Why is water important anyway?

Water is a vital resource for life. We have all seen or heard this statement since we can remember. But, what makes water unique for living organisms, from humans to blue whales to bacteria to mushrooms?

While entire articles and books can be written on the subject, here are just a few facts that make water essential:

  • Water has the amazing ability to carry out a vast amount of chemical processes in contrast to many other liquids because of its chemical structure. This allows for humans, plants, and animals to undergo all of the processes they need for survival, from digestion to respiration to photosynthesis. No other liquid would allow for ALL of these to take place.
  • Water prevents things from becoming dry. Since most organisms are majority water, this is key for survival in harsh conditions such as the desert. Without it, animals and plants would literally dry up and harden, dying in the process.
  • Water actually becomes less dense as it freezes. This is something unique to water and it is the primary reason why ice floats. Without this property, our planet’s weather would be drastically different, affecting all life on Earth.
  • Water can absorb a lot of heat before it actually starts heating up in comparison to other liquids. This is the reason why areas where there is a massive body of water nearby tend to be cooler than inland areas (for example, cities by a lake or the ocean). This also makes water an incredibly effective cooling mechanism.

The list goes on and on. Water is constantly being cycled; it goes from the clouds in the form of rain, to the plants and animals in the ground and to reservoirs, lakes, and streams. From there, it either continues to flow until it eventually makes its way into the ocean or it goes to our homes for consumption after a rigorous purification process. Water from our homes eventually rejoins the cycle. All water then ends up in the ocean where it can evaporate into the atmosphere, ready to fall back down as rain. Despite this seemingly never-ending cycle, at the end of the day, water is a finite resource. There was a time when our planet did not have any water and that happening again in the future cannot be ruled out. Therefore, it is very important that we conserve water. Conserving water is also financially smart in the long-run, both for cities and people’s homes.

If you would like to know more about the purification process water goes through, allowing us to be good water conservationists, we invite you to our first Conservation Saturday event at 11 am, Sept. 22. There will be a family-friendly presentation on water conservation, and families will have a chance to create a water bottle water filter. Spaces are filling up quick, so if you would like to sign up, please call 817.860.6752 to RSVP. We hope to see you there!

Spider venom!

Last year, we talked about spiders and their benefits to nature. Today, we revisit spiders to talk about a very interesting trait they have – their venom. Almost all 46,000 spider species have venom. Fortunately for us, there are only a very few that can actually harm people. In our area, there are only two types of spiders of concern: the black widow and the brown recluse spider. Black widows are distinctively black and have a red or orange shape on the back of their belly while brown recluses tend to have a violin-like shape on the back of their thorax.

Spiders primarily use their venom to paralyze prey so they can eat it. The venom is injected into the insect through the spider’s fangs. Spider venom usually is one of two types. Certain spiders produce neurotoxins, which attacks the nervous system of the prey. Other spiders produce cytotoxins, which help in turning the prey into liquid form. This makes it easier for the spider to consume it. In many ways, spider venom is not that different from snake venom.

If you would like to watch a spider eat, we invite you to our public feedings on Fridays at 4:30 pm to see our Texas brown tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi) eat in his exhibit. Usually the venom will not be seen, but you can be assured the spider is using it to eat its food!

Left: Our Chilean rose hair tarantula eating a cricket. A venom drop, in white, can be seen on the right side of the mouth.

World Lizard Day

skink
Green anoles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Lizard Day was celebrated on Aug. 14. Herpetologists, pet owners, and nature enthusiasts commemorate this special day every year by increasing awareness about these amazing scaly animals, learning more about them and showing them appreciation. Here at River Legacy, we join in that celebration by sharing our knowledge of them and inviting you to appreciate them.

There are around 6,000 species of lizards alive in our world. Together with snakes, they form a group of reptiles known as the Squamates. They are cold-blooded, scale-covered animals that have generally four legs, ear holes and eyelids. The latter three characteristics are mainly what distinguishes them from snakes. The largest lizard in the world is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) found in Asia and the smallest one is the dwarf gecko (Sphaerodactylus ariasae) found in the Caribbean.

