Science for Everyone

Natural History/Phenology

Digging Holes and Identifying Earthworms

Post by Ben Lemmond, Resident UVM Field Naturalist Masters Student

“Pieces, patterns, processes” is one of the fundamental mantras of the field naturalist program, some of the others being “don’t be a bird plow” and “use the layer cake approach.” About a week ago, one of my committee members by the name of Josef Gorres came to visit my project in situ here on Hurricane. Josef is a soil science professor and earthworm researcher at UVM, and, accordingly, we spent the weekend digging holes and identifying earthworms. Ever since his visit, I’ve had one such process on my mind: how have the soils formed here? And, perhaps more precisely, how has enough soil formed here to support a dense spruce-fir forest, after most of the trees were cleared around the turn of the 20th century?

Not being a soil scientist myself, I can’t give a totally satisfying answer to this question. But here are some of my observations so far.

First of all, I am surprised at how visible the disintegration of granite is. I always thought of granite as some sort of superlatively hard type of rock, but standing on some of the outcrops by the ocean on Hurricane, you can scuff a shoe on any of the rocks and feel the granite flake away; look around, and whole sections of the rock seem to be missing, sliced away in deep cuts by the waves or pulled out horizontally like pieces of some geologic game of Jenga. Standing on granite by the shore gives one the feeling of standing on a giant sugar cube, not on solid rock.

Secondly, the making of soil – that slowest-of-slow process, the inchworm on the ecologic freeway – seems to be happening very much in real time. On the south end of the island, near the old cutting shed, there are a number of rocks that were cut and left behind sometime very close to 1914. You can actually look from one rock to another and see the story of succession and soil development: crust lichens give way to foliose lichens, foliose lichens collect granite fragments and plant debris, eventually enough accumulates to host pincushion mosses, and then finally you start to see vascular plants, who demand the most of their host soils, springing up through it all. As an added bonus, you get a tiny little experiment in island biogeography happening on these rocks, as there is an apparent correlation between the size of the rock and the complexity of the life forms on it.

And, last of all, thanks to Josef, I’ve gotten a glimpse at what lies beneath. There are soils so acidic they expel the iron from the rock and ball it up into knotty concretions. There are weathered chunks of rock, rounded by water from a time when Hurricane Island stood below sea level. Near the cutting shed, there are flakes of granite chipped off by stone workers. Wherever Europeans settled, there are earthworms brought over in ballast soil or garden plants. I’ve got a few collections of soil that I’ll take to his lab now that I’m back in Burlington: I can’t wait to see what else I learn.

Subscribe in a reader

Don't Take this Place for Granite

Post by Bailey Mortiz, Scallop Research Intern

This may or may not be a crescentic gauge carved out by an active glacier.

Flipping through the igneous rock section of my geology textbook, theres a striking photo of white and black rocks swirled together, a prime example of two different magmas mixing in a chamber hundreds of thousands of years ago. The photos caption cites none other than our neighboring island, Vinalhaven, which has been studied by geologists the world over for its fascinating and unique rock features. Every geologic formation and the rocks that build it have a story to tell about the locations history. Hurricane Island is no exception, and as is true almost anywhere on the Maine coast, theres a lot of interesting geology to be observed underfoot.

 xenolith- Magma of different composition mixed with the granite to form these ubiquitous enclaves around the island

Granite makes up the island and granite is responsible for much of its human history, giving rise to the booming quarry town that once was. Granite consists primarily of 3 minerals; quartz, feldspar, and biotite. Different ratios of these minerals give rise to different colors and textures of granite. The granite of Hurricane Island is tannish in color and has notably high potassium feldspar content. Reddish granite slabs pop up here and there around the island, and these were brought in from other places with other mineral compositions to be carved by the skilled quarrymen of Hurricane. Architects and builders could peruse catalogs that described granite by its color and grain size quality in order to decide where to purchase the material from. Potassium rich granite from Hurricane Island was selected for the Washington Monument and streets of Havana, Cuba.

As these granite bodies cooled within the earth, another type of magma, one that was darker in color and therefore more rich in iron content, intruded in and caused pockets of different material, called mafic enclaves, to appear throughout. Next time you visit Hurricane Island, see if you can spot some on the exposed rock, ranging anywhere from several inches to several feet across. But these odd bubbles within the granite were not always visible. About 13,000 years ago, the last of the glaciers that once covered this place in deep ice finally retreated. Although the granite has been well weathered, there are still some potential places where we can find evidence of past glacial movement. Striations are a set of parallel scrapes that a glacier literally carves into the bedrock as it slides. Crescentic gauges are chips out of the bedrock that occur as heavy ice puts pressure on the surface below it. Examples of both can be seen around here.

