Archive for the ‘Schoodic Education and Research Center’ Category

Branches snap. We push apart webs with the force of our faces, hands and shoulders; the spiders scramble. A few birds sing from the tops of red cedars and pines, as we crush fallen, dead trees with the weight of our shoes.

It’s a few hours into the afternoon and deep in the forest we cut our own paths through thicket, bog, and high grass. We listen for crunching–the promise of footsteps in a wilderness less frequented by humans. We pause at every rocky area or uprooted tree to search for dens; we scan the ground for scat; and look for bare patches on bark with rolled out sides…all signs of the creature we just can’t seem to find. The forest is so vast, our eyes get lost searching the canopy.

Porcupines are generally not elusive, but today they remain undercover.  Dr. Linda Ilse, a part time professor at the University of Maine in Orono, doesn’t seem discouraged; for more than twelve years she’s studied the North American Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, and is comfortable with the unpredictability of fieldwork. And anyway, variation holds its own significance. It helps Dr. Ilse answer her central question: what habitat do porcupines prefer? Since the 1930s and 1940s, the porcupine’s range has shifted. So far, data from recent studies shows that wet, marshy areas are uninhabited by porcupines. A number of reasons are possible–perhaps the creatures don’t like walking on the springy moss.

Dr. Ilse carries a GPS which she refers to as a virtual Hansel and Gretel bread crumb track. Every move we make is recorded and by the end of the day, she hopes to cover an area of ground graphically similar to a soft-cornered “M”. She’s already covered other land around Schoodic and marked points for return trips, when she’ll come back to gather more precise data (like tree measurements) on the areas with evidence of porcupine activity.

“It’s tough. It’s a thankless job–but somebody’s gotta do it,” she says, crawling under a fallen tree branch.

She pauses to analyze the pile of animal droppings on the ground–scat. But whose? Deer, rabbits, moose, bobcats, and porcupines coexist in these forests. Dr. Ilse informs us that porcupine scat is similar to deer’s, but slightly more curved on the end and lighter in color. Furthermore, porcupine scat is usually spread out over an area, instead of piled up. She picks a piece up, and crumbles it between her fingers–if it’s very fibrous, it could be porcupine.

Porcupines are strictly herbivores, and a large portion of their diet consists of tree bark. They may remain in one tree for a couple days at a time, stripping away the inner bark with their teeth. Where patches of bark have been stripped away, new growth curls inwards around the perimeter of the damaged spot.

We stand looking at some tree damage when we hear loud rustling behind us…could it be? Lauren looks in the distance and YES! Porcupine of the day spotted high in a tree. We walk over and Dr. Isle marks a point on the GPS. This is a place to return to.

Generally, porcupines do not kill trees, although bark stripping does weaken the trees vascular system (which is in charge of transporting nutrients and water from the roots to the leaves). Girdling–the process of completely removing a strip of bark around a tree’s circumference–can kill the tree, but porcupines often move up and down branches, not around them. In response to porcupine gnawing, a damaged tree will seep a protective layer of sap (sort of like the human bodies response to send blood platelets to plug a cut in the skin), which remains on the tree for years and looks like as a frozen, translucent stream.

Under a damaged tree you’ll usually find a scattering of droppings, similar to the ground layer of a porcupine den. Porcupines don’t build their own dens, but seek out sheltered places like uprooted trees or rocky areas. A female porcupine remains pregnant for seven months until giving birth to a single baby, and outside of its den will often stash the baby under fallen trees or in thicket to protect it while she feeds. Although a baby’s quills are soft and wet at birth, they harden within only a couple hours!

After hours of walking through thick brush, my legs lose coordination. I begin making less precise movements, practically flailing my body in the forward direction. I try to save energy by using roots as steps and branches as hand holds. Porcupines also consider energy conservation when seeking out a tree to climb. No sense in trying to climb a tree without a built-in ladder… Many of the trees in the forest begin their leafy layers way at the top, but they at least have branch stubs that wind around the lower trunk like a spiral staircase. Porcupines prefer to scale these than trees with bare trunks.

After seven hours, we break through the boundary leading to the road. We smell of dirt and cedar. Dr. Ilse checks the GPS and tells us we walked only under 3 miles….We all agree to tell the other stat: we covered an area of 77 acres.

