Wednesday, 20 August 2014

An Introduction...

Unlike many of the posts of NEO past, I am a new student in the NEO program, and beginning my Masters in Biology in the fall of 2014. While my research scope is still being defined, I can provide a brief overview of the projected work and its relevance.


In 2011 the world’s largest roller-compacted concrete arch-gravity dam completed construction and was put in operation on the Changuinola River in Bocas del Toro province, Panama. The dam is under the operation and ownership of AES Changuinola, a subsidiary of AES Corporation. As a result of the dam operation, more than 1000 people, including the indigenous Ngäbe people, were re-settled. The dam itself is located inside a protected forest area, the Bosque Protector de Palo Seco (BPPS), and while residents were relocated, they were allowed to remain within the BPPS (AES Changuinola, 2013).

Figure 1 Google Earth view of the research area, and the relative locations of the Changuinola I dam, and the manatee habitat.

As a result, the AES Changuinola I Dam has been the topic of controversy from indigenous rights and conservation groups (Kennedy, 2012; Kennedy, 2014). This dam is not alone in its infamy, as hydroelectric dams have been simultaneously lauded as social, environmental and economic benefactors and antagonists alike. The cross-disciplinary nature of hydraulic dams and their impact presents a complex problem for researchers to tackle.

I will be working with Dr. Brian Leung and Dr. Hector Guzman, and we will be evaluating the impacts of the Changuinola I Dam on the local watershed and human and manatee population. The exact parameters that will be evaluated have yet to be entirely fleshed out, but this will hopefully become clearer as we gather data. Fortunately, we have the support of AES Changuinola, government officials and the local environmental authority (ANAM).

The project is divided into three main components; the first is to establish the current state of the river, using the information that is publicly available (e.g. land use, rainfall, soil type, land slope, etc.) and the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted prior to construction. Any information that can be provided on the relocation and/ or consultations that occurred with the local communities will also be collected. We hope to create a snapshot of the watershed prior to the dam construction, and at present by comparing historical remote sensing imagery. The second step of our research will be to develop a watershed model of the Changuinola River using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool. The models developed will inform the last phase of the project, which is a manatee population model. This last analysis will involve the monitoring of the local manatee population and habitat to establish the effects of modifying the watershed.

While my thesis is, quite evidently, in the preliminary stages, I am very excited to get started and to be a part of the NEO program.

Here’s a brief introduction to my own background: I grew up (mostly) in Kingston, Ontario. I moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the age of 18 to attend Dalhousie University. I also happened to be in the first year of their new College of Sustainability program. My degree morphed into a combined honours degree in Environment, Sustainability and Society and Biology. A key component of my undergrad was a 6-month exchange trip I did to Wellington, New Zealand in my third year. It was an amazing experience to really throw myself into another country and its culture.

When my feet touched back on Canadian soil, I was ready to tackle my fourth year. I wrote my honours thesis on the effects of a water-monitoring program in First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada. It was this work in the Centre for Water Resources Studies in 2013 that lead to my employment there after graduation. I learned a great deal at the Centre, though my time there has drawn to a close as I prepare for my upcoming move (and next great adventure!) to Montreal at the end of the month.

Cheers,

Victoria

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Connecting the Dots

As my PhD is wrapping up, I've been ruminating on what it means to be a student in the NEO program. The official website highlights the collaboration between McGill and STRI, the opportunities students will have to work with researchers from both institutions, and the goal to “facilitate a broader understanding of tropical environmental issues and the development of skills relevant to working in the tropics”. The greatest appeal of the program for me has always been the combination of science and humanities that has formed the core of the NEO program since its inception, mainly through the NEO courses. However, my research focus is limited to biology, so how do I fit into NEO?



