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Below The Surface

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

CHAMPions of Conservation visit ECHO

By Jessie Forand/ECHO

Saying hello to the fennec fox (Jessie Forand/ECHO)

We at ECHO were thrilled to have Wild Encounters join us for ChampFest.

Based in Rochester, New Hampshire, Wildlife Encounters offers educational programming with live presentations using animals that were injured, found by law enforcement, abandoned or abused, or were bred specifically for educational and conservation efforts.

On Saturday, Feb. 21, Owner/Director Derek Small and Wildlife Educator Jennifer Gibbs brought a few special guests, the CHAMPions of Conservation.

In his presentation Small drew connections between the efforts of us in the Lake Champlain region, who work to keep our waters healthy for ourselves and our lake monster, and other creatures who work to make the world a vibrant habitat for all.

Before bringing out his friends, though, Small asked audience members to take the conservation pledge, committing to the planet and promising to protect it.

Since small was born, he said the world’s animal population has dropped by about 40 percent. Some species have had success stories, but others are disappearing at alarming rates.

One happy ending took place in Yellowstone, where wolves, reintroduced in 1995 after a 70-year absence, had a positive effect on both the ecology and geography and helped other species thrive.

American Alligator

Cajun the American alligator (Jessie Forand/ECHO) 

 Small introduced his friend, Cajun, who was found by police in 2007. North America is the only continent that acts as habitat to both alligators and crocodiles.

Alligators live mainly in the south and can survive in icy waters, though Small said they likely wouldn't thrive in Lake Champlain, which is currently completely frozen.

The American alligators’ story is a sad one, but with a happy outcome. Small explained hunters preyed on the animals and their crocodile cohorts for food and clothing. Water quality was also not maintained during the last century.

Because of this, American crocodiles became endangered.

American alligators, though, have made an incredible comeback, Small said. Once water quality – and peoples’ habits – changed and hunting became regulated, the alligators were not considered endangered.

This offers a life lesson, according to Small: if we have bad habits and know there is a better choice, we can do better for ourselves, other animals, and the planet.

“New habits can do great things,” he said.

Bennett’s Wallaby

Bennett's wallaby takes a stroll through the crowd (Jessie Forand/ECHO)

As European explorers took to the seas centuries ago, Small explained, they were surprised to find in Australia something similar to animals at home. The Bennett’s wallaby was seen grazing and depositing its waste much the same way rabbits did.

This act makes the wallaby a CHAMPion in conservation because it works to maintain a balance of life, by grazing on carbon-based plants then reusing that carbon to fertilize soil.

When other animals arrive and step in its waste, they push it – and seeds on the ground – into the earth. This helps plants grow, Small said.

Fennec Fox

Cute overload: the fennec fox (Jessie Forand/ECHO) 

Just as invasive aquatic species continue to harm Lake Champlain, pests cause problems all over the world.

Small said the fennec fox has a diet made up mainly of these pesky bugs and by eating them it helps keep populations in check.

Thanks to its diet, the fennec fox can survive in the desert without having to drink water, Small explained. The water inside the bugs it eats provides enough to live.

Another fun fennec fact: it naturally and without selective breeding has the largest ears of any animal when compared to its head size.


The frosty February isn't this guy's fault! (Jessie Forand/ECHO)

This creature has gotten a lot of backlash lately, faulted for its prediction of six additional weeks of winter.

But, Small said, that’s not really fair.

In German folklore, when the hedgehog was spotted emerging from hibernation, spring was surely just around the corner.

When settlers made their way to America, they celebrated seeing the similar-looking groundhog.

Those listening in on the Wildlife Encounters presentations, were invited to get up close and personal with the hedgehog, while the other critters were meant to be admired from afar only.

Checking out the hedgehog (Jessie Forand/ECHO)

Check back soon for info on Wildlife Encounters’ next visit during Mudfest in April and be sure to come to ChampFest before it ends March 3! 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Changes at the Champlain Sea

Forbes' Sea Star (Photo: Jessie Forand)

A few words from ECHO's Director of Animal Care and Facilities Steve Smith:

If you’d been to ECHO in the past few weeks, had you ventured up to the Champlain Sea habitat, you’d have noticed the tide went out a few weeks ago. 

