Teaching Canada in the United States

Courtney Lannen is a senior in Lyman Briggs College. She is interested in teaching the biological sciences to secondary education students. Courtney's essay "Biology behind the Beaver," is about advancing the students' understanding of geography, flora and fauna of Canada and North America while pointing out shared and unique ecosystems with the U.S.

Teaching Canada: Biology Beyond the Beaver

Courtney Lannen

Canada's vast expanses of coastline, mountains, tundra, and prairie are not only unique in their beauty but in their biology. In learning about Canada, students become exposed to a variety of climates and ecosystems. Despite common misconceptions, there is much more to the biology of Canada than the well-known symbols like the moose, the maple leaf and the beaver. Knowledge about Canada directly contributes to knowledge about biology. Each province and territory has its own flora and fauna relevant to biology students throughout the world today.

Starting with Newfoundland and Laborador, students become exposed to the ecosystem of the northern Atlantic Ocean. In Newfoundland it is possible to watch stunning animals including whales, elk, and seabirds. These creatures captivate the attention of students of all ages. The history of Newfoundland also includes a tragedy from which students can learn and important biological concept-environmental stewardship. The Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua, once flourished in the pristine waters of the Atlantic. However, between 1962 and 1992, the population of the fish plummeted. The cause of the decline of this once abundant species was overfishing (Hutchings 1994). The loss of this species had costly environmental and economic impacts. About 19,000 fishermen lost their jobs and 20,000 related jobs were lost (Mason 2002). This species was not only important to humans but to other species too. The collapse of the cod population is a good example of other biological concepts including food webs, predator-prey relationships and top down tropic levels. The size of the cod population is inversely related to the size of shrimp populations. So as the cod population declined, the shrimp population grew since cod are a predator of shrimp (Worm 2003). Newfoundland can teach students that human actions do impact the environment and that this has consequences on humans and on other species as well.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are provinces of islands. They are prototypical in teaching how island ecosystems work. For example, islands often have species unique to them. In Nova Scotia, one species of brown bats, known as the Hoary bat, is quite common. Although it does live in other parts of North America, this bat favors only a few hibernation sites, four of which are in Nova Scotia. This species likes to hibernate in abandoned mines and caves not present in other parts of the continent. Although this species is not endangered, the reliance on only a few hibernation dens causes it to have a fragile existence. If something happened to the places where the Hoary bat hibernates, the effects on the population could be devastating. The people and government of Nova Scotia are taking action to protect the bats' habitat (Mason 2003). Nova Scotia's island ecosystem also supports an endangered plant species,Sabatia kennedyana, which only grows in glacial costal ponds (Elliston 2006). Since island habitats have some common features, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are good representatives of how this works.

The next province to the south, New Brunswick is unique because much of the western edge is part of the Appalachian Mountain Range. The mountains in New Brunswick are some of the oldest mountains on earth. This natural feature could help teach a lesson on erosion and weathering, two important scientific concepts. Since these mountains have faced years of weathering from wind, water, and abrasion by sand they are not as tall as some younger mountains like the Rocky Mountains which are found in British Columbia. A lesson about New Brunswick could also be a good place to introduce ideas about mountain formation. In addition, New Brunswick experiences some of the most drastic tidal changes on the planet in its famous Bay of Fundy. This would present an opportunity to teach how the ebb and flow of the tide work. Students could learn about the various mollusks, plants and fish that thrive in tidal pools.

Moving west, students could now learn about Quebec and biomes. Quebec is home to the biome known as Boreal Forest or Taiga. In this type of biome, the winters are long and cold and the summer is quite short. The ground remains moist throughout the summer due to the winter snow melt and this allows for extensive plant growth. Trees that make up boreal forests are often conifers or pine trees. This type of biome is unique to the Northern Hemisphere. After introducing the biome of Quebec, students could learn about other biomes in other parts of Canada. This lesson could introduce the grasslands of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, the tundra of the Northwest Terroritories, the mountain biome of British Columbia, the maritime biome already discussed in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick and finally the temperate deciduous forest biome of Southern Ontario.

To the west of Quebec is Ontario. Ontario is familiar to many Michiganders because it is our neighbor to the north and it shares one of our most treasured and scientifically important resources, the Great Lakes. The province of Ontario boarders Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior-all of the lakes except Lake Michigan. By learning about Ontario, science students can learn a little bit about the geography and biology surrounding them. In a classroom setting in Michigan, it would be crucial to spend a significant amount of time discussing Ontario because numerous issues that pertain to Ontario pertain to Michigan. Also, talking about the Great Lakes is important in science classes because they help introduce interesting and currently relevant topics like invasive species. Three of the most commonly discussed invasive species with relevance to the Great Lakes include zebra mussels, the lamprey eel, and most recently Asian Carp. Zebra mussels are bivalve mollusks that go by the scientific name Dreissena polymorpha. They are native to Eurasia, specifically the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. When water travel became more common in the 1800s, the species spread throughout Europe to England, Ireland, parts of Scandinavia, and by 1988 they were found in the Great Lakes. It is believed that zebra mussel larvae were introduced to the lakes by ballast water from a ship that came to them from Russia. Zebra mussels are present in the waters of Ontario and have had a tremendous effect on the ecosystem. They filter protozoa, bacteria, and phytoplankton out of the water. This makes the water clearer, allowing in more sunlight. The extra sunlight leads to more plant growth and eutrophication of the lakes. This one little species has a huge overall impact on the ecosystem of the lakes (Benson 2010). The lamprey eel is another invasive species important in science and to the ecosystems of Michigan and Ontario. It is also known as the sea lamprey and it is a type of fish that resembles an eel. It is found in the Atlantic Ocean and made its way up the Hudson River to the Great lakes in 1947. It is a parasite to other fish because it attaches to them and sucks out their body fluids. Since the introduction of the lamprey eel to the Great Lakes, both Lake Trout and Whitefish populations have diminished. At one time both fish were important in commercial fishing in the United States and Canada but now the supply is much smaller (Fields 2005).The third invasive species important to the Great Lakes is Asian Carp. Asian carp is actually a general term for a few related species of carp. The reason their invasion alarms biologists is because they can grow to tremendous sizes and eat up to 40% of their bodyweight. This disrupts the balance of the food chain. In addition, when the carp hear the engine of a boat they jump out of the water and make boating, water-skiing, and other aquatic activities dangerous (Hansen 2010). They have not yet officially invaded and established a presence in the lakes but are currently a major issue in diplomacy between the United States and Canada. This presents a good opportunity for students to collect information on current events and to debate the best course of action to take to solve the issue. A fun activity to set up would be to have students pretend to have an international conference and debate the science and governmental policy of this issue.

