Observations and Conclusions

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem to Be.

what is it #1

what is it #2 What do you see in the photo, above? What do you see in the photo to the right? Now, think about each of those photos. Is what you think you’re seeing actually what’s going on in that picture, or might you have drawn a conclusion, ahead of time, about what you thought you should be seeing in each case? For example, how many flowers do you see in the photo, above? In science, it’s important to train your mind to draw conclusions based on what you see, rather than seeing based on an assumption/conclusion.

The “Real” Stories on These Photos

dandelion petals Here’s a close-up of the left-hand edge of the top photo. Notice that each of what appears to be a “petal” has five small tips on it. It turns out that each of those tips is, in fact, the tip of a petal, and those five petals of that one flower are united such that at their base they form a short tube which, then, expands into the flat part that you see.

labeled dandelion flower

Also, in the top photo, notice that the curly reproductive parts arise from “all over,” and not just in the center. In fact, each of those reproductive structures arises from its own flower, each of which is surrounded by its own set of five petals as just described. Here’s a close up of one of the individual flowers. The dandelion at the top of this page is, then, actually a head made up of a whole bunch of small flowers (sometimes referred to as “florets”) all grouped together.

orange composit Here’s a photo of a head, a group of flowers, from a closely-related plant. Can you distinguish the individual flowers and their five petals?

What about the second picture, above? Other than a really raunchy banana slice sitting in a blue dish, there’s obviously “something” on the banana. It looks sort-of like a dead leaf, but it’s upright. It looks sort-of like some kind of bird with its head/beak on the upper left, but there’s no eye on what appears to be its head. Also, there’s nothing under it that looks like bird-type feet. . . but if you look/observe very carefully under it, you may spot five, “thread-like things” sticking out: two straight ones that are somewhat parallel going to the right, one crooked one coming out towards us, and two that are bent in the middle and are sort-of going to the left. In the middle, there’s a yellowish spot that looks kind of like it might be a hole in the leaf, but it also reminds me of similar-looking spots I’ve seen on the wings of various kinds of moths and butterflies. Also, I think I see a line running from the notch along the top edge, down to the middle bottom that resembles the front edge of the hindwing of a butterfly. Come to think of it, the bent “thread-like things” to the left and under it do look rather like butterfly legs and the straight ones on the right do look like antennae. Based on my observations, I’m going to draw the tentative conclusion that this appears to be a Dead Leaf Butterfly with its head on the lower right and its “back end” raised up on the left side (perhaps I could go online and look for other Dead Leaf Butterfly photos with which to compare this one). Too bad this is only a photograph — if you had been there with me at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, GA when I took this photo, you might have been able to get a closer look from several directions and see if it moved or just stayed there.

A Couple Other Examples

cinnamon tree cinnamon leaf

Recently, I saw this plant for sale in the house-plant section of a local hardware store, and immediately, the unusual leaf venation caught my attention. I remembered that years ago, I once had ordered a tree sapling from an exotic plant nursery, and it had the same, unusual leaf venation. That led me to the hypothesis that perhaps this was the same kind of tree. I looked at the tag, but all it said was that this was a house plant. I asked an employee, but he didn’t know what it was. It turns out that right then, there was also an employee from the plant grower/supplier there, too, and she didn’t know what it was, either. I mentioned to the store employee what I thought it might be, he found an inconspicuous, “safe” place and gently scratched the bark with his fingernail, and we both smelled it. So, observation #2: the bark smelled like cinnamon. Thus, when the tree and I got home, I did a Google search, looked at some other photos online, and read what Wikipedia and several other Web sites had to say. Based on all those observations, I came to the conclusion that, indeed, this tree is a cinnamon tree (although I’m not sure exactly which of several, closely-related species).

osage orange tree A common sight in autumn in this part of the country is Osage Orange fruits scattered on the roadside. Several years ago, as I was staring at one of these, I realized there is a very precise pattern to the way in which the “bumps” are organized on an Osage Orange fruit. In chemistry, you may have learned about closest packing of spheres, where each atom usually has six nearest neighbors, and that “rule” also holds true for the cells in our tissues, but Osage Orange fruit is organized quite differently.

Osage Orange pattern osage orange with lines
The “bumps” on an Osage Orange fruit are organized in sets of four, with two in the middle, and one on each end of a group. Adjacent groups are often oriented at right angles to each other.