I think back to something Dr. Ilse said earlier when I asked her why she got involved in studying porcupines. Out in the field doing other research, she said she felt some sort of presence, that there was something in the forest watching her, and she wanted to study whatever it was. The forest does have eyes–hundreds of thousands of them; total, we only had eight. As we squinted and scanned, searching for the brown, needled bodies, perhaps the porcupines were there, looking down on us…sitting quietly, munching on tree bark, watching the evening sun illuminate the forest floor.


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Porcupine at the Schoodic Education and Research Center

A porcupine relaxes in an evergreen at the Schoodic Education and Research Center. Many North American porcupines live on the Schoodic Peninsula, where they are often seen grazing on grass and lazing on low-limbed trees (P.Morgan).

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I ate the last bite of my undercooked Mexican bean pizza and rushed upstairs to brush my teeth and gather my things. Somehow Saturday had passed me by, and in fifteen minutes we had a lecture to attend.

Every second Saturday the Schoodic Education and Resource Center hosts a researcher to talk on scientific subjects of possible interest to the surrounding communities. Arguably, Saturday’s topic was of concern not only to Gouldsboro townees but also to anyone (tourist, economist,  business owner, lobstah lovah) across the state, states, and world.

Global warming remains a controversial topic among many audiences, but it has attracted the special attention of researchers, city planners, and residents in coastal areas, like Downeast Maine, as a valid and persistent issue. Indeed, it’s driving the black-capped chickadees out of York County, sending the ocean’s water levels further onto the mainland, and limiting the successful reproduction of one of Maine’s economic engines–lobsters.

Malcom Burson, climate adaptation program manager, addressed the evening’s audience with a disclaimer: as a public policy person, not a scientist, he was simply there to present facts and map out trends and predictions of what global warming could do to the state of Maine.

Climate change may be less agitative a word than “global warming”, but they are undeniably related. The bottom line is that as greenhouse gases trap the sun’s radiation and warm the globe, the climate is changing across the world. The argument that global warming is unreal because of ice storms or record snowfall is undermined by the increasing amount of data that shows an accelerated rate of sea level and global mean temperature rise.

Phenology is used to describe plant and animal life cycles dependent upon seasonal changes that are directly impacted by climate change. Monitoring blooming dates and the start of the growing season are two simple ways to track the effects of climate change. The easiest way to understand the significance of climate change, Burson emphasized, is to use our senses to observe changes in our immediate environment and everyday lives.

Take breakfast for example. More specifically: pancakes. No, the syrup on pancakes. Mmm. It turns out, climate change is affecting the maple tap-dates in Maine. According to Burson, Maine is tapping for maple syrup one month earlier than it was in 1896. Maine Sugarworks, a family-owned syrup company in western Maine, says that their tapping season has become progressively shorter as the maple belt moves northward towards colder climates.

Maine has three distinct climate zones: the north, the southern interior, and the coast. Burson notes that most of the climate change occurring in Maine is in the northern part–not the coast. Maine’s coastal temperatures have always been a bit different, due to the fluctuations of the currents in the Gulf of Maine. Regardless, if global emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are not lowered, Burson says that Maine’s mean temperature will be closer to that of Maryland by the end of the century.

Sea level rise and water temperature increase are two impacts of climate change native Mainers are likely to feel or notice. Of concern to naturalists is the likely loss of habitat for the sharp-tailed sparrow, a secretive bird who nests within a meter of the high water mark. Here in Maine, the sparrows are known to breed on the causeway connecting Mount Desert Island (the hub of Acadia National Park) to the mainland of Maine. Needless to say, flooding may also threaten some coastal communities.

Driving along the coast is a cultural experience in itself; lobster buoys hang off the porches of peoples’ homes and stacked lobster cages comprise a reasonable portion of their front yards. Every restaurant has a lobster emblem and its boats can be seen floating out in the harbor collecting a day’s catch. Yes, lobsters are as popular here as guitars are in Nashville. At least before our recent May flood, guitars were never considered an “at risk” commodity, our tourism sector hardly in jeopardy. But if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, Maine’s single most important fishery could be in danger.  CO2 contributes to acidification of waters, which disrupts lobster larvae’s ability to form shells.

Here in Maine, the transportation sector is mostly responsible for production of greenhouse gases. In return, public infrastructure can be worn away through the increased rainfall received as a result of climate change. Nor’easters, storms that typically occur in winter and drop large amounts of snow on coastal Maine, are becoming more common in spring and rain down in liquid form–weakening the structure and stability of bridges, roads, and culverts.