In Texas, there are several species of lizards. Here at River Legacy, the most common include several types of skinks (Family Scincidae), the Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus), the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), and the Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus). While the Mediterranean gecko is not a native to the area, the other three are.

The Science Center’s wildlife ambassadors include skinks, green anoles and a bearded dragon. You can also spot anoles, Texas spiny lizards and skinks as they dart across our trails. This is the time of year they are out and about. You can find them on top of decaying logs or basking on a fence, bench, or tree trunk.

 

The Armadillo and the Bobcat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exiting the back doors of the Science Center, I headed out for a walk. To my right was a Texas persimmon, bordered by layers of the scarlet turk’s cap, a beautiful plant with flowers deeply red. The large stone steps escorted me down to the level of the trails.

Overhead hung vines, whose mustang grapes quietly tumble to the ground and are squished by herds of wandering feet. I walked further, passing the American pokeweed, a plant which hides its toxicity behind its blueberry-like appearance. To my left, a forking trail leads to an alleyway of poison ivy, appropriately labeled so that onlookers can observe without risk.

Finally, I reached my destination – the pedestrian bridge, whose sturdy wooden panels are upheld by the strength of red metal framing. Beneath this bridge flows Snider Creek, which on this day was dry from weeks of Texas heat and drought. I leaned over the edge to look.

Along the dry creek bed I saw movement. What was this bizarre creature? A medium-sized body, slender, coated in a thin layer of light brown fur. I struggled to identify it. But as it turned its head upward, facing me, the uniqueness of its facial structure with its tufted ears, disclosed its identity. I was looking at a bobcat, my first time seeing one in the park.

I was mesmerized by this sighting; I’d wanted to see a bobcat for quite some time. But as the cat ran away, and I began to excitedly return to the building, I heard another noise, this time along the bank that lines the creek. I looked to my left to see an armadillo just beside the bridge digging in the dirt, slowly heading in the same direction as the bobcat.

What an incredible walk this had been. To see a bobcat in the park is a rare privilege, but to see one within 50 feet of an armadillo is remarkable. These creatures are vastly different. Both are mammals, but that concludes their overlap. One is lengthy and thin, walking with the elegance of the feline family. The other is spherical and armored, trudging along. How strange, then, to see these incredibly different animals in such close proximity.

But this is what one encounters along the River Legacy trails. Each walk is different. Some are calm and quite; others are filled with the humming of cicadas and the chirping of birds. During some, one sees young turtles, ribbon snakes, or eastern cottontail rabbits. On a rare occasion one might spot a beaver wading in the pond, its uppermost layer of fur made dark by the water. And on some lucky days, as I was fortunate enough to experience, you may see the astounding variation of the natural world displayed in front of you, as bobcats and armadillos wander along the same creek.

Come visit our trails and let us know what you find.

Written by Josh Ripple, a Summer Intern at River Legacy Living Science Center and student at Stanford University.

Meet a Few of Our Wildlife Ambassadors!

Smokey the Western Rat Snake

Hi guys!! I am Smokey, a Western Rat Snake. I am the newest Animal Ambassador to River Legacy Living Science Center and the latest resident to our public exhibits. I was brought from the Fort Worth Nature Center because I needed a larger home.

I am 6 years old with a beautiful yellowish, tan color and irregular blotching from head to tail. I am active during the day, especially when I’m hungry! Hey, you can come see me eat every Friday at 4:30! Sometimes when I get disturbed I let out a hiss, but not to worry, I‘m not venomous, merely voicing my opinion.

Actually, my relatives and I get confused with rattlesnakes because we look alike and we both shake our tails, but Western Rat Snakes do not actually have a rattle. Generally, though, I am a nice girl so come on over and see me! I am so excited that I just got a larger home with lots of room to climb! I might be hiding up high, so look closely.

