Fruits of the autumn

Autumn is the time for fruits to become ripe enough for animals to eat. This time last year, Nowhere Wood was full of ripe acorns and the squirrels and birds had a heyday. This year, there are no acorns, at all. Life is uncertain, in Nowhere Wood.

Somewhere, inside a fruit, is a seed and seeds contain new lives – the next generation of the woodland plants.

These fruits are blackberries. The seeds are found inside the berries. They are tiny, with hard tough seed coats.

Birds, especially blackbirds and thrushes, love to eat blackberry fruits. In doing so, they help the plant to spread its seeds away from the wood.

 

To survive, the blackbirds need the blackberry fruits and the blackberry plants need the blackbirds.

  1. Think about what happens to the seed when the fruit is eaten by a blackbird.
  2. How does the blackbird help the blackberry plant to spread its seeds away from the wood?

The secret of the winter flowers

Time travellers to Nowhere (3)

We are in Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago, staring at a forest of tree ferns, watching them make oxygen. Over the years, these tree ferns have made so much oxygen that its concentration in the air has risen to about 35%, (compare that with the 21% found in the 21st century).

There is so much oxygen that the lightning strikes produce frequent explosions in the air, causing forest fires. Nowhere Wood is a dangerous place to be, sometimes.

 

 

The animals are using the oxygen to grown large: some millipedes are 1.5 metres in length and 0.5 metres wide. Some dragonflies have 70 cm wingspans.

 

 

 With all of this food available, there are opportunities for new  carnivorous lizards to appear, including Hylonomus. This is one of the first creatures to have a new  eggs with membranes inside, a characteristic later shown by all birds.

 

 Also the flesh-eating Anthracosaurs first appeared at this time. These are the direct ancestors of the dinosaurs, that appeared millions of years later.

In Nowhere Wood, everything is connected together, in space and in time.

 

So many adventures in space and time, so much opportunity for the evolution of new forms. All of which depends on the formation of sandstone in Nowhere Wood.

  1. Imagine what it was like to live in Nowhere Wood 300 million years ago. What would be the same and what would be different.
  2. How do you think the world will change in the future?

Safety in numbers

Time travellers to Nowhere (2)

We are not alone in Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago. We are deep in a forest of tree ferns, towering above us, fifteen metres high. The damp air has a sweet and woody fragrance, heavy with spores, heavy with promise.

 

The plants are silently photosynthesising, growing ever taller and adding oxygen to the air. Year after year, generation after generation.

 

The wood in the tree stems is a new invention of evolution: no other plants have wood and fungi have yet to discover a way to eat it. This means that when the trees die and fall into the swampy wet soil, they do not decay, but stayed for thousands of years, gradually becoming compressed together to form deposits of coal.

The tree ferns took carbon dioxide from the air and locked it away as wood and coal. They took so much and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air fell so much, that the  climate cooled, lead to the destruction of the tropical forests.

Today, humans have found the coal and burned it, putting the hidden carbon dioxide back into the air, re-warming the planet. No we face a global warming, not a global cooling. Perhaps, one day, Nowhere Wood will be destroyed for a second time.

  1. Think about how interconnected the rocks, the trees, the atmosphere and the climate are. How does a change to one thing affect everything else?
  2. Ferns are the first group of plants to develop proper roots. Think about why it would be an advantage for the early tree ferns to grow into sandstone.

Back then, the tree ferns grew through sandstone much as the smaller ferns in Nowhere Wood do today. Read more about this in another story: Climbing the walls.

Time travellers to Nowhere (3)

Time travellers to Nowhere (1)

Imagine you had a time machine, where and when would you go? Come with me back to Nowhere Wood, about 300 million years ago. That is long before humans, mammals or even dinosaurs existed, but frogs laid their eggs in pools, much as they do today. Today it is hot, humid and very quiet: with no birdsong or animal noise, apart from the distant croaking of frogs. Tomorrow, there will be a raging tropical storm and the mountain will be pounded by its violence.

Nowhere Wood is located just above the equator, and we are looking up at the aftermath of a series of global catastrophes, which has taken hundreds of million years to happen. Two continents collided and sent shockwaves through the land, pushing upwards to form the mountains that we can see ahead of us. We are in a valley, downstream from a range of tall mountain peaks.

The mountain rock is soft and is easily weathered by the stormy wind and rain. Cascades of small, eroded particles surge down the mountain slopes, transported in the muddy river waters.