Climate change, according to widespread global research, is real; what’s debatable to many is what we should do about it. At least for now, ongoing monitoring of the emissions is essential to forming effective solutions and climate action plans that will help preserve Maine’s natural areas and its economy. Proactivity, including developing infrastructure such as sewer systems that hold up to harsher weather, is a way to deal with the changes we are currently experiencing and may continue to experience. No, we don’t know what will happen in 100 years, just like we don’t really know whether tomorrow’s 40% chance of rain will manifest itself. But we have models to aid in predictions, and come tomorrow, wearing a rain jacket is probably smarter than wearing a thin white cotton shirt.

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Little Moose Islant

With a rocky beach on either side, a spine of vegetation runs down the center of Little Moose Island (P.Morgan).

Often a forgotten section of Acadia National Park, Little Moose Island provides visitors an opportunity to explore one of Maine’s undeveloped natural resources.  That is, if you check the tide charts beforehand.  The island is only accessible by foot at low tide from the Schoodic Peninsula.

Walking from the mainland to Little Moose Island makes you feel like bananas are strapped to the undersides of your sneakers.  The dense bundles of rockweed and Irish moss draping the rocks may be slippery, but soon after you set foot on the dry, weather-battered basalt and granite, you realize that this slick journey was worth it.  Alongside the sound of wind weaving through evergreens, the smell of ocean salt declines as the smell of pitch pines and spruces picks up with each step onto the island.  Sun-bleached seashells lie in granite depressions and the foamy suds of the spittlebug dot wild herbs.  Narrow, Robert-Frostian footpaths form a Celtic weave on the island’s vegetated spine, reminding visitors of the shrub-mazes popular in today’s yoga and Zen centers.  It is the rocks and wildflowers, though, that really catch your eye:

Striated granite rocks

Many of the granite rocks on the island are rounded and striated (P.Morgan)

At first sight, the rocks on Little Moose Island appear to be the same as on the mainland: there are dark basalt dikes intruding granite.  The crevice patterns in the intermingling rocks on the island’s coast are more apparent than on the mainland.  As you walk to the unprotected, ocean-side of the island, away from the mainland-side, the crevices are noticeably larger and the number of detached rock slabs increases because the weather is much harsher on the ocean-side of the island.  The other major observations are the striations on the granite: tiny grooves mark many of the granite rocks.  Are these striations the result of glacier-action over 10,000 years ago?  Or did they form as blocks of granite weathered and slid off the island’s coast?  Although it would take more than an afternoon walk to determine the answer, the occurrence of both striations and rounded granite faces suggests that glaciers created the scratch patterns, not too unlike the formation of rounded glacial erratics or whalebacks.

Little Moose Island’s wildflowers grant visitors a glimpse of the Northeast’s coastal vegetation.  There are numerous types of white flowers on the island, from the small petals of yarrow and cow parsnip to the relatively large petals of the bunchberry flower.  The vibrant blues, purples, and pinks are what I was interested in:

Shrub Rose

The island's shrub rose is in full bloom in June (P.Morgan).

The largest and most profuse flower on Little Moose Island is the shrub rose, which dominates the mainland-side of the island and is eventually overridden by taller evergreens.  This flower comes in pink, purple, and white varieties, and gives Little Moose Island the look of an English garden.  Combining bush and species roses, shrub roses are a motley group of floral leftovers – the term “shrub rose” gives confidence to virgins of flower identification because it can be used on most rose-like flowers without going wrong.  Parts of the shrub rose are rich in vitamin C and are used in cooking and certain medications.

Blue flag

Blue flag flowers are the island's most vibrant flora (P.Morgan).

Although shrub roses may be the most common June flower on Little Moose Island, the blue flag flower may just be the most beautiful.  The blue flag, a type of Iris, is bright blue and can be seen sprouting out of granite crevices, as well as other areas.  These vibrant flowers can be dark blue one day, and then sun-bleached blue the next day.  The provincial flower of Quebec, this perennial herb has long been used in herbal medicines to treat syphilis, scrofula, and skin afflictions, such as burns or sores.


Harebells are difficult, but rewarding, to find on Little Moose Island (P.Morgan).

