A few of you may have been wondering what has happened to me over the last couple of weeks. Well, I have been busy. I know, I am supposed to be on holiday, but last year, I volunteered to help out on a biology field trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island. It sounded like a good idea at the time............
The following is a post that I have written for my university about the trip. I was going to write a separate, not quite so sensible post for my personal blog, but then I thought, why? That would just be a lot more effort. So, here is the post. I should warn you that it is quite long. It was supposed to be written as a daily thing, but I was always much too busy to write it while I was there, so you are now getting it all in one big chunk.
This year, the Biology Department at my University has ventured out into the wilds of British Columbia. We have left the fertile green fields of the Fraser Valley behind us. We have travelled beyond the concrete jungle and urban sprawl that is Metro Vancouver. The green and restless waters of the Georgia Strait were no barrier to us and the wooded valleys and mountain passes could not prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. Even the well stocked shelves of a Nanaimo supermarket only managed to briefly distract us from our ultimate destination. We have traded concrete and steel, tarmac and fumes for crashing waves and screeching gulls, towering trees and fresh, salt-tanged air. We have arrived at the wild, wet........I mean west.......coast of Vancouver Island. We are now doing what biologist love to do most – immersing ourselves in sand, sea, mud and moss and marvelling at the beauty that surrounds us, bowled over by the rich and diverse life and questioning the forces that shape the landscapes and the assemblages of life that we find here.
Our first morning saw us heading to the mudflats. Oh yes, biologists really know how to live it up! As we came through the trees dripping with moss, lichens and water, we caught our first glimpse of the mud. It stretched out before us, apparently lifeless, inviting us onto its sticky, sucking, sinking surface. The more intrepid students ran onto the mud with glee, only to be stopped in their tracts as boots were left behind and feet were gripped by the oozing, stinking mud. Hmmmmm, getting around on this stuff might be a bit trickier than we thought. Still, there was work to be done, life to be found. Just one spadeful of mud soon revealed that the mud was not as lifeless as it first appeared. Many invertebrate animals, such as clams, worms, shrimps and crabs, make a living processing mud and sand particles for the food, such as detritus, diatoms and bacteria contained within or by preying on such mud-processing organisms.
One such animal is the goddess worm, Nephtys.
This segmented worm has the uncanny ability to invert its mouth and throat. It uses this proboscis to capture small prey, such as small worms, crustacea and molluscs. Other worms, such as the blood worm, can also do this and they also have venom glands at the base of their jaws that can inject a neurotoxin. All mud-lovers and worm handlers, you have been warned!
As the morning passed and the mists lifted, we all got muddier, we all ended up with mud on our faces, in our hair and over our clothes. And we all loved it! Some of our more entrepreneurial students are now planning a new field trip / spa experience for the more wealthy students of UFV!
“ Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood............”
The next day, we were heading for the beach. Sand, sun and surf! Did we have our beach towels and volleyball? Our sunscreen and surf boards? Oh no, we had our buckets and tape measures, our guidebooks and cameras - we were there to work. This time, we were investigating the life on the rocky shore. Now, you would think that this would be a very hard place to live. Crashing waves, the rhythmic influx and retreat of the tides, one minute wet, the next dry. Let’s face it, you are always living on the edge, between a rock and a hard a place. Once again, our students soon discovered an abundance of life in this seemingly hostile environment. In fact, the closer to the turbulent edge they got, the more life they found. In amongst the rock weed, kelp and surfgrass, they uncovered a diverse assemblage of invertebrate life, including sponges, ribbon worms, chitons, limpets, periwinkles, mussels, sea squirts, barnacles and crabs. We also found colourful green surf anemones and the gloriously coloured purple and orange ochre starfish. One of these starfish was busy having breakfast when we arrived. Here is another organism that can turn its stomach inside out in order to ingest its food. In this case, the starfish is trying to open a mussel with its very strong tubefeet. These feet are hydraulically powered and can exert quite a force. Once the mussel has been opened, the starfish will slip its stomach into the shell, release digestive enzymes and absorb the resulting molluscan soup. Yum.
One of the more bizarre animals found was the rockweed isopod, Idotea wosnesenskii, a large crustacean that clings onto seaweed with its hook-like claws. A harmless creature that spends its life grazing on the algae, depending on its colouration to blend in with the seaweed to avoid predators.
