Magic People

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The world is so full of magic people who show up in so many different ways. I want to share one of our most recent fairytale moments from our new friend, Sandra:

Early in the summer I got this letter in the mail. It was with a cute card, a hand written envelope that opened to this. I thought, thats a neat study! And this is how we met Sandra!

James says I’m long winded in email. It’s a fair point. I have tried to play it cool but I was excited because we had just done a unit on pond ecosystems and I thought the kids, at least Hazel, would think it was cool to see some real life science. The world is so serendipitous it’s silly sometimes! I kept it short and something along the lines of, “You bet and also can my kids watch you, we’ll stay out of the way?”

Kicking it off

Sandra replied promptly to the affirmative. She came out a few days later and walked Hazel through how and why she was testing the water. When there was a blip in the schedule and we couldn’t watch, this is where the magic starts, she emailed Hazel with the specifics of the process, with videos and pictures of what she was looking for and what they found!

“Sorry I missed you guys! Thank you so much for having me out to your pond. You have such a cute family!
I’m still waiting for the results from the lab. We’re a little behind, but should have the results this week. I added some pictures for your kids to see what the filtering looks like since they weren’t able to watch. We collect it in sterile bags then filter it with a hand pump. Everything collects on the filter and then they extract the DNA from the filter in the lab. And a short video of one of the tiger salamander larvae we caught at the UI Golf Course because they look so cool. Loved hearing Hazel wants to be a scientist, keeping nurturing that. We always need awesome women in the field.”


“Here are some photos of the enclosure we are going to put the salamander larvae in at the field site, and a praying mantis for Hazel and Miles.”

Results are in

Then the results came back! We DO have some Tiger Salamanders! We were so excited we got to follow this study along further!

The next step was for her to come trap a couple baby salamanders, if she can, and transport them to a remote pond they have located on Moscow Mountain where they believe tiger salamanders will thrive but where there are currently no tiger salamanders living. That will become their baseline environment. From there they will be taking samples over time in various conditions and testing how much eDNA is present in various substances. They will then be able to make educated theories about how far eDNA can travel and will be using that to search for and protect endangered species the world round. It’s an interesting study and it’s totally fun that some little guys from our pond are about to be relocated to their own private Idaho. All they have to do is live their best life and they will be helping other animals!

Again I asked if we could watch and she said SURE! And then she brought an extra net and encouraged Hazel to get in and help if she could! So my kid got to help drag a net, set some traps, use a hoop net to try to grab some herself. She got a one-on-one education from a couple legit scientists about invertebrates, amphibians and salamanders specifically. They explained how and why they did all of the things to protect the salamanders and any other animals who might get caught.

Out of her way

She then sent pictures of how the manders will be taken care of, explaining the whole scientific process to my daughter! This is the final habitat that they will float in the new pond. She showed her whole team and process photos along the way. None of these were things she had to. She went out of her way to share with Hazel how much she enjoyed her life. It really struck a chord.

They struck out in our pond but she updates Hazel specifically on what her traps caught. We were volunteering when they got checked. She did find some at another pond in town and took the time to keep us updated on the study as it went:

“A few project updates. We finally found some salamanders! We caught them in a large pond in Moscow, by Mountain View Park.These ones were very large and very cool because they were peadomorphs. These are adults that have kept their larval form, and this occurs when conditions are more favorable and there is lots of food in the pond. We caught 9 of them with the big net we used at your pond. They were deep and we had to flood our waders to get them! Tiger salamanders are interesting because they can have this morphology when conditions are good, or when they are in their larval stage and at high densities, they have a cannibalistic morph. When this happens, a few will get an extra-large head and their teeth will change and they will predate on the others! Wild! Amphibians are cool.

Please meet Thikky Theo and the gang. Hazel, we have 8 more that don’t have names. I was wondering if you would want to help us think of a couple? For all your previous help, I would be honored if you wanted to name them. You can ask your brother if he would like to help also.

Interestingly, when we moved them to the other pond and had the hot weather conditions were no longer more favorable for them and it triggered some of them into metamorphosis. We have four in the lab that have sucked in their gills (see the pic above) and are turning into terrestrial salamanders and 5 that are still left in the enclosure. The last three pictures show the progression of metamorphosis. You can see the gills getting shorter as they begin to suck them in, until they are just little nubs as in the last picture. Their eyes also begin to protrude like googly eyes. That last sal is ready to crawl out of the pond and is now an adult terrestrial salamander in the lab.

We have conducted 5 rounds of sampling. Hooray! Here are some pictures of the crew in action. It has taken an army. We are using a pulley to collect surface samples across the whole pond and using pumps to extract water samples 1.5 m below the surface. Trying to find the eDNA!”


Now I like amphibians

So, I have to say, I didn’t really care that deeply initially but saw it as the learning opportunity for my kids. Through talking to Sandra, I was able to ask a few questions and she really piqued my interest in amphibians. To the point I have taken some deep dives learning more about them! People who are passionate about their work are contagious. Sandra just exudes a love for her studies. It’s hard to not see why when you hear someone like that speak! The information I have sought out, because of Sandra, will undoubtedly help my kids’ education.

So Hazel sent back some names:

  • Sally
  • Salvador
  • Mandi
  • Mando 
  • Googly
  • Stringy
  • Gill
  • Hank

“Wow! These names are amazing! Tell Hazel job well done!! I couldn’t have picked better ones myself😀 I particularly love, Sally and Gill (very clever), and Mando, well, all of them actually! Haha.”


And then look at these pictures she sent! They got name tags!!

She also sent an update on how the project was going and a whole bunch of cool information about amphibians. There were links and pictures for us to dig into. She shared that the study didn’t go as they hoped but how that was ok. That’s just a different learning experience than they expected. Still valued information.

The information goes forward

We were well into our fungus unit when we got this latest email and couldn’t help but see similarities between fungus and amphibians; some glow, some are poisonous, they have weird body functions. The kids were able to get really curious about mushrooms because of the information the gleaned via Sandra and her science experiment.

While getting all this information was amazing, I think the most important lesson Hazel and Miles got was being able to see what passion can look like, and FEEL like, when shared! I think Hazel was touched on a fundamental level by getting to experience the small but magic gesture of being asked to come help on such a cool project. Sandra talked to her as an excited learner herself, not a big fancy scientist. Every question was met with “Oh, great observation, I think…”. Hazel was made to feel valid and that makes all the difference in a life!


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