Though hard to find, harebell can be found on Little Moose Island.  This blue or violet flower can be seen swaying in the wind towards the far end of the island.  Common in Ireland, the name “harebell” comes from the traditional belief that witches use the flower’s juices to turn into hares.  It has also been called goblin’s, witch’s, or Puck’s thimble.  Harebell leaves are sometimes used in salads, and its root is thought to be a cure for earaches.  Harebells have traditionally been used to cure depression and treat sore eyes.

Regardless of whether you’re a rock or flower person, timing the tides right in order to walk over to Little Moose Island is an adventure in itself.   In addition to wildflowers, this island is the home of at least one porcupine, a variety of birds, and numerous barnacles and bivalves.  The trip is well worth the slippery crossing over the intertidal zone.

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News from Acadia Partners.

Malcolm C. Burson, Associate Director of Policy Services in the Commissioner’s Office at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, will present the next lecture in the Second Saturday Lecture series on June 12. The lecture begins at 7 pm in the Moore Auditorium on the campus of Schoodic Education and Research Center and is free to the public.

Dr. Burson will highlight the findings and recommendations of a recent report to the Maine Legislature. The report outlines the actions Maine people, communities, businesses, and others should undertake in response to changes in our climate that are already occurring, and that are expected in the future.

The presentation will focus on likely climate change impacts and potential responses, specific to the Acadia region such as sea levels in the Gulf of Maine, coastal storms, impacts to wildlife and habitat, and what local communities can do.

The Second Saturday Lectures are open to the public free of charge and are sponsored by the Schoodic Committee of Friends of Acadia, Acadia National Park, and Acadia Partners for Science and Learning. For more information, please call 288-1339.

For driving directions to SERC and to the Moore Auditorium, see the maps on the “Driving Directions” page on the Acadia Partners website.

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Sunset at Schoodic Point


Aside from being my first Friday at the Schoodic Education and Research Center, June 4th was also the end of a productive week of science writing.  I celebrated a successful week by exploring the gem of the Schoodic Peninsula: Schoodic Point.

At the southern nose of the Schoodic Peninsula, the only mainland section of Acadia National Park, lies Schoodic Point.  Full of frenzied flocks of herring gulls, black guillemots, and great black-backed gulls during the day, as night approaches, the oscillating sound of ocean waves and the never-changing smell of sea breeze conspire with the sunset to create a scene for which the word “beautiful” is an understatement.  This is Schoodic Point, with its resounding chorus of spring peepers, or tiny tree frogs, its silhouetted evergreens, and its tufts of blue-hued, slumbering-porcupine-like grass growing out of granite crevasses.  As the sun finishes unzipping the sky, distant lighthouses begin blinking their eyes, while at the same time white lobster buoys gently bob along the shoreline.  With the appearance of Venus in the western sky, offset by the watercolors of a scenic sunset, the sight is nearly overwhelming.  And so, like any self-respecting geologist, I began observing what lied under my feet.

The most obvious feature of Schoodic Point is also its most stunning feature: the massive basalt dikes crosscutting the light-colored granite.  On closer inspection, though, one sees that not only does the basalt form veins in the granite, but veins also dissect the basalt.

Vein Intruding into Basalt

Basalt, the darker rock on the left, not only intrudes the lighter-colored granite, but is also riddled by veins (P.Morgan)

This vein-in-a-vein scenario is a wonderful example of what geologists call Pumpelly’s Rule.  A handy conceptual tool used by geologists, Pumpelly’s Rule states that small geologic structures tend to mirror the orientations and styles of larger structures.  Although the rule is more accurately used to describe folds in metamorphic rocks, given that the term originated with Raphael Pumpelly’s 1894 mapping of the metamorphic rocks of the Green Mountains, in western Massachusetts, it is sometimes useful to extend its original meaning to other structures.  For Schoodic Point, Pumpelly’s Rule is seen in how the intrusive basalt dikes are themselves intruded – in how the straight, angular veins in the basalt mimic the straight, angular basalt veins in the granite.

Whether it’s the graceful illustration of Pumpelly’s Rule, or the mixture of sunset and ocean spray, Schoodic Point is a place worth visiting.  As for me, sitting back and watching the sun tuck under the horizon, it struck me how even the dark clouds streaking the light-blue sky resembled the dark basalt streaking the light-colored granite.  But that might be taking Pumpelly a bit too far.

