First things first, upon landing in Manchester and driving out to Wales- I stopped by the Rhizotron experiment. Like a parent picking up their kids from summer camp, I was anxious to see how the trees have been growing. Certainly the experiment has been well looked after this summer thanks to Nigel, and the Friends of Treborth team. You can see I'm still functioning on adrenaline reserves after the long flight back from Australia, and I'm very excited to see that not only have all of the trees survived (Mortality rate of zero!), but everything is very green and lush.
Most noticeably, the red alders have really taken off! In the photo above, there is a great contrast in height between the sycamore and oak plot to the left of where I am standing, in comparison to the lofty alders that have attained my height. All this, despite some persistent caterpillar herbivory activity. I cannot really blame the caterpillars for selecting this highly nutritious (and nitrogen-rich) alder leaves for food. I am still waiting for these caterpillars to develop so I can identify them.
I also ventured in to London for the British Ecological Society's Ecological Ambassador training day. I took the earliest train in, waking up at 4 AM that morning, and while I did spill my coffee I did manage the journey otherwise unhindered. It was my first time in London, and I think I had forgotten how to function when popping off trains in big cities. I was being outpaced by businesswomen in stilettos as the masses swarmed towards the exists at London Euston (photographic evidence that I made it out of the station without being trampled, below). I saw the famed red double decker buses, and passed by Kings Cross station on my way to the Charles Darwin House for educational outreach training with my fellow cohort of PhD students. We spent the day discussing objectives and outcomes for outreach education projects, and walked through a nearby city park to discuss working with the surrounding environment wherever schools are located. By the end of the day everyone departed with a clear lesson plan and new ideas about future lesson planning to extend the wonder and rigor of ecological sciences to young biology students throughout the UK.
It is hard to believe how quickly time has passed in Vancouver this summer. I have had a wonderful experience getting to know my new lab-mates in the BEG group and exploring British Columbian forests. I have learned some very cool research techniques from working with isotopes to trace the flow or nutrients through forest soils, to how to run a qPCR to examine functional genes in forest soils. I look forward to using these skills with future projects and continuing to develop new skills along the way.
Here is a photo of one my gels. which are used to tell you about the quality of extracted DNA. In essence this serves as a quality-control check for your DNA to ensure it hasn't started degrading. It is also a work of agarose art so for those of you who haven't had the chance to nervously pipette tiny quantities of DNA into an agarose gel, you can vicariously experience the picturesque product here.
I am analyzing data from this summer's experiments and I am excited to start thinking about what the numbers mean. One of the exciting parts of the analysis is determining how the data looks compared with your hypotheses and initial predictions. Beyond hypothesis testing, I always find it enlightening to notice how many new questions I start to formulate while thinking about my recently collected data- it is such an organic way of determining future directions for research efforts.
Since it is my last week in Vancouver (for this trip at least), I have also been trying to squeeze in last trips to the parks I've enjoyed hiking and running through this summer. I look forward to a return trip to British Columbia and hopefully back out to the field to collect more data to answer some of the new questions I have been pondering. My research on hemlock forests and plant and ant communities was just published in Southeastern Naturalist this past week in the hemlock woolly adelgid special issue (you can find the article here), and as it turns out my lab-mate here at UBC also published their previous research in the special issue as well.
I feel really privileged to have had to opportunity to spend the past 2.5 months here in Vancouver and I look forward to continued collaborations.
Now that the mad rush of time-sensitive lab work has been completed, I want to share some photos from my latest field expedition this summer, in Vancouver Island. I went out with two other brave researchers (Israel, who is pictured on the right; and Cindy who is my adviser here at UBC) to collect forest floor samples similar to the samples I collected in May in interior British Columbia. We started the journey by hopping on a series of buses to make it over to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal heading for Nanaimo. The ferry crowd was especially festive as the World Cup was being shown throughout the ferry.
First stop was Cathedral Grove where we saw a series of gorgeous, tall, and towering cedars and hemlocks. Certainly not to be missed if you ever find yourself on Vancouver Island. We then made our way down to the Pacific Rim National Park and Tofino for some pre-fieldwork fun, including hiking, fishing, yoga, and sea kayaking, There were also a fair number of fish tacos consumed, to properly fuel up for the long hikes.
