24 October 2007

80th post commemorative poll

Originally started as a means for me to share my small collection of orchids with the world through a series of In The Greenhouse posts (remember those, anyone?) this blog has evolved into the garden of earthly delights you see today. Eclectic Epiphytes and Electrophoretic Epigrams has amassed 80 posts since it started two years ago in October of 2005. Can you believe it? I feel it's pretty impressive, given that I'm not the most prolific of bloggers. In the span of those two years I've tried to provide some insight into the things inside my head. In order to celebrate this auspicious occasion, I'd like you to participate in a poll to select the best post from the (E&E)² Herbarium! Yes, folks, your vote counts!

I have selected ten of my personal favourite posts from over the years:

  • the post singing the praises of my favourite molecule
  • the post unconvering the seedy underbelly of orchid shows
  • the post about rare records
  • the post where I revealed personal stuff... kind-of
  • the post listing cool things to do with biotechnology
  • the post about my ultimate fanboy experience
  • the post about the dangers of working in a lab
  • the post explaining the intricacies of collecting first edition books
  • the post with the mystery squid
  • the post about my whirlwind trip to Cape Town

That's the list. Use the links to delve into the archive. Use the polling box in the sidebar to cast your vote. You can only vote once, and the poll closes at the end of November 2007. I hope you've had as much fun reading my inane ramblings as I've had writing them. Here's to the next two years of digital gardening!

20 October 2007

A secret dream of three islands

As the first snow of the season comes drifting down from a sky grey as concrete, my thoughts turn to the inviting islands of the tropics. Scattered between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are some of the most fascinating and mysterious places on the planet. Isolation in time and space has caused the rapid radial evolution of unique and diverse forms of island life, to the benefit of documentary filmmakers the world over. Charismatic presenters with well-funded television crews have brought the volcanic craters of the Galápagos Archipelago with its giant tortoises and the enigmatic orangutans of steamy Borneo into our homes. The existence of the idiosyncratic lakes of Palau was arcane knowledge once, their masses of harmless jellyfish that nourish photosynthetic bacterial gardens by following the path of the sun by day, and descending into the nutrient rich depths at night, being only of interest to science. These days, organized dives at Jellyfish Lake are big business. In the 21st century, we have become complacent. Once an island has featured on a season of Survivor, the mystique is gone. The Philippines, The Azores, The Comoros, Zanzibar, Tasmania, Fiji, Malabo, The Island of Hispaniola, all of these still hold great treasures to discover: if you care to look past the trappings of tourism, past the generic resorts, the casinos and beach parties, this is where you will find Beauty.

The warm haze of a daydream sets off neuronal synapses. Pressure drops. Temperature rises. I find myself on three of my favourite islands. Look.

Madagascar. The world's fourth largest island; its vastness is not to be underestimated. Madagascar is so diverse, so strange, the archetype of curious islands, really. Apart from its bounty of lemurs, chameleons and rare bird species, it is also a centre of endemism of the vegetable kind. Weird vegetables, at that. The Avenue of the Baobabs at sunset is a heart-stopping sight. Smooth glowing trunks standing tall and fat and healthy against the orange sky. Please ignore the rotting stumps of fallen giants, cut down for some counterintuitive, senseless reason. Madagascar is home to seven species of this special tree, six of which are found nowhere else. Waxy white Angraecum orchids festoon its forests and jagged limestone outcrops. The arid south is the location of a unique spiny thicket, pictured here. Baobabs are not the only succulents that give the impression that they were planted upside down. Swollen caudiciform shrubs abound in the Ifaty Spiny Forest, storing moisture during the long wait for monsoon rain. Didiearas thrust their thorny branches into the hot sky, looking like burnt ghosts, inspiring legends, demanding worship. However, the green cathedrals of Madagascar are slowly slipping away from us. These wonderful riches are being destroyed by mining, erosion, through agriculture, deforestation and apathy.

