18 April 2015

Hawkmoth Magazine: Spring 2015

Another brief break from the Ecuador posts to let you know that Hawkmoth Magazine, that exhilaratingly sleek and beautiful science zine of ours, is picking up steam. Our spring issue came out at the start of April, and it has some very cool pieces. So throw yourself into this issue, fall in love with these cool articles and gorgeous photos.

In this issue:

Dive in, dig deep, learn a lot - and get in touch if you want to be a part of the Hawkmoth project.

17 April 2015

Into the Forest

In which we visit cloud forests and rainforests, and navigate the slippery and difficult terrain of development, conservation, and the battle between resource extraction and native rights, in two parts.

Part I. Down the Eastern Slope of the Andes

From the páramo, we wended our way down into cloud forest, on twisting roads through peering overhangs. Rest stops and human habitation are explosions of color in the calm misted green of the mountain slopes.

Here in the cloud forest, mosses, lianas, bromeliads and other epiphytes (plants that grow high up on tree branches and other plants, away from the soil) drip and dangle amid the mists that penetrate the forest. These epiphytic plants gain a significant portion of their water from the air, via clouds that hang heavy over the forest for a part of each day. Epiphytes gain their nutrients from plant matter that falls and gathers in crevices of tree branches - by living high in trees they can access sunlight with less competition than their downstairs neighbors on the forest floor. The cloud forest is a calmer version of the lowland tropical rain forest: its plants are governed by the same limitations of sunlight and nutrients that fuel that competitive race to the canopy, but its cooler temperatures and cloudy days seem to make everything happen at a slower pace.

This cloud forest, nestled into the eastern slope of the Andes in the upper reaches of the great Amazonian watershed, recalled me to the cloud forest of Costa Rica where I worked. That one sat high on the Pacific slope of the cordillera de Talamanca under the shadow of Chirripó Peak. The same mist settling over the same moss-draped trees; the same tanagers darting out for insects as the afternoon rains pause and peter out; the same iron-red soils. But a different horizon, different species peeking out amidst the jumble, a different smell.

We spent only an afternoon, a night, and a dawn in this cloud forest, at the Yanayacu Biological Station. A brief stop between the soaring Andes and the sweeping Amazonian basin, this pause gave us a glimpse into the transition point between two wildly distinct ecosystems: páramo and rainforest. And then, from this moment of calm in the cloud forest, we plunged onwards and downwards... in Part II: Into the Tropical Rainforest.

16 April 2015

Es beginnt... the first weeks in Kiel

Kiel: the First Days

Allow me to break from the Ecuador updates for a brief post on my current digs. Fast forward one month from the Ecuadorian tropics, leap northwards fifty-five degrees and eastwards a continent, and shed the sandals and sunblock for a coat and thermals. Here is Kiel, Germany, a small university town sitting on the toe of the Baltic Sea: my home for the next four months.

Kiel is situated on the windy eastern coast of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state in Germany. It has seagulls and wild changes of weather, for which four years in Scotland have amply prepared me, and it feels calm and tranquil. My arrival to Kiel, however was anything but calm and tranquil.

Imagine: you arrive to a new city short your credit cards and all your socks (I'm really not sure about that one), without a key for your new apartment because the administrative office is closed due to a holiday that you really ought to have remembered since you've celebrated it nearly every year (it's Easter), and also everything is in a language that you really, really, REALLY don't know.


No really, GO. This was my challenge as I arrived to Kiel. From South America, I had flown to Madrid, where some sneaky fingers nabbed my wallet, and then onwards to Hamburg. By the time I arrived in Kiel, I had already figured out/realized/remembered that it was Easter weekend, and with that came the dawning realization that the office that could give me the key to my apartment would be closed. A few frantic emails confirmed this.

So, a few more hasty emails and requests, and couches materialized for the weekend: a few nights with a patient and wonderful classmate who had been clever and foresightful and had arrived before the Easter weekend, a few nights with a couchsurfing host who went out of his way to show me Kiel and the classic German breakfast of bread, cheese and spreads, and voilà: I had my keys.

At some point during all this, the little sack in my luggage that contained my socks vanished. I really can't say anything more than that. I'm very perplexed, and I don't have any socks now, except the ones I was wearing when the Great Sock Disappearance occurred.

Despite this dramatic entrance, Kiel has been a welcome new home. My dormitory, a four-person apartment, is comfortable and my housemates warm and open. The campus is easily walkable, the buses are free for students, and bikes rule the streets.

On top of that, classes look amazing: this is the semester of fieldtrips. More on that later. Meanwhile, HELLO THERE KIEL.

12 April 2015

Ecuador: the highlands

Ecuador. A plunge into a place that felt oddly familiar and totally new. Incredibly warm, both in climate and in human openness, incredibly rich in ecosystems and in colors, and incredibly complex in the environmental dilemmas that it is wrestling with.

We flew to Quito after a crazy whirlwind of packing and goodbyes and (in my case) a raging flu-fueled fever that turned the last week into a glaze of weird dreams and missed deadlines. Just two days to adapt to the head-in-the-clouds elevation of the city (2600 m / 9200 ft), and we were already climbing higher, to the soaring Andean highlands that hold the key to water and life in the mountain tropics: the páramo.

This rich ecosystem is subject to soaring temperature variation, with warm beautiful days and frozen nights: a "summer by day and winter by night" environment. The life-forms that have evolved to survive in this climate are hardy, durable, capable of enduring incredible swings in temperature. Pampas grasses (above) grow in clumps that are 80% dead material: this shields the living material, creating a buffer against the cold when the night temperatures plummet. Another survival mechanism is seen in cushion plants (below): these species form large mounds of vegetation, where only the outermost is living: everything inside is dead matter, slowly decaying - and as the material decomposes, as in any good compost pile, it generates heat. This keeps the outermost living layer warmer than the ambient nighttime temperature.

