Field of Science


Plants are dull and uninteresting!

OK, the Phytophactor is pissed. TV networks producers think programs about plants are dull and boring! What a bunch of simple-minded morons.

Plants do everything animals do, except crap and bite, but they do it with a great deal of dignity and grace. The bottom line is simple, it takes a sophisiticated intellect to appreciate something as subtle as a plant. A colleague of mine has pointed out on many occasions how people are "plant blind". To them plants are merely a passive backdrop against which animals move. Such people suffer from a simplistic perception, and they probably have difficulty appreciating fine food, classical music, and art too.

Like many other things, their inability to appreciate something is directly based on their ignorance of the subject. I suppose this isn't surprising because TV certainly appears to be aimed to the least common denominator of our society, so the people in charge must themselves operate at that level.

I am proud to say that I have wasted not one nanosecond on "reality shows". Exposure to Regis Philbin kills more brain cells than multiple head injuries. And the people who put such programming on TV think plants are uninteresting. Hmm, it does give you pause. No wonder scientists are considered elitists, real eggplant heads. Well, consider this, you would be naked, miserable, and hungry without plants, so cultivating an appreciation might be a wise thing to do.

Ever seen a fern this pretty?

Here's a pretty image of a fern. Have you ever seen a fern like this one? No question about it, this fern is pretty small, about the same size as a neatly trimmed nail on your little finger, and at that size, a fern can be over looked pretty easily.

You may think that this fern doesn't look very fern-like, but in this you are wrong. Your experience with ferns is just too limited. Granted this fern has no ferny fronds, and no vascular tissue either, but I assure you it is quite typical. The most interesting thing about this fern is that it is haploid. The nucleus in each of its cells has only a single set of chromosomes. All of the ferns with which you are familiar have two sets of chromosomes. And what a difference this makes.

This haploid fern is the sexual phase of its life cycle. It makes sex cells, eggs and sperm, and after fertilization, it nutures, for a short while, an embryonic fern, which can grow into a typical appearing fern. So this haploid fern is not some strange, exotic beast, but just the alternate phase of the fern life cycle, the gametophyte phase, the gamete (sex cell) producing plant. Like all other vascular land plants, the familiar fern is the diploid phase, the sporophyte phase, the spore producing plant. And with that I am off to sow some spores and raise some haploid ferns.

Please, sir, can I have a study guide?

Over three decades of teaching evaluations have told me a lot about what students like and dislike, about me, about my subjects, about my attire, about my sense of humor, about my course organization, and about exams and grading. I have learned very little that would improve my teaching, and much that would improve my popularity.

Presently my classes are mostly populated with 3d and 4th year undergraduates, people that used to be called juniors and seniors, or upper classmen. These are students who have weathered the dreadful common curriculum and the deadly core courses. With some good reason you might expect them to have gained a bit of educational sophistication, to be effective learners, to provide some give and take to keep their aged professor on his toes.

So why do such students continue to complain that I do not provide study guides?

Please understand, a significant part of each exam consists of open-book questions distributed a week ahead, and for which my expectations for reasonably good exposition are reasonably justified. These would seem pretty self-evident areas to study. And to avoid condusion on my part, I ask, "What do you want a study guide to assist you with?"

"We want to know what to study for the exam."

Now that seems fair enough doesn't it? But here is the problem. This also means students want to know what NOT to study, some subset of the information presented that can just be conveniently forgotten now, as opposed to later, a strategy very similar, although not quite so truncated as Father Sarducci's "5-minute university" where you only learn what you would remember 5 years after graduation anyways.

What such students fail to understand, and if they do not get it by now, there is a good chance they will not be getting it ever, is that in my due diligence I have prospected mountains of material to mine only the richest veins of knowledge, presenting them with just the choicest nuggets of biological understanding. And then they ask, what of this can we simply avoid learning? Which nuggets can we discard now just to save us some time.

Now this is very different from asking, "DrA, what is the best explanation for phenomenon A, or why do we hypothesize B instead of C?" Nothing could please me more than answering such study guide questions. But the need-a-study-guide students are not far enough along to ask such questions, and the ones who are that far along do not need or want a study guide. To fairly and honestly tell them what to study for the exam would require that I write out the entire narrative of the lectures and discussions. Wait, I've done that! They have my book!

