Messalonskee Middle School Mission: Are the crayfish in our pond invasive?

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Guest blog post by Amanda Ripa's students from Messalonskee Middle School:
At Messalonskee Middle School, we have a stormwater pond behind our school. Despite collecting polluted water, there are many living things. During nature journaling, we noticed that there were a lot of crayfish! We put out a trap and the next day, the trap was full! From this observation, we wanted to answer our research question, “Are the crayfish in our pond invasive?”

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Photo credit: Amanda Ripa

We didn’t know very much about crayfish so we had to do research. First, Mrs. Ripa contacted Dr. Karen Wilson, who was her college professor at the University of Southern Maine. She was a crayfish expert! She skyped with us and answered all of our questions about crayfish. From here, we had to learn more about what native and invasive means. We played a game called Biodiversity Jenga and made a comparison matrix for the characteristics of invasive, native, and non-native species. Now that we had background information, we designed our Vital Signs investigation!

We sampled from random locations around the pond. We assigned numbers to different locations and then assigned groups randomly for sampling. This was important so that we were not biased in our sample methods. Each of our four classes set five traps and collected on the same days. Our data consisted of: identifying males and females, and identifying species based on claw, carapace, and pleopod characteristics using the Preliminary Guide to Maine Crayfish by Dr. Karen Wilson. We also collected water quality data (dissolved oxygen, temperature and pH). We made histograms that represented the number of natives and invasives found and the biodiversity count for each sample site. From this information, we used evidence we collected to support our claim and write constructed responses in Language Arts and Science classes. We then uploaded all of our data and writing to the Vital Signs website!

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O. virilis. Photo credit: Amanda Ripa

Based on our evidence, we concluded that the crayfish in our pond were a native species, Orconectes virilis. We compared the characteristics of our specimens to other species, such as the invasive Orconectes rusticus. We were able to see a O. virilis and a O. rusticus species alive and in person from Mr. Leahey, the Education and Outreach coordinator at the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance. The O. rusticus was more aggressive in its behavior while the O. virilis was more timid. This was a behavioral adaptation that allows the O. rusticus to compete for resources against the O. virilis.

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Photo credit: Amanda Ripa

A few of us wanted to borrow traps to collect crayfish near our homes in our watershed. Many of us live near the Belgrade Lakes and were interested to find out if invasive crayfish were in the lakes. One of us found an O. rusticus! We then asked Dr. Karen Wilson for crayfish data in our watershed to compile into a map in ArcGIS. A small group of us created a map showing our school data we collected and other crayfish data showing the native or invasive species. We then created a research poster to describe our study and the data! We presented our poster at the Maine GIS User Group (MeGUG) conference and also at the Maine Invasive Species Network (MISN) annual meeting.

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Photo credit: Amanda Ripa

A closing note from Amanda Ripa, Science teacher at Messalonskee Middle School:

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MMS students' MeGUG poster

Using Vital Signs enhanced this investigation tremendously. This experience allowed my students to make observations and answer an authentic question in their own backyard. As a teacher I used the Vital Signs Intro Module and Data Investigation Institute resources for planning and conducting this unit of study. Student engagement and proficiency in understanding the importance of biodiversity and factors affecting biodiversity increased. By working with my team Language Arts teacher, students were able to improve their writing in science using vocabulary and citing evidence to support their claim. In addition, this study provided opportunities for students with artistic skills to display their talents through drawing their observations. Students also wanted to take the project further after we had answered our research question. By providing an opportunity to share our research in the scientific community, this gave our students exposure and confidence as young scientists! Overall, using Vital Signs resources in my classroom has provided authentic, interdisciplinary learning experiences for my students and allowed my students to participate as citizen scientists in the Maine learning community! Next year, my team and I plan to conduct another Vital Signs mission and help improve our students’ writing through using the scientific argument and assessment tool provided by the Vital Signs Advanced Institute on Argumentation at GMRI.