dallas that have programs and volunteer opportunities — most are free, some aren’t.  But it’s a chance to get out and get down and dirty with science!

  • Trinity River Audubon Center
  • Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center
  • John Bunker Sands Wildlife Center
  • Dallas Paleontological Society
  • Herpetological Society
  • Native Plant Society
  • Botanical Research Institute of Texas
  • Master Naturalists Program
  • White Rock Lake Frogwatch
  • Arlington Archosaur Site
  • Heard Museum