When we think of endangered species, we are likely to think “cheetah” or “grizzly bear” or some other big, familiar, and in-the-news animal. But unfortunately, just about any sort of living thing can enter the list of endangered life. Scientists fear that the continuing elimination of habitat by humans and the changing climate could result in the loss of a million or more species in the foreseeable future.
The Torrey pine, native to the coast of southern California, is on the endangered list. Before the city of San Diego and its suburbs developed, woodlands featuring this species thrived along the nearby rocky coast. The frequent cool afternoon fog helped the trees tolerate a climate where rain is scarce during the summer months.
Now, largely because of human development, this beautiful tree with open, spreading branches is critically endangered. There are just two areas left where these trees grow in the wild. Fewer than 5,000 individual trees live on tiny Santa Rosa Island off the Santa Barbara coast and in the Torrey Pines State Reserve on the San Diego coastline.
In addition to having an ever-shrinking natural habitat, the Torrey Pines have recently struggled to survive an onslaught of the five-spined engraver beetle, which bores through the bark and lays its eggs in the cambium layer of the tree. The beetle attack can result in shutting off the supply of water and nutrients to the tree, killing it. Healthy trees may be able to survive, but drought can weaken a tree, making it vulnerable to attack.
Torrey pines do not replenish themselves easily. They take their time to produce seeds. The male flowers develop in February as clusters of reddish finger-like structures on lower branches. Their pollen fertilizes the female blossoms, which look like tiny red cones. It takes about 3 ½ years for the cones to grow and the seeds to develop fully. Then the cones release seeds, but some may remain until the cone itself drops from the tree as long as ten years after pollination.
The Torrey Pines State Reserve works hard to protect these rare trees, but it may be too late. The increasing heat and dryness brought about by climate change could weaken the remaining wild trees, resulting in beetle damage and early death. Let’s hope these hardy beauties find a way to survive these difficult challenges.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Have you heard about the “butterfly effect,” the idea that one small change can bring about big changes over time? This idea is important in the study of ecology, which deals with the interactions of living things and their environments. Each element of an ecosystem has its place. When one element is eliminated, it affects everything else.
The Yellowstone ecosystem centered in Yellowstone National Park provides a great example. Late in the 20th century, biologists were worried about the aspen trees there. Aspens occur in clusters that are actually clones growing up from shared root systems. Some of the Yellowstone clones were hundreds of years old, but the old, dying trees weren’t being replaced by strong young shoots. It looked like they might just die out, and no one was sure why.
When a severe drought in 1988 led to big wildfires in the park, the idea that fire might stimulate aspen growth proved wrong. Perhaps the elimination of wolves from the region in the early 20th century was to blame. Wolves? New trees? How could that be? Without wolves, the behavior of the Yellowstone elk had changed. No predators. No worry. So the elk became lazy, acting like cows, lying around in shaded areas along the rivers and creeks, munching contentedly on the juicy fresh growth of the willows and aspens.
In 1995, after much political battling, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. The wolf population grew and the elk learned to be on the alert. As the wolves’ favorite food, the elk had to change their behavior to survive—no more relaxing by a stream where wolves could easy sneak up and make a meal of them! They had to move around and spend more time in open places where watching for hungry wolves was far easier.
The wolves are changing the Yellowstone landscape in positive ways. The aspens and willows are coming back. Beavers, which had almost disappeared from some parts of the park, are returning. These rodents feed on aspens and willows and use them to build their dams and lodges. Beaver dams create ponds, and the ponds provide homes for hundreds of species of plants and animals, from algae and water striders to ducks and muskrats. The willows and aspen trees around the pond are nesting sites for songbirds and homes for insects and spiders, all thanks to the wolf.
Welcome back, wolves!
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's book, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone, is an IRA/CBC Teachers' Choices book, an ALA Notable Children's Book, A Book Sense Pick, and an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, as well as receiving the Orbis Pictus Honor Book Award. Booklist calls it "A great choice for elementary units about science and environmental protection," and Kirkus gave it a starred review. Click here to read the reviews.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Everything Is Connected: The Butterfly Effect and the
Wolf." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Mar. 2018,
STEM through the lens
In 1953, a scientist named Edmund Schulman discovered that bristlecone pines are the world’s oldest trees. They live high in the mountains—between 9,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level where the soil is rocky, the air is as dry as a desert, and the temperatures are extremely hot in summer and cold in winter. Most ancient bristlecones grow in California’s White Mountains and Nevada’s Snake Range, and scientists now know that some of these trees are more than 5,000 years old. They are the oldest known living things on the planet.
Edmund Schulman used a boring bit, a tool shaped like a drinking straw, to drill into old trees and pull pencil shaped pieces of wood called cores out of the trunks of very old trees. Cores contain patterns of stripes. One stripe represents one year of growth. Schulman counted more than 4,600 stripes from a tree he named Methuselah--after the oldest man in the Bible.
Today, the Methuselah Tree’s exact location is kept secret to protect it from too many visitors. Like all ancient bristlecone pines, Methuselah’s annual growth rings contain secrets spanning thousands of years—secrets that are being discovered by scientists who know how to “read” tree rings. Rainfall, fires, volcanoes, droughts, and climate changes, are literally recorded in the growth rings.
In the summer of 2011, I went searching for Methuselah. I brought along my camera. Although I am not a tree-ring scientist, I did my own research using my five senses. I tasted the pitch and pollen from cones (it was a little bit bitter); smelled the bark (it smelled like rain); touched wind sculpted and sun bleached wood surfaces (it was smooth and grooved); listened to the sound created when I tapped the rock-hard wood (it was sharp and short); and I was amazed by their strange forms and colors (they looked like dancers).
Did I find Methuselah during my adventure? Actually, when I stopped searching,Methuselah found me. I will share that story along with a lot of science, in the book I am writing. But I won’t publish Methuselah’s photo or location. Some things must be kept secret.
Alexandra Siy says, "I write books that put the "A" into STEM! Reading about science should be as creative and fun as doing science. Science is not simply information and facts--it's about questions, exploration, and the process of discovery. My books are illustrated with real scientific images that bring alive the stories that inspire kids to think like scientists! " If you would like to know about some of her award-winning books, click here.
Alexandra Siy is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Siy, Alexandra. "The Oldest Tree on Earth." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 10 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/the-oldest-trees-on-earth.