 

 

 

Poppy the Virginia Opossum

Poppy the Virginia Opossum found her way to River Legacy Living Science Center after she was rescued and rehabilitated from being hit by a car. Due to the injuries sustained, she was not able to be released back into the wild. This is unfortunate due to the many positive benefits opossums provide to an ecosystem.  She is very sweet and curious about her new home. She loves eating hard-boiled eggs, crickets and strawberries.

When people encounter this ambassador in the wild, the feelings are a mixed bag. Some think this nocturnal creature is either cute or ugly; others think it looks like a giant rat. The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a very unique creature. It is North America’s only marsupial, which means it has a pouch. Average life span of a wild opossum is 1 to 3 years; life span of a captive opossum is 2 to 5 years.

Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other pit vipers. (Remember, North Texas only has two venomous snakes, the rattlesnake and copperhead.)  Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs. This is due to the fact that their core body temperature is lower than most mammals and the virus cannot live in this cooler environment.

Another benefit from having opossums in your neighborhood is that they will eat and therefore kill ticks that are in their fur.  Opossums are fastidious groomers.  A study by the Cary Institute for Ecosystem shows that an opossum may eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season. Ticks can cause a variety of issues for humans, including Lyme Disease.  Now, the opossum is not single-handedly stopping Lyme Disease, but if the opossum takes care of ticks in its own body, then those are less ticks in our yards and natural areas.

Beavers at River Legacy!

River Legacy is home to lots of very well-known mammal species such as bobcat, raccoon, squirrel, and armadillo. But, did you know that the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) also lives here? Here are some cool facts about one of River Legacy’s most secretive mammals.

  • Beavers are the second largest members of the rodents, after the South American capybara. They can weigh up to 71 pounds!
  • Beavers have an extra thick layer of fat under their skin. This helps with insulation from very cold water.
  • Beavers are incredible architects! They are able to construct their homes in rivers, streams, and/or lakes using twigs, mud, sticks, chewed-on trees, and other similar materials.
  • Beavers can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes!
  • Beavers can use their tail to slap it on the water to warn other beavers nearby of potential danger, such as predators.

Beavers are largely nocturnal. The best way to find them during the day is during the dawn hours. Walking the trails close to the Trinity River or Snyder Creek during this time could provide you with the wonderful experience of seeing a beaver! We’ve even spotted one in our pond recently at River Legacy Living Science Center!

Learn more about the beaver and other animal architects during our NEW Animal Architects Summer Class in July. Spaces are still available for the class which meets July 9-13 and July 16-20. Sign up online at www.riverlegacy.org or call 817.860.6752, ext. 102 to enroll today!

World Environment Day

Today, June 5th, the world celebrates World Environment Day! Since 1974, on this day, the United Nations has encouraged and promoted awareness and ways we can all help to take care of the environment.

One of our missions at River Legacy is conservation and preservation of the lands around the Trinity River. While not everyone can be involved in taking care of the forest, there are a few steps that you can take at home to be good stewards of the environment, especially on this very special day:

  • When doing laundry, try using your washer and drier only when you have a full load. You can help conserve water this way!
  • When watering your yard, do it in the early morning when it is cooler. If you do it in the middle of the day, the water will evaporate quickly. This is especially true during this hot season.
  • Try taking shorter showers as to conserve more water and replace your shower head with a low flow shower head!
  • Drink out of reusable water bottles versus plastic! Plastic takes thousands of years to decompose.
  • When at the office or school, try printing double-sided as to conserve paper. The less paper we waste, the less trees we are wasting.
  • Disconnect electrical appliances. Having them plugged in only uses up electricity. For example, your TV or computer when you’re not using them.

Starting in the Fall, we will have a new program dubbed Conservation Saturdays. This program will be centered around specific things we can do to help conserve natural resources such as water as well as all aspects of the forest. Stay tuned for more information in the next couple of weeks!

Celebrating Turtles At River Legacy!

