A desert herbarium
My last stop during the fellowship was the University of Arizona. And at the University of Arizona is a herbarium that has a large collection of the plants growing in the surrounding Sonora desert. The building is one of the oldest in Arizona (older than the state in fact), and out the front are fossil trunks, also from Arizona.
They have a newly renovated space with room for databasing and specimen processing. The sign on the wall explains the name change associated with separating the Australian Acacia from the American "Acacia" (below the basketball ring!).
At the U of A herbarium (and most herbaria), the specimens are each stored flat in a moveable shelving unit called a compactus. Here the herbarium's director Dr Shelley MacMahon is in amongst the compactuses showing me the collections.
The collection is housed in an electronic compactus system.
I was very envious! All you have to do is press a button to move a section. In many other herbaria, you have you wind (and wind, and wind) the shelves to get to the one you want.
And there were cycads inside as well as outside. These are Dioon sonorense that grow on the Mexican side of the Sonoran desert.
Fun times in Tucson
Since I was Tucson for a couple of weeks, I had some weekends to enjoy the local activities and see a bit of the city. Here's an adobe house, which is a typical architectural style there. Gizmo the chihuahua is well camouflaged with the house.
I visited a newly opened pinball parlor. All the proceeds go to a food bank. So I played some games for charity, of course! The magic one below was my favorite.
And volunteering at the parlor is Eric, whose day job is a plant genomicist. Here he is fixing the Ripley's Believe it or not game. Note the ACDC game next to it!
On a very hot Saturday night I went to watch the University of Arizona Wildcats football team play University of Texas San Antonio team. Below is the U of A marching band, and behind you can see the gigantic stand.
The sea of red in the background is made up of dedicated U of A students. I have a very basic understanding of the game, so I won't try to explain what's happening in this picture.
I also went for a stroll at the Arizona Inn. Teddy Roosevelt stayed here while traversing the country.
It is still in operation and takes guests who can stay in one of these casitas (little houses).
Last stop, Tucson
The last stop of my trip was Tucson, Arizona. It's just over the border from Mexico, and is in the middle of the Sonoran desert.
I was in Tucson to visit the University of Arizona. At the U of A is the lab of Dr Noah Whiteman. I have been working with Noah on an interaction between ferns (Pteridium, bracken) and flies (Scaptodrosophila). Earlier this year, we collected both the ferns and flies along the east coast Australia (check out our blog). While I was in Tucson I tested some new lab techniques out on these ferns.
Me, Noah and Mark having brunch at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson.
I was also in Tucson to visit Dr Mark Beilstein's lab. Mark and I worked together while we were at Harvard. Mark is an expert of Brassicaceae (the mustard family) and we published a paper estimating the ages of the various members in the family.
And, I gave a seminar on my cycad and fern research to members of Mark's department, the School of Plant Sciences. Here's the announcement. It was a busy time!
Relaxing at the Russian River
North of San Francisco is the idyllic Russian River.
Here I caught up with some old friends from my days at Duke University. Everyone made a journey from afar - New York, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon and even Vancouver.
Our first outing was at the nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Some of the trees are over one thousand years old. The one we are pictured with is 1400 years old!
It was a botanical dream come true to walk in the redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Redwoods are only found in California, and are among the tallest known living trees. But there are fossils of redwoods known that indicate that their range was much bigger in the past.
Our cabin was among the redwoods and in the evening we went for walks among them. In the photo below you can see how big the trunks are - Alex and Matias are there for scale.
And the redwoods are even in the middle of the road!
We also visited the foggy California coast.
It was too cold to swim so we left that to the seals.
But Russian River itself was perfect for swimming. It was a delight to swim surrounded by the magnificent redwoods.
There is another campus of the University of California not too far from Berkeley. It's in a town called Davis, close to the state capital, Sacramento.
Here I visited my friend and colleague Dr Santiago Ramirez at UC Davis. He works on orchid bees, and has examined the co-evolution between orchids and the bees.
The bees are iridescent with long stingers! Santiago has been stung quite a few times - ouch!
Here he is giving honey to some bees he keeps at his lab.
Also in Davis is another friend of mine, Dr Alexandra Tobler. Alexandra works on insects, and has studied the growth features of the tobacco hornworm. Here she is next to a caterpillar sculpture in a park in Davis.
Also at this park is the famous Davis Farmer's Market.
We bought some delicious Afghan dips and breads.
And admired the lovely local produce.
UC Berkeley botanical garden
High up in the Berkeley hills is the UC Berkeley botanical garden. There are gorgeous views across the bay to San Francisco, and the plantings look like a botanical wilderness.
I visited the garden to collect cycads for my research. They have an impressive collection of cycads largely due to a sting operation by the US Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Poaching is a major problem for cycad conservation but thankfully these ones were intercepted.
The staff have been able to produce seeds from these confiscated cycads, and in doing so they are increasing the number of cycads in botanical collections. These seeds are from African Encephalartos and some are growing as seedlings on the left.