Beautiful colored garnets peeking out of a pegmatite boulder.

On a stroll to the north end of the island, we came across a magnificent while boulder with large grain sizes of feldspar. Even though it did not originate here, it is my favorite rock on Hurricane. Embedded amongst the white feldspar minerals is another glistening surprise; beautiful, perfect maroon garnets! Garnets are the birthstone of January and a common gemstone for jewelry, but it’s even cooler to find them in their natural state. This rock is a pegmatite, which is an igneous magma that cools really slowly, allowing enough time for larger and more unique minerals to form. But a phenomenon like this would not be found on Hurricane. Perhaps a glacier carried it along, or maybe it was brought by human hands for trade. Either way, it adds a nice touch to the natural geology museum that exists all around us.

Subscribe in a reader

On Cloud Nine

Post by Bailey Moritz, Scallop Research Intern

Wherever you are right now, stop, go outside, and look up at the sky. Are there clouds up there? Do they appear fluffy, wispy, or flat? Maybe its sunset and they are streaked with colors. What shapes come to mind? In The Cloudspotter’s Guide,  Gavin Pretor-Pinney describes clouds as the most egalitarian of natures displays, because anyone can view them, at absolutely any time they want. And when you start to pay more attention to them, you begin to notice the variety of clouds that appear are as vast as the sky itself. Summer is the time to have your head in the clouds, and here are a few of the types we have seen flying high above Hurricane Island recently;

On a sunny day, the cumulus clouds are piling up, with a cirrus cloud known as a horsetail in the background.

Cumulus- When we think of clouds, this puffy, friendly type is probably the first image that comes to mind. As water evaporates from the earths surface, it creates a thermal column of air that begins to form water droplets once it reaches a layer of cooler air. These water droplets build and “accumulate” to form a cumulus cloud. As more and more water evaporates, the cloud grows bigger, and eventually becomes the giant storm cloud, cumulonimbus, capable of showering us with lightning, rain, and hail. The water in a typical cumulus cloud weights about as much as 80 elephants!

Cirrus- These clouds are the highest forming variety. Deriving from the latin word for “lock of hair”, the cirrus’ wispy appearance is actually due to the fact that they are made of ice crystals expanding across the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Even on the hottest of days, there may be snow overhead!

A family of virga fall from above.

Virga- When higher clouds like cirrus actually start to precipitate, or rain down their water, charismatic formations known as virga may appear. As the precipitation falls, it hits a warmer, dryer layer of air and the water evaporates before reaching the earth.

Fog- Fog is something we are very familiar with on the coast of Maine. A type of stratus cloud, coastal fog forms when air passes over a stretch of warm ocean water, and then encounters a colder current. This sudden drop in temperature right at the waters surface basically causes a water droplet cloud to form low to the ground, enveloping us all.

Contrails- We leave our mark on the sky as much as we do on the earth. Contrails form when the hot exhaust from airplanes cools rapidly into ice crystals in its wake. The tiny particles in the exhaust give the ice something to cling to and they can grow rapidly. If contrails don’t appear behind a plane or they disappear really quickly, it’s a sign that the air is dry and clear skies will likely continue.

Fog rolls in over the quarry

Who knows what worldy destinations these contrails lead to.

Subscribe in a reader

Updates from the Field Naturalist

Post by Ben Lemmond, UVM Field Naturalist

Just for a moment, rewind your mental tape back late March of of this year: that time when everybody starts talking about spring (because, you know, the equinox and all) but, if you live in New England, the actual idea of anything turning green anytime soon seems pretty far-fetched. It’s that magical time of year when the petrified dog poop and cigarette butts of last Fall start to emerge from underneath the ash-colored snow on city sidewalks, not to be covered up by anything green for another two months. Poet and author Ranier Maria Rilke once said “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” Think back to early spring. Even in that grey season, with the gears of spring still stuck in neutral, what big moments were setting the stage so that they unfold as soon as things warmed up?

It was around this time of year when I found out that I would be working with the Hurricane Island Foundation for my master’s project, though I hadn’t a clue what exactly that would mean. Being a graduate student, I’ve learned, means constantly doing things you feel wildly unprepared to do. It’s a special kind of limbo, one where you’re constantly travelling between paradoxical versions of yourself: student and teacher, professional and newbie, expert and idiot savant. This way of life almost guarantees surprises, since everything moves too quickly for any part of it to become familiar. Suddenly I am standing in front of a lab room full of college sophomores, explaining how to pipette solutions through a channel slide with a thin slice of rabbit psoas muscle mounted on it, in the hopes of making it twitch with the right combination of solutions. In what strange spring was that vision of myself planted?

