26 February 2014

A blue whale in the attic, many moa in the basement

Today I was fortunate to have a tour around the  collections at the Canterbury Museum. Backstage as it were. My former student, Cor Vink, is now a curator of natural history at the museum and I organised for some of my colleagues from the Department of Ecology to have a look at what is going on behind the scenes. We spent a great couple of hours roaming around the collections.
Moa bones!

One of things that seems not to be appreciated by almost everyone is that museums are there to store collections of things and have far more than what is on display for the public. These collections (hundreds of thousands of insects for example) are of extreme importance from a science and research perspective. They show us the variation that is present in a species, their distribution across habitats and different parts of the country and the diversity of groups. This is of tremendous use to studies of conservation, evolution, pest management and so on.

Blue whale skelton - in pieces
Canterbury Museum is no different from other large museums in that it has very large collections (something like 95% of the collections are NOT on display). Cor is a specialist in spiders and one of the things that he will do is to increase the collection in this area. Other experts have done this in the past and there are thousands of specimens of things like New Zealand mayflies or beetles. Canterbury Museum has an amazing collection of moa bones from local sites. In fact, Haast built up the overall colletion by selling and swapping moa skeletons for overseas samples back in Victorian times. There are shelves and shelves of moa bones from our many species. These can tell us a lot about where moa species were found. In recent years DNA has been extracted from these bones to inform us about how many species of moa there were, sex raios and population sizes.
Other highlights were the largest blue whale skeleton in the world (currently in the attic until a larger display space becomes available), a fist sized meteorite from Arizona, a cabinet of 'shame' which contained several huia, bush wrens, South Island kokako and other extinct New Zealand birds, and curious little hunchbacked flies that lay their eggs in spiders. And all these things and millions more are found in the bowels of the museum where they are looked after by dedicated and passionate people.

Cor shows off his computer imaging technology

18 February 2014

The hills are alive with the sounds of ... research

My first taste of real research was back in my third year at Otago. I was doing an animal behaviour course and a couple of other classmates and I were able to design and conduct an experiment, all on our own. We had access to the DSIR facility at Invermay where we painted big numbers on some deer, released them into a paddock and crammed ourselves into a small but tall hide to make our observations. We were looking at dominance hierarchies and whether there was a definite pattern of interactions within the herd. It might not have been earth-shattering science but as we collected the data over a few afternoons we really felt the buzz of being real scientists.

Last week I spent a couple of days on our third year field course up at Lewis Pass. The students spend about 10 days in the field where they design and conduct their own research. They then return to Lincoln to analyse and write up their project as well as giving a 10 minute talk on their research. This field course is a great way to do your first serious research. The Boyle River area (Nina Valley, Mt Faust, Lewis Pass) is about as archetypal New Zealand as you can get with bush clad mountains, rocky mountain streams, rifleman and robins flitting about the trees, spongy moss and hairy lichen coating trees and rocks, and sandflies, lots of sandflies.

Daisies above the treeline

It was great to be out with the groups and to see the same excitement about doing their own research that I recalled from my student days. As a lecturer it is very stimulating to be out in the field. This is, after all, where our interests are and it is great to be training another generation of young naturalists. Talking to Tim Curran, the course examiner, we discussed how it was so good to see these students taking the next big step in their careers and how they matured (in a science way!) in front of our eyes.


And it is fun for us lecturers as well. I ended up above the treeline looking at daisies, searching for mistletoes in steep beech forests, marking native cockroaches into the wee hours and looking for birds in different habitats in my time in the area. On Friday I got to hear about all of the research that had been done. Here are the various projects done by our students.

Marking cockroaches

Karina Brennan Evans looked at drought resistance traits in beech species, Dan Quinn gave us a guide to avoiding sandflies, Emily McLaughlin recorded bellbird distribution in different habitats, Davena Watkin looked at home ranges of native cockroaches, Niki Rinaldi El-Abd surveyed invasive weeds in open areas, Ashley Orton measured seedling and sapling recruitment of Nothofagus (beech) species across an altitudinal gradient, Annie Lloyd looked at how NZ Robins populations vary in time and space, Georgia Stevenson examined the effects of altitude on the plant functional traits of mountain beech and silver beech, Grace Ng surveyed invasive plants moving into beech forest, Ian Geary searched for seed predation of native and exotic daisy flowers by insects, Jarrod Anderson measured relationships between habitat and bird diversity, species richness and detection totals, Jonathan Ridden surveyed the distribution of mistletoes, Jordyn Roe compared different insect sampling methods in grassland, Angus Heslop examined how vertebrate pest populations may beaffected by beech mast seeding, Morgan Shields recorded invertebrate communities in beech and kanuka, Shyam Provost surveyed woody exotic species, Courtenay Guise studied whether altitude affects Rifleman abundance, Sam Hansby recorded insect communities on Mount Faust, Matt Coultas looked at effective monitoring methods for mammalian pests in mixed beech forest, while Renee O’Halloran looked at the link between vertebrate pests and bellbird abundances.

