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Episode 3: How Are Bugs, Skunks, and Sagebrush All Connected in Wyoming?

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 3: How Are Bugs, Skunks, and Sagebrush All Connected in Wyoming?

Kelly School

This season’s podcast follows Mrs. Lowenfel’s 4th and 5th Grade Class at Kelly School in Teton County Wyoming. The kids had many questions for our experts and lots to share about the American West. This episode features Cedar, Lenna, Rory, and Addie.

Nathan Doerr

Nathan Doerr is the former curator of the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, WY. His background is in science, education, and museums, with degrees in in environmental science and non-formal education. He has held positions as an Educator with the Teton Science School, a Naturalist with Grand Teton National Park, the Executive Director of the Sheridan County Museum, and Curator of Education at the Wyoming State Museum.

Trevor Bloom

Trevor Bloom is a community ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming. His experience includes research and field studies on plants and animals, fire ecology, and climate change. Bloom is passionate about science outreach through teaching, writing, guiding, and filmmaking. Contact:

Photo Credit: Noah Waldron

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Why? Why? Why?

Why do animals feel so safe around roads and people? 

Why? Why? Why? 

Why do plants come back alive after the winter? 

Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast, where the kids ask the questions! Kids Ask Why is a production of Wyoming Public Media and Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

This season the podcast is following my fourth and fifth grade class from Kelly School in Teton County, Wyoming. We have lots of questions and lots to share about the American West.

Cedar: Hi, I’m Cedar and I’m in fifth grade and, um, my favorite breakfast is eggs, toast and sausages. Okay, Lena, tell us some things about you.

Leena: My name is Lena and I really love skunks. I think that biodiversity is important. We’ve been studying it in school, and I really liked it. I got really interested in it. Addie, tell us about yourself. 

Addie: My name is Addie. And I like French Bulldogs. The reason why I chose “biodiversity” is because it’s kind of like, I guess you’re studying the ecosystem. And like how it works. Rory, tell us about you. 

Rory: My name is Rory. I’m in fifth grade. I love soccer, basketball and football. And I’m doing biodiversity because I was sick yesterday and I got put in this group.

Rory: Biodiversity, it’s like a lot of ecosystems. And it’s like, it all works together. Even though it might be like a predator and prey even though they’re killing each other. It’s still how it needs to work. And if like the prey dies out, then the predator dies out because they have nothing to feed on.

Leena: So I know that it needs a variety of plants and animals. It really helps everything all around us, including humans. And if one thing drops out, things aren’t super amazing. And then if too many things drop out, then suddenly, BOOM, it all just disappears.

Teewinot Mountain with snow in Grand Teton National Park

Cedar: Today we’re talking with Nathan Doerr. He’s the curator of Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming. So this year in Wyoming, it’s been just raining a lot. Usually there’ll be a lot of snow here already. But there’s no snow and it just been raining a lot. Does that affect biodiversity?

Nathan: Before we talk about the answer, did you know that approximately 70% of Wyoming surface water comes in the form of snow?

Cedar: Oh, I actually did not know that. 

Nathan: So that means that snow is really important for us. And that means if we receive less snow than normal, that we might expect there to be less water available. So how does less water affect biodiversity? Well, I want to think about food chains and food webs, really quick. Can you tell me what a food chain is?

Cedar: So it’s the Sun powers a plant, and then a plant powers a prey and then a prey powers a predator and so on.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s perfect. So, when we think about those food chains, and then the food webs within an ecosystem, we can tell that each of those is really, really important. So you already mentioned plants at the bottom of the food chain. So if there’s not enough water, then those plants, we risk losing those plants. So if there’s less vegetation for herbivores and omnivores to eat, then those animals might have to move around more in search of food and water. So as those herbivores and omnivores move around, then do you suppose the carnivores are going to have to follow them around as well? 

Cedar: Um, yeah, probably. 

Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. So these animals, if there’s less water and fewer plants, that means they’re really going to start moving around a lot.

Cedar: Okay, so my next question is: In Wyoming, what if like, all the bugs disappeared? What it like affects, it  probably would but like, what would it do?

Nathan: How do you think the disappearance of bugs could affect biodiversity? What might happen, what might be some of the things that would happen?

Cedar: Birds eat bugs, so it would affect them. Also it would affect birds, they would also maybe affect like bees because they do all the pollen things. So it affect our lives too, kind of.

Nathan:  So I think of animals like reptiles and amphibians, and like you mentioned birds. They all rely heavily on insects. But insects, they also do a lot of really important jobs, and they eat a lot of different things, too. So you mentioned pollination and bees. So insects helped to pollinate crops really all over the world. And those plants produce fruits, because those insects, and if we didn’t have insects, then we wouldn’t have those fruits. Have you ever planted a garden with your family or at your school?

