Tree Hugging Recommended!

Environmentalists are known as tree huggers. Although I have been a plant ecologist as a career over the past few decades, my research has stayed in “the weeds” – the smaller plants, as I general go by the title of weed ecologist.

However, last year I was offered the chance to study trees by the City of Burnaby. Melinda Yong, environmental coordinator for Burnaby Parks heard me talk about the threat of weeds invading with climate change. She was aware tree health was also in jeopardy, and she asked if I would like to study the issue in Central Park.

Walking through Central Park to scope out the project, I couldn’t help but notice a number of Western red cedars dying (below left), and well as some salal shrubs looking pretty spent (below right).

Eight months of data collection later by the team of 5 researchers I hired, I am happy to report the cedars were not so bad, especially in areas off the beaten path…the “beaten path” is not so healthy because soil gets compressed, compromising tree health, especially when spring precipitation is limited. One of our recommendations was to reduce the number of informal trails in Central Park – the park is a currently a tangle of them.

 

The research team (from left to right): Delia Anderson, Vanessa Jones, Virginia Oeggerli, Natalie Cook and Jessica Brouwer.

The other big news was the decline of the climax tree in coastal BC – the Western hemlock. Of the many hemlocks my team evaluated, 19% were in visible decline and 31% were already dead. Hemlocks require a lot of spring moisture, and the past 5 springs or so have been unusually dry.

Although we did uncover some bad news in our research, working with this team of young energetic scientists lead by Vanessa Jones was one of the highlights of my research career so far.  Vanessa had graduated from TWU with her B.Sc. in April 2019, while the other four were still fitting their forays to Burnaby’s Central Park in between their undergraduate classes.

Here’s a short summary of what they did:

    • A total of 2731 coniferous trees were sampled from 200 sample plots throughout the park
    • 449 deciduous trees were sampled from 30 sample plots
    • salal health was evaluated throughout the park
    • 5 moisture probes were established to monitor moisture levels, during the project and beyond
    • Bulk density of soil was also sampled, comparing the density of soils from unsanctioned trails to those from forested areas with no regular foot traffic. Thirty samples were taken from each of the comparative groups, totaling 60 samples
    • An extensive set of GIS maps were produced to facilitate future park management, and included in a 57 page report featuring 49 figures and 11 tables

What to do? Here’s what we say in our report:

“In order to combat the negative impacts, we recommend continuing to restore areas of the park using drought-tolerant native plants, focusing on species that are already present in the park. We recommend planting mostly deciduous species, as they seem more able to persist amidst the expected climate changes, as well as planting young Douglas firs to increase the younger age classes of this relatively drought tolerant conifer. We also recommend monitoring the health of trees and other key indicators, such as soil moisture, to ensure careful tracking of anticipated climatic changes and their impacts, so Central Park can continue in its role as a highly cherished place in Burnaby.”

In other words, we recommend tree hugging!

See also the article that came out in the Burnaby Now at:  https://www.burnabynow.com/news/researchers-find-significant-tree-decline-in-burnaby-s-central-park-1.24170348

Making the visible out of the invisible

Now I have disappeared from Australia and reappeared back in my home country, a few more thoughts…

My sabbatical project in Australia is a little hard to explain sometimes – maybe even to myself.

I tell people I was studying weeds, but I had no actual plants down in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. What I did have to work with was an amazing scientific team – the Charles Sturt University plant interactions group led by Leslie Weston.

Charles Sturt University plant interactions group at my farewell gathering. Leslie Weston is third from the left.

I am often quick to add that the plant I was studying, mile-a-minute (Mikania micrantha) does grow in Queensland (the state north of New South Wales). Certainly the local Wagga news station, Channel 9 news Riverina, who interviewed me were quick to pick up on that. Even there, however, it is quite invisible. Ever since it was found there it has been under an eradication campaign, and a pretty successful one at that.

On the other hand, we have collected miles and miles of DNA from mile-a-minute at Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga. So maybe I could say we have “actual plants” there. We receive the samples as preserved bits of leaf.

Those bits of leaf could never grow into anything living again, so they can be brought from all over the world. Shawangni Rao did successfully return from Fiji where she collected mile-a-minute samples to bring back to Australia, as I wrote about in the “jars of clay” blog entry.

We were able to look at her Eppendorf tubes and see those bits of leaf. However, the real valuable parts of the sample are invisible. As we have been doing with samples from various countries around the world, the lab (i.e., Diego Zhu) will extract DNA from the leaves by digesting away everything else.