I work with a group of marine snails, the calpytraeids, perhaps better known to the world as slipper limpets. If you’ve spent time on the east coast of North America or the north coast of Europe where it is invasive, you’ve probably seen shells of the most famous species in the group, Crepidula fornicata, washed up on the beach. The shells look a bit like slippers when turned upside-down, hence the common name. What attracted me in the group was the diversity of developmental types. Calyptraeids are a relatively big family, and have at least five different ways of going from egg to juvenile. I’m working on what is called direct development with nutritive embryos. That means that the majority of embryos produced by a female don’t actually finish their development, but are ingested by their normal siblings as they grow - a form of cannibalism. Interestingly, in the species that I study, all embryos look more or less the same until about a third of the way through their development. After that point, most embryos stop growing and are eaten. Only a small fraction will crawl out of their capsules as juveniles. It’s a bit like “The Hunger Games”, but with snails. I am studying what influences the developmental decision between becoming either a normal embryo or a food embryo, and how this mode of development may have evolved. 

Crepidula lessoni, one of the many species of slipper limpets found in Panama.


So what does that have to do with the goals of the NEO program? How does that relate to environmental problems facing Latin America today? On the surface, it wouldn’t appear to be a close fit. However, I am also studying these marine snails in the context of ecological evolutionary developmental biology, also known as eco-evo-devo. This is an emerging field that aims to understand how the environment, genes and development interact to produce changes in organisms through time. It is by nature an interdisciplinary field. And this is how I feel that my project fits into NEO. My research aims to understand the evolution of development by looking at several levels of biological organization; from genetic control and expression patterns, to environmental and seasonal influences on development, and the role of maternal and sibling interactions on individual embryos. This multi-level approach fits very well with the goals of NEO. After all, the ideals of the program are to understand environmental issues by integrating natural and social sciences in the tropics. On that front, my research is not so far outside of the goals of the program.

Locals looking for oysters while I look for snails in Veracuz, Panama.


Similar to understanding the evolution of development, understanding environmental issues requires having a handle on the complex interactions that lead to their production. NEO students are trained in integrating the multiple aspects of environmental issues, making this one of the most important aspects of NEO, even for those of us who are not looking directly at how we humans interact with our environment. The skills that I am using to do my research are transferrable to any number of complex issues facing the world today, and not just snail evolution!


* for more information about eco-evo-devo, check out the Abouheif lab website.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Evolution Bucket List: alpha 1

(This is a repost from http://ecoevoevoeco.blogspot.ca/)

Humans have a penchant for making “best of” (Top 10, Top 5, anything from Buzzfeed, ...) lists. David Letterman’s Top 10 lists are, of course, a long-standing classic. Many magazines and websites have Best Of lists for the year: best photos, best movies, etc. And now we have “best of” YouTube collections for pretty much anything that might interest you. It seems to be human nature to make such lists – although the characters in the movie High Fidelity argue it is a tendency more common or more enhanced in men than women.

The ultimate best-of lists are Bucket Lists – the things you need to see/do before you die. Presumably these are the 100 (or whatever number of) things that would enrich your life experience more than any other. The things that – if you didn’t do them – would have you looking back from the grave and thinking “Damn, I never went cave diving” or “Why didn’t I ever see a Broadway Play?” or whatever. Sometimes we see global bucket lists presumably applicable to all humanity (or perhaps the “average” human), but other times we see more targeted Bucket Lists for things such as Sporting Events, Fishing, Skiing, Reading, Dining, Sex, and so on. This got me to thinking: what would be an Evolution Bucket List? A Google search suggests no such list exists and so I figure we should develop one.

I will start the ball rolling with some initial ideas. I hope folks will suggest additional options in the comments. Perhaps with a few versions of the list batted around, we can develop the optimal set. What should be on such a list? Several categories stand out. (1) Locations where organisms are particularly special, such as Galápagos. (2) Particular organisms of evolutionary significance or novelty, such as the platypus. (3) Locations of historical/contemporary importance to the study of evolution, such as Darwin’s home. (4) Amazing interactions between organisms, such honey guides and honey badgers or the parasitic isopod that replaces the tongue of some marine fish. (5) Specific dramatic or important fossils or fossil sites, such as the Burgess Shale. So I will start our group effort by suggesting some items for the Evolution Bucket List: some I have already experienced, some I expect to experience, and some that would be great to experience but that I probably never will. 

