About Us

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Working Vacation

It’s been a great month for me, here on the westcoast. I’ve been visiting friends, family, cat, car, etc. on Vancouver Island, and doing some canopy sampling while I’m here also. The project, called ABASS (Arboreal Biodiversity Across Spatial Scales), was initiated at the end of my PhD, and this year I went into the field to collect HoBo dataloggers and a few arboreal moss samples. So, it’s a working vacation of sorts. But it’s the kind of work that I love to do. Firstly, the field sites are some of the most spectacular in the world. And secondly, because it’s an area that I have a connection to, as a scientist, and also because it’s home and I have history here.

This year I visited three sites in Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the west coast of Vancouver Island, just north of Tofino, BC. This is ancient temperate rainforest, and canopy samples are collected from 60m Sitka Spruce trees of coastal estuaries.

Of the three sites (Sydney, Watta, Moyeha), the Sydney is my favourite; mostly for it’s pristine forests, amazing wildlife, and sheer isolation. It’s located 1.5 hours by boat from Tofino, and about 45 minutes north of the village of Ahousat, where the new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations was celebrated just last week. In the Sydney it’s just water, rock, trees and sky as far as you can see.

A typical day in the field started with collecting Blue and Huckleberries from around the camp site before canoeing off to the estuary. This year has been phenomenal for berries all over Vancouver Island, and the Huckleberries were the biggest I’ve ever seen. I work with a professional tree climber (Kev the arbornaut), who has climbed over an estimated 15,000 trees in his career (he stopped counting at 10,000). Our task is to climb 12 Sitka Spruce trees in each of the three watersheds, and collect dataloggers and moss samples for extraction of microarthropods (mainly mites). Climbing big trees, it always amazes me that they are just plants, related to a piece of celery or an African violet, and here I am clumsily climbing up them like an ant crawling up a blade of grass. At the top you can feel them sway in the wind.

Of course, also on a typical day in the field, you need to accept the good with the bad. Good parts were napping and swimming in the estuary, and watching a Humpback whale lunge feed for pilchards in the inlet for 4 hours, while we sat on the rocks, drinking beer and eating oysters. The bad parts were falling down and bashing my knee on the rocks in the dry riverbed, getting stung by a bee and having my whole arm swell-up to the point where I couldn’t bend my fingers, and stabbing myself with my pocket knife.

But, it’s almost time to wrap-up and return to Montreal. I’m anxious to get back into the lab and start some new experiments, play with moss, and see some new mites. We have at least one new addition to our lab starting sometime this fall, so it should be an exciting time in the Gonzalez lab as some people finish up their projects and new ones get underway.

I hope everyone had a great summer, and I’ll see you all soon.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Farewell to Albuquerque

Well, ESA isn't over, but the Gonzalez lab contingent is pulling out this morning, leaving the Friday sessions to hardier folks than we. And while the conference certainly felt like it was winding down tonight, ESA definitely went out with a bang.

Overall the last two days offered fantastic talks, with a particular emphasis on competition (especially among plants). Whole sessions were devoted to long-term data sets like the censused plots of Barro Colorado Island and more experimental set ups like Cedar Creek. While I definitely agree that there is much that can be learned from long-term study sites like BCI and Cedar Creek (indeed, much research would be impossible without them), I wonder as to whether there might also be a problematic side to such awesome resources as these. For example, I went to countless talks over the last two days about tropical forest dynamics, probably 90% of which were conducted on BCI. Now, it's not that BCI isn't an appropriate place to study, it's just that it seems to be the only place that is studied, which may lead us to accept idiosyncratic patterns of BCI as typical universal tropical forest trends. Similarly, it seems that so much of our knowledge on the effects of diversity on ecosystem functioning (representing another big chunk of talks I saw over the last two days) comes from Cedar Creek; and while it is an awesome study site, it seems dangerous to let just one experiment inform us so completely on a topic that is so important.

All that being said, it was one of the talks on BCI that caught my eye today, given by none other than Stephen P. Hubbell, who was at once lucid, clear, concise, and humorous. His talk also had me thinking about the nature of star power in science - as the lecture theatre was packed to the brim. People even took pictures of him. It was off the hook.

And on that note, a farewell to Albuquerque.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dispatch from Albuqerque

The 94th annual Ecological Society of America meeting kicked off this Sunday with two, count them, two Gonzalez lab members in attendance. The theme for this year's meeting is "Ecological Knowledge and a Global Sustainable Society," and while there is some deal of murmuring that the theme is particularly ironic for a relatively isolated location that happens to be in a desert, the unique setting has inspired some interesting conversations on water issues and other elements of sustainability.

External to the meeting theme there have been some genuinely interesting talks in the desperately over-air-conditioned Albuquerque convention center. In particular over the last two days I have enjoyed an interesting special session calling for the emergence of a fully formed discipline of "warfare ecology" to address the unique and prevalent ecological challenges presented by war, and a symposium looking at interactions of ecological and evolutionary dynamics. Indeed, there have been a few shards of inspiration capable of piercing even my bitter and withered heart.

One thing that strikes me about a lot of the talks is the value of a charismatic study system, by which I simply mean a clear cut relationship to nature. I think it is a weakness of my talks, and indeed of many other theoretical talks, that they fail to sufficiently highlight the organisms involved, treating the model systems as abstractions unworthy of particular merit or attention. The problem strikes me as twofold: on one hand I think that such naturalistic exhibitionism keeps the audience's attention better than sheer theory, but also reminds us of the tendency for nature to act in idiosyncratic and contextual ways.

Of course, the talks are only half the conference. Come nightfall there are always interesting people to talk to, and you really never know who you'll end up eating with. Never have I talked to so many people from so many countries.

Albuquerque out.