Manitoba is the next province to the west. Saskatchewan is located just west of Manitoba. These provinces are known for agriculture and their prairie lands. Despite the vast expanses of prairie, the land is not entirely desolate. It is covered by lakes and rivers. The most famous lake in Manitoba is Lake Winnipeg. The northernmost part of Manitoba boarders the Hudson Bay. In learning about these provinces, students can become exposed to the relationship between biology and agriculture. One of the newest emerging fields in biochemistry is bio-energy and bio-fuels. This area of biochemistry relates strongly to agriculture. It is important for students to learn about bio-energy because it has potential to change not only science but the economic, political, and environmental future of industrialized countries. Manitoba has the potential to produce acres of crops that are commonly used in bio-fuels like corn and wheat. The governmental agricultural department is planning on developing more bio-fuel production in Manitoba. In this unit, students could learn how bio-fuels are produced and what the benefits and drawbacks of using them are. The processes of making other forms of energy including fossil fuel use, solar power, nuclear energy, and wind energy could also be discussed. The agriculture in Manitoba and Saskatchewan will play an important role in the future of energy and biochemistry.

Moving west from Saskatchewan is Alberta. One of the most defining features of Alberta is the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are home to many of the iconic images of Canada. For example, the moose, grizzly bear, black bear, and mountain lion all call the Canadian Rockies home. Students could learn about the interactions between these big animals and the environment that surrounds them. The mountains also present an opportunity to talk about the concept of rain shadows, in the classroom. In North America, there is a prevailing westerly wind off of the Pacific Ocean. When this wind hits a mountain range, the moisture from the air is deposited on the western side of the range. This causes the land east of the mountain range to be relatively moisture and precipitation free. The Rocky Mountains give that part of Alberta its dry continental climate. This type of climate impacts the plant and animal life within the rain shadow. One side of the range will be verdant with plant growth and the other side of the range will have only hearty plants that can survive with less water and a harsher climate.

Across the Rockies from Alberta is British Columbia, which recently received attention for hosting the winter Olympics. British Columbia is wedged between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. This unique geographical situation leads British Columbia to be home to many unique species. Of the 306 bird species that inhabit British Columbia 162 of those species breed nowhere else in Canada. In addition, due to its position on the western side of the Rocky Mountain Range, the environmental conditions in British Columbia are conducive to the growth of mosses and lichen. This province has more than 1596 native species of lichen (Ministry of Environment). A classroom lesson about British Columbia could introduce ideas about the importance of mosses and lichen in an ecosystem. Also, older students could learn about mosses from a microbiological perspective.

Finally, the last three territories of Canada could be discussed. These include the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the Nunavut Territory. This vast expanse of land is different from any other place on earth. The most defining feature of these territories is the arctic climate. Lessons about the arctic can be eye-opening for many students. Many people believe that the arctic is a land of desolation. It is true that many things cannot grow in the arctic due to the harsh conditions. For example, students are often startled to learn that there is a tree-line where trees can no longer grow due to the harsh conditions. However, many small mammals are able to survive in the climate these include the arctic fox, the arctic hare, and the arctic wolf. These animals survive by having thick fur coats, eating small sea-creatures if they live by the coast, and sometimes each other. The species of the Far North illustrate the important biology concept of adaptation.

Canada is such a large and diverse landmass that it helps cover many concepts related to biology. Each province and territory has aspects that help students connect biology to real life. Through learning about Canada, students get introduced to numerous important scientific concepts. Biology, in relationship to Canada, goes far beyond the beaver.

Works Cited

Benson, A. J. and D. Raikow. 2010. Dreissena polymorpha. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL. Revision Date: 7/7/2010

"Biodiversity in British Columbia." Ministry of Environment. Government of British Columbia, 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Elliston, Orrell. "Natural history, genetics and population biology of Sabatia kennedyana (Plymouth gentian): An endangered plant of Atlantic coastal plain pondshores." University of Massachusetts (2006).

Fields, Scott. "Great Lakes: Resource at Risk." Environmental Health Perspectives 113.9 (2005).

Hansen, Michael. "The Asian Carp Threat to the Great Lakes." Great Lakes Fishery Commission (2010). Print

Hutchings, Jeffery. "What Can Be Learned from the Collapse of a Renewable Resource? Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua, of Newfoundland and Labrador." Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 51.9 (1994): 2126-46.

Mason, Fred. "The Newfoundland Cod Stock Collapse: A Review and Analysis of Social Factors." Electronic Green Journal 1.17 (2002).

Mason, Tom. "Nature's Resources." Charting Nova Scotia's Native Species. N.p., July 2003. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Worm, Boris. "Meta-Analysis of Cod-Shrimp Interactions Reveals Top-Down Control in Oceanic Food Webs." Ecology 84.1 (2002).


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