Cedar: We had one at our old house, which was in Washington, DC, and also there’s a community garden every summer we do that too.

Nathan: So what kind of crops did you plant that produce fruits that were pollinated by things like bees?

Cedar: Did a few flowers, but we did potatoes, but I don’t think those are bees pollinate those. We also did tomatoes, I’m pretty sure. 

Nathan: Excellent. Yeah. 

Cedar: We did carrots, too.

Nathan: Very good. So those are just some great examples of the fruits that we plant that are pollinated by bees. But we also know that insects help to clean up waste–things like dead plants, or animals or even animal scat. So as insects break down those materials, they add nutrients to the soil, and that helps to improve the soil, which means there’s more chances for different plants to grow.

Skunk near Geode Creek in Yellowstone National Park

Leena: Hi. So, um, I have a lot of questions. Mostly not about kinda like the if one thing disappeared, what would do the best? Or something like that. Um, they’re all like, well, I guess I’ll start with them. So my first one is, so last year’s, like, I think it was Christmas Eve or something, me and my dad and sister were down by the bridge in Moose and we were making a snowman, and we saw a skunk–a striped skunk–walk past. And my dad had to stop the traffic so that it could cross the road safely. My question is, why are animals so, like, feel so safe around roads and people?

Nathan: That is a really interesting question, Leena. And I think to help us think about the answer a little bit. Let me ask you a question. Why did the skunk cross the road?

Leena: To get to its babies on the other side…

Nathan: Maybe it was crossing to get to its babies on the other side, or maybe it’s crossing to get to food on the other side, or water on the other side or shelter on the other side. So those animals cross the roads, because they need things on the other side that can help them to survive. There are areas that we know where lots of wildlife populations cross the roads, and we call those places wildlife corridors. Now, when we think about wildlife corridors, mostly what we’re thinking about are big game animals, like deer or moose or pronghorn or elk or even where you’re at bison as well. So a corridor is an area of habitat that connects wildlife populations that are separated by things like roads, or developments like towns. So wildlife corridors are especially important during migrations. Now I know you live in a place where you experience migrations, what time of year do migrations happen?

Leena: Before, like around, in the fall usually just before winter. But also I was a little bit confused because I thought that skunks were supposed to hibernate and it was Christmas Eve. It was the middle of the winter.

Nathan:  Oh, interesting. Yeah. So hibernation. Hibernation is a really interesting adaptation. And you may have stumped me. I don’t know that skunks hibernate, I’m gonna have to look into that. I think skunks hang out all year round. But I’m gonna have to research that because that’s an interesting thought.

Leena: So if it did cross the road to get to like food or something, wouldn’t it have to cross back?

Nathan: Oh, that’s a really good question. So it might, so animals have to cross roads, numerous times, right? And maybe, depending on if it lives, if it’s den is on one side of the road, but it goes on the other side of the road to get water or food and it has to go back and forth. But do you suppose that after a while, that animal might change something to relocate? If its den is on one side, and food and water are on the other, do you think it might move its den at some point? 

Leena: Yeah. 

Nathan: Yeah, definitely. Oh, go ahead.

Leena: So you, so maybe the skunk was going to get to a different spot to live because all the good stuff was on one side, and it was on the other side?

Nathan: It certainly may have been yeah. That’s, that’s a good observation. And that’s something that I think is really important to remember, and to keep doing that you’ve done a really good job of, is to keep observing. We can learn so much about plants and animals and the places that we live, just by being more aware. So not only does being more aware, help us like when we’re driving down the road, to be aware of animals, whether it’s a big bison, or something small, like a skunk or even smaller. But being aware and making observations of those things, can help us to start learning a lot. And I really liked what you did, too, is you asked a question, you posed a question, which is a really amazing part of the scientific method.

Leena: Animals are important to biodiversity, because lots of them eat things and lots of them get eaten, and it goes around usually. And yeah. 

Cedar: One of the most interesting is to ask the question, since there hasn’t really been a lot of snow, I really wanted to know that since there isn’t, does that affect biodiversity? And he said that it does, since most of our water it’s like the water that powers plants and stuff, it’s like from melted snow. So if there’s not enough snow, then the plants can’t grow that easily. And then that makes it so there’s not as much food for the preys. And then there’s not because then the prey aren’t that, like they get hungry and stuff. So then there’s not that much food for the predators. 

Rory: Today we’re talking to Trevor Bloom. Trevor is an ecologist for the Wyoming Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He is currently studying native plants and how climate change is affecting their life cycles.

Why do plants come back alive after the winter?

Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park

Trevor: Yeah, Rory, That’s a great question. So, plants have several different stages of life or types–there’s different types of plants. There’s annual plants, that they only live for one year, and that same plant actually doesn’t come back to life after winter. There’s biannual plants, that they come back for two years. And then there’s perennial plants. And a lot of the plants that we have in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem tend to be perennial plants. Think about like trees, for example, they come back year after year. And these perennial plants, many of them in the winter, things that like the wildflowers that live in the sagebrush, like in the pictures behind me, they kind of go to sleep in the winter, they drop their leaves, they drop their flowers, because life is pretty hard for them. And then they still live in their roots underneath the surface of the snow. And then when the snow melts, it actually triggers them to grow again. So those perennial plants will come back year after year, after the winter, so they’re not wasting their resources in the winter. And then in the spring, that snow melts, gives them lots of water and they see the sunlight again, and they come back to life. Does that answer your question?

Rory: Yes, thanks. All right. And then my second question is, what was the first biodiverse ecosystem in Wyoming that we know of where it was?

Trevor: The thing about biodiversity is it’s a relative statement. So biodiversity is the variety of life in the world or a particular habitat or ecosystem. So by that definition, all ecosystems are biodiverse. There is no ecosystem that only contains one type of life, right? From plants to animals and birds and wildflowers and fungus. So simply put, all ecosystems are biodiverse, but some are much more biodiverse than others. So the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is largely in Wyoming, may be the most biodiverse in Wyoming, and the most studied, and it contains over 1000 species of plants, hundreds of species of animals, from mammals to birds. And then also an incredible biodiversity of what we call an extremophiles. Those are bacteria and fungi and archaea, that that live in the hot springs. But all the systems are biodiverse. Some are just more biodiverse than others. That was a really, really smart question. 

Rory: All right. And then lastly, how do you help biodiversity in your job?

Trevor: Yeah, so I’d like to think that I help biodiversity in in a few ways. One is actually on the ground conservation. We do a lot of collecting of seeds of native plants, and restoration of native plants, like the project that you guys helped with, you helped us plant sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush. So actually putting them in the ground to help biodiversity. Another way that I like to help biodiversity is by being a guide. I’m a wildlife guide, I lead tours in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. And by teaching people the importance of biodiversity, a lot of people when they think about the Greater Yellowstone Area, one a lot of people don’t even know what Biodiversity means. But most people just think about the animals. And the animals are really important–the wolves, the bears, the elk, the bison, but the greatest biodiversity are the plants, right? There’s 1000s of species, over 1000 species of these plants, and a lot of people don’t think about the plants. So I really like to be a voice for the plants and talk about the importance of the plants, why wildflowers and sagebrush are really important. And then make efforts to protect that both by doing seed collections by planting them in the ground and working with the Nature Conservancy and other partners to actually just protect pieces of land and say, Hey, this piece of land can’t be developed into a hotel or into a new ski resort that we need to protect this biodiversity.

Addie: Yeah, my first question is, how does sagebrush impact animals?

Teton Mountains with sagebrush

Trevor: Good question. Yeah, sagebrush is a very important plant that forms this whole ecosystem. We talk about the sagebrush ecosystem, and it has the sagebrush and then hundreds of other species of plants that live with it. But the really important thing about sagebrush, as you guys know is it doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter. And so it provides food for wildlife throughout the whole year. Whereas some of these other plants that I talked about, they lose their leaves in the winter, and they don’t provide food for wildlife. So in particular, mule deer and antelope and the greater sage grouse rely on eating the sagebrush in in the wintertime and throughout the year. The other thing that sagebrush does are, you can think of them as little trees, you know, even though they’re only about a couple of feet tall. They provide really important habitat for wildlife to live in, for birds to nest in, for animals to take naps in. So they provide really important habitat or actually a structure for the animals to live in.

Addie: My second question is, how does photosynthesis work to support our ecosystem?

Trevor: Wow, that’s a very advanced question. So good job thinking that one up. So photosynthesis is you know, the process where plants take energy from the sunlight. And they also need to use CO2, carbon dioxide, so they take carbon dioxide, water and sunlight and they essentially turn that into sugar, and oxygen. And all of those processes are really important. The most important in many ways is the production of oxygen for us all to live in. And then that sugar provides the building blocks for other life to take place. So even the elk and the bison, they might be eating the plants getting the sugar, and then the wolves and bears are eating the bison. And ultimately that energy actually came from the plants. So the plants are kind of the building block of all the all the nutrients. And the other part of that is that the plants the photosynthesis is taking CO2 carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and that helps regulate our climate. As we know we’ve been seeing an increase in carbon dioxide. And so the more plants we have that helps take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen that we can breathe.

Addie: Plants, they help biodiversity by being food for some animals, giving air to everything that is living or that needs to breathe.

All: That’s Why We Ask Why!