Monday, 30 August 2010

Feel the Earth Move in Ecuador

Imagine that you are gazing out of your window. A blanket of trees drapes the mountainside in front of you, catching the wisps of clouds in its branches like a child grasping at tufts of candy floss. A lightning flash of yellow streaks across your vision as a golden tanager flits from one tree to another. The vibrant blue wings of a morpho butterfly float aimlessly in front of you before dancing off into the trees. Peace, quiet, beauty. But hang on a minute, the whole scene suddenly starts to shift. The window is moving back and forth. Am I losing it? Is the whole house actually moving or is it just me? Nope, the house really is moving, unless that tree out there has grown legs and is running back and forth, which really isn’t very likely, is it? By the time my brain had actually processed all that was happening, the 7.1 earthquake was over. Luckily for me and my sluggish brain, the epicentre of the earthquake was in the Ecuadorian Amazon and so the house did not collapse and bring my trip to Ecuador to a very untimely end. So, welcome to Ecuador, where the Earth really does move.

Ecuador, a land of rainforest and cloudforest, high altitude plains and snow capped mountains, sun-kissed beaches and enchanted islands lost in the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. A land of contrasts, of hot, steamy jungles and cold, arid deserts, lush green forests, teeming with life and bare, tortured volcanic islands where life struggles for its very existence. Ecuador, one small country with endless diversity in landscapes, flora and fauna. What a perfect place for anyone with a passion for nature, what a perfect place for a biologist.

Well, that is what my colleague, Dr. G., and I thought. We also thought that it would be a perfect place for a biology field school, where all of our budding biologists of the future could get to experience and study in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Of course, thinking that a place would be perfect and actually knowing that our audacious idea might actually be feasible, are two different things. So, we decided that it would be a wise to investigate all the exciting opportunities that Ecuador could offer for both students and faculty alike, for learning, teaching and research. And you know what that means – an exploratory field trip to Ecuador. Of course, it meant giving up three weeks of valuable vacation time and missing the Welcome Back Barbeque, but we all have to make sacrifices, don’t we?

So far, we have accomplished the following:

1). We have carried out extensive research on the shopping opportunities in Quito. Dr. G. has shown a remarkable aptitude in this discipline. His bartering skills are finely honed and he is now the proud owner of a booby painting (oh, quit your snickering, I am talking about the bird), a hammock, several t-shirts, some comedy trousers (he claims that they are pyjamas), a sweater and a blanket. Not bad for a guy. I, on the other hand, am still in Shopping 101 and only managed to purchase, with Dr. G’s help, one vase (to replace the one bought on my last trip and since broken by my husband) and one sweater (to replace the one purchased on my last trip that, after being thrown in the washing machine by my husband, is now big enough to fit the entire Ecuadorian football team. I know, I know, I should do my own laundry).

2). A study comparing child labour and supporting job opportunities for the young in Ecuador. Dr. G. seems to think that having an 8 year old shine your boots is child labour. I personally think that I am providing valuable training for the future workforce of Ecuador and a source of funding that is much needed in the present time. Since my bartering skills are about as good as my shopping skills (i.e. poor), the agreed upon price was $2. Unfortunately, in the middle of the transaction a policeman informed me that the going rate was only $1. That left me with quite the dilemma. Should I give the boy the price that I was told to give (the policeman is still standing right next to me, looking all official) or do I pay the previously agreed upon price? I looked down at my now very shiny boots and at one rosy-cheeked, urchin-faced boy and decided that there was only one thing to do – give the boy his well-earned two dollars. Dr. G., my unwitting accomplice, distracted the policeman by engaging him in some very interesting conversation (at least, that is my assumption, but due to my very limited grasp of the Spanish language, they could have just been talking about the weather), while I slipped the boy his extra $1.

3). A mission to make contacts with important people in important places. Three universities and many professors and administrators later, we now have a plethora of pamphlets, glossy brochures, business cards and contact information for several field stations, some of the top biology research stations in the country and many options that our students and the university as a whole can make use of. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Ecuadorian people and their willingness to help. Once again, Dr. G. has done most of the legwork, in both the listening and talking categories. This is not just because he is the extrovert one. Nope, the bigger issue here is my incompetence with the Spanish language. Note to self: Take Spanish 101 before next trip to Ecuador. To be honest, this may not be my most successful venture ever and I pity the poor soul trying to teach me. You see, languages and I do not get along so well. Trying to teach me a new language is a bit like trying to teach a fish to juggle or my cats the finer points of algebra. Still, at least I must try ........... and try .......... and try........

4). Visit as many beautiful places in Ecuador as possible. No, really, this is part of our work while we are here. Our goal is to visit several biological field stations to investigate the logistics of carrying out student and faculty research projects at the field stations. Is it our fault that, generally speaking, biologists do not locate their field stations in the car park of the local Megamaxi (aka Walmart)? You really can’t blame us for the fact that biologists like pretty places, teeming with life, all green and lush, full of cuddly monkeys, adorable frogs, beautiful and colourful birds and surprisingly cute insects.