Diego Zhu processing mile-a-minute samples

When I have been in the lab with Diego and beheld the filters where the DNA gets trapped when the rest of the leaf is dissolved away, it is quite a sight. Well actually, it is not a sight at all. You can’t see the DNA!

Wells containing mile-a-minute DNA (in the green filters)

But wait, maybe you can see the DNA, in a way. Diego has reported to me he has found five genes that work – i.e., we can amplify DNA from these 5 genes for sequencing (see Table 1 below). That is good news! Does that means we can amplify the DNA enough to see it with the naked eye? No – it’s still invisible even when it is amplified.

Diego sent our first set of amplified genetic material off to another lab for sequencing. Then – yes then – we would be able to “see” the DNA. What did we see? We were able to see the amount of variation for the 5 genes among the various population. Our objectives involve learning about those populations, where they came from, maybe which ones will be easier to control, and trying to figure out whether all the Pacific Island populations really came from an initial introduction of the mile-a-minute weed to Fiji.

The news came back from the sequencing lab that for the 8 populations we tested…the 5 genes tested are all identical in all 8 populations. Seven of these were from Pacific Islands and the 8th was from Yunnan Province, China. Even though the plant is capable of producing variable offspring through sexual reproduction, the island invasive populations have only been around since 1907 (i.e., when they got to Fiji), and in the region since 1884 (when the plant was first grown in the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens). Maybe there hasn’t been enough time for divergence – plus many of the large weed patches are generated by clonal growth. And it looks like the ones we are looking at all came from a single introduction perhaps. One small mistake leading to miles of weed growth!

Mile-a-minute growing all along this stream I am standing beside in Yunnan Province, China

So now we wait to see the next results which will involve the Fiji samples and some samples we recently acquired from Brazil, which is part of the native range (see map below). So we expect to see the Fijian samples match up to the rest of our island samples, and the Brazilian ones to actually vary…without seeing the actual DNA in full living colour, of course.

Worldwide distribution of mile-a-minute, showing native and invasive range

That is the magic of working with DNA. And yet, as someone who normally studies what I can see (macroscopic stuff), it is a strange thing. I find I need a little more faith in the scientific process involved than if I am say simply counting the number of seeds on a plant, or identifying species of plants in a meadow to see whether the meadow is healthy or not.

Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” If we take the example of DNA, it fits the picture very well, at least as a metaphor. Every organism, every mile-a-minute plant uses DNA as its recipe to grow and development – the letters of the DNA molecule acting like God’s command.

DNA structure

It is hard for us to see this process in action, and yet we know from all the gifts God has given us to understand DNA science that this is the way it works. We are not quite to the level of “Jurassic Park” whereby we could take dead bits of leaf, take out the DNA and use it to produce a full-fledged mile-a-minute vine entangling a whole lemon orchard. However, we are getting pretty good at understanding how the invisible DNA molecules engineer life’s development and all of life’s processes.

Mile-a-minute running rampant in Yunnan Province, China

I think this ability to “see” the invisible producing the visible, helps us to see God better. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Although here I have been calling the DNA molecule “invisible” it is simply very small, and with the right tools, we can see it. Yet somehow, there is still a cloak of invisibility over the whole process – a magnificent unfolding of life from a dazzlingly elegant set of instructions – that are virtually invisible. Eureka and Hallelujah!

Bird of the week – little penguin

Last Wednesday night, Deb and I had an experience of a lifetime. Deb has loved penguins for years, and in fact I call her “my little” penguin sometimes. The name of the penguin we saw on Philip Island was in fact, the little penguin (Eudyptula minor).

The penguins come up the beach in great numbers every sunset, to return to their burrows for the night. Philip Island is located southeast of Melbourne, and one tip of the island is home to the “big” little penguin colony. This time of the year, they may also spend days out at sea, so you never know how many will come home on a given night. The numbers last Wednesday were in the hundreds but sometimes it’s over 1000.

We waited patiently as the sun set for the penguins to march of the beach. It seems like forever to wait but finally a cluster of them appeared, and then another, and then another. We were sitting right next to a penguin trail and suddenly beheld them close-up and personal.

No photos were allowed after sunset to protect the penguins, so all of the penguin photos here are courtesy of a gallery of the Philip Island Penguin Parade [https://penguins.org.au/photo-gallery/] , which nightly organize a wonderful experience for hundreds of visitors like us. My little penguin and I will always cherish the poignant penguin parade we saw!