Things already in my bucket

1. Galápagos Islands. For me, Galápagos is the single most iconic and inspirational location for someone interested in evolution. Not only did it inspire Darwin and many evolutionary biologists since, but it is home to some of the world’s most unique and interesting organisms: marine iguanasDarwin’s finches, flightless cormorants, tropical penguins, and many others. Of course, we could easily list each of these organisms as separate items on the bucket list but – given that one can knock all of them off in a relatively short time in a relatively small area – I think they are better encompassed as a location. I have been fortunate enough to visit Galápagos many times, although I still haven’t seen a flightless cormorant. BLOG POST

Darwin called them "imps of darkness."
2. Down, EnglandNo location was more instrumental in the development and exposition of Darwin’s theory. It was here that Darwin did nearly all of the work that led us to our modern understanding of life on earth and how it came to be. The most obvious thing to see is Down House (especially his study) and its grounds (especially the Sandwalk). However, what was even more exciting for me was Darwin’s Pub. BLOG POST

Having a pint in Darwin's Pub.
3. ArchaeopteryxDiscovered soon after Darwin published his magnum opus, Archaeopteryx made flesh the intermediate forms between extant groups (birds and reptiles) and was thus a crucial contributor to acceptance of Darwin’s theory. Simply put, Archaeopteryx is the most famous fossil in the world: it is even in MS Word’s spell-check dictionary which, I have just discovered, knows how to spell it better than me. It is also the world’s most beautiful fossil – and spectacular versions can be seen in many museums. I have seen them in the Berlin Natural History Museum and the British Natural History Museum.

The Berlin Archaeopteryx
4. OilbirdsOne of the most exciting things for an evolutionary biologist is evolutionary novelties – species that just stick out in ways that set them apart from even the most closely related species. That is, they are the sorts of species that might not be imaginable if they didn’t actually exist. Oilbirds are my current favorite. They nest in caves and feed on fruit at night, and they echolocate! They are also huge outliers on the evolutionary tree of birds. And they live in spectacular settings in tropical forests. I have seen them in Trinidad both in caves and clicking their way along river corridors at night. BLOG POST

Me shooting pictures of oilbirds. (Photo by Felipe Perez-Jvostov)
5. Carnivorous plantsI was sorely tempted to list another cool animal (mudskippers or leafcutter ants) but I suppose plants might also be important and interesting – at least to some. Being an animal guy, the plants that are most fascinating to me are the ones that seem almost like animals – the predatory plants. Most iconically, this category (actually several independent evolutionary lineages) jncludes pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps. It is one of life’s guilty pleasure, at least for kids, to catch and “feed” insects to these plants. And, of course, it helps that Darwin was a big fan, even writing a book about them. Indeed, various carnivorous plants are featured to this day in the greenhouse at Down House (PHOTO).

Sundew in British Columbia.

Things reasonably likely to end up in my bucket

6. MadagascarAnother evolutionary marvel. A place, like Galapagos or New Zealand, long cut off from the rest of the world and so able to embark on an independent evolutionary trajectory. In the case of Madagascar, what I would most like to see are lots of lemurs: ring-tailed lemurs, mouse lemurs, and – most importantly – aye-ayes. Surely the aye-aye is one of the most bizarre and amazing mammals in existence – my kids think so anyway. Check out this awesome video True Facts about the Aye-Aye (3.5 million views and counting).

7. Burgess ShaleOne of the most important fossil finds was in the Canadian Rockies where, 500 million years ago, a large mudslide covered an almost intact fauna from the Cambrian Explosion, a period during which animal life exploded in diversity. This site has told us most of what we know about this time, half a billion years age. In fact, I am shocked that I have not already been to the Burgess Shale, given that I grew up only a few hours away (What the hell were my parents thinking not taking me there?) and I still drive through the area all the time. You can even get a guided tour. What could be simpler? Surely, I will soon check it off.