GPSing the bird sitings

A major theme of the talks was how the best laid plans that you make in the lodge before heading out can quickly come unstuck when you you are several hours walk into the mountains. There was also the detectable buzz of having been out in the mountains and successfully obtained new knowledge about the world. So hopefully this will be as memorable for these students as my first experiences were.
Five minute bird counts

02 February 2014

Carpet Die-m: chemical warfare beneath your feet

In which we control wool eating insects.

I like the quote from the Australian philosopher of science Kim Sterelny "Outside the barrier surrounding an [organism], we find a war against all. The space between skins is a no-mans land, controlled by no-one; designed for no-one; littered with the detritus of biological struggle." In some ways this is a little bleak but it also reminds us how good we humans have made our lives relative to most other organisms. We have pushed the constant conflict a little further away. One thing that I liked about the movie Gravity was the sense of the precariousness of life - of only being able to survive in these tiny pockets of air and heat.

It is easy to forget this rather uncomfortable fact as we sit in our lounges, fire on, telly going and a cup of tea in our hands. In fact we don't have to go far to find biological struggle as we sit and sip. One area of conflict is right under our feet. Carpets and rugs, are found in most homes. To most organisms carpets are like wool forests, vast and wide, and they are ready for exploitation. A major issue is that keratin in wool is fairly indigestable and most organisms are not able to make the most of this habitat - which is lucky for us home owners. There are some insects that that can digest wool, like the common clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and the Australian carpet beetle (Anthrenocerus australis), and for them those vast expanses of carpets must be like the Serengeti or Great Plains. Left to their own devices these wool-eating communities would grow and continue to cause damage to your carpet.

Inedible to most....
I had a favourite jersey back when I was a teen in the 1980s (hey wool jerseys or jumpers were cool, honestly). My grey jersey went through a lot of adventures with me during the last couple of years at school and at University in Dunedin. When I was unpacking the house after our earthquake rebuild last year I found my old faithful jersey in a box. It was looking much the worse for wear. The clothes moths had been at it and left numerous holes. Clearly that is not something that we would like to happen to our expensive carpets.

Most carpets (and a lot of wool in general) is treated with insecticides (often permethrin)which insects will ingest when eating the carpet and then die. Unfortunately, insecticides often don't absorb into the wool strands that well and will run off in liquids during preparation where it can cause all sorts of problems in an aquatic environment. In most parts of the world there are strict regulations about insecticides and effluents which mean that wool-yarn spinners are not able to adequately protect their yarns. So as part of the ongoing battle in your carpet, researchers have begun to look at other tricks in their chemical arsenal. Matthew Sunderland has just completed his PhD at Lincoln University. He worked with Rob Cruickshank (Lincoln University) and Sam Leighs (AgResearch)
Gratuitous cute kitten shot (but beneath those
paws lies a world of conflict)
to develop an alternative to using insecticides. Matthew reasoned that rather than targeting the insects themselves that you could target the wool digestion process inside the insects. Keratin is difficult to break down and wool-eating insects use certain bacteria and protozoa in their gut to digest this protein. Matthew predicted that using antiprotozoal and antifungal (as these also work against protozoa) chemicals, like azole compounds, would kill the gut protozoans in the insect which would stop the breakdown of keratin and the insects would not survive for long in this environment as wool would be just as inedible for them as for most insects.

In a paper in Textile Research Journal, Matthew and his co-researchers report on how they used a variety of azole compounds and a dyebath application to soak the wool from carpet samples with these compounds. They then allowed clothes moths and carpet beetles to browse on these samples and looked at mortality rates. They found that the antiprotozoals and antifungals did indeed kill the insects. They found that these compounds did not
My favourite wool jersey back in the 80s!
soak into wool particularly well but was easily added in carpet shampoos and were effective at killing the insects in very low concentrations. Ultimately there is still a lot of work to do before this addition to chemical warfare will turn up in your home. Targeting protozoan species living in the gut of an insect seems like an effective idea and one which will result in less effluent problems and better protection for wool. So next time you are sitting comfortably in your house, remember that part of the war against all is happening, quite literally, beneath your feet.