Saturday, June 14, 2014

Field Trip!

“Did anyone read the banner on the front of the Museum as you came in?” I asked a room full of fidgety second graders. “Super insects?” offered one kid. Not quite. “Nature’s amphibians?”  piped up another student. From their confused looks I quickly realized that A) These second graders are not yet practiced at speed reading while walking, and B) They were probably much too excited at getting off the bus to start their field trip to remember anything they might have read outside! I can’t say I blame them.

“It says Nature’s Superheroes,” I exclaim with a dramatic sweep of my arm, “That’s what you’ll be learning about today.”

“Underneath that title it says something else, too. It says ‘Adventures with…..’ and then there’s a big science word that you might know. It starts with an A, and it means: something an animal has or does that helps it survive in its habitat.” After a little guessing, with kids’ tongues getting twisted, I wrote the word “adaptations” on the marker board. I could see looks of recognition on their faces.

Then we talked about some animal adaptations. Butterflies’ ability to change shape, spiders and their webs, bats with their excellent hearing, gray tree frogs’ ability to become almost invisible, dung beetles strength to roll dung balls, peregrine falcons’ diving speed, and dragonflies amazing flight capabilities—all of those skills help the animals survive, so they are adaptations. Finally we made the connection—all of those animal adaptations are also super powers shared with our favorite comic book heroes.
“So today, when we talk about the super powers of these animals, what are we talking about?” I asked the group. “Adaptations!” came the reply. (Success!)

“Great! Now you get to meet our seven Nature’s Superheroes.” As students volunteered, I fitted each one with a colorful superhero cape depicting one of the seven animals, and a prop to represent their super power/adaptation.

The peregrine falcon held up a sign that said “Speed Limit 242 mph” to show how fast they can dive. The spider got to carry a butterfly net as a web. Super-cool aviator glasses made the dragonfly kid look ready to fly. I tied big bat ears onto the head of another volunteer. And finally, the kid who waved his hand wildly because he wanted Super Strength donned the purple dung beetle cape, looking sheepish. His eyes brightened, though, when I gave him barbell made out of beach balls and a foam pool noodle to show off is strength.

After a round of applause and a round of parental photo opps, we split into three groups for the rest of the field trip.

One group went with Joe Brady, our indomitable volunteer, into the exhibit hall. They stopped at the entrance and donned colorful capes, then got the “Museum Behavior” talk before entering through tall glass doors. They came out of the exhibit chattering excitedly about flying in the green screen studio, climbing on the spider web, watching the world’s fastest flower explode, seeing a peregrine falcon dive, finding the elusive gray tree frog, and listening to bats.

A second group stayed in the classroom with Katie Connolly, our Naturalist/Curator who is in charge of all the animals at the Museum, both dead and alive. Those kids were allowed to touch and hold our two live snakes – a western hognose snake named Digger, and a Great Plains rat snake named Emory. Snakes have both Super Senses (smelling with their tongue) and Super Invisibility (excellent camouflage.)

Finally, I herded the third group into the Outdoor Classroom, where we acted out the monarch butterflies’ Super Transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. You may think that Clark Kent’s change into Superman was impressive, but he doesn’t hold a candle to the amazing metamorphosis that goes on inside a chrysalis. According to the Nature’s Superheroes comic book (published with the exhibit) “A whirlwind of activity takes place inside the chrysalis. The caterpillar’s body dissolves. Out of this ‘soup,’ new body parts and organs assemble in a Super Transformation.” All of that, in just 10 days!

Amazing as they are, butterflies need our help. Kids spotted a couple monarchs floating above the lilac bushes, but overall their numbers are dangerously low. Each student planted flower seeds to add to the butterflies’ food supply.

Then, with the leaders’ watches perfectly synchronized, the three groups switched stations so they could each experience all the fun. 

This whirlwind of activities has been taking place for three weeks, as hundreds of students visit the Museum on their spring field trips. We gather them all back into the classroom at the end, and I ask the simple question: “Which was your favorite superhero and why?” The answers I get tell me that the kids learned some impressive facts about Wisconsin animals, understood the importance of planting their flower seeds, developed an emotional connection with nature—and had fun!

