SPREE started April by hosting a holiday camp on Monday. The camp’s theme was Amazing Animal Engineers…. though campers quickly pointed out that plants can be engineers too! Campers began the day exploring the definition of an engineer- someone that solves problems, usually though innovation, design, and building.
While it is easy to associate engineering with humans, it is true that we have many ecosystem engineers in Denver. An ecosystem engineer is an organism that creates, maintain, or destroys habitats. Ecosystem engineers typically have a large impact on species richness of an area, or the number of species we see in a given space. Since we only had one day of camp, we focused on both charismatic and overlooked ecosystem engineers in Colorado- the beaver, prairie dogs, freshwater clams, and trees.
In our first activity, campers transformed into beavers to learn about why beavers build dams. A beaver has webbed feet, and is much better at swimming than walking. Beavers build dams to flood rivers so they can swim to their food. Beavers bring the food to themselves! While the motivation of a beaver creating a dam is selfish, the resulting beaver pond that is created creates a riparian ecosystem. Riparian ecosystems form near water- over 80% of Denver’s species need riparian ecosystems, but only 2% of land space is riparian. Campers practiced building beaver dams to flood a river so they could collect food without getting gobbled up by a land predator.
SPREE Beavers practicing getting food from the River
Prairie dogs were the theme of our second activity. At SPREE, we can’t teach about prairie dogs without building a human-size prairie dog town creating tunnels with blankets. Campers transformed into prairie dogs to play a game of survival. Taking turns as the sentinel, or watchman dog, a dog would “yip” when they saw a predator signaling to other prairie dogs to get safely back to the tunnels. Prairie dogs are ecosystem engineers because they create tunnels, which create homes for other animals (like burrowing owls, snakes, rodents) and aerate soil which promotes plant growth.
Each SPREE prairie dog family came up with a unique way to build their tunnels
During critter crawl, our third activity campers learned about how clams in our River are engineers. Clams are pretty incredible creatures that filter water to find their food. As they are filtering food out of the water, clams clean the water too. We went down to the river to count the number of clams we caught, along with many crawdads & leeches that were down there as well!
How many clams do you think we caught?
We wrapped up the day talking about an ecosystem engineer that is easily overlooked when it shares its space with more charismatic engineers- trees. Trees are fantastic organisms that among other things make the air we breathe! They also create habitats and homes for many other plants and animals in our city, making them engineers. We learned about trees, by creating a human SPREE tree! Campers all participated as different parts of a tree. By the end of the day, we had a giant moving, living tree to celebrate!
SPREE staff were at the center of our human tree, representing the heartwood of the plant
Amazing Animal Engineers holiday camp was a great way to kick off April; we look forward to seeing you by the River again soon!