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Environmental Science Req. 4a

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Calling all Environmental Science merit badge counselors; do you require scouts to specifically identify all plant and non-plant species for requirement 4a, or are more general descriptions acceptable (e.g. grass, vine, shrub, etc.)?


Requirement 4a states "Mark off a plot of 4 square yards in each study area, and count the number of species found there. Estimate how much space is occupied by each plant species and the type and number of nonplant species you find. Write a report that adequately discusses the biodiversity and population density of these study areas. Discuss your report with your counselor."


I am not a lawyer, and I don't want to put too much of a lawyerly point to this, but when I first read this requirement I read into it that in addition to counting the number of species the scout would be expected to also identify the species. But now as I re-read it I don't see any requirement to identify the species.


The reason I ask is that although some of the species in a study area might be fairly commonly known others may not be, and while the plants can be identified generally it may be difficult for a scout to source a plant ID guide that would enable him to precisely identify all the plant he might encounter.


On a related note, have any of you found a good, online plant identification guide that will allow a user to identify a plant step-by-step based on its characteristics?




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When I teach that requirement, I pass out field identification books I have (picked up at used bookstores) and let the scouts use them to help out with ID. I also encourage the scouts to share IDs and info about each others plots. By no means do I require scientific names or taxomomy - long brown grass vs. short green grass is fine. BUT, I do want the scouts to realize that not all the grass they see (or flowers, or weeds, or etc.) are the same. It takes many species in the same area to make an ecosystem in most places. Usually, common names or descriptive made-up names are fine. When I review their results, we discuss the common names and what are invasives or not.(This message has been edited by frank17)

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This, actually, is my field. I also am a registered MB counselor for this one.

If the boy is working in a more-or-less open area with grasses, for example, as mine often do, he is most likely NOT going to be able to identify everything to species. Even good botanists have to work hard to get to that level and if fruiting structures are absent it might be impossible.

What he CAN do is recognize that one type of plant is a different species even if he can't put a scientific name on it. I can't tell you how many times I and others in the field have collected a specimen and then designated those populations as 'Sp. 1', 'Sp. 2', etc.

The point of the exercise is not necessarily taxonomy but rather the relative abundance of different populations in the community. Without identifying a single species as anything other than a notation, it is possible to calculate abundances, population densities, areas of coverage, diversity indices, etc., most of which, fortunately, are not required for this MB.


For grasses which are notoriously difficult to separate into individual plants, the biodiversity could be the number of species in the plot area. The population density could use area of coverage as a surrogate for numbers of individuals. Even ecologists argue about the best way to do this.

If the plot is in a brushy or wooded area, the identifications are easier because you're most likely working with more dicots and woody plants. In which case you can count the stems coming out of the ground as individuals (but even this is sketchy when working with plants like honeysuckle or blackberries).

Remember the object of this exercise is to cultivate an appreciation for biodiversity, perhaps an interest in identification, and also an appreciation for the differences in habitats and land uses, not to mention the way we quantify these things. Don't beat him up with taxonomic keys that he won't master in the course of a merit badge anyway..it isn't the point. Use the Cub Scout motto and then see if his report demonstrates that he has 'gotten' the point. Use whatever guides seem good for your area (which you haven't mentioned...they might be very different for different areas) and then just make the best of it.

I don't know what state you're in but often the natural resource departments for the state, or perhaps the agricultural extension service will have guides that are reasonably good and usually free.

Good Luck


Edit: From your moniker, I'm guessing you're in North Carolina. Don't pick up a copy of Radford, it is only going to bewilder everyone. You need to spend a huge amount of time to master that excellent reference. Here is a useful place to begin and a phone call to the herbarium will likely lead you to the most appropriate manuals to use. Hope this helps:


(This message has been edited by packsaddle)

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Coming to this discussion a bit late -- but I have one thing to add to the excellent advice you have already got. A big help (shortcut) in determining what species you have (not talking about grasses so much as woody plants, etc) is a CHECKLIST. Many nature centers, preserves, and so on publish short (a few pages) lists of their plants. So, you can see, for example, what hickories or oaks are in your immediate area. It is much easier than looking through a regional identification guide or even a state flora. I do agree with pp that you do not need to id every little thing, other than species 1 or species 2, but if you see a plant with, say, giant purple flowers or very distinctive leaves, it is nice to be able to put a name to it.

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Here something for identifying trees: http://www.arborday.org/trees/whatTree/


This is a fairly common field item. I recall doing it in a Ecology course in college. There the area was slightly larger, but we made only a minimal attempt to identify all the species. Grasses are difficult to begin with. If I recall correctly we did a plot of desert 9m^2. We found a good half-dozen different grasses and about a dozen other plants. The value in not in the identification but in understanding the diversity. I would either assign them a plot or make them find a random plot. If you let them choose it will be in a pine stand with only one species.

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I'll note that the requirement doesn't require identification at all, although I'd make it one of those non-required, value-added things a good counselor will throw in.


Two resources for you, NC:


Forest Plants of the Southeast, by James Miller & Karl Miller, Univ. of GA Press.




Common Forest Trees of North Carolina, published by the NC Div. Forest Resources. If you tell them it's for the scouts, they'll send you a stack for free.


I like them because they're geo-specific and don't try to go overboard with every last ultra-rare species. I hate spending 30 minutes poring over a guidebook, settling on an identification of something only to read further that it's only native to the Mongolian Steppes.


The tree book is particularly easy to use and Scout-friendly.

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