Traveling to the field sites afforded us a quintessential British Columbia experience: traveling behind logging trucks filled with trees, on a series of logging roads with great vistas. Access to the field sites was somewhat restricted in places, with new saplings having sprouted up since the last sampling. There was one particular grouse that kept aiming for our front tires. I finally just jumped out of the truck and ran towards it- I think the orange trousers really worked to scare him off much more than a loud truck engine apparently. Field work went really smoothly. I won't complain about the mozzies because it was beautiful weather and we did manage to locate all of the plots.
After traveling back with 20 kilograms of soil samples in a backpack on the bus, and then my bike, I started to process samples immediately. Because I am interested in what the soil microbes are doing in the soil, its important for me to perform the soil analyses as quickly as possible because once you take the microbes out of their natural soil settings (e.g. the forest floor), they start changing. Some steps in the process involve working with pretty serious-looking safety equipment, and I always feel pretty awesome with my science swag on: goggles, mask, lab coat, and nitrile gloves.
At this stage in the research project I am still working on analyzing some soil samples for various components of the microbial community, which means I am still spending most of my waking hours in the lab. However, when I do have free time, I have been learning a great deal from my discussions with fellow BEG lab-mates, topics ranging form soil microbial communities and the nitrogen cycle in forests, to the best bike routes around Vancouver. Gotta run- It is time for me to check on the soil extractions (see below for an example of what the extraction set-up looks like).
An ancient adviser weighs in on IPCC Report
I would like to tell the human species, “It’s not you, it’s me” but that would be untrue. It goes against my moral grains to record false statements. It’s you, definitely you. I know I certainly have not been producing large quantities of carbon dioxide from excessive fossil fuel burning. Who digs up rocks to burn anyways? I prefer solar energy myself. But I refuse to stand by silently registering these changes any longer. I should have known when I heard thundering steam engines in the distance, the environment would soon face tough times. I know my appearance is a bit gnarly and haggard for some of you, but I won’t take too much of your time. Down here on Methuselah walk many things have changed, but for some of us long-term residents these changes are happening a little too quickly. My family and I are pretty tied to the land, and we don’t like to simply uproot when the neighborhood is facing hard times. We prefer to stick together and weather the storms, but it looks like some of your actions are threatening the ground we live on so we don’t have much choice.
First let’s take a look at the climate over the past two centuries in my home turf of California. It is painfully obvious to me and those in my inner rings, that the climate just ain’t what it used to be. Lately my rings smaller, but some years there is not much new growth to the cluster at all. Why is this so difficult for you humans to accept? You have a whole army of scientists relaying the story to the general public, and yet there are still devoted doubters among you. Denial is perilous my fellow earth-dwellers. What kind of proof are you waiting for? This is the 5th report now; most people get the hint after the first warning. What more can you require beyond a 95% confidence in the statements that have been put forth in the reports? Survival of the fittest, not the foolish (come on, even the finches get that concept!).
Let us consider what else has changed over the past two centuries. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say technology certainly seems to have come a long way. I don’t have much experience with electricity myself, but it seems most of the human population is happily connected to a small electronic device at all hours of the day. While such technology has afforded great advancements in your health care and disease prevention, what type of world are you postponing death for? A world where you cannot provide clean drinking water and a steady food supply because of climatic change? A world where your children will only be able to observe photographs of pristine environments of days long gone, rather than walk through the majestic old trees themselves? I know if I could I would go on spring break to visit General Sherman and his battalion in Sequoia National Parl. I certainly have my fair share of scars from natural disasters, but humanity seems to be one natural disaster that will act so quickly no scar-tissue can form and there no rock can shelter us.
I cannot comprehend why a society as dependent on wi-fi is unable to support scientists searching to answer why these changes are happening so quickly. Recently the IPCC documented, yet again, that humans are why my home and your natural world are on the brink. Think about your actions if you were standing on the precipice- wouldn’t you try to retreat to safer ground? Folks are willing to conserve money because it affords them the comforts of everyday existence, but why not take preventative action? Without taking steps to try and reverse the havoc you have wrecked on the planet, future generations of humans will be unable to live in the same world, let alone a similar climate. The greatest gift you can give the future is a better planet, because this planet provides the food, water, and shelter you require for survival. For my part, I don’t ask for much, just some sunlight on the hillside, a little rain here and there, and my own piece of ground. But I don’t take more than I require, and clever with water conservation strategies- hey, we should talk about that sometime!