Bird of the week – parrots

Well, it’s pretty much my second last week here in Australia, after a more than 4-month stay. Throughout the whole time I have been pursuing parrots. Actually, the first parrots were easy – the Rainbow Lorikeets I was tending at our temporary abode while the owners my hosts, Paul and Leslie Weston were on holiday. The pair of Rainbow Lorikeets and their young child were caged – just as we see parrots in North America.

One of the Rainbow Lorikeets I got to look after

However, just as rainbow lorikeets also range free here, there are many other parrots about. I quickly learned to recognized their quick flight, with their long tails streaming out behind. I would chase after them with my camera, and they would usually settle in a high tree. By the time I caught up to them, they were usually nearly invisible in the tree, or on their way to the next tree. However, over time I gradually lucked out and managed to snap a few photos before they winged away – like these Eastern Rosellas below who distracted me one morning when I should have been getting to my work at Charles Sturt University.

Eastern Rosella
Eastern Rosella
Eastern Rosella

Even in our backyard here in the Lake Albert district of Wagga Wagga, I was able to get some nice photos of the light-colour form of the Crimson Rosella  by the bird bath one evening.

Crimson Rosellas
Crimson Rosella

Around Lake Albert itself, I have been able to see the beautiful little Red-Rumped Parrot  (see below) from time to time, and show them off to my parents visiting from London, Ontario, Canada.

Red-Rumped Parrot
Red-Rumped Parrot

However, generally parrots have been a pretty frustrating lot to photograph…until this past week when we travelled to Sydney where I gave a talk at Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute of the Environment. Our hosts there, Jonathan and Krista Plett recommended that Deb and I head off to the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden one afternoon, and we were not disappointed. Indeed, the parrots there were very cooperative for the camera, with two species in particular making spectacular subjects: the Australian King-Parrot and the Crimson Rosella.

Australian King-Parrot
Australian King-Parrot
Crimson Rosellas
Crimson Rosella

 

As you’ll see in the video below, the Australian King-Parrot is not afraid to make its presence known, and likewise it was fun watching the foraging Crimson Rosellas. Almost like watching captive parrots, but different. Indeed, most of the time here the parrots go screaming right by me in flight – wild and free!

Bird of the week – the kookaburra

I was less than a week on Australian soil, when I found myself staring up at a…kookaburra. A quintessential Australian bird, if there ever was one! I could hardly believe my eyes, there it was just sitting there looking at me at the same forest near Coolamon where I first saw the willie wagtail, and had a mythical encounter with a swamp wallaby – the Kindra State Forest. Here is the picture I got of that bird:

Since then kookaburras have been everywhere, but I never seem to know where to look for them. They just show up. This one (below) we saw near the koala preserve at Narrandera – where we saw koalas too.

The laughing bit seems to happen mostly in the evening. One warm summer night as we drove to the end of a road somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we heard a small chorus of laughing kookaburras, as recorded in the video below. Note the video is for sound only – no kookaburras appear – but you can sure hear them!

 

The kookaburra was made famous by this laughing, as immortalized in a children’s poem written by Marion Sinclair in 1932 for a contest being put on by the Victorian Girl Guides. The poem won the contest and was sung at the World Jamboree in Frankston, Victoria in 1934. Now it is well known around the world. In case you don’t know the lyrics, I’ve put them down for ya!

******

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Merry merry king of the bush is he.
Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra,
Gay your life must be!

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Eating all the gum drops he can see.
Stop Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra
Save some there for me!

Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree,
Counting all the monkeys he can see.
Laugh Kookaburra, laugh Kookaburra
That’s not a monkey, that’s me!

******

Of course, there are no monkeys in Australia. However, the gum tree (= eucalyptus) is the most common tree around, and there are many different types of gum trees and I suppose kookaburras sit in all of them at one time or another. However, the one I see nearly every day driving to Charles Sturt University is usually on a wire when I spot him.

And check out the perch this kookaburra has chosen…trying to balance out the universe, perhaps?

Bird of the week – the Willie Wagtail

I remember the first time I noticed this bird shortly after I arrived in Australia. It was a small forest reserve near Coolamon and I thought – what an exotic little bird! Perhaps this was a rare sighting??? It did a little dance flipping (wagging) its tail around, and I was charmed!