(You can experience the fun, too, even if you’re an adult, by visiting our “Nature’s Superheroes” exhibit or attending one of our many public programs. See photos of the exhibit at the Cable Natural History Museum Facebook page.)

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

The Toads Wake Trilling

Intense, high-pitched trills seemed to follow me home that afternoon. The hum of my bike tires on pavement and the wind in my helmet didn’t drown them out. When I pedaled past upland areas, enjoying the warm sunshine, a brief silence would settle in. But as soon as I dipped down past a wetland again, the sound rose up from among the blooming leatherleaf, sprouting cattails, and budding water calla.

The toads were singing!

Every spring, warming temperatures and longer days trigger those warty brown critters to try their hand at romance. As with warblers, hummingbirds, and many other species, males arrive on the mating grounds well ahead of females to establish their territories. Then the “boys” commence calling. With throats inflated like balloons, they trill for 4 to 20 seconds at a time.

As with most frogs and toads, females choose a mate based on the length and strength of the male’s trill, as well as the quality of his territory. Therefore, it is worthwhile to a male frog or toad to expend a lot of energy in calling. While studying gray tree frogs (another loud calling amphibian), scientists discovered that they spend most of the night shouting aerobically at about 60% of their maximum output. But when a female is near, they bump it up to near 100% for a short time.

In order to accomplish these athletic feats of song, male frogs and toads have highly developed body-trunk muscles. Packed with mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells, the singing muscles have the capacity for high aerobic metabolism. Frogs and toads call for such a long time that their muscles must switch from burning carbs to burning fats, just like human endurance athletes.

Those muscles are used to drive air over the vocal chords, producing the surprisingly loud calls. Some frogs and toads can be as loud as a lawn mower. Luckily, they have an internal pressure system that keeps their own ear drums from vibrating excessively and therefore prevents hearing loss in the shouter himself.

In contrast, the silent female frogs and toads have much less body–trunk muscle. Their specialization is laying eggs.

Although adult toads are mostly terrestrial, they lay their eggs in water. Their favorite breeding habitats include shallow wetlands, ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams. Once a lady toad decides on a suitably musical mate and approaches him, the male will climb onto her back and grip around her abdomen with horny pads on this first and second toes. In this posture, called “amplexus,” the male can fertilize the strings of eggs externally as she releases them in two rows. A single female can lay 4,000 to 8,000 eggs, connected in a long, spiraling tube of jelly from 20 to 66 feet long.

About as big as a blunt pencil tip, each egg is black on top and white on the bottom. This type of camouflage, called “countershading,” makes the eggs hard to see from both above (looking down at dark water) and from below (looking up at bright sunshine.)

Just like the eggs, freshly metamorphosed toadlets and adult toads are well camouflaged in their habitats, using a technique called “background matching.” Toad skin can even change color from yellow to brown to black depending on temperature, humidity, and stress. If a predator finds a toad, the would-be killer gets a mouthful of nastiness. Glands in toads’ skin produce a poisonous fluid that is harmful if swallowed or rubbed in the eyes. Toad tadpoles have these same defensive chemicals.

A couple days after my noisy bike ride, I floated down an equally noisy river. In patches along the river banks, the toads’ trilling chorus joined with vociferous warblers, orioles, catbirds, and song sparrows, to create quite a cacophony of reproductive fever.

Even after I shut myself in a moving car, I couldn’t seem to escape the cacophony. Fiddle music played from a CD. The notes whirled and warbled with emotions every bit as powerful as the toads, and quite similar in purpose. I imagined a barn or dance hall full of people, twirling and smiling—and sizing up potential mates—all in step (or out of step as the case may be) to the lively music. In the end, maybe we are all a bit like the toads when we try our hand at the age-old, springtime music of romance.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Wildflower Walk

I could smell spring in the air as soon as I stepped into the forest. Damp soil, sweet green things, and the mineral scent of creek water leaping over stones blended into an irresistible musk. Although sunshine had woken me up at an unreasonable hour, now gray clouds moved in and time seemed to move backwards toward the sleepy dawn.