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Once again I have left behind the hazy humidity and slow drawl of the South to spend the summer in Maine. Again, I am working with Acadia Partners for Science and Learning as a Science Communication Intern. This means I work with the National Park Service at Acadia National Park (and occasionally with other parks in the Northeast Temperate Network, or NETN) to write and design communication products (mainly two-page resource and program briefs) about park science, nature, and past and ongoing research. The end goal is to promote science literacy and environmental awareness among diverse audiences. A more myopic goal is to simply “communicate” what’s going on in the park, to document the work that goes on, the researchers that come in, the results that come out. To report resource conditions. To trim 150 page technical reports down to two pages of clear, categorized information and pretty pictures. Despite being a sort of pilot season, complete with gophers (me and Hannah), flukes, and wrong turns, last summer’s science communication internship was deemed successful and inspired Acadia Partners to continue the program, slightly revamped. So this time around I am returning as “team leader,” sharing my brief and blog know-how with three other aspiring science writers. I’ll not only be producing this summer, but training, teaching, guiding. I’ll coordinate logistics, share links and resources, edit, and smooth out kinks. I’ve never done any of that before, professionally at least. But if last summer is an indicator of anything, it should demonstrate that challenging work is the best kind of work, new experiences are the best kinds of experiences. My first summer in the Downeast region was a magnificent adventure full of inspiring work, amazing opportunities, irreplaceable friendships, non-stop fun, and unsurpassed health, beauty, and peace of mind.

And this summer I get to share the experience (and the workload!) with three other science communication interns.

Please welcome Michelle La Vone, Patrick Morgan, and Lauren Weisenfluh—all undergraduate students with strong writing skills and science backgrounds. Each will spend 10 weeks with Acadia Partners covering a variety of natural, cultural, and social science programs and research projects.

Sara Delheimer, an Environmental Sociology senior at the University of Tennessee, is excited to explore different media for communicating science while learning about Downeast Maine’s natural and cultural splendor firsthand. She is particularly interested in topics like climate change and visitor impacts that explore the intersection of social and natural systems.

Missy La Vone, a native of Nashville and student in the University of Tennessee Journalism Department’s Science Communication program, loves nature and writing. During her 10-week stay at Acadia National Park she hopes to gain a better understanding of the importance of the park resources and programs and learn to be an effective science communicator.

Lauren Weisenfluh is a University of California, Davis, senior studying Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity. A native Californian and self-proclaimed scientist, she fell in love with science communication for its ability to give science an exciting and applicable context. This summer, Lauren hopes to pull her readers out of their chairs and into the field by conveying the wonder that comes with exploring the world through a scientific lens.

Patrick Morgan just finished his senior year at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he majored in both English literature and geological sciences, and minored in the honors program. He has published journal articles about the writings of Henry David Thoreau and has conducted paleontology research on the Marcellus Shale, a Middle Devonian formation in New York. SUNY Geneseo recently awarded him the Richard Roark Award, which is granted to the top student of a graduating class who excels in scholarship and community service. As the Editor-in-Chief of MiNT Magazine, Geneseo’s student-run publication, he became interested in journalism and recently wrote a featured article for the online version of EARTH Magazine. Pat enjoys science writing because it allows him to combine his two majors, and this summer, he hopes to learn more about web-based journalism, as well as to explore Maine’s many hiking trails.

The interns’ primary focus is on creating “briefs”—two page summaries that highlight the status and importance of park resources, as well as the programs and people involved with the study, monitoring, and management of these resources. Similarly, the interns will be creating and compiling summaries of the past five years of L.L. Bean and Schoodic Fellowship research. Both projects involve reading and summarizing scientific reports, working with researchers and park staff to clarify details, and designing layouts for publication. Examples of the interns’ work can be found, along with other materials, on the NETN site. In addition, the media the interns create will be used to begin to fill gaps on the Northeast Park Science Web Gateway.

And, you will soon notice that as they research, explore, and write, the interns will be helping out with this blog. This summer the blog will be a great way to get a unique, insider’s look at the ways the park keeps track of the health of natural and cultural resources, what kinds of research has been sponsored, and more.

The interns’ tasks are coordinated by Acadia Partners, the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC), and the NETN park team. In addition to providing the financial support, Acadia Partners is working with David Manski, Acadia’s Resource Management Chief, and his team to develop a list of projects and topics. This collaborative effort between the team at SERC and other NPS scientists, educators, and specialists across the park network is just the kind of thing research learning centers like the SERC were established to do.

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