Making Wild Friends In Winter Ecology Class

Students pet the hibernating mother bear. Photos by Nat Wheelwright.

“OK, come on through,” a voice crackled. Quietly, in snowshoes and boots, they crunched their way through the brush.

Wheelwright’s team of students soon found what they had come for: a hidden den tucked beneath the roots of an uprooted tree. Arriving just moments after the resident creature had been located by radio collar and tranquilized, the students peered within.

There, a 216-pound Maine black bear sow lay snoozing, her hibernation temporarily ensured by the medication. Three young, rambunctious cubs played at her side.

As four field biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife tagged, weighed and collected biological data on the mother, Wheelwright and his students spent the afternoon “babysitting” her two-month-old cubs. Once awake, mother bears readily accept their young, despite the handling and lingering scent of humans.

“It was a window on a miraculous world,” says Michael Taylor ’07, one of 11 students who were there as part of Wheelwright’s Advanced Winter Field Ecology class. “We got to hold onto the cubs and pass them around. I had Cub No. 59 tucked into my jacket. He just snuggled and wedged himself into my warmth and stayed calm and quiet.”

Cub weighing.

The March field trip was all in a day’s work for these Bowdoin ecology students, but it was a decided aberration from their normal routine offield studies.

Scot McFarlane ’09, left, and Mike Taylor ’07, enjoy their furry companions.

Wheelwright’s weekly, daylong expeditionary seminar course is designed to teach students how to do their own graduate-level field science — all at lightning speed: “Ecology boot camp, one of my students called it,” says Wheelwright.

During each eight-hour class, students break into teams to explore a hypothesis relating to how plants and animals survive in Maine’s winter. They collect data and samples from the field for three hours, then return to Bowdoin laboratories to analyze their findings and prepare statistical analyses. They then turn their findings into PowerPoint reports, which they present to each other at day’s end.

“The students are learning a lot about how to tell a story in science,” says Wheelwright. “One that is anchored in theory and built on analysis, but broad and interesting to an audience. At 5:30 p.m., when we’re done, they’re exhausted and I’m exhausted. It isn’t for the fainthearted, but we are all learning so much.”

Already, students have found themselves hunkered down over ice-fishing holes searching for aquatic life. They have traipsed through winter forests and scoured frozen coastlines. They spent the first few days of spring break at the Bowdoin Scientific Station on ice-bound Kent Island studying the impact of introduced snowshoe hares. In April they will find themselves boot-deep in vernal ponds tracking amphibians aplenty.

The seminar reflects the biology professor’s objective to “show students that Maine is alive in the winter when everyone thinks it’s dreary. The woods and other habitats contain fascinating flora and fauna. And as the semester progresses, I want them to feel the passion for mud season that I feel, when the world is most alive.

“The explosive breeding of wood frogs and spotted salamanders, that will be the climax,” adds Wheelwright enthusiastically.

Taylor isn’t quite sure it can match the bear-tracking venture. “This course is fantastic in its design and variety of perspectives on the field of ecology,” he says, “but the bear was something quite special. We have one of the most well-studied bear populations in the world, right in our backyard.

“Just to learn about this mysterious creature,” he says, “It really gives you that sense of wide-eyed wonder.”

Story published by Bowdoin College.