It was the weekend and we did some sightseeing around Gainesville. As plant enthusiasts, Dr Gordon Burleigh, from the University of Florida, and I went to the local Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Of course I had to see all the cycads. There was the native cycad Zamia floridana, which was surrounding one of the many gazebos. Some of the cycads were coning (which is how cycads reproduce). On the bottom right is a male plant with a pollen cone (from the genus Dioon), and on the left is a female plant with a seed cone (from the genus Zamia).
We also visited a sinkhole. Sinkholes are home to a unique flora and they are just stunning! There are many around, and the one we visited in Gainesville is called Devil's Millhopper. It was teeming with ferns (Thelypteris), and pines and oaks. And there's a raised series of stairs that led to the water at the bottom of the sinkhole. It's hard to capture the enormity of it but I've put a few pictures of it below.
After the conference I headed to Gainesville, which is north of Miami (check out the map). It's home to the University of Florida, which has the gator as their mascot and it's the home of gatorade.
I met with Dr Gordon Burleigh who works on the computational side of plant evolution. We chatted about studying ferns and cycads using a method he has developed called "natural language processing". This is a method for reading and transforming texts into data that we can use for analyses.
After that he took me for a tour of Lake Alice on campus. Above are some pictures of Lake Alice, which even has an alligator warning sign (top two images). There we saw an alligator and turtle (middle). Nearby we saw the native cycad Zamia floridana being used as a landscaping plant, and that's Gordon admiring the plants from a bridge (bottom).
After three days of intense talks and scientific discussions I was exhausted! But it was extraordinarily inspiring to see so much exciting and cutting edge research. And it was a real joy to see many so friends and colleagues from across the US and the world.
Some local culinary highlights: (left) beignets, which is fried dough smothered in icing sugar, and chicory coffee, and (right) an oyster po boy, which is made of battered and fried oysters served in bread; the stick of butter was for a baked potato.
Here are some links to some of the talks I enjoyed:
The Botanical Society of America with many other botanical societies have a yearly conference, and this year’s meeting was in beautiful New Orleans, bringing together about 1100 botanists.
The meeting started with a lecture by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni. This was the most inspiring lecture I’ve ever seen! Nalini studies the canopies of tropical forests. She explained some of her many projects, and reminded us that we as scientists need to share our science with all of humanity.
One of her projects saves mosses from being stripped from trees in the wild for the floristry industry. To do this she partnered with prisons in the state of Washington. Prisoners learned to identify moss species and chose the easy to propagate species, which they then grew in the prisons. They are now cultivating tonnes of mosses across multiple prisons, and in doing so they are saving moss biodiversity. Have a look at this CNN video about her work, where they call her a "science evangelist".
When we see leaves falling from the trees, this tells us that it’s autumn. When the flowers begin blooming, it’s spring. Studying these plant responses to climatic cues is called phenology.
Prior to the conference, I attended a half-day workshop on phenology given by members of the California Phenology Project (CPP).
The CPP is a huge study tracking plants over the entire state of California. One of the project leaders, Prof Susan Mazer and her student Brian Haggerty, explained the logistics of organising and keeping track of this massive project in the workshop.
So far the CPP has 650 observers tracking 30 species for a total of 950 plants. In 2011-2012, 250,000 observations were made! That's a lot of people power! Some preliminary results are already in, and there are obvious differences in flowering time across elevations.
Using the collections of cycads in the RBG Sydney, I plan to start a cycad phenology project. Together with volunteers, we will track the reproduction/coning times of our cycads. As we collect records over many years we’ll be able to detect if climate change results in a shift in reproduction time.
Above are a few pics of New Orleans — I love the intricate lattice work and the hanging plants.
By botanizing, of course! I arrived into New Orleans yesterday after 18 hours of traveling. So today, together with my colleague Dr. Herve Sauquet from Paris-Sud University, we went two hours north of New Orleans to Lake Martin. There we marveled at the botanical wonders -- bald cypress trees growing out of the water, floating ferns, and an abundance of lotus. It was more than enough to keep us awake and enthralled. Click on the photos to bring up a slide show or hover over them to see the captions...
Cycads are very familiar plants, even though you may not realize it! They are commonly grown garden and landscaping plants. On the right are some cycads under a fig in a recently landscaped area in Woolloomooloo, close to the RBG Sydney.
Today there are 300 or so species of cycads, but they have the highest extinction risk of all plants according to the IUCN Red List. That is very alarming!
Here are a couple of news stories about the dwindling numbers of cycads :
Another reason cycads are so fascinating is that they existed alongside the dinosaurs, so they are called "living fossils". But, my research has revealed that almost all living species arose relatively recently, that is in the last 12 million years. That's 53 million years after the dinosaurs died out.
(It's worth noting though that there were cycads during dinosaur times, it’s just that they are the ancestors to today's species.)
The next question for me is "how do we protect cycads from extinction"? Well, a headline in The Australian newspaper described me as a "Myth-buster out to save ancient treasures"! In fact, the next step is to study cycad conservation genetics (more on that in a later post). While away on the Churchill Fellowship, I will be collecting cycad specimens for genetic analysis, and meeting with fellow scientists who are doing this type of work for Caribbean and central American cycads.
The Churchill Trust was established in 1965 to honour the memory of Sir Winston Churchill by awarding overseas research Fellowships known as 'Churchill Fellowships'. Churchill Fellowships are awarded in a huge variety of fields, if you browse through the list of fellows you will get an idea of how diverse the topics are!
The Churchill Fellowships allow you to design your own research project, travel the world and further your knowledge in your chosen field, before returning to make a real contribution to Australian society.
The Churchill Fellowship that I was awarded is sponsored by the Australian Biological Resources Study with the goal of undertaking overseas taxonomic research on Australian flora or fauna. My fellowship focuses on cycads, and in particular I will be studying the Genomics and biodiversity of the endangered cycads of Australia and Asia.
In 2012, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship sponsored by the Australian Biological Resources Study.