New Caledonia. South of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean lies the French territory of Nouvelle-Calédonie. It is small in comparison to the mighty Madagascar, but is just as bountiful and diverse. And just as threatened. The kagu, a unique blue ground-living bird, has become the icon of New Caledonia nature conservation. At first glance New Caledonia is anything but exceptional among tropical islands. It straddles the Tropic of Capricorn, and like so many South Seas islands receives storms brought by the trade winds. It is surrounded by azure shallows perfect for reef diving with dugongs. It also has some old growth pine forests. Wait - pine forests? Aren't those particular to colder climes? Indeed. But you see: New Caledonia is our last precious example of the magnificent forests that must have covered much of the continent of Antarctica millions of years ago. It's hard to imagine that Antarctica was ever green, but the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana certainly was. As it broke apart and Africa and Australia drifted west and east, New Caledonia was sent out into the South Pacific, carrying its coniferous gift. The gymnosperms of New Caledonia are an exclusive club - all 43 species are endemic, occuring only there - and quite a mixed bunch. There are 18 kinds of Podocarpus, 6 cypress species, a yew and nearly half of the world's araucarias, those Jurassic evergreens sometimes referred to as 'monkey-puzzle' trees. Some of these trees survive in such small numbers and are so sensitive to climate change that their continued survival seems jeopardized. Will we go on losing things we never even knew we had? The French refer to one of the smaller islands in the New Caledonia archipelago as 'l'île la plus proche du paradis', which means 'the closest island to paradise'. Its name is the Isle of Pines.

Socotra. Look at a map of Africa. Scrutinize the area known as the Horn of Africa, that landmass jutting into the Indian Ocean just south of the Arabian Peninsula. See the little island there, as if the tip of the Horn had broken off? You've located Socotra, Yemen's largest island. And bizarre it is, too. Its 40 000 inhabitants speak Socotri, supposedly derived from the language spoken by the Queen of Sheba. It can be classified as a tropical desert, with more than 300 plant species being endemic. Of these, nine whole genera of plants are found there and nowhere else. That's an amazing amount of biodiversity. This is what evolution does when an island is separated from the mainland for 20 million years. Socotra has forests of Boswellia, a small tree that produces the aromatic resin known as frankincense. Similar to the dry forests of Madagascar, the unforgiving climate compels many plants to conserve moisture. Swollen stems sprout from the gritty soil, their contorted branches remaining leafless for much of the year. A lunar forest. One of these caudiciforms is Dendrosicyos socotrana, the only member of the Cucurbitaceae (which includes squash, melons, pumpkins and cucumbers) to have graduated from that lowly life into the grand stature of a tree. It is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Probably the most emblematic of Socotran botanical curiosities is the Dragon's Blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari, pictured here. This is the same genus as the familiar office plant fodder and little green pieces of so-called 'lucky bamboo' sold in florists. It is definitely not a true bamboo (which is a member of the vast family of grasses), and is more closely related to the agaves of the New World. When wounded, the trunk of this remarkable plant weeps a bright red sap, the mythical 'dragon's blood'. Highly prized in the ancient world, it was used as a panacea to cure almost everything, from fever to skin disorders and stomach ailments. The skillful Italian violinmakers of the 18th century used it as a source of dark red varnish for the most exceptional of their instruments. Although protected by CITES, many of Socotra's interesting and useful plants are under threat from overgrazing and human development. Will this distruction be the theme that ties all the places of secret beauty together? When will we realize that it is the Beauty of nature that has always been the secret inspiration behind all of our endeavours, our technology, our poetry?
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
- e.e. cummings

15 October 2007

Nature's inexorable imperative

It encompasses that part of the ocean from 1000 to 4000 meters below the surface. All sunlight is filtered out; temperatures average a cool 4°C. To this day, the bathypelagic zone remains largely unexplored. This makes sense, right? It is virtually uninhabited and therefore not of interest. Most ocean science focuses on the interesting life forms frothing around coral reefs in the shallows, or the phosphorescent, fanged creatures found all the way down in the abyssopelagic and at the very bottom, the hadopelagic zone, where tube worms and blind fish use chemicals spewing from thermal vents for energy, instead of sunlight like the rest of us. This makes sense, right? There's just nothing happening in the bathypelagic. Even though it represents about 90% of the planet's biosphere, it's just boring open ocean, right? A wet desert. Wrong. Quite, quite wrong.

The bathypelagic represents an unusual kind of habitat - one devoid of surfaces. At certain places, where the continental shelf disappears, it has no defined ceiling, and no defined floor. Just miles of water above, with the faint promise of heat and light, and miles of water below, dark as Hades. In this kind of environment, natural selection employs alternative criteria. Evolution is stretched to its limits, sometimes quite literally. In September of 1988, off the coast of Brazil in the Western Atlantic, the French manned submersible Nautile observed something unknown to science. It was clear that it was a squid. But what kind of squid? It was not the famous vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which grows to about 30 cm. This thing was much larger. Not as large as the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, or the giant squid, Arciteuthis rex, which can both fetch 14 m with outstretched tentacles. No, this was something else. Estimated at 7 m in length, this creature was otherworldly, serene, and graceful. A beautiful alien. Four years passed before the crew of the Nautile could obtain decent footage of a similar squid, this time in the Eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa. The picture above is a screen shot from their 1992 footage. I can't help but be reminded of the tripods in The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells.