Mountains become tiny grains of sand settling at the bottom of the smaller streams running through Nowhere Wood. Layers upon layers of sediment are depositing in the streams, blocking the channels. Over time, the increasing weight of sand squeezes the water out, cementing the grains together to form sandstone. These are the cliffs we can see today at the far end of Nowhere Wood. It is called Pennant sandstone and was quarried to make roof tiles for the people of the town.

 

  1. It is easy to think of living organisms having uncertain adventures through time and space. But the same is true of rocks, although on a much larger time scale. Find out where the matter that makes up planet Earth originally came from.
  2. Think about what has happened to the sandstone in Nowhere Wood since it was formed.

Time travellers to Nowhere (2)

The singing trees

ice freezes the pondWinter has come to Nowhere Wood and ice has formed around the fallen trees in the pond. Everything shivers and wood is silent again. Squirrels search for food in the frozen mud, but everything else is waiting, biding its time.

 

 

 

Silent, except for an ancient overgrown hedge formed from a row of old trees, bound together into a thicket by generations of bramble stems. These trees are singing, for this is the home of the tree sparrows. The trees are just outside the wood, next to a path much used by dogs taking their owners for a daily walk.

 

 

 

The tree sparrows are warm, protected from the icy wind by the layers of dead branches that surround them. Impenetrable, they are hidden amongst the branches, out of harm’s way. In this forgotten place, they thrive and they sing.

 

Well not quite forgotten. In the garden of a house, less than 10 metres from the singing trees, is a garden with a bird feeder, filled daily by its residents. The sparrows dart from the hedge to the feeder and then back again, hour after hour, making sure they do not go hungry.

 

Small acts of kindness can make a big difference to the birds in Nowhere Wood. These ancient hedges are important, too, as wildlife corridors, joining ancient woodlands together, giving animals a chance to move safely across the landscape.

  1. Why are the ancient hedges such a good place for the tree sparrows to live?
  2. Why are bird feeders so important in the winter months?

Spring is coming!

the shortest dayNowhere Wood on December 23rd was silent and still. The wood was in midwinter, at its furthest point from the Sun on its journey through the seasons. At only 7 hours and 49 minutes, this was the shortest day  and darkness ruled the wood. From now onwards the days will get longer by about two minutes each day until midsummer’s day in July.

new born squirrelsThe air was was misty and damp. No birds sang. The only movements were from ten or more baby squirrels running up and down trees, looking for food. The plentiful acorns in the autumn gave their parents the nutrients the needed to produce a special autumn litter.

 

Even by January, the wood had moved onwards and the days were drawing out. Robins sang from high branches of trees, marking out the wood into their territories, preparing for the coming spring.

 

 

Jackdaws and magpies fought for the right to control the high airspaces and the food that the neighbouring houses throw away. The wood was bustling with movement and sound.

 

 

Today is February 1st, the day that the Celtic peoples call Imbolc, the first day of spring. The flowers are opening and the frogs will soon return to our ponds to breed. Look upwards to the sky.

Spring is coming!

  1. Think about the acorns that filled the floor of Nowhere Wood in September. How have they led to the birth of the new squirrels?
  2. What changes have you seen in your neighbourhood in the last few weeks since January?

What is a frog?

Climbing the walls

A hundred years ago, Nowhere Wood was a sandstone quarry, and there is still a cliff face at the end of the wood.
How can this hart’s tongue fern grow on a vertical cliff face about two metres from the ground.

That is quite an adventure in time and space. This story explains how this fern can climb walls.


Ferns are an ancient group of plants, first appearing on Earth about 390 million years ago. That’s about 260 million years before the emergence of flowering plants.

Like fungi, another ancient group, ferns produce spores. They are the brown dots on the underside of this fern leaf. Spores are light and float in the air like particles of dust.

One spore floats up to a small crack in the rock face. Rainwater and the decaying remains of a leaf have formed a sticky, jam-like, humus inside the crack.  The spore sticks to the humus and germinates, developing into a tiny little plant, about 10 mm long.

This is a fern, but it is not the mature adult form. It has tiny roots that grow into the humus, drawing nutrients from it.
This small plant is called a gametophyte because it makes gametes for sexual reproduction. Gametes are sperm and egg cells. 


These gametes will come together to make the adult fern on the surface of the tiny gametophyte.

