Five months in five photos

 

I’m so bad at updates that even this mass update is late. 

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In early December I tagged along on a trip to Northland in a hunt for Cambridgea reinga and what felt like every stick insect on the Cape. I managed to nab my study specimens and not drink myself into oblivion to cope with the company. (Disclaimer: This is a joke). It was a week of spirited scouring of the forest floor to which the only downsides were the dregs of information slipping in through dodgy reception that my grandpa wasn’t well. He had already been sick but the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan while I was away. It occurs to me now that I never got a straight answer about exactly what his diagnosis was.

I arrived home just in time to head out for a dress rehearsal. The choir I’m in (they come up later so it’s worth introducing them) were performing Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas the next day.

The next morning, Anthony and I went to visit Grandpa at the hospital after breakfast. That is, Anthony proposed to me after breakfast and then we went to break the news to Grandpa. From there, I went on to the concert and the next morning I got on a plane to Wellington to work at a Royal Society workshop.

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The main Chathams Island is not what I expected. I was there for a week with Anna where we bundled up spiders in gladwrap to measure them. They were out in force so we didn’t have any trouble getting the numbers that I wanted but, wow, there is something desolate about that place. It’s not that it’s barren per say so much as that it’s got the feeling of a room recently abandoned with country side that’s a wild carpet of gorse striped with pockmarked roads. We drove to all four corners of the island on roads which just ended without any sort of declaration and we watched The Silence of the Lambs on VCR at the DOC hut.

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So to get the humble brag out of the way, the choir went on a trip to New York to perform Paul Mealor’s Stabat mater and Jubilate Deo at Carnegie hall in a choir amassed by DCINY under the direction of Dr James Jordan. When we weren’t rehearsing we were swanning about Times square and the Metropolitan opera. When asked “how was New York” it’s easier to talk in specifics because when I’ve tried to describe the emotional journey I went on, people start looking at me like I’m touched in the head. Because to anyone else, it’s all “music’s all about making a connection, man. It moooooves you.” So suffice to say, I happy cried and cried cried >5 times during rehearsals and performance.

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Right. So this is how my first week of March went. Anthony and I had decided to get married on the 6th so that Grandpa might make it. Sunday 28th we had lunch with my Thai family to celebrate the engagement (may I say that Anthony and I had had our respective hens and stag nights the previous night and were “worse for wear”). We’d received a phone call from Nana to say that Grandpa wasn’t well and we popped in on our way home. Anthony and I didn’t leave until later that night. Somehow every child and grandchild who lived in Auckland managed to pop in that day. Grandpa died overnight.

I don’t’ know how other people respond to death of a loved one but I think for us our minds scrambled to find the patterns which would explain what we were feeling.

Things I concluded:

  • He died on the 29th of February,
  • The 29th is the day before his birthday
  • The 29th of February only occurs on a leap year
  • Eve’s [the cat] back.
  • Eve was named such because their first cat was “Adam”.
  • Evening

The remaining days are everything you would expect as we tried to take the cracked sky into ourselves. One and a half days mourning at my nana’s house, three days tangi at Orakei marae. Three days after he died, I turned 26 and three days after that, I got married.

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Again, it’s hard not to rationalise but, hell, if he’d died a day later, we would’ve had to call the whole thing off. If he’d survived to the weekend, he wouldn’t have been able to come and Nana probably would have stayed at home with him. Because he died, every family member who couldn’t come to the wedding was suddenly in town for the tangi and might as well stay on. Hell, we hadn’t even considered inviting our family from York because it’s York, y’know? The wedding numbers swelled.

In spite of everything (or perhaps because of everything), I don’t think we could have been happier on that day.

 

Natural history museums; Use ’em or lose ’em

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels and one of my favourite concepts is the Unseen university library. For those unfamiliar with those books, the library operates on the aphorism that “Knowledge is power”. Ergo:

l space

which is all to say that large quantities of books (magical and mundane) warp time and space around themselves, opening a portal to L-space. The “L” stands for “library” and it links all libraries everywhere and every when across the multiverse. The result is that virtually any bookshop could become infinite.

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Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

To slide obliquely onto my actual topic, there have been a couple papers published recently about the relationship between ecologists, taxonomists, natural history museums and open access. The first postulates that the primary datum of the ecologist is usually thought to be the measurement or count of a species. In other words, some number. But, in reality, a measurement has been made long before that, at a much more basic level: that ecologist has designated that organism as a particular species.

Now, the term “species” is to biology as the term “language” to linguistics: our every-day use of the term obfuscates the sheer number of often-incompatible definitions. Deciding when two animals are two different species and when they are the same comes down to probabilities a lot more often than you may think and, when philosophies change, it’s not unheard of for one scientist to completely overhaul a taxonomy (the classification of different species). I am no taxonomist but I did visit some sheet-web spider collections in the South Island over the last month and when looking at some of the older specimens (old as in <1900s), there was the odd species label which arched the eyebrow.

But in every other respect, these visits were fantastic

The point is that every time an ecologist looks at a plant and decides “Oh that’s an X”, that is an interpretation. So the authors argue that, in addition to open access to numeric datasets, it is imperative that ecologists make any physical samples available. Natural history museums seem like a sensible place to store these.

The second paper supports this notion but acknowledges that natural history museums often lack the resources to take these ecological collections. And by resources I mean a) curators, b) space and, c) capital which kinda determines the previous two. Given this, the authors argue that a cultural shift needs to take place within ecology. Not only do ecologists need to start storing their samples in collections but they also need to be more supportive of natural history museums, whatever form that support takes.

Because support is needed. I’ve been a member of the Entomological society of New Zealand for three years and, in that time, members have been called upon twice to make submissions in defence of members facing the employment axe (or at least the employment shave). In both cases, these other members were taxonomists and curators of significant insect collections who had fallen within that immense shadow which hangs over natural history research nowadays.

(The shadow’s called “Perceived irrelevance” and apparently I wrote a bit about it in a previous life (read: pre-PhD)).

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So to bring things back to my laboured Terry Pratchett introduction [“It’s our party we can do what we want”], it would be fantastic if we could have collections which were are infinite in size, fully integrated across space-time (hello, internet) and curated by a single highly skilled orangutan paid in bananas. But we can’t so instead we have to lend support to taxonomists and natural history collections when opportunities arise and make use of collections and experts when appropriate. If an ecological sample is too large to store, subsample representatives of key taxonomic units, deposit that and remember to acknowledge which institution is holding that sample.

Take home message: Give a taxonomist a hug and drop a sneaky fiver in their pocket.

(Take home message 2: Don’t)

(Take home message 3: I mentioned visiting museums to measure spiders which makes this count as a PhD update)

A week on Burgess Island; Fun titles are hard

About a week ago I shirked mainland life and mainland PhD work for just under a week of remote island living. Burgess Island of the Mokohinau Islands is situated off the North East coast of the North Island. The island is a scenic reserve and key field site for another PhD student, Megan, who is studying colouration of sea birds such as the diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix). While Megan and another PhD candidate are still on the island, I went along for the first half of their trip to take an opportunistic fossick around the undergrowth for Cambridgea. I didn’t have much luck (at most I found a couple outgroup species for phylogenetic analysis) which made it all just a fantastic holiday before I start knuckling down to begin my own field work.

This post is just a large photo brag.

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The last photograph is there to prove that there was work going on. (Even if it wasn’t mine). Big thanks to Megan for letting me come along on the trip that she organised (field trip without having to do all the admin = literally the best thing).

Not depicted: The 45 knot winds and the 110m, 45 degree incline hill that the hut was on.

Update on mite situation

So I mentioned my bouncing bundle of a billion-or-so surprises that I found in Cambridgea eggs to my supervisor about a fortnight ago. He was unsure of what they would be but recommended that I send some down to a colleague of his at Canterbury museum who is their resident “mite guy”. So had another dig around in the egg cases, pulled some mites out and dropped them into a vial of ethanol to send down.

When working with animals <1mm long, surface tension is the bane of my existence. i.e. very small animals stick to damp surfaces like Gollum to the one ring and any you really just want to squash the damn thing and then you do by accident and feel bad.

Anyway.

So last week I got an email back from mite expert. He had mounted them (the notion of mounting these suckers blows my mind) but doesn’t have the appropriate microscope to properly identify them with certainty to anything below family level(1).

So the mites were identified as to the order Sarcoptiformes (the only thing I can find in my Greek dictionary for this name is that they have fleshy bodies?). Matt (mite expert) also believes that they are of the family Acaridae and says that there are several genera of this family which will colonise mouldy grain or rotting carcasses of invertebrates. “If humidity is high enough they can colonise virtually anywhere” he says.

When I mentioned that the mites were found inside the egg cases, he also raised the point that they breed explosively and, if they are parthenogenic(2). then only a very small number of females would have to make it into the egg sac.
So it’s basically it’s not clear whether the mites were feeding on the eggs themselves or on mould or something similar. When I asked about the dusty contents of one of the egg cases (Fig. 1) he said that it could be bits of the eggs themselves although they could also just be mite faeces. Which makes the granola analogy even “better”.

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Fig. 1: Photographs of C. foliata egg case and mites going nom nom nom

 

 Notes that are longer than original post:

Tangent 1: Pretty much everyone is familiar with the idea of binomial nomenclature even if you didn’t know that that’s what it’s called: i.e. all species have a unique pair of latin names such as Homo sapiens. These two words designate different levels of classification.

e.g. In this case Homo refers to a specimen’s “genus” (plural “genera”) which is a broader level of classification which will contain several species while sapiens is the “species” proper. So Homo neanderthalensis is in the same genus as modern humans but is a different species. There are several higher level groupings are used in taxonomy (The practice of classifying species. “taxis” (ταξις) referring to arrangement and “nomos” (νομος) referring to a practice or convention). Genera are nested with families and families within orders etc. From the most broad to the most specific, these taxonomic levels are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Also known as King Phillip Came Over For Grilled Sausages.

(NB: There are several other classifications between these main ones such as “tribe” and the names of the classifications can differ between botanists and zoologists.)

So humans are, in full:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Family: Hominidae

Genus: Homo

Species: H. sapiens

Tangent 2: Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction in which females produce only daughters without having to mate with males (παρθένος = parthenos = maids or young women. I can’t figure out whether it’s implying that parthenogenesis only generates females or whether it is reproduction by unmated females/maids). It occurs in several invertebrates but at significant physiological cost for the female. In the springbok mantis (Miomantis caffra), females readily laid egg cases without mating with males and these did produce viable young. However, in a species from the same genus, the nymphs (young) produced from these egg cases often didn’t make it to adulthood or were in poorer condition. Even with this cost parthenogenesis can be a powerful way for females to rapidly generate identically (or virtually identical) young who will succeed provided that the environment is relatively stable