Field of Science

If you can't spell it, do you deserve the degree?

This is not the first time the Phytophactor has attempted to elucidate the nature of the BA and BS degrees for you. The B stands for baccalaureate after baccus laureus the fruit of the laurel (Laurus nobilis) and source of bay leaves. The Greeks awarded champions wreaths of laurel leaves, their crowning acheivement, and so having labored away in the vinyards of academe students obtain a baccalaureate degree to certify their achievement. In the early days of the academe it was only single males who earned such degrees so they became nicknamed bachelor's degrees, a sexist error that sadly even our great institute of higher learning perpetuates.
Now the Phactor is a tolerant person, but if you don't know the name of your degree, or you can't spell it, do you deserve that degree? Duh! The Phactor is the fellow who always took a potted bay laurel to graduation.
A similar question was put to me once, almost 35 years ago, and yes, the Phactor knew what PhD stood for. Now please understand that as part of a discussion of herbs and spices in my economic botany class, not only was this all explained, but the students were told that Phactor did not think anyone was deserving a degree who did not know its name and could not spell it. So how did my aspiring academics, mostly seniors, do?
5 did not answer the question at all; it was an option, but since they chose other questions it indicates they really did not know because some of the other answers they gave were pretty awful.
2 said Bachelor's although the error of this was part of the lecture.
The remaining 16 knew the answer, but only 3 could spell it correctly. Looks like only 13% pass my acid test.
Here are the 11 permutations (one turned up 3 times): baccalorate, bachalaureat, bacheloriate (an amusing fusion), bacclaureate, bachloretti (sort of sounds Italian), bacchalaurate (the favorite), bacculerote, bacalureate, baccaleurate, baccaloriate (nicely phonetic), bacchelaureatte.
Won't my dean and provost be amused?

Field trip winding up (down)?

Well, it's happened again, what with all the natural history, all the biological diversity, all the talk of experiments and data, all the cool observations and encounters, early morning or late nights in the rain forest, and kilometers of hiking, another fine field trip is shot to heck.
This year's class have been about as good as a group of biology majors gets, and the Phactor has not acquired any new gray hairs from their behavior. He is worn out simply because when you're on educational call more or less around the clock, there is not enough (2 instructors, 18 students) to go around.
So here's one more bit of rainforest natural history. Late November is near the end of the rainy season, and it's been wet, oh not anywhere near a record year (over 470 mm rain in 10 days), but sufficiently wet to keep the amphibians active and happy. One of the neatest little fellows is the levi frog (Dendrobates) so called because of their blue legs. Most of the frogs with which you are familiar are cryptically colored, but these stand out vividly. And their call is very loud, especially for their size (less than 2 cm long), sort of inviting you to find them. But this is a poison arrow frog, and the coloring is there to train any potential predators that this froggy will make you as sick as a dog. This is an example of aposomatic coloring where organisms use bright and vivid patterns to advertise their distastefulness. This one has actually just deposited a tadpole that they were carrying on their back into a little pond of water in a tank bromeliad.
Now to pack and return to early winter, the end of the semeser, and finals in Lincolnland. Blah!

From carbon dioxide to carbon dioxide - lesson from the tropics

Here in the rain forest life is a pretty dramatic process. While the great towering giants of wood have a aura of permanence about them, the tree turn over in a wet tropical forest is 2 to 3 times as fast as in temperate forests. Trees are great store houses of carbon dioxide, relatively short term reservoirs, and it is hard for people to rap their brains around the fact that all that stuff is primarily built out of a colorless, tasteless gas that only makes up a fraction of one percent of the atmosphere.

In the temperate zone we are used to seeing mushrooms pop up out of the ground, reproductive structures that are dwarfed by the huge filamentous organisms hidden from sight. And of course such fungi are the primary recyclers of cellulose and the other stuff trees and plants are built from. So you might expect to see lots of fungi on the ground in rainforests, but such is not the case. Decomposition is so fast here, no organic material builds up in or on the soil. Most of the fungi you see are growing right out of decomposing plant material. The fungi shown here are called "dead man's fingers", cute, eh? And they are growing out of a log that is pretty far along in terms of decomposition. The Phactor is not an expert on fungi, but he seems to remember that this fungus is called appropriately enough Xylaria, after xylem, wood. And so after being stored in this log for decades or in some cases even centuries, all that carbon dioxide is going back into the air. And if, as some of
the best data indicates (see for link), even a slight increase in temperature causes a higher rate of tree mortality, then you have a very scary scenario where an increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is driving an increase in tree mortality and more carbon dioxide is being released.

