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Science of Wisconsin's Environment

Dane County Students Gather to Discuss Climate Change at Second Annual Conference

by Desteny Alvarez, age 17

For the second year in row, students from around Dane County will gather to address climate change issues. The second annual Dane County high school climate action conference will take place at the Alliant Energy Center on Saturday, November 12.

The title for this year’s event is Gen Z: Meeting the challenge of Our Changing Environment. Local student members of the Dane County Youth Environmental Committee are helping plan the conference. A range of speakers and climate experts will make presentations and address topics of particular interest to young people.

“I learned a lot at last year’s conference” said Devika Pal, a student at Madison’s Memorial High School. “Now, I want to know more. I’m interested in learning what actions we can take to make a difference.” [Read More]

Wisconsin Begins PFAS Testing this Fall

by Sandy Flores Ruíz, age 16

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are a family of synthetic chemicals. They are used in everyday household products, such clothes, carpets, nonstick cookware, packaging, and firefighting foam due to their ability to repel water and stains. The PFAS family of approximately 5,000 chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they last for a long period of time in the environment and human body. Research suggests that these chemicals can cause various types of cancers, decrease birth weights, damage the immune and reproductive systems, impact hormone regulation, and alter thyroid hormones.

Since 2019, the DNR has been working to develop standards for two of the better known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to determine safe levels of these two chemicals in public water systems. Beginning this fall, Wisconsin communities will be required to test their water to ensure that the PFOA and PFOS do not exceed limits set by the State of Wisconsin.

Testing will be phased in for cities depending on their size. Cities with a population exceeding 50,000 are required to begin testing on November 1, 2022. Communities with populations under 49,999 will begin testing in February of 2023, and cities with populations under 10,000 will need to start testing in early May of that same year. [Read More]

Barn Owl Sightings Increase in Wisconsin, but the Future Remains in Doubt

by Juanes Palma, age 9

In 2018, a unique species of barn owls were reported for the first time in over two decades in Wisconsin by The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The owls were spotted in September of 2018 as a pair of these birds were found in the cavity of a dead tree. Recently, there has been an increase in barn owl sightings in Wisconsin and other near states.

These creatures usually live in the dark and are known for their white heart-shaped faces. There are about 46 different known species of barn owls around the world. Scientists have studied these barn owls through the small pellets that are coughed up after they eat their prey. These pellets contain indigestible parts of the owl’s foods such as skulls, bones, and fur. Using owl pellets, researchers have learned a lot about their diets and the ecosystems they belong to.

The chests of male and female barn owls are a distinguishing feature. Female owls have a faint red patch on their chest. The patches might reflect the female's quality of health. Females with darker red patches tend to catch fewer catch parasitic flies and have a more resistant immune system. [read more]

Tracking the Full Moons of Autumn in Wisconsin

by Ayelen Florez, age 12

In the fall season, Wisconsin has one of the best skies to view at night. During this season, the skies are clear and the weather is cool and it is the best time to go stargazing. When the autumn moons light up the dark night for farmers and hunters, many people use the moon to keep track of fall events.

A way to monitor the moon is to remember that there are at least twelve full moons each year. Every full moon has its own unique nickname and is easy to spot and track.

The “Harvest Moon.” is the full moon that happens during September and sometimes October. This full moon is the closest to the autumnal equinox, which is when that the sun shines on the equatorial pathway. This moon got its name because it refers to an annual period in which farmers harvest crops and hunters gather food for the winter. [Read More]

Wolves in Wisconsin: A Conservation Success Story with an Uncertain Future

by Dyami Rodriguez, age 16

The Federal Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 in order to protect wildlife and plants throughout the country in danger of extinction. In Wisconsin, the gray wolf benefited from the act since it kept these animals from becoming extinct.

In the 1980s, the Wisconsin gray wolf population was estimated to be below 80 individuals. In 1999, the plan was for the wolf population to be higher than 250 outside Indian reservations in order for the species to be delisted from the endangered list. Management goals were to overall maintain a population greater than 350 outside reservations. As of April 2020, the wolf population was estimated by the DNR at more than 1,100 individuals living in multiple packs throughout the state. Recent estimates suggest it is now growing by 15-16% a year. This success primarily comes from this act and has removed gray wolves from the endangered list in 2004.

The increase in the wolf population is not without controversy however. Some communities view the rise in population as a threat to personal safety and would prefer less wolves on their lands. On the other hand, conservationists believe that the increase has benefited the natural landscape by keeping the deer population under control. [read more]

Invasive Noxious Weed Spotted in Wisconsin

by Daniel Li, age 14

Last July, a new population of the invasive plant called the European frog-bit was found in Oconto, near Lake Michigan. Although this species is common in the coastal areas of Lakes Erie and Huron, its origins are in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. The first spotting of the European frogbit in Wisconsin was at a nursery in 2018, and it was seen again in 2021 in Oconto. It’s assumed that the plant was transferred by long-distance boats, or from aquariums, where it is used decoratively.

