By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
PICAYUNE — What lies inside a pitcher plant’s tummy? Campers attending last week’s Summer Nature Camp at the Crosby Arboretum had a chance to find out. Camp projects included dissecting a pitcher plant, learning the definition of a herbarium, and exploring edible plants. Perhaps one of these activities will even spark an interest in a future career or the pursuit of a field of study at Mississippi State University. Deanna and Breanna Lyle found their passion while high school sophomores in MSU’s Insect and Plant Ecology Camp. “Bug Camp” is an intensive educational experience, based on the Starkville campus at the Clay Lyle Entomology Building. The sisters will now be seniors at the university next year and will be assisting both at the Arboretum’s Nature Camp and at Bug Camp this summer. Deanna has discovered that her passion lies in horticulture, and poisonous plants in particular. Breanna is affectionately known as “Spider Lady” by our campers because of her interest in arachnids. She is doing research this summer on wolf spiders at the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge near Starkville. On a walk to the Pavilion to feed the turtles, our campers kept an eye out for bark, leaves, and plants that they could use for rubbings upon their return to the Visitor Center. Some children at the camp remembered the names of spiders they had learned from Breanna Lyle during other events. Astoundingly, a few have been referring to the spiders by their scientific names. The dissection of pitcher plants was a huge hit with the campers this year. Down in the bellies of the hollow leaves, campers found ants and other insects, and even a squiggly larva or two. They learned about a species of moth that lives just inside the “mouths” of the pitcher plants, and used jewelers’ loupes to peer closer. They delighted in pondering questions about the plants, such as why there would be ants inside, or nothing at all. Camp facilitator Linda Bufford from Hancock North Central Elementary School pointed out that because the children had taken a walk through the pitcher plant bog on a previous day, they already had an idea of the type of environment where the plants grew. Each child was given a pitcher plant leaf, and Deanna Lyle gave a short presentation on how the plants trap their prey and turn them into a useable “fertilizer” through the digestive enzymes contained in the pool of liquid at the bottom of the “pitchers.” After exploring pitcher plants, campers moved on to the dissection of owl pellets. These pellets contain the bones, teeth, hair, and other body parts of animals eaten the previous evening. The campers were given a sheet of paper illustrating the various bones they might find, and glued the bones discovered to the paper or on top of a skeleton graphic. Imagine the stories these children will be able to tell in school next year about what they did on their summer vacation. One camper remarked that they were not relishing the idea of having to explore “owl poop.” However, once they learned that owl “pellets” were similar to the hairballs that are expelled by cats, or as one child elaborated, “coughed up” by the owls, their hesitation quickly disappeared. Campers were soon finding bones. About half of them found at least one skull in their pellets. The project was carried out with great gusto. Parents who are used to seeing typical craft projects coming home with their children will find that this project is one that will be an interesting topic of conversation. Crystie Baker, Mississippi Museum of Natural Science Educational Outreach Biologist, brought the owl pellets for the campers. She said the pellets had come from barred owls. When the owls are young, they are fed partially digested food by their parents. But once they begin to catch their own meals, they will begin to also “cough up” the undigested material in pellets, or “hairballs”. Crystie gave a fun and informative presentation on Mississippi wildlife. The children played a migration game, and learned about the species of bears found in Mississippi. She also brought along some live “friends” with her: A map turtle and a box turtle, as well as the class favorite — an American alligator, designated Mississippi’s “state reptile.” Summer intern Conner Ryan, who is pursuing a dual major in biology and horticulture at Auburn University, gave the campers a presentation about his current project. He is creating an inventory of a collection of plant specimens donated to the Arboretum by Dr. Richard Moore from the University of Southern Mississippi. Conner showed examples of the specimens, and talked about herbaria throughout the world, and their purpose. He also showed examples of dried plants, and their live counterparts. Summer camp has certainly been a hit this year with the campers. They were sad to see it come to end, and are already looking forward to next time. Mark your calendar for our Aquatic Plant Sale on Saturday, July 6, from 9 a.m. to noon. Browse non-invasive water plants for your garden, including hardy water lilies, native hibiscus, spider lilies, lizard’s tail and more. Many of these plants are divisions propagated from the Arboretum’s exhibits. Site admission is free that day. Teachers and homeschool educators will enjoy our Project Wild workshop, “Wild About Black Bears and Endangered Species” on July 11, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The workshop will be facilitated by Mississippi Museum of Natural Science outreach educator Crystie Baker. The workshop is free for teachers who live or work in Pearl River County and Hancock County. For more information or to sign up, visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call (601) 799-2311.The Crosby Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For further exploration: Search the Web to listen to the call of a barred owl. Find an image of what you might find in a dissected owl pellet. For more information on Mississippi State University's Basic Insect and Plant Ecology camp offered through the department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology, & Plant Pathology, see http://www.entomology.msstate.edu/bugcamp/index.asp.