So, whether we like it or not, that is where we must go. The first station on our list is La Hesperia Biological Station, located approximately two hours southwest of Quito. This station is at an altitude of 1400m, just below the mystical cloud forests of the lower slopes of the Andes. It was originally a ranch, but its goal has shifted towards sustainable agricultural practices and the conservation of the remaining cloud forest. So far, we have tested the food (yum) and checked out the bathroom facilities (I admit, I have not yet summoned up the courage to try the shower, but I am only on Day 3 with no shower and I think that I have a couple more days left before needs must). We have seen small banana and coffee plantations, cow pastures and the vegetable garden, all grown with sustainability as the goal. We have hiked through the lower reaches of the forest and seen toucans and cuckoos, red headed barbets and tropical kingbirds, towering trees smothered with epiphytic bromeliads. The air around us buzzes with the sounds of the forest, almost deafening when the cicadas start to scream out their songs of love and is filled with splashes and flashes of colour as butterflies drift across the path, aimlessly waltzing through the trees. Tomorrow, we are heading up, and up........ and up, into the cloud forest. Oh dear, I hope I survive...........

Update: Well, I did survive, both the shower and the hike, although neither was overly successful. The shower lulled me into a false sense of security by being lovely and warm to begin with. It waited until I had just applied conditioner to my hair before turning freezing cold. While I did survive the hike, my pathetic little legs did not manage to carry my weary body all the way to the top of the mountain and I collapsed about 20 minutes from the top. I know, I know, I am ashamed of myself ...........Spanish lessons and the gym then.

Friday, 6 August 2010

It is Finished!

No, not the renovations. They won't be finished until the cows come home, and only then if they have sold all their milk, exchanged themselves for some magic beans, climbed a bean stalk and plundered all of the giant's treasure and robbed a couple of banks on their way home. So no, not the renovations - they aren't going so well.

But the baby blanket is done. Finished and completed, all made and all lovely (apart from a few frayed spots where the cats chewed the wool - sorry about that Moon). It is in the post and should reach my brother and his lovely wife before the stork arrives with their little bundle of joy.

At least that is one less thing that I have to worry about while on holiday working in Ecuador.

And, of course, the renovations will be finished when I get home.........

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Macro Monday: Please Don't Kill Me.

Yes, I am back. Obviously, I did not get eaten by any bears in Alaska, although it was pretty close - luckily, I can run faster than my mother. However, I did get eaten, one very small bite at a time, by some nasty little blackfly. I am not going to tell you the locations of all my bites, but really, how on earth did they get there!?!

This week's macro marvel is a little guy that will not bite you or sting you or in any other way harass you, so please return the favour by not killing it. While it may look like a bee or wasp, this little dipteran delight is a hoverfly, designed to pollinate your flowers as an adult and eat those nasty little aphids infesting your roses as a larva.

The fact that the hoverfly looks like a wasp or other dangerous stingy thing is, of course, no accident. This is a classic example of Batesian mimicry, where a harmless organism pretends to be something dangerous. This is, generally, a good idea, since it will stop many predators from hunting you down and eating you. However, it can backfire where humans are concerned. While we are not interesting in eating these critters, I suspect most of us do not want to be stung by them. So, our immediate reaction to anything black and yellow is to swat at it with a bit of rolled up newspaper. Not the outcome the poor fly was looking for when choosing its wardrobe, I fear. Since the hoverfly is both harmless and very useful around the garden, I thought that I would give you a couple of pointers on how to distinguish this fly from a wasp:

  1. One pair of wings rather than two - although this can be difficult to spot, since wasp hindwings are connected to their forewings by a series of tiny hooks.
  2. The antennae, since wasps have longer, elbowed antennae, whilst hoverflies have shorter more globular antennae with a little stalk sticking out of the top. Granted, this might still be hard to spot whilst chasing the insect down with the Sunday supplement.
  3. Hoverflies have a distinctive pattern of veins in their wing. Look for the vein that goes all around the edge of the wing.
  4. Wasps fold their wings while resting, hoverflies wings lie flat and open.
  5. Hoverflies hover, usually around flowers.
  6. Wasps have a very distinctive narrow "waist: between their thorax and abdomen.


OK, so most of these things are hard to spot, given the diminutive size of these insects, but please try. The hoverfly will certainly appreciate it.

Now, I know you are going to be really disappointed to hear this, but I am off again at the end of the week, to Ecuador this time, for three weeks. Just to be clear, this is a business trip, and has nothing to do with pleasure. I repeat, I am going to be working..........oh, why even bother, I know nobody is going to believe me.

Toodle pip then, and see you in September.

For more Macro Monday, go here.