A sad goodbye

With profound sadness the Phactor must report that our magnificent little lion had to be put to sleep. Although only part of our family for eight years, this Maine coon cat enriched our lives immeasurably with his wonderful temperament and sweet disposition. He was maybe the best pet ever, a huge lummox of feline love, a gentle giant, a helpful and sensitive soul, a truly good boy cat without a mean bone in his body, but life dealt him a poor genetic hand, the cruel outcome of selective breeding, so his life ended in middle age, and abruptly. We grieve and feel great loss because we could not say goodbye properly or in time or in a manner he would be able to understand. Each night he would want his belly rubbed before going to sleep and starting his heavy breathing snores; and each morning he would snuggle with his owner and soul mate before she got up to face the day while he galloped down stairs for that most wonderful time of day, breakfast. Who will unroll the TP now? Who will fish the ice cubes out of your drink? Who will dab his furry paw in his water and lick it off to get a drink making a wet mess in the process? Who wouldn't love such a beast? Our bed will certainly feel larger and emptier.

Little ants bring big rainforest down to size

video
Rain forest is one great place for viewing interesting biological interactions. And one little thing about the tropics is pretty easy to remember, ants are everywhere. This field station is home to over 500 species according to the experts. But without question one of the most prominent and common of these are the leaf cutter ants (Atta). Leaf cutter ants do not eat leaves, although in their millions they are one of the biggest "herbivores" in the rain forest. Piece by piece they carry the canopy back into their subterranean nest to cultivate a very specific fungus, which reciprocates being so well cared for and fed by providing the ants with food. And so you do not have to walk very far to view the highly amusing parades of workers carrying pieces of tree leaves to their nest. Out bound workers rush by to get more leaf pieces. Larger ants are soldiers protecting the workers, and if you watch closely you'll see "riders", somewhat smaller ants riding along on many of the leaf pieces. This peculiar behavior functions to protect the riders from parasitic flies who seek to lay eggs on workers returning to the nest.

Drink of the gods


This is a pretty interesting rain forest flower for several reasons. One it's sort of hard to figure out what parts is what; two, the flowers appear right out of the trunk of the tree; three its generic name, Theobroma, means "drink of the gods"; and four, the common name of the most famous product from this genus is Mayan for bitter water. This is a wild species, but the cultivated species is also called cacao, the source of chocolate, or "chocolatl" (bitter water). And a spicy, fatty version of hot chocolate was the royal beverage of Aztecs. In the evergreen tropics many trees produce flowers on "old wood", their limbs and trunks where the leaves don't obscure the flowers, a phenomenon called cauliflory. Back up in Lincolnland red bud is one of the few temperate trees that do this. Red pods will follow. The mature seeds are the source of chocolate.
On other fronts the students are proving to be a great lot this year, very interested and very industrious. It has been wet, raining every night, and showers almost every day. However nothing like last year's forest-field station flooding deluge. Woke up this AM to the gargling call of oropendolas.

Travel is always an adventure

To study tropical rain forest temperate zone folks must travel & to get from Lincolnland to the La Selva field station takes about 15 hrs door to door. This year the trip was successful and we arrived starved just in time for dinner in spite of a coach driver with the wrong time and day, severely delayed flight, bad weather, terrible traffic, mountain road accidents, & tardy students (also wrong time and day)! What an adventure, but once here everything awful about the travel is soon forgotten. Sharing the excitement of students discovering rain forest makes all the grief worth while. Isn't that just a great looking tropical scene? Enjoy!

