Sensory Overload: Using Your Senses in Science

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The Florida scrub is home to hundreds of specialized plants from pine and oak trees, to wetland grasses, to a wide variety of wildflowers. How do scientists at Archbold Biological Station tell them apart? “When identifying plants, we have to rely on all of our senses,” explains research assistant Lexi Siegle of the Plant Ecology Program. “While sight is very important in identifying differences among plants, it can be inadequate when two species look alike. We also distinguish differences by using smell, texture, taste, and even sound.”

Smell is one interesting example. “You could say, instead of stopping to smell the roses, Archbold scientists stop to smell the mints”, remarks Siegle. “Scrub mints (Dicerandra species) are a group of plants found in Florida scrub and they all have their own unique scent. Here in Highlands County, Lake Placid Scrub Balm has a sweet, minty aroma, while Garrett’s Mint smells a bit harsher, more like toothpaste. We use this difference in smell to distinguish tiny seedlings of scrub mint from other, look-alike plants. Another group of fun-smelling plants are the pawpaws (Asimina species), which smell like sassafras or root beer.” Rosemary scrub vegetation looks a bit like the herb we use for cooking but it is not related and doesn’t smell like the herb but has its own pleasant aroma that can be detected just from walking in close proximity and can alert scientists to when they are entering a different habitat.

“A favorite sense I use is taste,” describes research assistant Stephanie Koontz.
“There are some unique flavors that are difficult to find anywhere else.” Florida scrub edibles include wild Muscadine Grapes, Hog Plum, and Gopher Apple fruits. Less obvious food sources include hearts of palm, Beauty Berries for jelly, or Greenbrier roots for flour. “Although, remember, you should never eat something unless you are absolutely sure it is edible first. When in doubt, just leave it for the wildlife.” warns Koontz.

Plants can also have different textured leaves and flowers as well. Leaves can feel fuzzy, waxy, smooth, rough, powdery, or sticky. Sky Blue Lupine (Lupinus diffusus) has very soft and fuzzy leaves that are easy to tell apart from other plants in the same habitat. Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa) has sticky flowers that can trap insects. “A visitor favorite are Sensitive-Briars (Mimosa quadrivalvis), which react and close up like an envelope if they are lightly touched,” reports Seigle.

Sound is another sense that we commonly use in the Florida scrub “There is an entire group of plants named for their sounds. Rattlebox legumes are named for the rattling sound of ripe seeds inside their pods,” describes Koontz.

During Archbold’s summer Scrub Camp, students learn how their senses can play a vital role in helping them understand the natural world by playing a game called Using Your Senses. “This is a fun and easy game you can easily create at home,” explains Siegle. “Campers are given cups with different objects and asked to describe them using either their sense of smell or touch. For example, the scent of mint could be in one cup and a camper could feel a pinecone in another. It’s a great learning opportunity to explore our world in a different way!”

To learn more, visit the Frances Hufty Learning Center at Archbold where you can follow the Discovery Trail and learn new ways to use your senses in nature. Signs along the trail will lead the way and describe how you can better observe the natural world.

Written By Lexi Siegle

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 Rosemary scrub has a pleasant aroma that can be detected just from walking in close proximity. Photo Credit: Archbold Biological Station 

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Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa) has sticky flowers that can trap insects. Photo Credit: Archbold Biological Station

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