Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back from the field

Well, I just got back from my reconaissance mission down along the South Shore. Lots of memorable moments: Baccaro in the fog, Louis and his ATV ride down to the lake, Hermand's incredible spaghetti, listening to Richard Dawkins on CBC in the car on a dark and stormy night...

I can't believe I'm being paid to do this. I just wish I had a camera to record some of it. I mean, really, how many people are lucky enough to get paid to camp and hike through Nova Scotia?

Ironically, I was travelling around to some of my study sites when this story came on CBC--it's a feature on how harvesting peat from Ontario and Newfoundland could replace coal burning for power.

From Peat Resources Ltd's website:

In Europe, former harvested peat bogs have been converted to agricultural
uses, returned to their original state or reforested, providing a sustainable
carbon sink. In Sweden and Finland, former acidic peat bogs have been converted
to more productive wetlands with a diverse variety of flora and fauna.

CBC made the point too that local sources of peat could provide local jobs and a resulting boost to economies in impoverished rural and northern communities. And certainly, most people I've spoken with believe bogs to be wasted land.


There is value, I think, to peatlands. For one thing, there are studies suggesting that peatlands can act as isolated, protected habitat islands on a broader changing landscape--for instance, forestry companies are unlikely to bother with the stunted trees.

As a result of this, these peatlands are incredible reservoirs of history. I've seen records of peat cores that contained 8000 years of habitat information. Pollen, an important indicator of climate, is also contained in them.

Finally, the assemblages of flora and fauna in these areas are so unique. The pH can push 3.50 (about the same acidity as orange juice), there are carnivorous plants, and the trees are so stunted that they can be 100 years old and only two inches in diameter.

I don't know what to think. But I sure as hell know that there is no way that a 8000 year old bog can be restored to it's original state after all the peat has been taken out.

Monday, May 28, 2007

"An Historical Sketch"

I should first mention that I'm reading through the second edition of the Origin.

Well, here goes the first section:

First impressions:

I had no idea that the subtitle to The Origin of Species is actually "By means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life". I assume here that Darwin means "races" in terms of the natural world, and not humans in particular. But then again, it was a different time...

This very first section deals with the "progress of opinion on The Origin on Species". Here Darwin lists all of the recent scientific literature published about mutability of species--a total of 34 authors who all support this concept.

Surprisingly, it's revealed that Aristotle has figured out the problem of teleology in biological systems.

Aristotle...after remarking that rain does not fall in order to make the corn grow, any more than it falls to spoil the farmer's corn when threshed out of doors, applies the same argument to organisation; and adds..."So what hinders the differents parts [of the body] from having this merely accidental relaion in nature?"

Lamarck is lavishly praised, and while we all know his particular system didn't work out, it is worth noting that he brought attention to the whole evolution issue. There's also an interesting discussion of the evolution of human races by a certain Dr. W. C. Wells. Rather than the usual turn of the century British superior attitude towards other races, human diversity is explored in terms of evolutionary advantages in particular environments:

Of the accidental varieties of man, which would occur among the first few and scattered inhabitants of the middle regions of Africa, some one would be better fitted than the others to bear the diseases of the country. This race would consequently multiply, while the others would decrease...

My favourite line of the whole chapter? "Always, also, it may be well to bear in mind that by the word 'creation' the zoologist means 'a process he knows not what.'".

Ha! Take that creationists!

Creationism runs rampant

God knows I've had my own run-ins with creationism, not the least of which was my upbringing in the Mennonite church. I have very vivid memories of my Sunday school teachers "proving" to me that evolution was impossible by shaking a box full of watch parts. Of course evolution can't be true! Watch parts will never come together by random chance to form a working watch! What the hell does Darwin (and his decades of research) know?

It's bad enough that Answers in Genesis has built a $27 million dollar creation museum. But apparently us Canucks have done the same thing.

Never believe for an instant that Canada doesn't have rabid creationists. It's just that up here in Canada we tend to do things a little more quietly.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sick as a...

So I'm afraid my grand Origin reading plans have been temporarily derailed--I've been sick with a terrible head cold this last week. Which I blame on grad weekend.

Anyway, I'm just grateful it wasn't the mumps. We're at 302 cases and counting out here in Nova Scotia. And while this cold is certainly interfering with most things, I'm still trying to keep up with my reading to get started on my master's.

I've been reading up on environmental change and vector-borne diseases (as in diseases that are spread by things like insects and mites). There's an interesting discussion at Aetiology about why diseases emerge. I'm particularly interested in climate-related changes:

An obvious example of this are diseases borne by arthropods,
which live in a fairly narrow range of temperatures or environments. Global
warming or cooling may extend or decrease the range of such vectors--and as
such, the range of the diseases they transmit. (A recent example is the
recent study described here
suggesting an increase in temperature has
extended the range of mosquitoes in the African highlands, though it should
be noted that other researchers hadn't seen this connection).

When I was working on my honours thesis stuff (deerflies and horseflies and forestry activity), literature on climate and landscape changes in relation to vectors kept popping up. It's worth taking a closer look at this I think...

Friday, May 18, 2007

An introduction of sorts

I've started this whole writing thing for a couple of reasons.

1) My burnout from thesis/editing the science section of my student newspaper is finally fading.

2) I just graduated with a biology degree and I've never read Darwin's Origin. Never. I even took a course in evolution.'s about time. And if I blog as I go, that's even more incentive to finish it. Sweet.

3) It's summer, and I'm working a 9 to 5 kind of job. What do people do on Monday evenings when there's no homework? It boggles the mind.