Assignment 1: asking ecological questions due Sept. 13th 2018Find a spot outdoors. O

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  1. Find a spot outdoors. Observe your environment for a while, noting any and all observations you make. Remember to use your different senses, not just sight. Take note of:

-Components (things) versus processes (actions or relationships)

-“Natural” versus built or constructed elements of the scene and how they interact with one another

Your observations may be at a very small scale, as in just a few square feet, or the whole valley, depending on your vantage point and where you choose to direct your attention. Some examples of observations:

  • The snow is all melted on one side of the hills, but not on the other.
  • I see x species (other than humans) from this spot.
  • The air smells and looks dirty/fresh today.
  • The grass is still green here, even though it’s winter.
  • The ground is wet.
  • Many/few people seem to use this space. Or, people just seem to pass through this space and don’t seem to linger.
  • There are small birds pecking at the ground.
  1. When you have a good list of observations, pick one or two and turn them into a question. Try to think an ecological system that your observation is part of by asking what, who, where, when, why and how.

Ex. If the grass is still green in January, it must still be photosynthesizing. What conditions would it take to cause it to go dormant and turn brown?

  1. Pick one question that interests you and take a stab at answering it from your own knowledge. (It’s ok if you don’t get anywhere, it’s just good to get as far as you can before you take the next step.)

Ex. I know that photosynthesis requires the following: sunlight, moisture, air, and the right temperature range. I think that since we haven’t had much snow, but it has rained and the ground is moist, it must be getting warm enough during the daytime to allow the grass to carry out at least some photosynthesis each day, and therefore stay green.

  1. Go online and find three academic papers or books (not websites!) that help shed light on your question. Create an annotated bibliography of these three sources. This means the bibliographic reference for the source, plus a brief paragraph of notes on the insight provided by the source. The notes should interpret the source in light of your question.

Ex. Woledge, J., Davidson, I.A., & Tewson, V. (1989). Photosynthesis during winter in ryegrass/white clover mixtures in the field. New Phytologist 113: 275-281.

This is a study carried out in the south of England (so overall year-round cool temperatures, moist climate, but probably not much freezing, not much snow, but fairly high latitude so not much sun in winter and short days) over two winters, looking at rates of photosynthesis in a field containing a grass and a legume (clover). They found no effect of temperature on photosynthesis (!) and that photosynthesis rates were only slightly lower than in summer. They note that total daily photosynthesis was less in winter because the hours of daylight are fewer, and that in the summer plants may perform better with higher temperatures but may then be limited by moisture. So this would seem to indicate that as long as they have access to sunlight (ie are not covered by snow) and aren’t too dry, or in below-freezing temperatures for prolonged periods of time, grasses will stay green in winter.

To hand in:

  1. Your observations
  2. Your question(s), and any initial thoughts on answers
  3. Your three sources and notes.

Some notes on academic literature searches:

Searching: I found the paper I used in my example, and a few other candidates, by doing a google scholar search ( on “photosynthesis and grass and winter”. For comparison, I then logged in to the Marriott Library’s article search databases and ran the same search in Web of Science. This one got me a lot of papers with difficult-to-understand titles, but I persevered and the 5th article listed sounded interesting (so don’t give up!), as it suggests that the degree of contrast between seasons can affect grasses’ ability to deal with winter:  Cold acclimation in warmer extended autumns impairs freezing tolerance of perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) and timothy (Phleum pratense). This would have been my next source, had I been doing the whole assignment…

Reading: You can probably ascertain from reading just the abstract of a paper whether it will actually be of use to you in answering your question. If you decide it’s a good one, you still don’t have to read the whole thing! Scan it for key information, probably focusing on the location/setup of the study and the results/discussion/conclusions.

Annotating: The exact research question that the authors were looking at may be different than your own question, but their results may still shed light on what you want to know. So your notes should not just be a review or summary of the paper, but rather an interpretation of the paper’s findings in light of your question.

Grading: This assignment is worth 6 points of your final grade. One point each for making some observations and formulating at least one well-constructed ecological question, and the remaining 4 points for relevant academic citations and notes that relate the source to your question.


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