To Think About

So often in scientific investigation, the small, seemingly insignificant details end up being the most important key to the problem at hand. Yet, because of the culture in which we live and/or because of our unfamiliarity with a field, we do not notice these things. Often, too, we misinterpret what we see, mistaking conclusions for observations, and thus, come to a wrong conclusion overall.

ants For example, if I observe an ant carrying a seed, it is just that. Unless I actually see that ant or its nestmates eating that seed, I cannot say that the ant is carrying a piece of food. Perhaps that seed is merely in the way and being removed, perhaps it will serve as a substrate upon which the ants will grow fungus to eat, or perhaps it will serve some other function. Thus, if I make the “observation” that the ant is carrying a piece of food, it might lead me to a false conclusion later on that, for example, the anthill is being invaded by an unwanted fungus. As another example, “The ants are under the apple slice,” is an observation, but “The ants are hiding under the apple slice,” or “The ants are looking for food under the apple slice” are both making unsubstantiated assumptions or drawing conclusions about the ants’ behavior or their relationship to the apple. (In Dr. Fankhauser’s photo, these ants were headed into the dog’s food dish.)

Also, it is amazing how frequently or how long we can look at something and never see that which is perfectly obvious about it. This is the basis of many of our optical illusions. As biologists in a three-dimensional world of living organisms, we have the opportunity to use our senses of touch, hearing, and chemoreception to aid our sense of sight, yet we frequently use only what we see.

Do It!

This lab may be done outdoors (weather permitting), or indoors if the weather is rainy. Outdoors, there are many living organisms from trees to smaller plants, insects, birds, etc. Indoors, there are a number of plants in the greenhouse and out in the hallway. There may also be insects or spiders in the greenhouse, or perhaps some other animals to be seen. Pick one of these many organisms, (ant colony, tree, beetle, wildflower, bird, etc.) and list in your lab notebook at least twenty (20) things you observe about it. Record descriptive things like its smell, its sound, how it feels (texture), what it looks like – shape, color, etc., etc. Be specific on size (how many centimeters?), and don’t just say it’s “big” or it’ “small” (relative to a blue whale, an elephant is tiny, and relative to an eyelash mite, an ant is huge). Don’t worry if you don’t know what this organism is called – actually, knowing what it is might bias you and tempt you to make conclusions instead – but do think about what traits/characteristics of that organism might be distinguishing features you could potentially use to identify it (How many legs does it have? How are its leaves arranged?). Be careful you do not include any conclusions among your observations. You may find that the first two or three observations are “easy” and then it gets harder to think of things – that’s normal. Just sit there and think a while, and often, a number of new observations will suddenly come to you. Drawing a picture of your organism would probably help you to “see” it better, providing you really look at it to see how to draw it and not just think, “I can’t draw,” and make only a quick sketch. Especially with plants, remember to observe the whole organism not just a portion of it. For plants in the greenhouse, the fact that the plant is in a pot (as opposed to the ground) and the size of the pot relative to the size of the plant may be “significant” observations that relate to the plant, but things such as the color and shape of the pot are observations of the pot, not the plant, and as such, would most-likely be totally irrelevant to the plant, itself.

  1. List your 20 observations in your lab notebook. Be as precise and descriptive as possible. You should draw a detailed picture of your organism and label the features you observed.
  2. From your list of observations, write a paragraph describing the organism you chose – do NOT attempt to identify it, but rather, just observe and think about it.
  3. Trade notebooks with someone else from the class and, without knowing what your partner’s organism is, read his/her description of that organism. From the description ONLY draw a picture of the organism. Don’t “read between the lines” based on your knowledge, but rather attempt to draw what is described as the other person has described it. As you are drawing, and especially once you have finished, comment in that person’s notebook on the ease/difficulty with which you were able to draw the picture from his/her description (It may have said the flowers were yellow, but did it say where on the plant they were or what shape they were?). Note good points and bad/missing information in the description. Sign your name.

Follow-Up at Home

  1. Re-read and critically double-check your list of 20 observations. In double-checking your list, are there any conclusions listed among your observations? Ask yourself, “How did I know that?” If your answer is, “Because I saw it,” it’s probably an observation, but if your answer is, “That’s kind of what I assumed it looked like was going on,” it might very well be a conclusion. Think about what you really saw/observed/heard/smelled.
  2. What is the most interesting/exciting thing you discovered about your organism that you never knew before? Why did you pick that organism to begin with?
  3. Based on your observations, are there any conclusions that you can make about your organism?

Things to Include in Your Notebook

Make sure you have all of the following in your lab notebook:

Copyright © 2010 by J. Stein Carter. All rights reserved.
Based on printed protocol Copyright © 1988 J. L. Stein Carter.
Chickadee photograph Copyright © by David B. Fankhauser
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