Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Passing It On

In Aquatic macroinvertebrates, Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring on April 2, 2013 at 2:34 pm

We had a good time last week.  Down in Ozark County, about an hour to the south, the Missouri Department of Conservation was hosting an “Ecology Day” at the Caney Mountain Conservation Area. 

MDC employees were to explain wildlife, caves, plant ecology and water ecology to eight groups of sixth grade students from area schools during the two-day event.  The “water ecology guy” had to back out for some reason, so the call went out for volunteers to take his place.

John and I, both members of the local Master Naturalist chapter, and both Missouri Volunteer Water Quality Monitors, decided to help out, so we met over beer at Rockbridge a week earlier to map out our program.  We were only allotted thirty minutes with each group, and the main challenge was to decide “what to leave in, what to leave out”.

John is one of the best water quality monitors in the state.  That fact, coupled with his Yale diploma, quickly led us to decide that HE would take charge of the lessons, while I sorta “ran and fetched” for him, and threw in a remark from time to time.

Sixth-grade kids are at a pretty good age for such events.  They are old enough to learn and grasp things, yet not so old that they are completely “too cool for school”.  We arrived early, with all our teaching stuff–watershed maps, pictures of adult and larval macroinvertebrates, vials of preserved bugs, and a carton of “giveaways”, courtesy of the Missouri Stream Team program.

John, as expected, did a masterful job, explaining how watersheds are defined, then moving on to a vivid description of how we can use the collection, identification, and classification of aquatic macroinvertebrates (bug larva) as indicators of stream health.

Dr. John provides a free Ivy League education to Ozark kids.

The kids, representing five rural and smalltown Ozark communities, were attentive, interested, and sharp, and had absolutely no trouble getting the material, and seemed to have a pretty good time.

Day Two dawned gray and rainy, but we headed back down for the second round.  When we got there, John announced, “I did the classes yesterday.  Now it’s YOUR turn.”

Organization and logical presentation and I are usually strangers, but John was adamant.  As the first group arrived, standing in front of our display table, I explained that John and I were “Master Naturalists”, and asked if anyone knew what a naturalist was.  Got some pretty good answers.  I went on to say that naturalists were sorta like scientists, but not necessarily with a lot of formal training, and didn’t get paid.  I then gave my definition of “naturalist”–“Science Nerd“, and said that ALL Science Nerds were never without a hand lens, upon which John and I dug into our pockets and displayed ours.  I mentioned that John and I were The Oldest Science Nerds in the Whole World, with over 125 years experience between us.

I tried to remember what John had emphasized the previous day, and managed to quickly race through the watershed portion, without referring to the watershed map, as the rain had started falling pretty regularly, and the map was getting sorta soggy.

I then moved on to the bug portion, and tried to remember the sort of things that my kids, at that age, had found interesting.  “Interesting”, to a sixth-grader, usually means “gross”, and “Gross” might as well be my middle name.

While explaining that insects often take on quite dissimilar forms as larva and adults, I showed a picture of an adult damselfly, alongside a shot of its nymph stage.  I pointed out the caudal appendages, which are actually gills which allow the immature bug to breathe.  I then passed around vials containing DRAGONFLY nymphs, which show no obvious gills

After explaining that the gills were internal, I asked how the bugs got the water to the gills, so that oxygen could be extracted.  “They swallow it??”  “They absorb it through their skin???”

“Nope.  THEY BREATHE THROUGH THEIR BUTTS!!!  They draw water in through their rectums, then expel it out the same way, sometimes with enough force to propel them quickly through the water.”  I suggested that each child practice this method of respiration when they returned home, and were sitting in the bathtub.  John looked a bit taken aback, but the kids seemed delighted, and appropriately grossed-out.

Following the presentation, I told them that each of them were well on their way to being naturalists, but that they lacked the one thing that all naturalists needed–hand lenses.  Thanks to the generosity of the Missouri Stream Team program, we then distributed hand lenses to each and all.

John and I had checked the adjacent Caney Creek earlier for signs of macroinvertebrates, but found slim pickings–only a large number of gilled snails.  Since the kids were already wet from standing around in the rain, we turned them loose to wade about, splash each other, turn over rocks, and get some use out of their lenses.

They were MAGNIFICENT.  They found gilled snails, pouch snails, water pennies, fishfly larva (I’d NEVER been able to find any of them), a hellgrammite, and a great dragonfly nymph.

As they were leaving, on the way to their next class–cave ecology, one kid stopped and said, “I want to be a scientist someday.”  I told him, “You’re on your way.  You’re ALREADY a naturalist.”

  1. You’ve been breathing through your butt for how long?

    • I am surprised that it was not a talent you learned in seminary. Requires much patience and practice, Grasshopper, but frequently comes in handy.

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