Kick-ass adaptations to an extraordinarily harsh environment? Yes ma'am.

Perhaps the coolest thing about cushion plants, as a note, is that they exhibit an extraordinary amount of cooperation between species. The cushions can be formed by five or six separate species, all co-existing in the same mound (below), and all benefiting equally from the warmth generated inside their communal compost heating system. The vicious competition frequently described in rainforest systems does not apply here at elevation: survival is so difficult, given the wild swings in temperature, that it is not worth the risk to compete here. The best and most successful way for these plants to survive is to share their space.

The páramo is not just a pretty face, however. It plays a vital role in the provision of water to Andean cities like Quito and Bogotá. The huge amount of organic material stored in the soil absorbs and stores water from rain and snowmelt, making it an expansive and reliable source of clean, pure water. Quito draws its water directly from two páramos, Papallacta and Antisana, where vast reservoirs hold enough water to supply the city's growing needs.

But there are threats to the páramo, which we learned about and saw first-hand on our visits. It has been used extensively for cattle-grazing, which often involves burning away the dead material of the pampas grasses, and for growing plantations of pine or eucalyptus for wood. Studies show that these land uses are devastating for the water storage capacity of the páramo. For one thing, removing the low-lying grass and shrub vegetation means that water will run off rather than soak into the ground, contributing to the erosion of páramo soils; for another, burning or over-trampling by cattle can compact the soil and reduce its porosity - in other words, its capacity to hold water.

These threats raise an important question: what is the value of maintaining the ability of the páramo to supply water? In other words, what is the value of keeping the páramo in a healthy and pristine state, so that it can continue to supply water to Quito's growing population? When we ask these kinds of questions, we are talking about the idea of "Ecosystem Services" - the services and functions that ecosystems provide to humans. When we talk about an ecosystem in terms of the services it provides us, we can start to place a dollar value on it - a controversial practice at best.

Walking through the páramo landscape, with its stunning rolling hills and its lakes in every valley, it is easy to feel that this landscape should be conserved just for its sheer beauty. But the reality is that we live in a world that has been heavily impacted by a rapidly growing human population, and conservation for the sake of conservation is not always a viable option. So in this situation, where cattle grazing and plantations are creeping further and further into the páramo landscapes, maybe the strongest argument for conservation can be made by comparing the value of a pristine acre of páramo, with its water provisioning capacity at full, to the value of a burned and trampled acre that has completely lost the ability to retain or supply water.

The time spent in the páramo was other-worldly, lent an air of stillness and exhilaration by the elegant sweep of landscape falling away to every side. Sat amidst the clouds at over 3000 m (~ 10,000 ft), it seems to govern this kingdom of the tropics: a stately and regal royal whose duty it is to ensure no-one goes thirsty. I felt a sense of wistfulness descending back into the forest, which feels chaotic in comparison. But that lasted only for a moment, because, well, the Amazon Rainforest. Next post.

10 April 2015

A Long-Term Summary of Lots of Things

Well. Well, well. WHAT'S THIS ALL ABOUT THEN, HOLLY. Seems I fell off the old proverbial blogging horse, and entirely failed to get back on again.
Quite a few things have happened in the last few months which have been all around rather interesting, and which I'd quite like to share with the friends and family that read this (or at least, who used to read this back when I was interesting and wrote things). As such I shall start writing here again. Prepare yourselves for....
A Brief Review of the Last Six Months of Holly:
October: I broke my ankle ice-skating. Lessons learned: don't do conga lines on skates. And definitely, definitely, don't try to skate in the other direction when everyone is falling down. Your leg will get caught, and you will break it, and you will regret everything that has led to that point.

November: Sulked about my leg, got over myself, and learned to go up and down stairs on crutches (living on the third floor without an elevator helped with this accomplishment). Took a trip to the beautiful coastal town of La Rochelle with new friends. Had cast removed. Conducted field work for a behavioral ecology project, studying capuchin monkeys at the local zoo: we were observing whether they used certain foods (eg onion & garlic) for medicinal purposes, rather than eating them. Wild capuchins will use similar materials for anti-parasitic purposes and rub them on their fur; we wanted to test whether captive capuchins exhibited the same behavior. They do!

(Île de Ré, an island just off the coast of La Rochelle)

Leg free of cast (left); capuchin taking a break from eating and using onions as anti-parasitic medication (right)

December: Road trip to Lyon to see the beautiful Fête des Lumières, the Festival of Lights; slept on a mattress in the back of our van, and walked all night with lights and music and memories of my summer in Lyon doing field work on the Rhône for my undergraduate thesis. We came back to a week-long seminar with earthworm & soil scientist Patrick Lavelle, and were converted to the cult of earthworm. I met my mom in Paris after my last exam and we spent Christmas together in Bordeaux. We flew together to Chicago to bring in the New Year with my brothers, my sisters-in-law, and my nieces and nephews.

January-February: a whirlwind of work. We had a fantastic week-long course on Ecological Risk Assessment from professors Rui, Paulo & Matilde from the University of Coimbra, where I'll be doing my Masters specialization in September. Apart from that, the last weeks of our semester in Poitiers blurred into a mess of work and panic and deadlines and applications for housing & visas in Germany for the spring semester. All the while we marked an endless and exhilerating countdown, ticking off days until our field trip to........ ECUADOR (next several posts).

But meanwhile I'll leave you with this tasty pic of a French meal.