Field fashion

I’ve now been on Hurricane for four full weeks, conducting an initial ecological survey and developing my own coarse-filter map of general landscape and vegetation patterns here. This means that I’ve been spending most of my time wandering through the island with a canvas bag full of nature-nerd paraphernalia: field guides, a GPS, binoculars, a hand lens, plants to be pressed, many of these items (except the plants) cycling through my free hands and pockets or slung around my neck, depending on the terrain and the amount of backup I needed to make my way knowledgeably through it. I have to admit, this task has been more challenging than I expected, mostly because the better I feel I understand the plant communities here, the more fragmented, temporary, and in transition they appear to me.

The flip side of this apparent chaos is that every day in the field is another opportunity to be surprised. The other day, I found the island’s one and only eastern white pine next to the island’s one and only red maple on a hillside of an obscure outwash I decided to explore on a whim, after my field foray was officially over for the day. White pines and hardwoods certainly used to be a presence on Maine islands, but were almost entirely cleared for shipbuilding or lumber by the mid-1800s. On a 125-acre island where many of the spruce are ageing out, the presence of these two species is significant, even though I don’t know exactly what to make of it yet.

An interesting facet of the island is that, species-wise, there are many of these lone individuals here: in addition to the pine and the maple, there is exactly one American elm, one grey willow, one royal fern, and one steeplebush here – at least that I’ve found after four weeks of walk-throughs. The other week, a bird-banding class caught the first robin and red-eyed vireo that any of us had seen on the island. Anywhere else, many of these species would be completely unremarkable. But on this island where things are moving constantly and complexly, a place where chance encounters often teach me more than what I set out to look for, even a robin or a pine tree regains some of the magic of something seen for the first time. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true: I have never been so excited to see a pine tree. That might not be what I write in my official report at the end of it all, but for now, I’m really enjoying the way that being on a small island brings these small surprises in to sharp focus.

Ben Lemmond is a graduate student in the Field Naturalist program at the University of Vermont. Learn more about the program at:

Looking out from the high cliffs

Subscribe in a reader

A Bloom of Jellies Make for an Exciting Morning

Post by Olivia Lukacic, Science Education Intern


This lion's mane is one of three seen this morning ranging from five inches in diameter up to a foot! These jellies are most dangerous to us humans as their stinging cells can leave a harmful rash.

When Bailey, the scallop research intern, got up early to see the sunrise and get a start on processing another spat bag on July 10, 2015 she was in awe of what she saw off of the dock. It seems that overnight a whole bloom of jellies had entered Hurricane Sound. We often see mats of rockweed around our main pier with the flow of tides, but this one brought a high density of jellyfish and other wonders. In this group there were comb jellies, moon jellies, and lion's mane, all of which are routinely found in coastal Maine. But what was stumping us was that these were far and few between to the hundreds of a type of jellies that we had never seen before. These were clear to opaque jellies with a white to pinkish purple cross on their main bell. We determined that these curious jellies are white cross hydromedusa (Staurophora mertensii). Not much is known about them, with their range thought to be worldwide but specifically from the arctic to Rhode Island. A quick row out into the cove showed that these jellies were mainly around the floating rockweed and we think they are moving with a current.

A few of the hundreds of white cross hydromedusa found near the dock this morning. These are pictured with a few scallop spat bags. 

Our bloom of white cross hydromedusa is not a unique occurrence for Maine right now, at least in broad terms of jellies. This spring to summer season has already seen many areas of high density jelly blooms raising concern among the public. Although the lions mane is the only common Maine jelly that could pose health risks to humans, the large quantities of moon and comb jellies are still disconcerting. Jellies are a largely understudied group of marine species in Maine, so finding an answer for these blooms is a challenge. The best hypothesis to explaining the influx of jellies range from a response to overfishing, to oxygen depletion from land runoff, to warming waters. Although this winter was cold in comparison to the past decade or so, cold winters only affect the waters close to shore. In fact the Gulf of Maine is warming much faster than the most other oceans, raising concern in all aspects of fisheries and marine studies. We hope that here on Hurricane and in the greater scientific community we can begin to understand what is happening to our coastal waters and what each new tide brings in. 

Subscribe in a reader