We’re talking way, way, way out! 

The Champlain Sea display, with the sea stars, the urchins, the hermit crabs, and all the other cool marine invertebrates, was drained for an exciting face lift.

Before the system could be drained, all the marine invertebrates had to be removed. They were carefully removed from their habitat and placed in “back of house” holding tanks. Then the Champlain Sea display was drained. During draining, the project took on a new element when the habitat began leaking. Often, in big displays, when you remove the water, you remove massive amounts of  weight that press down on seals and fittings. When the weight is gone, the seals expand and leaks begin.

Frilled Sea Anemone (Photo: Jessie Forand)

While the system was drained, we "chased" the source of the leak as best we could. That’s always a challenge because water can move around, away from the leak, before it shows itself outside a supposedly watertight container. We knew we had one pipe coming into the habitat; we hoped it was the source of the leak. We silicone sealed where it came into the habitat and hoped it was the source of the leak.

After the display walls completely dried and the display floor was thoroughly cleaned, an elevated floor was created using fiberglass grating affixed to  PVC legs. Plastic mesh was siliconed onto the grating so the new exhibit substrate (gravel) and the invertebrates themselves wouldn’t fall through the grating to the old floor below. The new raised floor was siliconed to the display walls to hold it all in place and again, to keep the critters from falling into the abyss below. Gravel was added to create a more natural habitat.

When the project was first started, we had planned to use fiberglass fabric and epoxy resin to create the new floor, but that kind of floor would have almost no flow through it. We opted to use the grating and mesh so we would have water flow through the gravel and through the new false floor, which would keep the gravel and the entire habitat cleaner and healthier for the marine specimens waiting to return to their home. 

From the depths of the Champlain Sea (Photo: Jessie Forand)

The habitat has two sources of filtered one: a surface flow that can be seen and another pipe (the one we thought might be the source of the leak), at the bottom of the display, that brought filtered water to flow across the bottom of the display. Had we used the resined fiberglass fabric for the new floor, the bottom flow’s effectiveness to keep the habitat clean would have been greatly reduced.

The exhibit renovation was done. No more hidden chasm! Now came the unnerving time: time to fill and see if the system leaked again. 

It didn’t! One step closer.

We still had much to. 

While the system was undergoing renovation, the filtration system which includes a sand filter, a protein skimmer, a bio tower,  a UV sterilizer and a collection sump, was shut down. No water flow. Potentially foul water sitting in filtration components for weeks. Not something we wanted circulating in the display with the critters. We filled and back washed the system for days to flush it out.

Long-clawed Hermit Crab (Photo: Jessie Forand)

The system was allowed to run, without live specimens in the display, for days. After four days, we added salt to bring the salinity up to 32ppt. Now we were ready to bring the animals home. 

We added the first few critters, one of each species; the canaries in the coal mine to see if we had good water quality. We kept a close eye on them. They were fine. We added more animals, every day, every time doubling the population in the habitat, not wanting to add too many too quickly, which might incite a little invertebrate melee especially among the hermit crabs, who can get a little scrappy.

Now all of the animals are back in their newly renovated home. The deep hidden chasm is gone. The change gives the hermit crabs, who often stayed at the bottom, twice the habitat by putting the upper shelf within their reach. The elevated "sea bed" gives ECHO guests a view to all the animals that make the Champlain Sea their home.

Stop  by now and check it out! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A closer look: How does our lake change our beer?

When you think of beer brewing in Burlington, zebra mussels might not quickly come to mind. But maybe they should...

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 2006, Greg Noonan, late founder of the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, explained this phenomenon in a piece called Brewing Water: Tips from the Pros for Brew Your Own Magazine.