I am not giving up hope, because I am optimistic at heart (even if that wood is long dead). I am also pretty stubborn about my own persistence. Perhaps I am a little selfish, I admit it, but I would like to continue to add rings to my trunk for many years to come. We need to shake up the public’s perceptions of preservation, conservation, and sustainability. We need more than kind thoughts of doing things for the environment later on. We need to take steps now; well, you can see I’m a bit rooted down, so you can take steps for us both. So go out there and spread the word to your friends and family, armed with the latest IPCC report’s message. Climate change is real, it is our problem, and like any global citizen it is our job to work together to try and repair some of the damage. We can work together to mitigate the effects of climate change. So think about what you can do to help with this issue: plant a tree, take a shorter shower, and give up meat for a day. I don’t mean to sound sappy, but every person can build a positive future for the planet. Every person can make a stand for what they believe in, and it is time you all stood your ground too.
This week a group of researchers from the below ground ecosystem group took off for some rehabilitation work, and to collect soil and leaf tissue samples. We began the trip from Vancouver aboard a ferry bound for the Sunshine Coast. From the moment you step foot on the ferry you feel the stresses of work drifting away as you soak up the sunset and take in the puffy clouds lazily bobbing across the skyline. After a short journey up the BC coast we settled in for a weekend of landscape rehabilitation including tree and shrub planting, and invasive species removal. After a weekend of uprooting and removing the Japanese knotweed we continued on a journey towards the Interior of British Columbia. Early on in the trip we passed by Whistler (home of the previous Winter Olympics).
As we traveled further inland I was struck by the enormity of the mountainous terrain, and the vast expanses of coniferous forests. Below are a series of photographs as we traveled inland towards the research forests. You'll notice the dramatic effect of avalanches on mountain forests (for those unfamiliar with what these avalanche tracks might look like- visualize a ski slope, but the whole height of the mountain).
The forest species shift considerably as we travel from coastal forests to the interior forest communities. There are also an abidance of rugged escarpments where hardy trees are clinging to life.
We made our way into some of the drier parts of BC, and the smell of sage filled the air as we ambled on through the mountains.
After the tour of forests within BC we arrived at the experimental forest plots, planted in both pure species and mixed species stands. Below is a photograph from one of the characteristically fragrant yellow cedar plots- notice the distinct lack of understory vegetation. In contrast, the paper birch plots had a very prominent understory vegetation layer. After putting the soil samples on ice we made the long trek back to the university. I will be spending the next few weeks analyzing rates of nutrient cycling among the soils collected under different tree species plots. Off with the field gear and into the lab coats!
I have arrived in Vancouver and have spent the past week getting acquainted with the area surrounding UBC. To stave off jet lag effects from taking over, I decided to explore the city in my running shoes. Vancouver, if you are unfamiliar with it, is a runner's paradise! So many wonderful running trails that are really well-maintained. The city's parks are a stunning environment to be running through, with giant red cedars and western hemlocks (the above photo is from Pacific Spirit park). The university is situated right next to the pacific ocean, complete with great mountain views and plenty of forests to walk through with your morning coffee, or run through during your lunch break.
I am working with the Belowground Ecosystem Group (BEG) at UBC, which is a large and friendly group of enthusiastic ecologists, foresters, and soil scientists. I am looking forward to learning and sharing with my new collaborators over the next few months. This weekend I will be heading out to the field to collect my first Canadian soil samples, and to explore the more remote parts of British Columbia. Specifically I will be heading out to a long-term experimental forest with pure species plots. The main aim of my research here at UBC this summer is to determine differences in soil community, and ecosystem processes under different tree species grown in common garden settings. I will be using a variety of molecular and ecosystem ecology techniques to determine if tree species are influencing soil nutrient cycling within the experimental forests. I am excited to be working with the talented and varied BEG folks at UBC this summer. I will keep you posted on how the field work goes, and after sample processing is completed I look forward to sharing my results with you.
Treborth Botanic Gardens served as an excellent host for the opening ceremonies of the Two Dragons garden project last week (see more info here: http://www.bangor.ac.uk/news/latest/two-dragons-garden-project-18629). After the festivities I gave my first proper tour and laymen's terms explanation of the research being conducted within the Rhizotron. The trees performed brilliantly-granted they just needed to not die before the tour- but still, I am very proud of the little forests. Thanks in part to the unending Welsh rain events the trees have all greened up quite nicely and the sycamores have really leafed out, so the contrast in tree species planted within the experiment were really evident. Here's a Rhizotron selfie for you.
