All aboard the HMS Beagle, we’re headed to the Galápagos Islands to learn about Darwin’s famous finches and adaptive radiation! For this month’s library event, EcoReach hosted an ultimate foraging showdown to illustrate the advantages of niche partitioning via adaptive radiation.


As EcoReacher Kelsey explained, in the case of Darwin’s finches, slight changes in beak size and shape in finch populations over millions of years allowed one species of finch to diverge into 14 different species that eat different types of food. Differently shaped and sized beaks allow the finches to exploit different prey resources, which reduces competition between the birds and lessens the chances of over-exploitation of a single resource.


The activity allowed teens to see for themselves how different “beak morphologies” influenced what food resources they could access and how differences in the environment also impacted their foraging success. Since we were short on finch beaks, we used different tools, including a fork, spoon, knife, and plastic cup to simulate different beak types. Within our tub environments, foragers could snag a juicy packing peanut, a long piece of yarn, a worm-like pipe cleaner, or a small kidney bean as their prey. Just like the real world, prey diversity (the relative numbers and types of prey present) and environmental conditions (open environment vs. dense aluminum foil “forest”) varied.


After 60 seconds of no-beaks-barred competition, the foragers counted up their prey items and compared tallies to determine which tool worked best in the environment.



Some beak types worked best for a particular type of food, creating specialist foragers who focused on gathering that one type of food.


Other beak types were efficient in capturing a variety of prey and these generalist foragers snatched any food items that they could find.


EcoReacher Carolyn wrapped up the activity with a group discussion about how some tools worked better for certain prey items and were more or less efficient depending on the prey availability and structure of environment. The teens did a great job connecting their experiences with various tools and environments during the activity back to Darwin’s finches. They predicted that large, curved beaks might be best for crushing seeds while smaller beaks may offer the greater dexterity needed to grasp insect prey in complex environments. Thanks so much to everyone who came to the library and had fun with us! Learn more about adaptive radiation here!


Hilsman Middle School: Career Day!

This past Halloween, EcoReach participated in a career day at Hilsman Middle School in Athens. This particular career day was put on by the Family & Consumer Science and Agricultural Science teachers. Throughout the day, 6th- 8th grade students in each of the classes walked around various tables showcasing careers in Agricultural Science and Ecology. The students were given worksheets by their teachers to complete, and they asked each booth a variety of questions, including required skills and level of education for each career. At the EcoReach booth, we had a large poster detailing the definition of Ecology, the importance of Ecologists, and the types of jobs and careers in Ecology. Additionally, we also had a microscope with several insects to examine, including kissing bugs!

About six EcoReach members were at Hilsman middle school over the course of the entire day. As we were the only booth showcasing careers in Ecology, our members enjoyed teaching the students all about what Ecology is, its different fields, what brought us to study Ecology at UGA, and our various research interests/experiences.

If you would like to view more pictures from the event, please visit OnlineAthens.

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The students had worksheets to fill out, which led them to ask a lot of great questions
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Kaylee and Carolyn volunteered in early afternoon and shared stories of their past ecology jobs prior to beginning their PhD studies at UGA

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Lifespan Montessori of Athens: All about gopher tortoises!

Last Friday, members of EcoReach visited the Lifespan Montessori preschool to lead a program about Georgia’s native wildlife. They chose to focus on the charismatic gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Students, ages 3-6 years, were introduced to gopher tortoises, their habitat, what they eat, and all the friends they have in the longleaf pine ecosystem who rely on their burrows for shelter. Each student was assigned a card with a picture of a species native to Georgia and asked to find their safe spot; a wetland, a forest, or a burrow. Students hopped to the wetland, flew and pranced to the forest, and crawled or slithered their way through a cardboard burrow where they joined their burrow buddy, the gopher tortoise. Through this activity students learned the importance of habitat and that in some cases, organisms will rely on one another for survival. Check out the photos below and learn more about gopher tortoises and the role they play as a keystone species in the longleaf pine ecosystem here!


Poster Board
A poster board that allowed students to follow along with our introduction to gopher tortoises.
EcoReach members, Zach, Carol, and Ashley all take turns explaining different facts about gopher tortoises. Here Carol is talking to students about the gopher tortoises’ habitat, the longleaf pine.
Zach tells students about all the burrow buddies gopher tortoises have in their burrows. Here, Carol is displaying one of those buddies, a nine-banded armadillo.
Zach teaches students about the wetland habitat and what animals live in it.
What fun facts do you know about gopher tortoises?

The “Mystery Box Game” at Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day!

This past Saturday, EcoReach got into the Halloween spirit at Sandy Creek Nature Center’s annual Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day! Astronauts, superheroes, pokemon, jedi knights, and princesses all showed up to learn about the animals and plants of “The Not so Scary Forest.”


EcoReach put a twist on a classic Halloween party game with an activity called “Facing Your Fears: The Mystery Box Game,” which challenged families to reach inside cardboard boxes and identify animal specimens using their sense of touch and knowledge of local wildlife.


The mystery specimens included a shed snake skin from the pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius). Some kids thought that the snake skin felt like tissue paper and others talked about how they had seen similar sheds in their backyards. Closer inspection of the snake skin revealed scales and an intricate color pattern on the dorsum, which allows the snake to hide in leaf litter on the forest floor and ambush prey. Learn more about the smallest rattlesnake in Georgia here!


Another mystery box contained a turtle shell. The smooth, rock-shaped carapace was easily recognized and some kids shared stories of exotic turtles that they had as pets or turtles that they had seen basking on logs along the river. The bony scutes of the carapace protect the turtle from predators. Learn more about turtle diversity in Georgia here!