He wrote:

"(W)hen we began brewing at Vermont Pub and Brewery 18 years ago, our water was very soft. However, in the intervening time our own ‘great lake’ Champlain has been invaded by zebra mussels. When the little suckers die, their shells disintegrate into calcium carbonate. Our water supply has become much more carbonate, and therefor (sic) more alkaline. As Jim Koch of Sam Adams pointed out to me years ago, alkalinity produces dull-flavored beers."

Of course, water is a main ingredient in beer. Local water sources have shaped the variety of brews created across the globe and understanding the chemistry involved makes it possible to recreate certain styles.

Noonan was saying, in essence, when substances are added to water, aside from the existing two-hydrogen and one-oxygen molecules, the molecular make-up and pH level change. 

“Soft water” refers to the minerals found inside. The hardness of water is measured by the amount of calcium and magnesium recorded. Soft water has low concentrations of the minerals, and hard water has high concentrations. They can be salts with positively-charged mineral ions bonded negatively-charged ions, like carbonate and sulfate.

When these ions are added to water, the separate and react with others nearby. Water can react with rocks, like limestone (calcium carbonate) or gypsum (calcium sulfate). Lake Champlain doesn’t have many of these minerals in its rocks, but they are found in mussel and snail shells, too. The presence of these negatively-charge carbonate ions can raise the pH and as a result the alkalinity. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Research has suggested that, in most cases, lakes have enough dissolved calcium to support zebra mussel infestation, but the creatures could have altered the amount of the substance actually dissolved. It is possible that calcium carbonate levels rise in the winter, when zebra mussels stop growing or die off and are not taking in the substance from the water. 

Noonan credited changes in the water at Vermont Pub and Brewery to the zebra mussels’ infestation. When older mussels die, they add carbonate and alkalinity to the water he then uses to brew. Data has not completely proven Noonan’s theory, but examining this further does show how the lake’s ecology affects in unexpected ways.

This occurrence is not unique to the Champlain – a Minnesota brewery developed its own ale made from zebra mussel shells and Eurasian milfoil taken straight from the lake.
Excelsior Brewing Co., on Lake Minnetonka, has said this is a way to save the lake from “aquatic hitchhikers.”

To learn more about the science behind local brewing, be sure to check out this month’s Echo AfterDark event, FeBREWary, on Thursday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. This month we’ll examine, and taste, a variety of dark beers.

Written by Jessie Forand based on this original blog post from February, 2013.

Friday, October 3, 2014

ECHO Volunteer Spotlight- Kate Meyer

ECHO's Mission is to Educate and Delight our guests on the Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunities for Stewardship of the Lake Champlain Basin. We hope this mission has an impact on our daily guests as well as our Volunteers, Interns and Teen Leadership (E-Team) members who spend time at ECHO building lifelong personal and professional skills. 

Kate Meyer in the Bahamas
Thus, we are always thrilled to hear from past volunteers and interns about their professional development milestones and future career plans. Kate Meyer was a volunteer in the Lake Champlain Basin Resource Room at ECHO until she got an invitation to volunteer at the Bimini Biological Field Station's Shark Lab in the Bahamas. This was a opportunity of a life-time for Kate.  She spent the month of August to studying sharks and we are now thrilled to share her story and pictures here.
Kate with juvenile nurse shark

"Dear ECHO, I had the absolute time of my life at the field station in the Bahamas. I really think that marine biology field work is where my passion lies, and I was smiling every day I was out there! No two days were the same because the volunteers really just helped out with whatever field work the PhD candidates needed, or equipment maintenance required by the lab. We were sometimes out for 9-hour days in the boats tracking sharks that had been equipped with acoustic tags (we could hear the signal using a hydrophone apparatus underwater) or collecting underwater receivers for shark movement data. Everything we did underwater was by free-diving, so I got really good at holding my breath for a long time and getting down really deep to clean/replace receivers, etc. 
Kate doing shark surgery

I learned shark handling skills, and during my last week was trained to go shark wrangling-- basically collecting small sharks from under ledges on the reef to be used for research. No shark bites to speak of, but a LOT of mosquito bites! The bugs were really brutal there during the summer.