So I am resigned to such criticism. My evaluations will probably not improve markedly no matter what. So I tell them, "I expect you to know and understand it all. Nothing less, and I know such outstanding students as yourselves will not disappoint me", until time comes for evaluations that is.

Tropical biology dreaming

It's a Monday, the first day of the semester, and the coldest day of the year, a near triple convergence to generate depression. Actually the coldest day of the year is predicted for a bit later this week (a low of -13F). Damn that cheap imported Canadian weather. Still the winter weather depresses me almost as much as politics here in Lincolnland.

Although I often look forwad to the beginning of new semesters, I loath the reports and other paper work that entails. Where's my personal assistant, and why haven't they taken care of all this crap? I don't mind the students, or teaching my classes (although my dislike of exams grows with each year), but why so I have to do it in Lincolnland? After all where should a tropical biologist be but in the tropics?

So I'll post a picture of where I want to be this semester, and I'm willing to bet that my students, if price were not an object, would join me there to a person. So here it is, a pictoral tribute to tropical biology. This particular location is Mission Beach in far northern Queensland. Although beautiful, the tropics are not completely idyllic. There are a few things you should know about this location. One, salt-water crocs have been known to walk right down the beach, and to them, you are prey. Two, seasonally the box jelly fish migrates out of the mangroves and float around in this still tropical water inside the Great Barrier Reef. Getting stung by a box jelly is not a life experience anyone recommends. Still you can get yourself a Castlemain XXXX Bitter ale and sit in the shade of the coconut palms lining the high water mark and think great thoughts about the tropical biology. If you walk a little ways you can see parasol palms and even cassowary if you are lucky and quiet.
So why can't I take my class on a field trip? After all we have students who travel far and wide to hit, kick, carry, or throw a ball, yet no resources exist for similarly educating biology students. Hmm, that's another depressing thought. Better stop while I'm ahead.

Oldest tree on Earth - period!

Just days after posting about the oldest living tree on Earth, while working on educating myself about fern phylogeny, up pops references to the oldest tree on Earth, an organism that produced the first forests.

For those of you who really want to know, the tree in question is a pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid, a Devonian ancestor of ferns. This particular forest tree dates to 385 mya (million years ago), surpassing what was previously the oldest known tree, a progymnosperm called Archaeopteris, but a relative youngster appearing no more than 370 mya. Interestingly enough, both were discovered near Gilboa, New York in the Catskills. You may wonder how such big things as trees can escape the attention of geologists and paleobotanists, but it wasn't that these trees weren't known. They were, but the problem with fossils is that some assembly is required, if you know you have the right pieces to the puzzle.

The trunks of these forests were very well known. What wasn't know was what kind of tree they were. About 50 years ago a tree trunk with gymnospermous wood was found physically attached to a ferny foliage, the absolute evidence that these two fossils were in fact one and the same plant. And that is how progymnosperms, the ancestors of seed plants, were discovered.

Similarly the fossil trunks (Eospermatopteris) were matched up recently to smaller trunks bearing the fossil "foliage" called Wattieza. The entire tree is known by the latter name because was the first published (a principle of priority). The "foliage" is not composed of leaves, but of branches that were attached to the trunk in a helical whorl quite like the leaves of tree ferns, cycads, or palms. And now that it was known how big the trunk was, their height could be estimated, and these ancient trees grew to 8 meters. This is quite amazing because at the beginning of the Devonian (416 mya), land vegetation was no taller than knee high. And just 30 million years later, there were forests.

Forests really change things because trees are giant obstacles that alter their environment, the weather, the climate, the soil, and they make habitat for other organisms. So trees like this are responsible for transforming a barren terrestrial environment into a green Earth we would recognize. But it is hard at such a great distance to appreciate such organisms, and to that end I can think of no more fitting appreciation than a poem.

Ode to a pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid . . . tree

A tree whose “whorled dichotomous ultimate units” . . . earn
An ancestry to the modern fern

A tree whose “photosynthetic/reproductive modules” . . . on high
Provide lowly detritivores with a food supply

A tree whose “digitally branched modules” . . . rain
Spores upon a Devonian plain.

A pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid that in times, post Ice Age
Is resurrected by a geology hammer’s rage

Poems are made by fools like me
But only Darwin can theorize a pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid . . . tree

By Robert Titus, Kaatskill Life, Winter 2007-2008.