A few more months in, and I’m still charmed, although I’ve seen this showy little bird almost everywhere. Not only do they do their little dances everywhere (forests, paddocks and lawns), but they attract attention with their chipper chattering.

When you look at their range in Australia, they are likewise found all over, except Tasmania, but apparently they visit Tasmania occasionally on holidays as well.

Not surprisingly, there are many stories about these birds in aboriginal culture. Some aboriginals saw them as a bad omen and would stay home from an expedition if they saw one in the morning. Others felt the Willie Wagtails hanging around at the edge were listening for secrets to tell elsewhere. Willie wagtails inspire modern issues as well – like the story I read of a man who couldn’t sleep because a Willie Wagtail chattered outside his window all night.

Willie Wagtails are the largest and most noticed members of a showy group of birds in Australia – the fantails. All that wagging apparently helps them catch their insect prey somehow. Indeed, they are avid insectivores – I have often seen them leaping athletically after their insect prey.

They also seek insect prey around livestock, and wild animals, like on the tail end of this swamp wallaby near Livingstone National Park (see below).

Enjoy the video I took on the Lake Albert beach near our place earlier this week…just a typical Willie Wagtail wagging around in Wagga Wagga.

Bird of the week – the Australian pelican

 

This week’s bird of the week is Australia’s largest water bird – the Australian pelican, weighing as much as 13 kg (28.7 pounds). It is a genuine Australian pelican, and the only pelican found on the island continent. Despite their size, they can actually fly and in fact are quite the wanderers. In fact, one of the first pelicans we saw here in Australia was in a tree in the middle of a sheep pasture – see the lonely pelican in the tree below.

Since then we’ve seen a few pelicans around at various places, always easy to recognize and fun to watch – they definitely have attitude. Not only do fish have much to fear, I think you’d be scared to be another bird in their vicinity. At the same time, they seem to have a comical side.

I got to see the pelicans at the Healesville Sanctuary just after feeding time, and they were a boisterous bunch. I learned from the keeper feeding them that contrary to popular belief, the pelicans don’t use their big flappy bills to store fish – rather they use them as snapping nets to capture fish under water. She feeds them once a day usually, but sometimes they are not so hungry the first time, so she has to go back to give them the rest of their daily heaps of fish.

The wandering nature of the pelicans actually makes sense for a continent that undergoes huge shifts in water availability. We’re in a bit of a drought here now with the expected fall rains yet to fall, so hopefully the pelicans will be able to keep finding nice places to swim and fish as the year goes on.

Treasures in Jars of Clay

I can remember as a kid getting clay from a nearby creek and trying to fashion it into something artistic or at least functional. Yet I was always somewhat limited by the fragile nature of the material. And who has never broken a clay flower pot? Yet flower pots are still useful, and often bear invaluable treasures, growing out of the earth placed in the pot – the same earth that gets transmogrified into us earthlings.

The plants I’m collecting on my sabbatical here in Australia are not full-blown plants with roots, stems, leaves and flowers, and the jars of clay I am using are small one-inch capsules called Eppendorf tubes. Into these tubes, our collectors, wherever they be in the world, place a small fragment of a leaf, no larger than a finger nail, and let it die there in the tube, surrounded by the drying power of silica preservative. Yet, these are indeed treasures, because these tiny leaf fragments, dead as they may be, contain all the DNA for the making of the mile-a-minute plant. When mile-a-minute grows from seed those DNA instructions get transmogrified into a fast-growing vine, capable of flowering, re-rooting, and taking on the many crops it contends with, to our dismay.

Eppendorf tube containing a leaf fragment preserved in silica

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

The Apostle Paul was actually referring to people, not plants, as the jars of clay in his letter to the Corinthians. Like clay, we as people, even the strongest of us, are very fragile. We would do well to treat each other as highly delicate, breakable objects, and holders of treasures beyond all worth, our souls and bodies fashioned by the ultimate Potter. And when we see our own weaknesses, our readiness to be shattered in an instant, we need to remember our Transmogrifier.

When I first met Shiwangni Rao who works at the cubicle just opposite me in the office here in Australia, we had a good conversation. I misheard her on one point though – I thought she said she was from PNG (Papua New Guinea). We have lots of mile-a-minute samples from PNG, so I wasn’t surprised when she said mile-a-minute grew everywhere in her country, but was a bit surprised at how much her people valued it for medicinal products. One person’s weed is another person’s treasure!