Another fascinating creature, a sea lemon, was found in one of the many rockpools that provide a sanctuary to those creatures that are not able to survive long out in the open as the tide recedes. The sea lemon is a nudibranch, a type of marine mollusc that has lost its shell, in much the same way as land slugs have. This had led to their common name of sea slugs. Now, don’t let the name fool you. Sea slugs are amongst the most beautiful animals of the sea. Many are brightly coloured, reds, oranges and yellows, more like butterflies of the sea than slugs. As with most things in nature, there are reasons behind these bright colours. Rather than being an advert for a tasty snack, they warn predators of hidden dangers lurking within. You see, these little slugs have a few tricks up their sleeves. Some of them dine on sea anemones, which are themselves protected by stinging cells that shoot poison-tipped barbs into the bodies of potential predators. Some sea slugs have a mechanism for preventing the firing of these barbs and so can dine with impunity on the now tasty anemones. Even more sneaky is the sea slugs ability to then make use of the anemone’s stinging cells by collecting them in fleshy processes that it then uses to protect itself. Cunning, uh? Other sea slugs, like the sea lemon, dine on sponges. In this case, their yellow colour acts as camouflage against the yellow sponge that they consume.
The third day was another early morning start, since the tide waits for no man, woman or biologist. This day also saw us reacquainting ourselves with the mud. Now, after the first mud encrusting day, we decided that there must be an easier way to cross the mudflats without sinking up to our waists. We brainstormed ideas and finally settled on a type of “mud shoe”, something similar to a snow shoe, but with a quick release mechanism in case it did get sucked down into the mud. We wouldn’t want anyone to be trapped in the mud with the tide coming in, now would we? Disappointingly, no one had any mud shoes handy, so we had to go back to the run-as-fast-as-you-can-before-sinking method. One of the students, with particularly large feet, did develop a mud skating method, which worked very well for him. The rest of us, however, soon became mired in the mud, again. Still, if you are looking for a good work out, I can highly recommend mud running.
The salt marsh is another environment that sits between land and sea and any organism living here has adapted to survive in this ever changing environment. At the lowest points of the marsh, few plants are tough enough to survive, but as you move away from the water’s edge and up towards solid land, more plants can colonise the marsh and diversity increases. We saw a progression from arrow grass and glasswort to more complex communities with a higher diversity of plants, including sweet gale, sitka spruce, angelica and purple asters. The glasswort may be of interest to the more culinary inclined. Apparently, it is highly edible. Steam it in the microwave and then coat with butter; I am told that it should taste like young spinach stems or asparagus.
The animal life on the salt marsh is much harder to find compared to the rocky shore, but while beating our way through the undergrowth, we did find ourselves a lovely specimen of Ariolimax sp. One of our braver students was encouraged to give it a lick to see if the rumours about it harbouring chemicals with anaesthetic qualities were true. Apparently they are – her tongue went numb and almost stopped her talking for a while. Note the almost! We have tried to find out what the chemical is, but to no avail, so if anyone could enlighten us, we would be most grateful. Oh yes, and for those of you wondering, our student just licked a banana slug!
During the time on the marsh, many of us were struck by its peace and serenity. The only sound that we could hear was the plaintive whistles of a pair of osprey as they circled overhead. OK, so there was the sound of the bear crashing through the undergrowth, just the other side of the mudflat. He did venture out for a very short period of time, but on seeing (or smelling) the mass of humans on the marsh, he bid a hasty retreat back into the bushes.
Day four was a wet one, a very wet one. Still, we were going out to explore the rainforest, so it seemed appropriate. On this day, we were paying special attention to the fungi, lichens and mosses of the forests, since they so often get overlooked. While we were out, we marvelled at the old trees with their knobbed and gnarled stems, their old dead branches pointing up into the canopy. These old trees provide so many habitats for other organisms. They are often festooned with mosses, dripping with lichens. Ferns grow along branches and many small shrubs get a good start up off the forest floor. As the old trunks begin to rot, holes will provide homes to many small mammals and birds. This is not just a dead tree, but a condominium of life and a very important part of a mature forest ecosystem.