The hike to Morgan Falls and St. Peter’s Dome (also called Old Baldy by locals) in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has become a springtime ritual for me. Gentle slopes, plentiful moisture, deciduous trees, and interesting rocks enrich the soil, and the soil then supports an amazing array of wildflowers. In comparison, the sandy hemlock grove near my house is a barren desert. The evergreen shade there doesn’t allow enough of the sun’s energy through to the forest floor to support much of a ground layer.

Early spring sunshine is everything to the spring ephemerals I seek. These short-lived wildflowers have figured out that they can make use of the rich soil in the shady depths of deciduous forests, so long as they get a head start on the trees. With leaf-out just beginning, the forest isn’t so shady right now! In part because they only show up for such a short time each spring, they have captured many a heart.

In fact, it is the sun who is pulling everyone up – drawing flowers up out of the ground, enticing birds back north from their neo-tropical vacation, and popping me up out of bed. The increasing day lengths and resulting warmth trigger just about every event of spring. “Dear morning,” writes Mary Oliver, “you come with so many angles of mercy so wondrously disguised in feathers, in leaves, in the tongues of stone, in the restless waters, in the creep and the click and the rustle that greet me wherever I go…”

Every step along the path showed me another old friend, and I murmured their names under my breath. Cut-leaved toothwort, with its narrow, toothy umbrella of leaves and tall spray of white flowers, spread in green carpets across damp floodplain soil. If you’ve never seen it, that might be because its entire annual growth and reproductive cycle lasts little more than one month. Then the perennial plant dies back to its underground stems. It is a true ephemeral.

A relative of broccoli, radish, and other mustards, toothwort has edible leaves with a peppery flavor. As with broccoli, its health benefits probably come from tiny amounts of toxins in the leaves. Those toxins exercise your immune system and keep it ready to fight off bigger attacks.

In fact, all plants and the chemicals they contain exist on a continuum from edible to toxic. Medicinal is somewhere in the middle, and Paracelsus (a Swiss German Renaissance physician and botanist from the 1500s) warned—“The dose makes the poison.” Too much of a good thing can still make you sick.

Also taking advantage of rich floodplain soil, the dusty purplish stems of blue cohosh clustered nearby. Pioneer physicians were so impressed by this Native American medicine for “female conditions” that they listed blue cohosh as an official medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. Still, a friend once noted that blue cohosh is “strong medicine,” and it has even been used as an abortifactant.

The succulent three-leaved clusters of emerging blue-bead lilies hugged themselves with dewy beauty. Spring beauties showed off their fresh pink pinstripes in great carpets of the tiny plants. The deep red flowers of wild ginger snaked close to the ground, calling in ants and beetles with its carrion-like scent. These plants are edible, too, at least in small doses and when harvested at the right moment. Plants develop more toxins as they age to dissuade insects, birds, and mammals like us, from eating them.

Little five-leaved patches of wood anemone poked delicate pink and white buds out of mossy stumps. Delicate green buds clung to the stalk of a Canada mayflower. And the trilliums, oh the trilliums. I won’t describe them, but I do recommend finding yourself a patch, settling in, and waiting for just the right sunbeam to illuminate their pure white faces.

While I wouldn’t put any of that set of beauties in a salad or a medicine, but they nourish our souls just the same…as does the smell of spring, and the warmth of sun peeking out from the clouds on an early morning hike.

As usual, Mary Oliver says it wonderfully: “Behold I say—behold the reliability and the finery and the teachings of this gritty earth gift…for one thing leads to another. Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot…Look, and look again. This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes…It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving. You have a life—just imagine that! You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe still another…Do you also think that beauty exists for some fabulous reason? And if you have not been enchanted by this adventure—your life—what would do for you?...(from “To begin with, the sweet grass.”)

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,