It was hard to choose just a few pictures, but here are a few of my favorites! This picture (on left) is from a shark surgery I helped out with-implanting the acoustic tags I was talking about. The others are from various days of research or exploring the island on days we had off. The one at night is us doing a "work up" on a blacktop shark we caught on a longline, so we basically take a bunch of measurements on it, check it for any tags, and then re-release it. This was the first shark I got to tag myself!  
Kate with Blacktop shark on longline

Enjoy, and have a great fall! I'm sure I will see you all soon!"

Kate Meyer is from Williston, Vermont and returned to UC Berkeley this fall to finish up her senior year studying biology. Thanks to Kate and all of ECHO's volunteers and interns who help us carry out our mission every day! 

Maybe your passion will be found at ECHO? If you are interested in volunteering or interning at ECHO, please go to our website link at:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lessons from the Pacific Coast, The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and is taking the time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the third installment.

Lessons from the Pacific Coast
The Hatfield Center, Newport, Oregon
by Phelan R. Fretz, Ph. D.

The Oregon coast
I had always wanted to visit the Hatfield Marine Science Center on the coast of Oregon. The Hatfield Center was named for a homegrown environmentally-focused US Senator, Mark O. Hatfield, in the 1970's. Similarly, Senator Patrick Leahy was honored when we opened ECHO's facility on the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in 2003.
Research vessel
Driving down the breathtaking Oregon coast, with the ocean crashing on the volcanic, black rock fingers reaching out from the cliffs above, I rounded the bend to see a stunning bridge framing Newport's inlet - the mouth of the Yaquina River. Filling 45 acres in this protected harbor lies the Hatfield Marine Science Center. First you see the flotilla of research vessels, with NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, NSF (National Science Foundation) and OSU (Oregon State University) embossed on their bridges. Then your eye moves to the sprawl of buildings housing eight federal and state partners. Mixed in these buildings is their public Visitor Center, the focus of my visit.

Upon first blush, the thriving Hatfield Visitor Center would seem very different from ECHO and the Leahy Center. It is 6x the size of ECHO, has eight national research and public outreach partners (300 staff onsite) with significant investments compared to ECHO's one (UVM), and its focus, marine instead of fresh water, would suggest there's not much for ECHO to learn. But, upon closer inspection, there is a great deal similar to ECHO - the Visitor Center serves 150,000 (mostly in the summer), lies in a small community and has built its public experience on the scientific research of their partners.

The Hatfield Visitors Center is modeling three ideas ECHO should consider based on their partnership with Oregon Sea Grant, a NOAA program integrating research and public outreach. As the nation's first Sea Grant facility awarded 'institutional status,' the Hatfield Center has Sea Grant running the Visitor Center as public outreach, convening leaders when critical environmental issues arise and conducting visitor research.

Dave Hansen, Sea Grant's site manager for the Hatfield Visitor Center, indicated "We staff the visitor experience with five educators and a bunch of aquarists to care for the fish. Because of Sea Grant's support, we ask only for a suggested donation at the door - $5 per person, $20 per family." Dave continues, "Most of the exhibit ideas come from the Hatfield Center's scientists; focusing on fisheries management, tide pool animals, invasive species, and their most popular, impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis." The University of Vermont's Sea Grant program is focused on programs for schools and public outreach. What can/should the role of Sea Grant be in the daily experience at ECHO?

Tsunami tank
In addition to an exhibit, the Japanese tsunami provided the second model idea ECHO should consider, convening leadership when an environmental crisis emerges. Dave explained, "Months after Japan's tsunami, pieces of a commercial dock showed up on our shores."  With great concern, he added, "We are talking about giant concrete structures, a hundred feet long, threats to navigation and covered with invasive species. And to our surprise, the species attached to the docks were alive after their ocean journey, potentially adding new
Live animal tanks
species to our already stressed ecosystem." In response to this crisis, Oregon Sea Grant convened scientists and policy makers to define what to do. Dave added, "We were very successful. Resources were allocated. As more debris arrived, we had a plan." For another issue, with direct implications for Vermont, Dave shared, "All of us in the northwest were struggling with how to stop invasive species arriving on personal boats, a huge issue for the region's lakes and ponds. So we convened all the AG's (Attorney Generals) from the neighboring states and they came up with a coordinated approach." The region now has mandatory boat checks and education programs.
As we prepare to launch the second Leahy Center Environmental Summit in April 2015, is there a role for Sea Grant? Should we be partnering to convene leaders to tackle special problems such as in Oregon?

