GCS Biodiversity

LCI is excited to be co-hosting the Grand Canyon Semester for Fall 2014 with NAU’s Honors Program and Grand Canyon National Park. The GCS students are kindly providing blog updates of their activities this fall so that we can live vicariously through their experiences– hooray!

Biodiversity (by Jayleen, René, and Maddie)

BeaverCreekThe past few modules have all had an underlying theme conveying the immense biodiversity on the Colorado Plateau.  The fact that it has life zones ranging from Lower Sonoran Desert to Alpine Tundra is an obvious example within itself, but this week we dug a little deeper.  We used our recent module of ‘Seeps and Springs’ and the upcoming “Land Management’ module, got wet and dirty, and played with some cows to experience this biodiversity firsthand.  Who knew that a pool and a ripple that are a distance of approximately five meters apart would have such a difference in species?  And who knew that the effect of grazing, if done right, can have a very positive effect on the land and the species that occupy it?

Biodiversity is a hard term to define or even to understand how it is important.  Generally, we think of having a variety of animal species. Not many think of needing a variety of moss species, or fungi species, or even the macroinvertebrates in a river. But as we dove deeper into these ecosystems, we began to realize that all of these species and the varieties they come in are all important. Having an assortment of species, even within the same family, is beneficial in the same way that insurance is beneficial to human society. If there is only one grass in a field, and a pathogen comes through it could wipe it all out causing chaos through the ecosystem. There is no other species that could take its place; there is no insurance for that ecosystem.  But if there are many grasses growing mutualistically and competing against each other, they increase their resilience and ability to survive in tough conditions.

FlyingMCattleExploring the vegetation on the land grazed by the Flying M Ranch cattle, we could see that the health and stability was dependent on the number of species that have been in the area. As environmentalists, we do not often hear about the benefits of grazing, but contrary to popular belief, there are benefits- moderate grazing can encourage a healthier field for both the plants and the animals that utilize the lands resources!  However, high-intensity grazing over long periods of time can kill the plants from the roots to the tips, exactly how most people envision.  We got to see what this research suggests by comparing two plots with different grazing regimes. As expected, the grazed field appeared much more robust….more diverse!

This week it became clear how the interconnected themes of Sacred Landscapes, Seeps and Springs, Biodiversity, and Land Management have both built on and enhanced each other. For example, in the first week, we learned about sacred landscapes, and how many sacred sites were often centered around various seeps or springs. In studying seeps and springs, we learned about the vast amount of biodiversity contained in these small riparian life zones. And this week, in wrapping up biodiversity, we learned about the importance of factoring in biodiversity in relation to land management. As these themes come to a close each week, they open the path to the upcoming week’s theme.

-Jayleen and René

Not many college students can say that they had an aquatic environmental science lab at Beaver Creek, or explored the land plots at Flying M Ranch to observe the effects of cattle grazing on grasslands. Not many students get the chance to hike into Grand Canyon for class credit, or visit cultural sites such as the Hopi reservation and Wupatki on a Thursday for an anthropology lecture. Our Thursday trip to Beaver Creek really seemed to resonate within the group, as we filled out graphs and categorized macroinvertebrates while standing knee-deep in the 73°F riffles of the creek.

insectFor me, it struck me when I fell in the creek. As I was bent over, kicking and picking up rocks from the muddy creek bottom, stirring up the resting macroinvertebrates so that they swam or flowed into the waiting jaws of the open nets my classmates were holding just downstream, I accidentally reached too far and slipped on the rocks slick with algae, soaking the left side of my body. As I lay across the rock I had been leaning on, laughing hysterically as I attempted to continue ushering the macroinvertebrates towards the nets, I realized how incredibly awesome this program is. There we were at Beaver Creek, literally up to our sleeves in science. We emerged from the creek that day, with the red dirt of Sedona staining any and all white articles of clothing, creek water dripping from our shorts and t-shirts.

After our day at Beaver Creek, we had the opportunity to cook dinner for the artists who are a part of the Fires of Change project in Flagstaff. Rather than just reading about the project online, we were able to sit down to dinner with the artists who are participating in the project, and ask them about their mediums and the messages they wish to convey about fire ecology in their artwork.

There is a vast difference between standing in the creek clutching a clipboard while your classmate holds a flask containing a Damselfly larvae, vs. opening a textbook to page 136 and reading about the different classifications of macroinvertebrates. We made our own makeshift graphs out of sticks and rocks to show the differences in the number of species and individuals found in both pools and riffles, comparing the two areas and the amount of life each supported. We had a discussion while still dripping wet from when everyone jumped in the creek after all of the data was gathered. And even though almost every student took advantage of the 45 minute van ride back to Flagstaff to catch up on sleep, there was no mistaking that not a single student wGCSscienceould have rather spent our aquatic biodiversity lab any other way.

Through this program I’ve gained an entirely new appreciation for experiential learning. Every day in the field we learn something beyond what is written in textbooks. We get to run our hands over the rocks that Ancestral Puebloans carved petroglyphs into, pick up the vials full of creek water and macroinvertebrates, and walk across the land plots where cattle have intensively grazed. We get to experience cultures, dirty our hands in the science, and have conversations with landowners, learning firsthand about the concepts being covered with each week.

-Maddie

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