Two of the mystery boxes contained the skulls of large mammals. The pointy antlers on the top of one of the skulls helped a lot of kids guess that it belonged to a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). The other skull also had pointy protrusions, but these were located anteriorly, near the snout. These tusks belonged to the feral pig (Sus scrofa), which is an invasive species in Georgia. Feral pigs can be nest predators of native bird species and disturb the soil by rooting for food. Learn more about the impacts of feral pigs here!


One of the most challenging mystery boxes had specimens inside Tupperware containers—and for good reason! Instead of feeling these mystery specimens, kids were asked to shake the containers and listen to the sound of the material moving around for clues. Although eggs, baby earthworms, and dirt were great guesses, the containers actually contained poop! Most kids recognized the peculiar, pellet-like poop of the white-tailed deer, but not many had ever seen the “very hairy,” tubular poop of the coyote. Remember that safety is always a priority when it comes to examining scat, we share many parasites with other mammals! Learn more about scat and tracks here!

The final mystery specimen was hard and smooth like the turtle shell and the skull, but it also terminated in a pointy spiral. Although it looked like a sea shell that may provide a home for a hermit crab, the large shell actually belonged to a giant terrestrial snail! Among terrestrial snail species there is a great variety in diet: some snails are important detritivores (eat decaying plants and fungi), others are herbivores (eat living vegetation), and some are carnivores (eat other animals)! Learn more about the snails here!

October Public Library Teen Event: A Water Pollution Mystery!

On Wednesday, EcoReach visited the Athens-Clarke County Public Library to hold an event as part of our monthly series for teens. This month’s event was based around a water pollution mystery!
We began the event by discussing fish kills and water quality problems that might cause fish kills. A fish kill refers to a massive die-off event of fish in freshwater or saltwater environments. After this initial discussion, we then proposed a hypothetical “fish kill” in Athens. Students were asked to visit 5 stations, each run by an EcoReach volunteer, to test water samples from before and after the fish kill. Over the 5 stations, students measured a variety of water quality parameters, including pH, turbidity, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform counts, algal biomass, and macroinvertebrate species richness.
After the students visited all of the stations, we came back together to use the clues from each station to determine what was the cause of our fish kill. In our hypothetical situation, pet waste was the cause of our fish kill. We then had a discussion about how pet waste is an actual problem in Athens, and what we can do to stop this poo-llution!
Check out some pictures from the event below! If you are interested in our library series, please contact us!
Kelsey leading a discussion on fish kills and what might cause them
Nate at the fecal coliform count station. Do you know where your pet’s waste is going?
Margot at the macroinvertebrate station. Can you name any macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects) found in Athens? Learn about Georgia’s macroinvertebrates here!
Katherine teaching the teens everything about pH measurements! Do you know what pH levels are necessary for healthy streams? Learn more about pH here!
Dan at the conductivity station! Conductivity is a measurement of the ability of an aqueous solution to carry an electrical current. Why would this be important for fish and other aquatic organisms? Learn more about conductivity here!

Chasing Coral: Georgia Premiere at UGA

On Wednesday and Thursday, UGA hosted three special screenings of the award-winning Netflix documentary, Chasing Coral, followed by discussions with one of the producers and prominent cast members. Chasing Coral follows a team of divers, engineers, and scientists around the world to document the catastrophic bleaching events and rapid decline of coral reefs. The Odum School of Ecology’s own Dr. Jim Porter, a renown coral ecologist, was featured in the movie and served on the discussion panels.

During this screening series, several schools around Athens, including Clarke Central High School, Cedar Shoals High School, Athens Montessori School, and Double Helix School, brought students to the Wednesday morning and Thursday morning showings. Wednesday night was a screening open to the public. Additionally, the Georgia Museum of Natural History had a display of a dozen different species of corals, collected around the world by Dr. Porter, as well as some other marine animal specimens.

EcoReach volunteers were in attendance to answer questions about the museum specimens and to teach the students and the public about corals and their current plight in the face of climate change. Between the three screenings, EcoReach interacted with hundreds of students throughout Athens while also supporting an incredible campaign to educate the public about the importance of corals and overall ocean health.

To learn more about Chasing Coral, please their website. Chasing Coral is currently available on Netflix. Watch the movie. Host a screening at your home. Spread the word. Call your senators and representatives. Let’s work together to save the corals, the ocean, and the entire planet.

Financial support for this project comes from Kirbo Charitable Foundation, Reef Ball Foundation, ECOGIG Research Consortium at UGA’s Department of Marine Sciences, Peabody Media Center, Katherine and Bertis Downs, Odum School of Ecology, and Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. Additional promotional support was provided by UGA’s Speak Out for Species club, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. We are grateful for the partnership of the Clarke County School District.

Chasing Coral won the Audience Award for the U.S. Documentary category at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Dr. Porter! Featured in the film
Zackery Rago! One of the main cast members from the film!
Zackery Rago with some of our volunteers. Thank you Zach for this incredible film.
Anya trying out the virtual reality of coral reef diving brought to us by the Chasing Coral team
A full house of Athens high schoolers. The kids were very inquisitive. Over 20 minutes of Q + A with some of the cast!


Rivers Alive Athens! Annual Volunteer River Cleanup

Some of our EcoReach members volunteered at the annual Rivers Alive Athens-Clarke County River Cleanup Saturday morning. As Ecologists, it is important to work to maintain natural ecosystems and preserve habitats. And especially as members of Athens-Clark County, it is vital to work with people in our community and support efforts such as Rivers Alive to Keep Athens Beautiful.

This year, Rivers Alive had over 450 volunteers, and 21 sites throughout Athens-Clarke County including two waterways. To learn more, visit their Facebook page.