8. Chimpanzees – in the wildOur closest relative, and popularly consider 95+% genetically similar to us – to me! I am captivated watching them in any of the countless BBC videos. It is like a window into the past, in the sense that our common ancestor probably looked a lot more like a chimp than a human. I am pretty confident I will soon knock this one off too, given that I have collaborators working in Kibale National Park, Uganda, where chimpanzees are abundant and easily seen. Yet another reason to do some work there.

9. Platypus – in the wildOK, I suppose some other monotreme, like the echidna, would do in a pinch but the platypus just seems so much more bizarre. In fact, it bedeviled scientists for almost a century, as playfully described in the book titled, wait for it… Platypus. Of course, I envision my encounter will be like the one in David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals – me sitting peacefully on the edge of a pool while a platypus swims playfully (or at least indifferently) about my feet in crystal-clear water. I have already been to Australia but didn’t seek out a platypus at the time, dammit. Yet I will surely be back to Australia soon. In the meantime, I will have to be satisfied with the dusty old male platypus moldering away in the basement of the Redpath Museum. Not quite the same, but inspirational nonetheless.

10. Flying herpsThey don’t really fly, of course: flying has evolved only four times (bats, birds, insects, pterosaurs), but these gliders can be just as amazing. I grew up watching flying squirrels, which were cool enough, but what about flying snakes (VIDEO), flying lizards (VIDEO), or flying frogs (VIDEO)? The snakes can dramatically change direction in mid-air. The lizards extend their ribs until they look like a kite. The frogs were described by Alfred Russell Wallace – the co-discover of natural selection.

Things with varying degrees of unlikeness.

11. Bolas spider in actionLooks like a bird turd. Gives off a moth pheromone. Spins a ball of sticky web on a string and swings it around to catch sexed-up moths in flight (VIDEO). This sight should be the most accessible of these relatively inaccessible bucket list options, given that bolas spiders are widespread, seemingly even near my house. I just don’t know where or how to start looking. (OK. so maybe this one actually is achievable and I should have picked some rarer but equally cool spider.)

Many spiders could make the list. 
How cool is this crab spider waiting for dinner to fly up?
12. Antarctic breeding coloniesAlbatrosses. Elephant seals. Penguins. By the millions. South Georgia Island. The Kerguelen Islands. One of life’s great spectacles. Ironically, I once passed up a chance to go to the Kerguelen Islands. I probably won’t get another.

Penguin (check - Galapagos), Elephant Seal (check - California). Millions of each on a beach in (or near) Antarctica (pending).
13. Killer whales swimming onto the beach to get at sea lionsI must have watched videos of this behavior hundreds of times – truly amazing stuff. Here is one of those VIDEOS – 12 million views. In reality, this spectacle should be reasonably accessible (at least in relation to those that follow) but I am betting the chances are still remote because it happens in only a few places (Península Valdés, Argentina) for only part of the year (Feb–Apr – and episodically even then) and access seems to be strictly controlled.

Just need to get this orca and this sea lion on the beach in the same picture!
14. Hydrothermal vent communitiesEntire communities that thrive independently of energy from the sun. First seen in 1979, these communities of tube worms, crabs, fish, and other critters were too bizarre and unpredicted to be believed – except that we could actually see them on VIDEO. For this I just need a submarine.

15. TylacineIf one is to see a cool marsupial, one couldn’t do better than a Thylacine – the Tasmanian Tiger, in colloquial terms. OK, I know you’re saying well, duh, it’s extinct. But not everyone is convincedand a few of these critters might still be hanging out in the woods of Tasmania. To give a hint of what you might see, check out this chilling VIDEO of the last one alive in a zoo – viewed more than 2 million times. For this I might just need a time machine.