The species grows in slow and shallow waters, often along lakes, swamps, rivers, and almost all other freshwater sources. It is “stoloniferous.” According to Ken Dolata of the Oconto County Land Conservation Department, this means the plant has “a horizontal stem that is located above the ground and usually produces adventitious [random] roots and vertical stems at the nodes.”

The leaves of the frogbit are leather-like and can grow up to two and a half inches long. This plant produces flowers that are heart-shaped and white, and can easily be mistaken for native species like the waterlily or water shield. [Read More]

Scientists Study Effects of Climate Change in Lake Superior

by Moises A. Hernandez, age 17

About ten years ago, a bloom of cyanobacteria appeared in Lake Superior. Since that time, scientists have searched for answers as to why this problem occurs in this specific lake.

Lake Superior—bordered by Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan—holds one-tenth of our planet’s surface freshwater. The largest of the Great Lakes of North America, Lake Superior is also the world's largest freshwater lake by surface area and third largest by volume.

Cyanobacteria, also known as Cyanophyta, are blue-green algae that can use up oxygen and block light, harming organisms trapped underwater. Due to their short life, however, the few blooms that do occur in Lake Superior are typically small. Samples and good data are limited. [Read More]

First-of-its-kind Experiment Uses Lab-bred Trees to Stop Pollution

by Leilani McNeal, age 17

The U.S. Forest Service is trying a “first-of-its-kind” experiment that involves specialized trees that may keep contaminants from leaching out of landfills.

A part of a larger project to see if plants can solve the issues of pollutants in the environment, this process involves lab-grown variations of poplar, willow, and conifer trees, which all have the unique ability to absorb pharmaceuticals and harmful toxins alike.

So far, the Forest Service has planted more than 15 sites in Wisconsin and Michigan with 22,000 trees total. For example, the Boundary Road Landfill that skirts lakes Michigan and Superior will demonstrate how many contaminants can be captured, in a process called phytoremediation. [Read More]

State of Wisconsin Issues PFAS Warnings for Dane County Fisheries

by Makaya Rodriguez, age 17

PFAS, also known as (poly-fluoroalkyl substances), are man-made chemicals. They were used on clothing, carpets, non-stick pans, cookware, and as firefighting foam. PFAS are made to be stain and water-resistant. These PFAS chemicals are being found in many Wisconsin bodies of water, specifically in Dane County.

Anglers are being advised to watch out for certain fish in lakes and rivers around Madison waters, such as Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona, Wingra Creek, Lake Waubesa, and Rock River. In these particular areas, officials have found levels of PFAS, and recommend not consuming walleye, largemouth bass, crappie, and northern pike more than once a month. Additionally, the consumption of fish such as yellow perch, pumpkinseeds, and bluegills is not advised more than once a week. Taking these precautions into consideration will help avoid the accumulation of PFAS in the human body. Black Earth Creek has seen especially high numbers of PFAS in brown trout. This raises concerns as the creek flows northwesterly, from Middleton into the Wisconsin River.

The accumulation of PFAS in fish tissue is not uncommon and human consumption of these fish subsequently leads to future health issues. Some health concerns include but are not limited to low birth weights, harm to the reproductive system, altered hormone, and thyroid regulations, and kidney and testicular cancer. The state Department of Natural Resources admonishes fishermen and consumers to be careful of eating fish from these contaminated bodies of water. [Read More]

It’s an “Interruption Year” in Wisconsin: Snowy Owls Are Moving South

by Mariama Bah, age 15

Keep your eye to the ground and be careful when you’re walking in the Arctic Tundra, because you may find a snowy owl nesting site. Treeless, wide, hilly spaces are where snowy owls prefer to nest and hunt. These owls mainly eat small mammals, but their diet can range from rodents and rabbits to ducks and geese.

North of the Arctic Circle is home for snowy owls during most of the year. During a typical winter, small groups of owls migrate into southern Canada and northern Wisconsin. Every handful of years, however, an “interruption” occurs. During those years, large numbers of snowy owls move south as far as the southern United States. Reasons for this odd behavior are unknown.

Wisconsin is seeing its first interruption year since 2018 right now. More than 150 snowy owls have been spotted with reports coming from counties all around the state. [read more]

Watch Out for Poison Hemlock in Wisconsin

by Anissa Attidekou, age 12

There are a wide variety of poisonous plants that are toxic to humans and animals. Some can lead to extreme pain and others can even be deadly. One of these deadly plants is named the poison hemlock.

