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Athabasca University

Biology Lab Resources

BIOL 345: Ecology
Field Ecology Workshop Details

This web page describes what is done in the compulsory, 4-day Field Ecology Workshop of BIOL 345. This part of the course is ideally taken when students are about three-quarters through the Textbook. However, it can be done any time after submission of assignment (TMA) #1 (covering chapters 1-8 of the Textbook) and up to 14 months after a student's registration in the course.

Transportation, Accommodation and Food

Students must make their own arrangements for transportation, accommodation and meals for the Field Ecology Workshop. The four-day sessions will be held at Athabasca University's headquarters in Athabasca, Alberta.

Overall Objectives

As a result of students' experiences during the Field Ecology Workshop, they should be able to:

  1. Obtain first-hand experience with the diversity and complexity of the living world.
  2. Use some basic equipment and techniques of terrestrial and freshwater ecology.
  3. Determine some of the limitations of (theoretical) definitions of basic ecological terms when they are applied in the real world.
  4. Become aware of the kinds of machine and human errors and biases involved in measuring devices and techniques.
  5. Understand the importance of proper collection, preservation and identification of organisms for ecological studies.
  6. Learn some aspects of researching scientific literature, including limitations of current research methods and scientific knowledge.

Day 1: Physical Factors


On this first day students will learn to use several kinds of instruments and chemical kits to measure some physical attributes of terrestrial and aquatic communities. Students will be introduced to the four communities we will be studying: forest, meadow, pond and stream. About half the time will be spent in the field and half in the lab.

Learning Objectives

  1. Name and briefly describe the major effects of each of the following physical factors on the character and succession of plant communities: temperature, light, moisture/humidity, topography, wind/current, soil/substrate, and climate.
  2. Use and outline the role in ecological field work of the following measurement devices: various thermometers (alcohol/mercury, maximum-minimum, soil, bimetallic, thermocouple), Stevenson's screen, sling psychrometer (whirling hygrometer), hygrothermograph, rain gauge, Secchi disc, light meter, anemometer, current meter.
  3. Collect soil samples with an auger and use simple chemical kits to measure: pH, phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium.
  4. Collect water samples and use various meters (pH, O2) and simple chemical kits to measure: pH, phosphorous, oxygen and carbon dioxide.
  5. Use light and dark bottles to estimate net productivity.
  6. Outline the importance of nutrients (as mentioned above) in communities.
  7. Review the terms: variability, accuracy, precision/repeatability, errors (instrument and human), replication, randomization, statistics (mean, mode, median, range, etc.), energy, nutrient, limiting factors, energy flow, productivity (gross and net), nutrient cycling, and biogeochemical cycles.

Day 2: Terrestrial Producers


On the second day, we will concentrate on terrestrial producers, mainly vascular plants. Students will use two methods to describe non-mobile communities and two methods to estimate plant productivity. This will be a very busy day, primarily in the field.

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the role of identification in ecology; review the taxonomic categories (Kingdom, Phylum/Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species); and review standards for indicating various taxonomic categories.
  2. Use simple biological keys to identify common terrestrial producers, i.e. lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers, monocots (grasses and sedges), dicots (trees, shrubs, certain flowering plants).
  3. Describe and discuss (advantages, disadvantages, limitations) the use of quadrats and transects for estimating populations and comparing communities (structure, biomass, productivity, diversity).
  4. Use quadrats to describe a terrestrial plant community and determine densities, diversity, and standing crop.
  5. Use a borer, diameter tape and height measurement device to determine the age and wood productivity of a tree.
  6. Use a transit to describe an ecotone between two terrestrial plant communities.
  7. Using resources provided, determine the taxonomic position, range, habitat and ecological importance (e.g. herbivores, mutualists) of an assigned producer.
  8. Examine how plant, fungal and protist (algae) samples are preserved and stored (dried, liquid, slides).
  9. Review the terms: ecosystem, ecoprovince, ecozone, ecotone, community, habitat, producer/autotroph, symbiosis, mutualism, range, individual, species, population, sample, importance value, density, dominance, frequency, standing crop, dendrochronology, and succession.

Day 3: Terrestrial Consumers


On the third day, we will concentrate on terrestrial consumers, primarily invertebrate animals and fungi. About half the day will be spent in the field and the other half in the lab.

Learning Objectives

  1. Use simple biological keys, with dissecting microscopes as required, to identify common terrestrial consumers (e.g. fruiting bodies of fungi, various insects and other arthropods, terrestrial mollusks and annelids, amphibians).
  2. Describe and discuss four methods of sampling terrestrial invertebrates (e.g. hand collecting, aspirators, sweep nets, pit/pan traps, baits, light traps, Malaise traps, heat extractors).
  3. Using resources provided, determine the taxonomic position, range, habitat, trophic level, niche, life cycle and ecological importance of two assigned terrestrial consumers.
  4. Discuss the ethical and legal aspects of collecting organisms including trapping, marking, housing, releasing, and killing.
  5. Examine how invertebrate and vertebrate animal samples are preserved and stored (dried, liquid, skeletons).
  6. Review the terms: trophic level, niche, consumer/heterotroph, herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, scavenger, saprophyte, decomposer, and life cycle.

Day 4: Aquatic Consumers


On the last day, we will examine consumers in two aquatic habitats. We will spend only a few hours in the field. We will also summarize much of the four days of activities into a food web.

Learning Objectives

  1. Use simple biological keys, with microscopic wet mounts as required, to identify common aquatic consumers (e.g. protists, freshwater mollusks and annelids, crustaceans, aquatic insects, fish).
  2. Describe and discuss four methods of sampling aquatic organisms (e.g. aquatic nets, plankton nets, water samplers, grab samplers, substrate corers, sieves, artificial substrates for periphyton, (e.g. Dendy sampler) etc.).
  3. Using resources provided, determine the taxonomic position, range, habitat, trophic level, niche, life cycle and ecological importance of two assigned aquatic producers or consumers.
  4. Using pooled class information on the assigned organisms, construct a food web and criticize it.
  5. Review the terms: food chain, food web, resource partitioning, and biodiversity.

Updated December 11 2014 by Student & Academic Services

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