The garden is separated into regions, and the cycads of Australia are planted together alongside other native Australian plants.
They are also doing conservation work of Californian native plants. California is a biodiversity hotspot and is home to over 3,500 different species, of these 61% are endemic.
The plants below were rescued from a road project and are the among the last of their species.
And these seemingly unimportant trays are critical to the survival of another native species. In the trays are seeds of an annual plant, and part of another conservation project at the UCBG.
Berkeley is just across the bay from San Francisco, and the University of California has a campus here. On a fog-free day you can see the Golden Gate bridge connecting San Francisco to Sausalito.
The most prominent feature of campus is the campanile. It's a recreation of the campanile of St Mark in Venice. When I worked at Berkeley I could see it from my office - it was the best office clock I've ever had!
The integrative biology department houses the University and Jepson Herbaria that greet visitors with living plant displays. In the foreground is a Dioon cycad and in the background ferns and a podocarp conifer.
Also in the biology department is the Museum of Paleontology, which is guarded by a T. rex!
Inside the museum I was shown some plant fossils collected by Dori Contreras in New Mexico. Dori is a PhD student, and she recently won the best student presentation award for her talk on a fossil redwood. Here she is putting together some pieces of a fossil palm frond.
Dori also showed me a possible cycad fossil that she collected. I put my USB stick in the image so you can see how large the fossil is.
The person in charge of the paleobotany collections is Museum Scientist Dr Diane Erwin. She is below, together with Vish (an undergrad who is helping Dori), and Dori. They are sorting through the fossils on the table, and the museum collections are stored behind them.
I also had the chance to catch up with some paleobotanist friends. There's me on the left, Cindy Looy is standing - she's a paleobotanist at UC Berkeley, and Selena Smith is on the right - she's a paleobotanist at the University of Michigan.
Selena was visiting Berkeley to use the synchrotron (it's like a CT scanning device but more detailed) to look at ginger plants. Here's an example of other work she's done using this technique.
We had dinner at Gather, which is my favorite restaurant in Berkeley. The food was beautiful and delicious!
While in Xalapa I visited the Jardin Botanico Francisco Javier Clavijero. There is a botanical garden alongside a cloud forest sanctuary.
The botanical garden has an unrivaled collection of Mexican cycad species, and the Ecological Institute is home to Dr Andrew Vovides.
Andrew kindly showed me the collections and told me the fascinating stories behind his collecting trips and the dire state of cycad conservation of these species.
Andrew and his technician Sonja. The computer is connected to the microscope on the left. The monitor is showing cross-sections of cycad leaflets.
There is an impressive collection of cycads at the botanic garden.
Andrew with his cycad namesake: Ceratozamia vovidesi
Various Dioon species from Mexico
Dioon sonorense grows in the desert in Mexico, and its fronds have an unusual curled architecture.
It is endangered because the plants are harvested for alcohol.
Dioon seedlings are grown nearby and then sold on site.
These are endangered plants that will prevent wild plants from being harvested.
looks very un-cycad like! The leaflets are enormous.
It's critically endangered because of habitat loss.
Ceratozamia hildae is also called the bamboo cycad.
It is endangered because of habitat destruction and over -collecting for ornamental purposes.
A view of the ecological institute and the National Dahlia collection.
Dahlias are native to Mexico.
Part of the botanical gardens includes a natural cloud forest. This is a path through the forest.
Xalapa's food and colour
The second and final stop of my Mexico leg was in Xalapa (pronounced Ha-la-pa). It's east of Mexico City and I took a one hour flight to get there.
It's a small city with lots of winding streets in the downtown area, which were all created well before cars. So at rush hour there are huge traffic jams!
Xalapa is home place to Jalapeño chilies, but there are all kinds of chilies for sale...
I also found some cycads used as landscaping. These are Dioon, which are endemic to Mexico.
The city is very pretty and the town hall and cathedral are in the colonial style.
Below is a view of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains seen from Parque Juarez.
Mexico City's food and colour
While in Mexico I sampled as many goodies as I could! Below are pictures of some of the exciting food that I saw and ate.
Grilled prickly pear - called nopales. They tasted like yummy crunchy veggies. Check out yesterday's post of the botanic gardens to see the actual plants.
Paletas: I had pistachio flavor but it was difficult to chose!
Hand-making tortillas in a restaurant. The dough is being pressed and then is cooked on the hot plate at the side.
David's daughter Maria is demonstrating where to stand during an earthquake.
At a food market: note the pig's head! We couldn't get a seat because it was just too busy.
Marzipan fruit being sold on the side of the road. I love the fruit baskets.
Grilled corn cobs, which are served smeared in mayonnaise, cheese and chilli. On the side are corn kernels that are served in cups also with mayonnaise, cheese and chilli. Both are delicious!
In 2012, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship sponsored by the Australian Biological Resources Study.