When not out admiring the slow and steady development of the rhizotron trees, I spent the past week finishing up some soil sample analyses and initial biomass measurements on the tree seedlings. I've even made my first rhizotron-related figures (aka graphs) of the size-distribution of the tree seedlings planted within the rhizotron, and the weight-distribution of the seedlings used for biomass measurements. One of the coolest analyses has to be burning the soil samples to get an estimate of carbon in the soil- so in essence I set the soils to a very high temperature- a different form of stress-baking for me, and its much better to be following a recipe in the lab, rather than just throwing together ingredients that sound good. (Note: I do not condone ingestion of lab samples of any sort, I am just drawing parallels to my tendency to bake brownies, cookies, and the like). So the initial soil samples have been sieved, extracted, prepped, and analyzed and now I just need to wait for the trees to grow up a bit and see if anything has changed in the soil. I'm excited to watch the progress of the tree seedlings over the summer months.
After much deliberation and careful consideration (hopefully enough), tree species were selected and the experimental design was agreed upon. The candidate tree species we decided upon are common to Western North America, and continental Europe in addition the United Kingdom.
After many hours of soil homogenization (aka A LOT of shoveling), and tons of great field assistance from Israel to ensure previous plants were fully removed from each soil bay, the Rhizotron was planted up and is ready to grow! Initial soil sampling is completed and I'm looking forward to watching these saplings put on some weight.
Here's an aerial view of one of the mixed-species soil bays- these little saplings are so cute, I just can't stop taking baby photos...
I am happy to announce my master's research on red spruce dendroclimatology and community dynamics in Massachusetts has been accepted and is published online in PeerJ. It is a lovely open access journal so if you're looking at this blog, you can download the paper anywhere and anytime-which I think is pretty neat! Here is the link to the paper: https://peerj.com/articles/293/
Another research project that I was collaborating on was also published- just this week! It is also open access and in PeerJ, because I had such a great experience with the review process (fast, high quality, and very detailed), that I thought my collaborators would enjoy the experience also. This project was led by my colleague Katie Stuble as a part of her dissertation research on how climate change and warming temperatures influence ant communities and their mutualisms: in this case seed-dispersing ants. The link for this paper is here: https://peerj.com/articles/286/
I even sent back revisions to a paper this week *fingers crossed* and am feeling a fair bit of excitement about the whole scientific process at the moment. Yay Science!
To celebrate the publications I went on a ten mile run up the steep hills of Snowdownia (this is the view from the top folks). Needless to say some celebratory hot cocoa was consumed upon finishing the run (photo unavailable as I can't coordinate a camera/phone and hot cocoa at the same time). Cheers!
My committee convened for a two-day gathering in Bangor, with virtual committee members skyping in from Canada. Collectively, we brainstormed a flurry of potential directions to take my PhD research beyond what was initially proposed. We didn't actually have most of our discussions indoors, which is different from most committee meetings. Instead we jumped on the nice weather opportunity and went out on field site visits!
First we went to Henfaes to look at the Bangor DIVERSE plots as well as some of the other forestry research taking place on site. The weather held off with the most rain-free period since I've moved to Wales. It was sufficiently mucky so that "Wellies" (mine are quite fashionable in blue- Wellies are short for Wellington boots- see above) were still needed. After a productive discussion of proposed research for Henfaes we headed back to Bangor for continued discussions at the Feral Cat over fish and chips and beer- always a good environment for creative thinking.
The next day we began with a visit to the Rhizotron at Treborth Botanic Gardens to get more of the background information on when it was re-furbished and what type of soils are currently in the Rhizotron- a few pictures below should give you an idea of what the Rhizotron looks like. Generally speaking it is 2 meters underground with windows that allow you to sample and observe roots and soils connected with the trees (in my case) planted in each of the soil bays. It is a fantastic framework for some of my research questions. At the end of the day I was left with a large reading list, and a lot of new ideas to juggle with. It was an energizing two days, left me with that feeling of excitement that I get after conferences. So off I go, to think critically and read broadly while discerning which direction to take my research.
Relena is a forest ecologist and researches how trees and soils interact. She also likes to run through areas populated by trees.