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Detroit Zoo Learning Lab Tailors Science Program Just For CC Students

On Wednesday, November 15, Catholic Central students in Mr. Jeff Baker’s Environmental Science classes took a field trip to the Detroit Zoo to participate in a program about the ecosystem tailored just for them.  

“Our students were very excited to visit and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation. One student even commented that he was now very curious about a career path involving field work or as a National Park Ranger. They appreciated seeing, with their own eyes, some of the animals we had been discussing in class: the bison, bears, and the star of the show, the grey wolves,” stated Mr. Baker, Science Teacher at Catholic Central.  

The Detroit Zoo Learning Lab tailored a program specially for CC’s Environmental Science classes. They already have an ISRO program for middle school, and increased the rigor for CC students, as they had already covered so much of the ecology of wolves in YNP and ISRO. 

“I’ve been fortunate to guide this journey for the past two years, spurred onward by genuine curiosity of the students to want to learn more about wolves. I’ve taught ecology before, but I would have never thought to view the entire process through the lens of an apex predator. Our wolves are such incredible animals and have an amazing story to share,” stated Mr. Baker.  

During the field trip, the students watched a presentation from Moose Watch, which is a program that retrieves radio-collared moose skeletons and documents the condition of the skeletons.  

Discussion topics included limiting factors, the K locus and coat color, dispersal, trophic cascades, recruitment of plants, pack life, wolf communication (wolves howl during the summer to maintain contact with their pack and during the winter to mark their territory), food preference, and how interconnected ecosystems can be.  

Students were given a packet and coordinates to follow via Google Earth. Once they found the skeletons, they documented the condition as either scattered or complete and retrieved five important bones: cranium, mandible, teeth, metatarsal, and pelvis. Students were placed in groups and worked together to compile paperwork. After collecting their data, they returned to the learning lab where they were given simulated results from the bones they collected.  

“You can determine the age of moose by rings in the teeth, similar to a tree. Our sample was correlated to show that the calves and senescent moose were the individuals with scattered bones, indicating they were predated upon by the wolves. I was able to connect that to Manley’s alpha, an ecological equation that demonstrates food preference in ecosystems. Our wolves were showing a preference to predate upon the young or old and would not - or were not able to - kill prime age (ages two to nine),” Mr. Baker explained.  

After counting teeth rings, students then shifted to a simulated genetic study of the current wolves on ISRO by matching color-coded bars to a genetic locus to determine how related wolves were. Adding the enrichment of the field trip to CC’s curriculum reinforced that the wolves of ISRO are already showing signs of inbreeding and may be facing extirpation unless new genes (wolves) enter that gene pool.  

“Due to climate change, the chances of an ice bridge decreases to 10% each year, meaning that the likelihood that new wolves will disperse onto ISRO is low, leaving the population of wolves in peril. Any Michigander should have some knowledge of our only National Park, the least visited in the lower 48, and how human choices can impact the residents, especially the wolves,” stated Mr. Baker. 

The Environmental Science classes will be participating in a cross-curricular art project with the art teachers beginning next week. 

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