Poison hemlock flourish in damp environments. It can be found next to fences, roads, near creeks, irrigation streams, and fields. This plant grows in almost every state, including Wisconsin; however, it does not grow in Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida according to the USDA (United States department of Agriculture). As a biennial species, poison hemlock does not reproduce or grow flowers in its first growing season. This is called vegetative state. Poison hemlock is most dangerous during summer and fall time.

The plant first has small clusters of white flowers that eventually develop into “green, deeply ridged fruit that contains several seeds.“ USDA explains as the plant matures, the green turns grayish brown. According to the U.S. Park Service, poison hemlock does not have a very pleasant odor. The plant can be about two to 10 feet tall, according to the National Park Service. Do not mistake the poison hemlock for wild parsnips. Confusing these two plants is the most common reason why people are poisoned. [Read More]

These Wisconsin Rattlesnakes May Lurk in Your Backyard!

by Dyami Rodriguez, age 15

The eastern massasauga snake is native to Wisconsin and is named after the Native American term for “great river mouth.” The scientific name of the massasauga is Sistrurus catenatus Some of its characteristics, which set it apart from other snakes, are a blunt tail instead of a pointed one and a narrow head. The snake looks grayish-brown with dark brown or black spots. They can grow up to 15-32 inches long and live in floodplains and wetlands along medium-to-large rivers. Since they are small and similarly colored, they are sometimes confused with the fox snake or the pine snake.

The massasauga snake was thought to have gone extinct in Wisconsin. Though the snake could still be found in other states, no one had seen a single massasauga rattlesnake in Wisconsin for nearly 30 years. Now, it has been spotted five times in the last three years. One of the sightings was in Portage, Wisconsin.

The timber rattlesnake is another snake that also lives in Wisconsin. It is larger and much more common than the massasauga rattlesnake. The official name of the timber rattlesnake is Crotalus horridus. It is a venomous snake in Wisconsin that tends to be shy and a loner. Its coloring varies. It can be pinkish, grayish, yellowish, orangish brown with dark brown or black shaped crossbands all over. It grows up to 36-60 inches long and lives in steep hills, bluffs and valleys of the southwest and western regions near the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. [Read More]

100-Year-Old Mussels Found in Wisconsin's St. Croix River

by Kelly Vazquez, age 17

In August 2021, spectaclecase mussels estimated to be over 100 years old were found by biologists working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the University of Minnesota, and the National Park Service near the St. Croix Falls dam located in the St. Croix River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has stated that in the past, these mussels—which can grow up to nine inches—were found in more than 44 streams across 14 states. Currently, this kind of mussels can be found in fewer than half the number of those streams in 11 states located primarily in the midwest and southeast.

Usually, the age of a mussel can be found by counting the number of growth rings on the shell. Due to the shells’ poor condition, the biologists assumed that the cluster had been there since 1907 when the river was dammed. DNR biologist Lisie Kitchel explained that the dam interrupted the spectaclecase mussels' reproductive process by preventing a fish necessary for their reproduction from traveling upstream beyond the dam.

The reproductive process begins when a fully developed female mussel releases glochidia, a larva that becomes attached to the gills or fins of a specific host fish to continue developing. The host is the key for the larvae to reach an ideal environment upstream in which they will continue their development into adult mussels. [Read More]

When Exploring Dane County’s Sugar River, Keep and Eye Out for Invasive Species

by Dayanara Flores Gonzalez, age 14

The Sugar River, also known as The Upper Sugar River Watershed, is located in Dane County and flows all the way down to the Rock River.

The Upper Sugar River Watershed Association works to protect the river from invasive species that can harm or push out native species and damage the ecosystem. Many rare and endangered native plants found in the river and its nearby wetlands are threatened. Most wetland animals depend on these native plants for food and shelter.

Some native species can disappear if a watershed loses its healthy wetlands. Recreational uses of wetlands include trapping, fishing, bird watching, and nature study. Healthy wetlands can help with keeping the water clean and safe for wildlife. Healthy wetlands also help control and prevent floods. [Read More]

Cherokee Marsh Regulates Water Flow to Yahara Lakes and Provides Habitat for Native Wildlife

by Mariama Bah, age 13

Cherokee Marsh is home to a variety of flora and fauna that thrive in this unique and significant ecosystem. The marsh is also a very important part of Dane County’s natural environment.