The gametophyte makes many small sperm that swim in the water on the surface of the plant. They swim towards eggs, which are much larger. This photograph shows a fern sperm fertilising a fern egg.

The sperm and the egg join together. A single cell is produced that will grow into the adult fern. Eventually this fern will make spores of its own.

This may sound like a long-winded and complicated adventure, but it seems to work well, because there are so many ferns in Nowhere Wood.

The fern exists in several different forms during its adventure: spores, eggs, sperm, gametophyte and adult plants. What do they have in common?

Each of these forms is made of one or many cells. Each cell contains a nucleus, and inside each nucleus is a genome. Genomes contain information. The information in the genome is the same in all of the different forms of the fern.

The genome contains the secrets of how to be a fern and how to move forward in the next step of the adventure.

  1. The fern exist in several different forms during its adventure: spores, eggs, sperm, gametophyte and adult plants. Think why is important that the genome in every form is the same? 

Life is a relay race

Moving things on

The weather is warm and wet in Nowhere Wood.

These are perfect conditions for growing the fungi that spread  everywhere throughout the soil of Nowhere Wood. Fungi are Nature’s recyclers, feeding on the fallen leaves, fruits and wood.

Fungi feed on the wood of the dead oak trees, turning it into nutrients that provide energy and chemicals needed  to grow new fungal cells.  (These cells form long threads called hyphae). Some fungi can spread out over really large areas, several kilometres wide.

At this time of the year, the fungi are busy ‘ being’.

Then one night, silently and without warning, the fungi do something else.

They produce structures that we call “mushrooms” **.

Mushrooms are  fruiting bodies. They produce thousands of tiny spores.

Spores are small and light. They are carried on air currents to new places in Nowhere Wood, where they will germinate and grow into new hyphae.

Spores have often been found in the filters of jet aircraft flying at the edge of the atmosphere, so some spores can travel right round the world. When fungi produce spores they are ‘becoming’ something new: small, light and mobile versions of themselves.

Then, almost as soon as they arrive, it is all over. The fruiting bodies die and become food for other fungi and bacteria in Nowhere Wood.

This is how it is. The precious molecules are used, recycled and become part of the growth of new organisms. Nothing is ever wasted.



 

  1. All of the atoms in the world were made when the universe began. No atoms have been made or destroyed since then. Imagine what life would be like without Nature’s recyclers.
  2. You are a collection of recycled atoms. Think about how carbon atoms enter and leave your body. [Hint, carbon atoms are found in carbohydrates and in carbon dioxide.]

You can read more about ‘being and becoming’ here.

 

**Some mushrooms are good to eat, others are really poisonous and can kill us. It is hard to tell them apart unless you are an expert, so it is sensible not to touch or eat any mushrooms you find in a wood.

Climbing the walls

Squirrel wars

One hundred and fifty years ago, the oak woods near Nowhere would have been home to red squirrels. Now they have all disappeared.

The red squirrels have been replaced by grey squirrels that were introduced into the UK from the United States in the 1870s.

Grey squirrels spread to nearly all parts of the UK, replacing the red squirrels wherever they went. Now red squirrels are only found in a few places, where they are protected.

Grey squirrels are 60% better at digesting oak acorns than red squirrels, which seem to prefer hazel nuts. Oak acorns are much more common in Nowhere Wood than hazel nuts, and this favours the grey squirrel.

The success of grey squirrels at surviving and breeding in Nowhere Wood is due to the production of acorns, which varies from year to year.

Survival is a risky journey for any squirrel: the arrival of new competitors or interruptions to the food supply can pose real challenges.

 

Their lives are  adventures.

The word ‘adventure’ has two parts:

Ad means moving towards something.

Venture means attempting something dangerous or difficult, that is risky, with no guarantee of success.

Put the two together and you get the idea that the lives of all living organisms are risky journeys into the future, with no guarantee of success or survival.

If you like, you can think of life as:

organisms having adventures in time and space

  1. Think about the squirrels and the oak trees. In what ways are their lives adventures?  [Hint: think about what the word adventure means.]

 

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood

 

All living organisms are doing two things at the same time. They are:

Being (they are keeping themselves alive) and

Becoming (they are moving towards the next stage of their lives).

The butterfly is being and becoming at each stage of its life.

All of the animals and plants in Nowhere Wood are also “being” and “becoming”.

  1. How are the oak trees in nowhere Wood being and becoming?
  2. How are you being and becoming

 

Counting the ways to stay alive