I would trade several thousand kangaroos for one (OK, maybe two) thylacines.

So, there’s my first attempt at an alpha version of an Evolution Bucket List. Please send me some new ideas so we can make a definitive list. If you have actually knocked off the item, then a tiny description like those above would be great – with a video or picture, ideally one you took yourself.

Have at ’er.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Darwin's Pub.

[This is a duplicate of a post on my ecoevo-evoeco blog.]

Surely the greatest contribution that England has made to the world (apart from deep-fried Mars bars) is Charles Darwin. Certainly, then, the most important tourist destinations in England should be sites associated with Darwin. At least, that has always been my opinion. This post is about my failures and successes in attempting to visit Darwin’s haunts – and a few unexpected and uncommon discoveries along the way.

Would Chuck D have partaken?
On my first visit to London a number of years ago, I had half a day to spare and so sought out Darwin’s grave at Westminster Abbey. I showed up at the door, all aquiver with anticipation, only to be told that it was the one day of the year when tourists were not allowed – a special day instead for worship only. Damn. The next time I visited England, I had a whole day to spare (owing to that annoying policy of airlines charging almost double if you don’t stay over a Saturday night) and so I set my sights on a pilgrimage to Darwin’s home, Down House. Seeing his study and walking his Sandwalk, his “thinking path,” would surely be a great inspiration – and it must certainly be on the bucket list of every evolutionary biologist. After arriving in London on that trip, I looked Down House up on the internet and discovered that it was closed for renovations. Double damn. Instead, I visited the British Natural History Museum, where I could at least see the statue of Darwin. This statue figured prominently in a David Attenborough video for Darwin’s 200th birthday that explained how the statue of Richard Owen, who was instrumental in the museum’s history but a vocal critic of evolution, had recently been removed and replaced by this monument to his archrival Darwin.

Westminster Abbey
I visited London again last week, and I promised myself that I would visit both Darwin’s grave and his home. I even checked the opening times of Down House before booking my flight – Saturdays and Sundays only. So, on the Friday after our bioGENESIS meeting (see this post), I set out for Westminster Abbey. After waiting in line for nearly an hour, I finally made it inside. It was crowded and I was awash in hundreds of graves and monuments all over the floor and walls. Where was Darwin? The audio guide didn’t mention him – as I had been certain it would – so I had to ask. It turned out to be a plain white marble slab on the ground. I had expected something more dramatic, maybe with finch beaks engraved on it, but it was still fun to see the grave and compose pictures of it with the backdrop of an institution that – initially at least – felt so threatened by his ideas. After leaving Darwin’s grave, I tried to take a photo of the “grave of the unknown soldier” (definitely on the audio guide) and was promptly informed that photos were not allowed in the Abbey. Oops. I guess no one cares enough about Darwin’s grave to guard against photography. Even so, it was great to see the founder of evolutionary biology buried in the most important religious institution in England. (Writing this, I wonder if Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce is also in the church, perhaps with a perpetual frown in Darwin’s direction. Or maybe he is in some lesser church, with an even bigger frown.)

Westminster Abbey
The next day I was off for Down House, which proved to be quite a commute from the hotel, as befit Darwin’s desire to escape the city. I was even forced to wait about an hour for the bus from South Bromley to Downe Village (the “e” was added after Darwin’s time to distinguish it from another Down elsewhere). Fortunately, a Starbuck’s was right beside the bus stop, and so I could sip a non-fat no-whip hot chocolate (tastes the same the world over) and edit a paper. Eventually the bus came and about 20 minutes later we stopped at St. Mary’s Church in Downe. From there it was a 10 minute walk along a narrow lane between some fields and I had the great fun of seeing a pheasant prancing about – did Darwin shoot at its ancestors and miss? Down House was amazing, of course, particularly Darwin’s study and his thinking path, where I made a video to ask the pressing question: How did Darwin walk his sandwalk?