Rain forest field trip

Taking 18 students on an international field trip to study rain forest ecology provides them with a top-notch educational opportunity, but what a hassle! So many details and so little time; it's not if anything will go wrong, but what. And please understand these are really good, and reasonably cooperative, polite, attentive students, although no more twins. Twins are trouble. And we keep adding rules to the list that begins with "no whining or whinging". But the Phactor still remembers his first experience, his first view of rain forest, and he was hooked. So you try to provide the same experiences for your students; that's what we do. And it doesn't hurt escaping to the tropics at a rather dingy, dull time of year. So be nice to the Phactor, and maybe you can go along.

If time and internet connections allow, perhaps a couple of blogs will come straight from the rain forest; otherwise things will be quiet here for the next two weeks.

Talk about a stimulating tattoo!

The Phactor gets asked to identify lots of botanical specimens, often from just an image. This arrived via email thanks to some anonymous correspondent, and they simply asked if this was botanically accurate? Well, to know that you have to determine what was being illustrated. And that isn’t too difficult, this is clearly Coffea arabica, coffee, and it not only is botanically accurate but copy of a classic botanical illustration. But this is almost a new one on the Phactor. Only once before has the identification been based on an image tattooed into someone’s dermis. One of my recent students had a hibiscus on her shoulder blade. Are gardeners going to start sporting tattoos of their favorite plant? Are botanists going to start bearing some indelible record of their research organisms? Who knows where this may lead, perhaps more students in my plant taxonomy class! Perhaps more tattoo pictures!

Ethical training in Lincolnland

Each year the state government of Lincolnland mandates ethics training for its employees. This is hard to argue with in a state with so many ethically challenged politicians, but it remains uncertain if they mandate such training for themselves or not. One way or another there seems little evidence of the training's effectiveness. Actually this training has little to do with real ethics and ethical dilemmas; it does learn you about state rules of how to conduct state business.
University employees get our own training, and you have no idea how helpful this is for faculty. Yes, should the Phactor ever have to deal with civil service time cards, work orders, job estimates, medical records, outside contractors, jobs in the private sector, vendors, the line will be toed. Other than learning that it's OK to accept a small present from the parents of a former student or an honorarium for speaking at another university, virtually nothing in this year's training had anything to do with the ethical situations encountered as faculty. Of course it was mildly amusing and quite ironic to have this year's ethics training endorsed by all of our university presidents, of which one had recently resigned for allowing political and financial clout to alter admissions decisions. Guess they missed that part of the training. Last year many faculty got dunned for taking the online training too fast, never mind it was written at no more than a grade 12 level and the choices were so obvious you could guess correctly most of the time. So the verdict from this quarter is that our tax dollars could be better used, you know, for things like bribing aldermen, deans, or constables.

Berry-go-Round #21 Blog Carnival

Berry-go-Round #21 has been posted and is hosted over at Beetles in the Bush. Many thanks to Ted for doing such a good job. Pop on over to find links to some interesting plant blogs. It's eclectic!

From the photo archives - an exotic plant to ID


The Phytophactor has a new toy: a photographic slide/film scanner! To celebrate here's an image captured on film over 25 years ago, so it hasn't seen the light of day for quite some time. The economic value of this plant stimulated a lot of exploration and trade, and this one was photographed very close to its original center of trade. You all own it, but it isn't often seen growing.

Deciduous trees

Here in the temperate zone most of our woody plants are deciduous; they drop their leaves seasonally. This poses a gardening challenge for those of us with large, shady yards because if the leaves are not removed from lawn areas and some garden areas the entire area begins converting back into a woodland. Without my intervention this would only take a few years, and in fact it was well on its way when team Phactor acquired this property. And so seasonally, with the aid of a very large leaf mulching vacuum, a rental bargain, leaf removal and relocation only takes a few weeks, or so it seems. Fortunately several gardens of woodland plants are ready to receive their annual mulching of leaves. This image shows a small section, about one-fourth, of the problem, with only a fraction of the leaf fall complete, and this is all behind a quite adequately large set of lawns and gardens surrounding our abode. This way the Phactor's scientific field work smoothly transitions into gardening field work, and not a moment is lost watching football or baseball. The sugar maple, a 110 foot tall giant, always looks a bit depressed this time of year.