Trees are especially scarce in marshes. Instead, these wetlands boast an abundance of herbaceous plants. Common plants at Cherokee Marsh include cattails, sago pondweed, and hard stem bulrush. This site also supports several rare plant species such as glade mallow, white ladyslipper, and tufted bulrush. Many mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians live in the marsh.

The animals and plants that thrive in Cherokee Marsh are a part of a precise and very special ecosystem. There are some invasive species, however, that threaten the native species at the Cherokee Marsh site. The Dane County Land and Water Resources Department (LWRD) has taken efforts to remove carp, which cause destruction by uprooting the aquatic plants and sediment. [Read More]

Cardinals in Wisconsin: These Beautiful Birds are Moving North

by Allison Torres, age 13

Northern cardinals are highly valued and favored songbirds in North America. These birds typically nest in Northern Wisconsin, along with parts of Minnesota and even Canada.

Cardinals generally avoid the south of North America and stay up north, mainly for the mass abundance of sunflower seeds which is a popular bird feeder. A cardinal’s eating period mainly occur in early morning and late night. As prey, they try to camouflage to hide from their predators. Aside from sunflower seeds, cardinals feed on insects, berries, and vegetables. In the colder months, cardinals travel in flocks to find more food.

During non-winter seasons, males and females usually raise their offspring together in nests hidden in bushes. Males, which are larger than the females, guard their territory and provide food for the chicks. Females keep the eggs warm and safe. After hatching, the parents keep feeding the chicks for one to two months. [Read More]

Wisconsin's Year-Round Birds — by Ruben Becerril Gonzalez, age 10

Have you heard of some of Wisconsin’s year-round birds? Today, I’m going to talk about the American Robin, Mourning Dove, and Song Sparrow. [Read More]

Explore Science at Sheboygan Spaceport and Maritime Sanctuary — by Desteny Alvarez, age 17

It is a science tourism attraction, and it’s right here in Wisconsin! Among its many tourism destinations, eastern Wisconsin is home to a National Maritime Sanctuary along Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline. This area includes the cities of Manitowoc, Port Washington, and Sheboygan. [Read More]

How Wisconsin Manages its Black Bear Population — by Dayanara Flores Gonzalez, age 14

It is getting easier to see black bears in Wisconsin. It’s becoming more common to see black bears because their numbers in Wisconsin are growing. So, if you decide to go camping in our state, it's possible you could see a black bear roaming around. [Read More]

Unique Features of Wisconsin’s Native Owls — by Ayelen Flores Ruiz, age 12

Not only are owls pretty to look at but they are important to the environment. Wisconsin is lucky to have just the right climate and pool of available prey to attract these fascinating creatures. [Read More]

Robins Are the Messenger of Spring in Wisconsin — by Amare Smith, age 18

The State Federation of Women’s Clubs sponsored studies on birds in public schools throughout late-1926 to mid-1927. The students chose to study robins and selected the bird to be Wisconsin’s state bird that year. [Read More]

Citizen Scientists Track Hummingbirds in Wisconsin — by Camila Cruz, age 14

You should consider yourself lucky if you see a hummingbird, and especially lucky if they are close enough for you to hear them. The noise of a hummingbird comes from its wings, which move very fast. A hummingbird’s wings move about 75 times per second. [Read More]

Groundswell Conservancy Land Purchase Will Help Dell Creek Conservation Efforts — by Dyami Rodriguez, age 17

Buying land is a major factor in protecting the environment. To that end, the Groundswell Conservancy, along with other conservation groups, recently made a major purchase with the intent of protecting Wisconsin's environment. [Read More]

Wisconsin’s First State Park: Interstate Park at the St. Croix Dalles — by Leilani McNeal, age 16

1.1 billion years ago, a mysterious rift, ranging from the depths of Lake Superior to present-day Iowa appeared. From the cracks of this rift, came oozing lava, hardening into a substance known as basalt. Over the next 500 million years, these natural occurrences worked in tandem with one another to support a sea of water which floored the entirety of this dark, gray material. The deposition of sand and silt from the sea led to the creation of sandstone and shale. Increased global temperatures promoted the shift of myriad glaciers across the state of Wisconsin, carving out the area’s famous potholes that are widely recognized today as the St. Croix Dalles. [Read More]

Dane County Pursues Sustainability with New Solar Projects — by Yani Thoronka, age 16

In November of 2020, County Executive Joe Parisi announced new efforts regarding conservation and sustainability. The goal is for Dane County-owned facilities to run solely on renewable energy. In his proposal, Parisi spoke of converting about 90 acres of county land near Femrite Road, in Cottage Grove into a solar farm. This new solar farm is almost double the size of a solar field at the Dane County Regional Airport that opened two years ago. [Read More]