I could well have written an entire post about the wonders of Down House: Darwin loved billiards and would play every day with his butler, Darwin would leave his office dozens of times a day just to get a pinch of snuff from the hallway outside, Darwin rode horses until he fell and gave up, and so on. However, what happened after I left proved to be even more surprising and inspiring and so I will turn to that story.

Submitting a paper at Down House.
After about four hours at Down House, I walked back to the church in Downe to catch the bus. I had a few minutes to spare and so I walked around the church (and saw a plaque saying the sundial was in Darwin’s honor) and in the church (where written material explained how Darwin and his butler, Mr. Parslow, were an integral part of the community). As the bus was arriving, I saw a pub across the street from the church – the George & Dragon. Hmmm, I thought, how could I not have a drink in the bar in Darwin’s home town? So I let the bus go by, committing myself to at least an hour in Downe, and walked across the street to have a pint of Guinness. On my way there, I started to wonder. Could Darwin have gone to this pub? It looked quite old – perhaps he stopped in for a beer or two. Or maybe he spent the whole church service there after his beloved daughter Annie died and his faith was thus permanently shattered.

Emma’s church.
I entered the pub and was reinforced in my romantic hope as it looked really old, down to the low ceiling with rough-hewn and sagging support beams. But it still seemed a silly hope, so I started by asking the bartender some leading questions. “How old is Guinness?” – “Oh, hundreds of years.”  “Cool – and how old is this pub.” – “Oh, considerably older than Guinness.”  “Really,” I say, my excitement mounting. “Could Darwin have come in here for a pint.” – “Oh, yes, certainly. In fact, he stayed upstairs while visiting Downe and looking at the house.”  “Awesome. Perhaps he had a pint of Guinness here – just like I am doing.” – “Oh, that seems likely as he did some business here – see the photo and inscription on the wall.”

Darwin’s pub – the George and Dragon
Guinness in hand, I walk over to a framed document, which included a picture of the pub in the old days – originally called the George Inn – accompanied by an excerpt from the Bromley Record, July 1, 1867.

On Tuesday, 11th June, the Downe Friendly Benefit Society held their 17th anniversary at the GEORGE INN where a most excellent dinner was provided by Mr. and Mrs. Uzzell. The chair was taken by Mr. Snow and the vice-chair by Mr. Parslow. After the cloth was removed and the usual loyal toasts and healths of the treasurer C. R. Darwin Esquire and others, had been given …

Be still my beating heart.

Over the next few hours, I sat in a big comfy chair beside a fireplace that might have warmed Darwin (but not me, owing to fire regulations) and drank several pints while bus after bus went by without me. I edited a paper about the evolution of resistance to parasites. I edited the video asking How did Darwin walk his sandwalk? And I generally absorbed the ambiance and reveled in the thought that I might be sitting in the place where Darwin first scribbled his “I think” diagram – perhaps on a bar napkin.

Darwin’s thinking chair?
OK, I realize I am being overly romantic here. Guinness was probably not on tap in 1860. And, if it was, it was probably not available in the George Inn. And, if it was, Darwin’s delicate stomach probably made him gravitate toward easier fare. And bar napkins probably didn’t exist. And, if they did, Darwin probably didn’t bring his quill to the bar. And, if he did, he probably wasn’t thinking about evolution while drinking. And, of course, he probably scribbled his I think diagram somewhere else (indeed, he did so before buying Down House). But the experience was nevertheless inspiring and the scenario at least plausible in that Darwin might have had some eureka moments in the same physical location I was occupying. Certainly, most of my good ideas have come in bars over a pint of beer or a glass of whisky – at least most of my good blog ideas anyway.

Or maybe Darwin would have preferred this sherry - photo by Mike Hendry
So, the next time you’re in England, by all means visit Darwin’s grave and Down House. Marvel at his writing chair. Be inspired on the sandwalk. But – most of all – don’t forget to visit Darwin’s pub. Bring your computer – do some science. Darwin would want you to.