This past Wednesday, May 23rd, the world came together to celebrate World Turtle Day. Did you know that turtles, just like snails (make sure you read the last post about snails!), are born with their shells? Contrary to how they are shown in some movies, turtles are not able to get out of their shells. In fact, their ribs are fused into them. In addition to having a really good way of protecting themselves, turtles are also among the oldest living reptiles. There have been records of turtles making it past the age of 100!

River Legacy is home to a wide variety of turtles. The island in the middle of our pond at River Legacy Living Science Center can have tons of turtles basking on a warm Summer day. Usually, red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) can be seen basking together. In addition, three-toed box turtles (Terrapene carolina triunguis) and the similar ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata) may be spotted in wooded areas of our trails. Make sure also to pay a visit inside the Science Center and see the three-toed box turtle in exhibit. If you visit the Discovery Room, you can take a look at more red-eared sliders, a river cooter (Pseudemys concinna), a spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera), and a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). These last two could also potentially be seen in the pond and/or creek as well.

Spiny softshell turtle
Red-eared slider

The Spectacular World Of Snails

Snails (Phylum Mollusca, Class Gastropoda) are among the smallest animals at River Legacy. They are often not noticed and, therefore, unappreciated. However, they play a very important role in the environment as decomposers. They feed on dead plants, mushrooms, trees and animals. Some even feed on empty shells from other snails, tree sap and animal feces. While that may sound gross, it is very important that those things are consumed so that those wastes do not accumulate and start damaging the ecosystem.

Snails also help out with the calcium cycle, since they retain calcium in their shells. Once they are eaten by many animals (opossums, beetles, millipedes, etc…), that calcium passes to those predators and so on, onto the next ladders of the food chain.

There are roughly 60,000 species of snails in the world. This number includes slugs as well as marine snails. They are very slimy, which allows them to stay moist. The need to retain moisture makes them a big fan of water and rain, especially.

So far this Spring, we have had alternating periods of rain and dry, hot weather. Next time it rains and the forest becomes very moist, look for snails walking around on different surfaces. A popular place to look for snails at the Science Center is the pedestrian bridge at our western entrance, coming from Rose-Brown-May Parkway. Another place where snails are frequently seen after a rain is the wall on the ramp to our western entrance, just adjacent to Mike’s Garden. If not, any boulder or log in the forest will probably have some. In addition, we encourage you to sign up your children for classes this upcoming summer (classes like Slime Sleuths, Animal Sense-Abilities, PSI: Pond Scene Investigations, among others). Snails will be an important topic in those classes and students may even get the opportunity to touch and hold snails. For more information on how to sign up, you can visit our website at www.riverlegacy.org/summer-classes.

 

Ferns!

Bluntlobe cliff fern (Woodsia obtusa)

Most plants that exist in the world today belong to the seed-producing plants, either flowering plants or cone-bearing plants. However, did you know that there is a diverse group of plants that produce a different reproductive structure called the spore? These are the ferns. Consisting of about 11,000 species worldwide, this group is very ancient. Fossil evidence suggests that this group has been around since the late Devonian period (roughly 350 million years ago!). Here at River Legacy, some ferns find a perfect home.

Let’s now go back to the characteristic that sets these plants apart from the more common plants: spores. A spore is basically just a different way of plant reproduction. In essence, they function like seeds but they form in a separate manner. Rather than being associated with a fruit or a cone, these form on the underside of fern leaves or leaflets. They are significantly smaller than seeds and much more fragile. They are found in clusters called sporangia, which in turn form structures called sori that are seen underneath the leaves of a fern. When spores are released, they give rise to an intermediate plant stage called a gametophyte before becoming an adult fern.

One of the native ferns at River Legacy is the bluntlobe cliff fern (Woodsia obtusa). This fern grows in very moist habitats and is usually found on rocky surfaces, ledges, or slopes very close to a stream or another body of water. As you walk the trails at River Legacy Living Science Center, specifically the ones close to Snider Creek, see if you can spot this fern!