Dungeness crab
The third model idea is just getting started. About a decade ago, Oregon State University, in partnership with US Sea Grant, launched new professorships in 'free-choice learning', aka, learning that happens in museums, zoos, aquariums and science centers. Two of the nation's thought leaders in this discipline, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, moved to Oregon State's main campus in Corvallis, an hour east of the Hatfield Center. "Because of their leadership", Shawn Rowe, free choice learning leader at the Hatfield Visitors Center, indicated, "we are gaining a much better idea about how people learn in our institutions." Shawn continues about his work, "Recently, we've moved to the idea that museums should be a public forum where people come to make meaning. We're taking visitors seriously as self-directed learners and investigating whether their goals and interests match the museum's goals and offerings - and if not, where do we make the shift?"  The free choice learning work at the Hatfield Visitor Center challenges us at ECHO. Should we consider conducting 'free-choice learning' research with our guests?

I witnessed three models for how Sea Grant is an integral partner in how the Hatfield Marine Science Center engages multiple audiences. What does all this mean for ECHO? I forward to working with Vermont's Sea Grant and ECHO's board and staff to define the answers.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Intensive Lab Experiences in Milwaukee

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and is taking the time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the second installment.

Intensive Lab Experiences in Milwaukee
Phelan R Fretz, Ph. D.

Pursuing golden examples to inform ECHO's future is part of my sabbatical this summer. Last fall, ECHO was invited to join the Great Lakes Network, a partnership of eight similar institutions from Quebec to Duluth, Minnesota aiming to better interpret the shared waters that drain into the St. Lawrence River and in ECHO's case, Lake Champlain. Discovery World in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, stood out as an innovator in how they engage their guests. After meeting Discovery World's Education Coordinator Kristen Smith at the fall Network meeting, I put them on my short list to visit; they did not disappoint.

Upon arrival at Milwaukee's waterfront, I was heartily welcomed at the front door with a big hug from Kristen. She introduced their executive director Joel Brennan. He shared, "we opened our 120,000 sq ft, $95 million facility in 2007.  Of all the strategies we employ to engage our 300,000 annual guests, our labs have the greatest impact." "Funny you should say that", I inject, "for that is just the reason I am here today."  

All the labs are on the lower level, below the extensive, more traditional science center exhibits on the two floors above. We first
Design It Lab "Fashion Accessories"
enter the Kohl's Design-it Lab where a class of upper elementary girls are designing and building fashion accessories. "The emphasis is on the process - design it, make it, test it, and revise," Kristen said, "The goal is to go through ta real design process, from start to finish."

LEGO Lab at Discovery World
Next door, Kristen introduced me to the Thirst Lab by indicating, "With a real brewery set-up, and one of the region's only female brewers, we have built a whole new interest from women."  She continues, "the lab is also the platform for all of our culinary, forensic and kitchen chemistry classes."  Further down the hall are labs focused on broadcast journalism, silk screening, technology (including a LEGO FIRST league) and 3D art. Kristen summarized their goal and use, "During the week, all the labs are reserved for groups such as school classes, summer camps and Girl Scouts. On weekends, the labs are open to the public." And proudly she added, "The topics change monthly and never repeat! We would rather engage someone for a whole week rather for a single afternoon."

The more traditional exhibits upstairs should also be noted.  A whole section is committed to energy education, along with a massive model of the Great Lakes system including real running water and a complete overview of what it takes to clean the water you flush down the toilet.  Outside, is the three-mast tall ship, the Denis Sullivan, that does 3-hour to week-long sailing tours of Lake Michigan.

