About Us

We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The littlest HOBO

An hour in the field is a week in the lab” was the warning I was given as an M.Sc. student. Which means that Jon and I have enough samples to process for a year.

It has been a highly productive week. I can tell because I’m tired and sore all over. The snow has almost melted, and I escaped before the mosquitoes became too fierce. For the past week we have had a neighbourhood puppy follow us into the bush each day. We call her Georgia – she is very cute. She chases squirrels and takes naps while we measure nitrogen fixation.

P.S. The title of this post is somewhat of an inside joke, as we use HOBO dataloggers to record temperature & relative humidity year-round at the experimental site.  "The littlest Hobo" is also a mainstay of Canadian family television from the 1980s, featuring a wandering dog who helps everyone he happens to meet during his wandering.  Thanks for the company, Georgia.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Jon and I survived the 2 day trip to our northern Quebec field site near Schefferville.
This morning we left the McGill sub-arctic field station in almost all the clothes we brought, and my feet were still cold by 9:30am.

What can we say, there was a lot of snow.  The upside is that there are no bugs.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where is Schefferville, Anyway?

Cross-posted from my other blog

Yes, I'm spending the next 2 full weeks at the McGill Subarctic Research Station in Schefferville, Québec, sampling my field experiment with moss & their associated micro-ecosystem. And the most common question I get is: “Where is that?” *sigh* If only I'd found a reason to do research at the Bellairs research institute in the Barbados, I might have avoided this question :P

Schefferville is in northern Québec, near the border between Québec and Labrador. So close, I could easily walk to Labrador in a few hours from town. Getting to Labrador City would take a little longer ;-)

Vital statistics:

Formerly known as the town of Knob Lake, Schefferville was home to a mining community until the iron mine closed in the 1980's and most people left. It has since been a destination for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities, facilitated by the outfitters based in town. There is, however renewed interest in iron ore mining in the area, though not by the same company that built the railway. As far as I know, Schefferville has one school, an arena, sports field, one general store, a hardware store / snowmobile repair shop, a combination Dépanneur & SAQ Express (alcohol counter), much of it owned by the same man. There are also at least 2 bars in the area, although I was told not to go to a certain one unless I wanted to get into a bar fight. The airport is actually much closer to town than the train station, although there is a taxi from the train. It doesn't look like one, and is in fact an old ambulance past it’s prime, but you can ask around and someone will point it out when it comes.

I've been impressed with the depth of the scenery here: the land and the sky have a distinctly more three-dimensional appearance and feeling than in an urban environment. Even the sky has more depth than I remember in Vancouver, with usually at least 3 layers, making for some striking and beautiful sunsets.

I made a little flyby tour of the area in Google Earth, including my study site. I am such a nerd.

Why Biodiversity?

Living systems are repleat with variation at every scale and level of organization.  We are interested in how such diversity is maintained (coexistence), and what the consequences of varying levels of diversity are for system dynamics (process rates, functioning, stability).  
How many species are needed for a system to persist for multiple generations? 
How many species can survive without going extinct in areas with limited resources? (coexistence)
How does the number of species affect ecosystem processes such as productivity, stability, or other measures of functioning?
How do ecosystems respond to environmental changes or other external forces such as pollution, fragmentation, or climate change? (stability, resistance, resilience)
How do evolutionary processes affect ecological patterns and processes and vice-versa?

Gazing at Gaia's Navel

On a more philosophical note, studying biodiversity sometimes feels like "navel-gazing", while you are studying minute details of an immense biosphere, of which we are a part.  But, it's like looking at Gaia's navel, which so much more interesting than your own.

A diversity of reasons

Although our lab shares some common approaches to studying biodiversity, we each have our own personal reasons for choosing to work in this field.  We invite you to post your personal reasons in the comments section of this post.

Off to Schefferville

Bright and early Sunday morning.
Jon (Biodude) and I are off to the Schefferville field site today. We have an 11am flight from Montreal through Quebec into Sept-Iles around 4pm. Tomorrow we take a 12-hour train from Sept-Iles north to Schefferville.

I plan to collect lots of moss; Jon hopes to measure lots of N-fixation, and we are both generally looking forward to enjoying the sub-arctic summer experience. Did I mention it is supposed to snow there tomorrow? Ah well, maybe it'll keep the bugs down.

Have a great week everyone!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What is biodiversity science?

It is the discovery of the patterns and processes that describe and explain the diversity, distribution and dynamics of life in the biosphere

This is a formidable scientific enterprise because there are many more organisms on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way! 

(Apparently there are ~100 billion stars in our galaxy) 

All those organisms are split up into many different species each of which is represented by a few hundred populations.

(Our best guess is 10-15 million different species, each with ~200 populations on average)

What motivates much of the science in our lab is the alarming rate at which populations and species are disappearing. 

Biodiversity scientists are being challenged to understand the inner workings of the biosphere whilst human society subjects it to new combinations, rates and levels of environmental change.

Where are we?

A bunch of us from our lab decided to start a blog. A blog about stuff going on in our lab, but not necessarily serious academic topics. More like quirky thoughts and comments about academic stuff, or social events.

Our first challenge is to choose a name to put up in the URL so readers can find us. We wanted a name that was:

  • related to biodiversity science (our main field and area of research)
  • quirky or silly
  • but not totally unprofessional or inappropriate

It's a fine line.

Our leading contenders so far are:

  • sourcesink
    • already registered, but the blog was removed :(
  • ecodrift