Now, please don’t ever think that biologists are all work and no play. Oh no, us biologists know how to have a good time. And our play day was a trip to Hot Springs Cove, approximately one hour north of Tofino. To get there, you have to bundle up inside a very flattering, bright orange survival suit and a lovely vivid yellow rain slicker. You then don a woolly black toque and after admiring yourself in the mirror – you are, after all, now the height of West Coast fashion - and wishing you had used the toilet before you donned the suit, you all pile into a very fast-looking boat with two extremely large engines. You can guess what comes next – lots of crashing through waves, being bumped around like a bingo ball in its tumbler and a lot of screaming from the front of the boat. On the way up to the hot springs we did stop to admire the eagles and oooh and ahh over a waterfall. Once we reached Hot Springs Cove, we had a 2km walk through a majestic old growth forest, with trees so large that our whole group could not encircle the trunk with our arms. The moss was green and luxuriant, lichens festooned the trees and the sun backlit the ferns as they nestled beneath the trees. A magical place. The Springs themselves were hot and smelly, and soon all the students were soaking up their warmth. Wallace, UFVs very own pacific giant salamander, basked in the sun on the rocks surrounding the cove, admiring the view, listening to the waves crashing onto the rocks and soaking up the calm and tranquility of this wonderful place.
The boat trip back was even more exciting, as we headed out into the open ocean, looking for whales, sea otters, sea lions and puffins. Some of us were lucky enough to see all of these creatures. There was much shouting and screaming, clapping and laughing every time a whale appeared. The woo-hoos sounded out as a humpback whale left the water for a few seconds in the air, before its huge, barnacle- encrusted body came crashing back down into the water, throwing up sheets of spray. To many people, whale watching seems an odd thing to do. Hours of sitting around in a boat for a few seconds of excitement as the whale appears and then disappears. But trust me, the feeling you get just seeing those majestic creatures makes up for all the time bumping around in the boat, clinging on to the railing for dear life and hoping your lunch does not make a second appearance. It is excitement, it is awe-inspiring, it is a bubbling happiness from deep within and it is a feeling that I wouldn’t want to miss. Why a big hulk of blubbery flesh should invoke such feelings, I cannot say. But the whales just make you happy, that is all there is to it. I am sure the puffins would have had the same effect on me, but since I didn’t see them, I shall have to go back another time to test that hypothesis.
On our final day, we went in search of shorebirds and then we took two hours to walk an 800m trail – is this a world record in slowness, one has to wonder? On the beach, we saw semi-palmated plovers and western sand pipers. Both of these birds have long slender bills that they use to probe the sand for small invertebrates. On the rocky shore, we saw a group of very vociferous oystercatchers, high pitched “wheeps”, sounding almost like a small child squealing. The stout red beaks of these birds are used to open mussels and clams to get at the tasty mollusc inside. The shoreline and mudflats of Clayoquot Sound provides vital feeding grounds for many migrating shorebirds as they pass along the British Columbian coastline on their annual migrations from north to south and back again. Individual birds may only be here for a few days, but in that time, they need to eat as much as possible to fuel the days of flying that lie ahead.
As for our record-breaking walk through along the 800m long Shoreline Bog Trail, affectionately known as the broccoli forest, due to the stunted, mishapen trees, well, it was very interesting, OK? The tortured, twisted shapes of the trees and the diverse assemblage of plants present caught our imaginations. The bog develops due to the sphagnum moss. This is an extraordinary plant. It has specialised cells that are able to store water and this gives the moss the ability to hold 16-18 times its own mass of water. Such absorbency draws the water table up, so creating the bog. Another effect that the sphagnum has on the bog is to acidify the waters. This prevents many bacteria from flourishing here and so nutrient cycling is very slow. The bog becomes a hard place to live, due to water logging and lack of nutrients. This means that some special adaptations are required to survive here. One of the most interesting is the sundew. This plant has a surprise up its leaves for any passing insect. An insect that is attracted to the brightly coloured leaves will end up being ensnared in their deadly, sticky embrace. By trapping and eating these insects, the plant overcomes the lack of nutrients in the soil and so flourishes in the bog.
So, here ends our biological foray out to the west coast of Vancouver Island. We are all very tired, a little damp, and most of us are probably ready to snuggle down in our own beds for a good night’s sleep. It has been hard work, no doubt about that, but we have had many new experiences, we have laughed, but not cried. We have made new friends and built upon old friendships. These are experiences that none of us will forget in a hurry, experiences that we will treasure. And hopefully, some of us may even have learned something. I will finish with a very large wave........