It wasn’t until several months later that I learned that Shiwangni was actually from Fiji (not PNG). That discovery will go down as one of the greatest highlights of my sabbatical. You see, DNA, as well as being a complete instruction set also contains history – the history through many generations of an organism. For our research group here, the hub, the nexus, the center of it all, as far as the conquest of the Pacific Islands by mile-a-minute looks to be Fiji. That’s our theory, based on historical records of its spread in the Pacific. Yet we had no samples from Fiji. So when my brilliant host here in Australia, Leslie Weston, found out Shiwangni was from Fiji, she quickly shared the good news with me, including the fact Shiwangni was soon returning home to Fiji for a visit.

Shiwagni Rao (left) and Xiaocheng Zhu (Diego)

And so today, my DNA wizard Xiaocheng Zhu (aka Diego) and I got to explain the process of sample collection to Shiwangni as she as agreed to retrieve some precious samples for us from Fiji. We will provide her with the clay jars and paperwork she needs, so she can bring back treasures for us to test our Fijian theory. In my few short months here in Australia I’ve had the privilege of meeting many fascinating clay jars and will miss them a lot when I travel back to the other side of the globe. And meeting Shawangni has helped to teach me that you never know when your “average co-worker” might become a pearl of great price.

Of course, no one is really “average”, and we are all capable of harboring treasures of infinite value, within mere jars of clay.

Leslie Weston examining a mile-a-minute plant in Yunnan Province, China

Bird of the week – the duck-billed platypus

This week’s bird of the week is just ducky. I mean it has a beak like a duck and lays eggs like a duck, and even swims somewhat like a duck what more do you want?

Indiana poet James Whitcomb riley (1849-1916) is likely responsible for the well-known truism: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.” From this statement, the main issue for platypus identification is that it definitely doesn’t quack like a duck. Rather when it rarely speaks, the platypus makes an odd sort of growl that could not be mistaken for a quack.

 

Interestingly though, when the platypus was first unveiled to science, scientists thought it was an elaborate hoax, so improbable the combination of features appeared. When Dr. George Shaw received the first specimen to reach Britain in 1799, he started cutting it up, expecting to find stitches connecting the duck bill to the head. Shaw went on to name the species Platypus anatinus meaning “flat-footed” and “duck-like.”

 

However, it turned out the Genus Platypus was taken (a group of beetles had snagged it), so the name had to be changed to Ornithorhynchus anatinus which means “bird-like snout” and “duck-like.” Pretty ducky beast apparently! I got to see a very ducky performance by a platypus named Millsom at the Healseville Sanctuary near Melbourne last week – see excerpts below.

 

Platypus keeper Jessica Thomas called this quite possibly the worst platypus show ever because the platypus was not cooperating too much. He refused to fight with the fake light blue platypus and refused his favourite treats. Then when she went to activate the remote to release soap bubbles from the back of the amphitheater, for some reason that didn’t work at first either. Nevertheless, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable and educational show, and at least Millsom was in fine swimming form.

As keeper Thomas explained, the platypus is one of only two types of mammals in the egg-laying Monotreme, the other being the echidna. I got to see echidnas at the sanctuary too – as shown below. Platypi and echidnas are not birds, to be sure, but very spectacular and unique mammals!

Bird of the week – Splendid fairy-wren

This bird is superbly named. Any doubts about how it is named might be dispelled by a sighting of the brilliantly blue hues glowing from the males of the species. Australians voting for the top bird also thought it was the most superb – when Birdlife Australia conducted a poll in 2013 to determine the most popular bird in the country, this little bird was #1.

Regarding the superb result for the fairy-wren Birdlife Australia asked: “Is it the stunning males in breeding plumage? Or the fact that they live in many people’s gardens, particularly where there is a lot of dense cover for them to retreat to and breed in?

However, in 2017, the fairy-wren dropped to #5 with the Australian magpie taking top honours – see my synopsis of the 2017 winner at:

Bird of the week – Australian magpie

Back to the wren, these dainty birds produce a mesmerizing song characteristic of wrens. They live very gregariously. I was wondering why I saw more of the brown females around than the blue males, but it turns out that in the small groups they hang out in, many of the brown ones are immature males, yet to take on their true colours.

In Australia, as well as seeing these birds everywhere, we have seen superb fairy-wren art, including in the doorway of our residence in Wagga Wagga, as seen below, and every day when we walk out our door!