Model of the Great Lakes water system
Sailing vessel, Denis Sullivan
The strategies at Discovery World are of particular interest to ECHO, especially those employed in the labs. While Kristen would be the first to say, "The labs are resource intensive, but they provide a deeply engaging platform to educate guests in a wide variety of topics." 
KOHL's sponsored Design-It Lab

Without a changing exhibit hall like ECHO's, Discovery World uses the ever-changing labs to continue to create a reason to return. The labs have also enabled the building of strong partnerships with local companies - linking the activity of the company to innovation, technology and water quality.  For example, Kohls Department Store has funded the Design-It Lab the past few years with over $4 million - focusing on building the community's skills in continual innovation, a strategy they employ in their business.  

The journey continues and I look forward to sharing the next bit of "learning on the road".

To be continued....

Monday, July 14, 2014

Magic in Missoula

The following blog was written by ECHO's Executive Director Phelan Fretz. He is on a summer sabbatical from ECHO and using this time to explore the country. He promised to send us "nuggets of learning" from the field, and this is the first of what we hope will be several more installments. 

Magic in Missoula
by Phelan R Fretz, Ph.D.

Activity station at SpectrUM
Pursuing golden examples to inform ECHO's future is part of my sabbatical this summer. With over 350 science centers and aquariums nationwide - all eager to share - deciding on which centers to visit and learn from is the toughest challenge. I heard about the extraordinary work of SpectrUM (UM is caps for University of Montana - and a clue to their story) in Missoula, Montana through ECHO's director of education, Molly Loomis. 

Interactive watershed table at SpectrUM 

Molly recently completed a national leadership institute and met the SpectrUM director Holly Truitt. This week, Holly welcomed me to their new center in downtown Missoula, a recent move from a smaller space on campus. Upon first glance, the 4,000 sq. ft. retail location overlooking busy Front Street is like many other science centers. One corner is all about our brain with microscopes and models. Another corner features a model of their watershed with a working stream table. What looks like a restaurant bar is actually an activity station - with today's focus on fingerprints. 

There is so much to learn from and absorb at SpectrUM but two things stood out for me, the first is that the University of Montana's EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program is recognized in every SpectrUM exhibit and the second thing is how they manage educational outreach to far flung areas of rural and expansive Montana.  

Mini-science center and lab at the University of Montana
First, about UM. In 2007, as an EPSCoR recipient, (EPSCor is a National Science Foundation program that aims to strengthen STEM education and research*), UM decided to proactively create opportunities for their faculty to "broaden the impact" of their scientific research by building a mini-science center on campus. As the founding director, Holly indicated why this is so important. "Scientists that demonstrate real strategies to reach the public in their research proposals are more competitive", she said. "It's a win-win," she continued, "by committing to support public engagement through SpectrUM, we receive financial support and the faculty are more likely to get their grant."

Holly's creativity didn't stop here, which brings me to my second point. Simultaneous to creating the mini-science center on campus, they created a platform to deliver science education not just in Missoula, but across the state. Holly shared, "our traveling program is designed to serve as a week-long science-in-resident experience, transforming the state's far-reaching schools into science centers." The day I visited, the traveling program was on its way to a Native American Pow Wow.

With the UM president sitting on SpectrUM's advisory board, along with faculty and civic leaders, the institution realizes the full support of both the community and the university - a very powerful combination. 

So why is this a golden example for ECHO to think about? Two reasons. Born in the University, SpectrUM is highly integrated into the workings of the university and thus receives both funding and access to cutting-edge research to support public outreach (it is actually a department of UM). Second, if they can figure out how to create, fund, and deliver a traveling program across rural Montana, we should consider the same in Vermont. After all, it's a 10-hour drive across Montana - the same as driving to Washington, DC from Burlington, Vermont.

*NSF provides special support to state universities to grow their faculty's competitive research skills and capacity; often in states with smaller populations such as Montana and Vermont. Mor information about NSF EPSCor program can be found here: