Monday, April 24, 2017

A new field season begins!

I have been working away at my stats, analysis, and writing in the lab since my last post in September about the transition between fieldwork and data analysis. With the melting of the snow, I'm now heading back out into the summer portion of the ecology research cycle: field research!

I will be collaborating with my labmate Cory and his old supervisor on long-term research with the population of Cypripedium arietinum (ram's head orchid) at the lake; I've written about this plant before -- there's a nice photo of the flower over on that post as well so go check it out!

Orchids are interesting for lots of reasons. Here are just a few:

(1) Many orchids are unrewarding, which means that they don't offer nectar to pollinators in exchange for pollen transport. With unrewarding orchids we can investigate questions about the evolutionary consequences and/or adaptive mechanisms for deceiving pollinators into moving pollen from plant to plant

(2) Many orchids are spring ephemerals. This means that they flower in the brief window in the spring after the snow melts and before the trees put out their leaves. Synchronizing with their pollinators, which are just waking up from their winter hibernation, is particularly important for them to successfully reproduce. With these plants, then, we have opportunities to investigate how small- and large-scale variation in climatic conditions (e.g. timing of first snow melt, date of tree leaf bud bursting, quantity of canopy that's open throughout the blooming period, variation in temperatures, etc) can affect the emergence synchronization of flowers and their pollinator.

(3) Orchids rely on fungi in the soil in order to germinate and grow, so we can ask questions about how such a system might evolve and how the orchids and fungi can affect each other over time and space.

Cory and I went out yesterday to get some basic information about the areas where the plants are found, so that we can get a sense of what kind of designs are going to work best.

At the start of the season we're often just exploring a bit, to get a sense of what we have to work with with respect to terrain and space. This kind of knowledge is invaluable for designing studies and making decisions about what kinds of tools and techniques we want to use.

We were delighted to notice that we could pinpoint a few clumps of the plants because we found some old fruiting stalks (seed pods on old stalks) that survived over the winter. They aren't easy to spot because they're small and about the same colour as dead leaves and twigs on the ground, but with a bit of crawling around and some prior knowledge, they can be found.

These old seed pods are great not just to help us locate plants, but also because they allow us to glean a bit of information about last year, too; a rough count of how many old seed pods there were this spring gives us a minimum number of seed pods that were produced last year (we can't know what proportion were lost over the winter, so we can't say how many more than this count were produced).

Old seed pod of C. arietinum
Because these orchids are perennials, finding these old stalks allowed us to locate at least some of the clumps of C. arietinum at our sites. What's more, we even found some very young shoots already coming up!

In the centre of this photo (look closely) there are several little C. arietinum shoots just starting to come up; the white thing is a tag that we put in to mark the location of this clump

Cory and I put in some temporary tags and some flags to mark off the general areas where we know there are plants; this will make our work easier next week when we go back next weekend to install permanent tags for the clumps of C. arietinum, since we're going to want to be able to track them across years.

Cory, next to a pole that he placed to mark one of the areas of the property where we found some C. arietinum clumps
At that point, we'll also start making a GPS map of the coordinates of our populations and clumps for good long-term data maintenance, and as insurance against long-term markers being lost or displaced accidentally.

My husband was recruited as an unpaid but dearly appreciated field assistant; here we are counting old stalks, fruit, and new shoots in a clump of C. arietinum that he found.
We'll be going back throughout the season to track these plants as they grow, bloom, and fruit. I will post some more updates as the season progresses.

Purely out of curiosity, we spent a bit of time fiddling with the old seed pods; we noticed that most of them had opened and dispersed all their seeds, already, but that some still contained seeds and were in varying stages of openness. Those that were partially open were interesting because when shaken or nudged, they sent out clouds of thousands of miniscule seeds! We took a video that is unfortunately out of focus, but you can see the seeds as little blurry pale things in the video clip below:

video


We also collected a couple of old seed pods from last year that hadn't opened and released all their seeds and spent a few minutes today looking at the seeds under the microscope out of curiosity. We weren't using the fancy Zeiss research scope in the lab upstairs, so there's no camera mount on this microscope and it's not the most amazing scope ever, but I can at least give an idea of what the seeds look like:

C. arietinum seeds; the dark spot in the centre is the seed itself. The old cell walls are visible in this image as dark lines that seem to be outlining somewhat rectangular shapes. This image is at taken at 100X magnification, so the entire structure including coat is maybe 1mm long or a bit less, while the seed is less than that. Tiny!
I am absolutely delighted that the field season has started up again. This is just one of a few projects I'm hoping to work on this year. I will make sure to post a bit more this year than last about what I'm up to and why over the field season.