By 2001, research teams have come across these mysterious squid in the bathypelagic zone eight times. Some of the best footage was captured using ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), such as Alvin. The image at left was captured in May of 2001 by the Tiburon, an ROV operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, north of O'ahu Hawaii in the Central Pacific. (For a video clip of the squid swimming, go here. It is beautiful and bizarre.) Usually, squid have two long tentacles for catching prey, and eight shorter arms arranged around the mouthparts. However, the arms and tentacles of these macabre squid are indistinguishable. The only other known cephalopods with a similar arrangement of ten appendages are the belemnites, creatures that went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. This squid holds its crown of arms perpendicular to its body, with the long filamentous distal portions hanging down from what - for want of a better word - look like elbows. The arms of these animals are by far the longest of any squid in comparison to the length of its body. Although no physical specimens have yet been collected, these mystery squid appear to be the adult forms of the Magnapinna, or bigfin squid, a genus described from immature specimens.

A large predator from the largest environment on Earth, and yet undiscovered for all these years. We dream of other planets, and yet the true wonder is to be found on our own. This is why I study biology. I want to be kept in awe. What other things, exquisite and strange, are lurking in the darkest waters of the ocean?

"Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative." -HG Wells

5 October 2007

Spectres of the swamp

Just in time for Halloween, Eclectic Epiphytes presents a post on swamp ghosts. The inspiration for this post is a fascinating and very well-written article by John Darnton, published in the October 2007 issue of the Smithsonian magazine. Read the full article here.

Papua New Guinea is a true lost world. Virtually unexplored even into the 21st century, its hot lowlands hum with lush jungle and its mountains are covered with moist cloud forest where birds of paradise flit between the shadows. Papua New Guinea is the kind of place that makes any orchid lover's heart beat that much faster. Certain areas are so remote that several new species of orchids can still be collected there on a single field trip. It has the largest concentration of unique species of Dendrobium orchid anywhere in the world, from minute gems that can only be appreciated through a magnifying glass, to reedy giants several metres tall. The people of Papua New Guinea speak over 800 different languages, making it the linguistically most diverse country in the world. Many still live in the tribal way, close to nature and the ancestors. Until recently, shells and dog teeth were legal currency. Until recently, the phrase having a friend for dinner had an entirely different meaning. And until recently, the Agaiambo swamp held a ghostly secret...

On the 23rd of February 1942, in the midst of World War II, an American Boeing B-17 on a bombing mission against the Japanese made a perfect emergency landing in the middle of an ocean of kunai grass swampland. Kunai grass (Imperata cylindrica) bears sharp needles of calcium oxalate crystal on the edges of every leaf blade and is unusual for being flammable even while green. Cut-up and delirious with malaria, the airmen finally arrived at Port Moresby after an arduous thirty-six day trek. However, the remarkable part of the story is not the journey of the airmen, but the plane they left behind in the swamp. Not only was it left behind, but it was remarkably well preserved, even after decades of lying in eight feet of water under boiling tropical skies. It was only rediscovered in 1972 during an RAAF helicopter exercise, thirty years after the crash. Macabre. Christened the Swamp Ghost, several explorers and historians have become so infatuated with the derelict that regular fly-overs and hiking expeditions to the site of the wreck have been organized. There's even a website dedicated to its legacy. One explorer's obsession with the Swamp Ghost finally got the better of him, however. By May of 2006 Alfred Hagen, an aviator from Bucks County Pennsylvania, had paid $100,000 for an export permit from New Guinea's National Museum and Art Gallery and salvaged the plane from its swampy grave of sixty years. Apparently, it would make a great display in some Aeronautical Museum...

There is one other ghost of the swamps that I'd like to share with you. In the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in the Florida Everglades, hidden amongst the bald cypress trees, protected by alligators and CITES legislature, lives a ghost with three names. Sometimes known as Dendrophylax lindenii, sometimes as Polyrrhiza lindenii, or sometimes as Polyradicion lindenii, it is commonly referred to as the ghost orchid. This phantom flower is a rare apparition indeed. It is an epiphyte like most tropical orchids, preferring to grow on other plants rather than skulk about in the shadows. But what distinguishes it from our normal concept of what an orchid looks like is the fact that it does not have any leaves. Whatsoever. The plant consists solely of a network of green roots which have taken over the task of photosynthesis. Glistening white flowers, strangely frog-like in appearance, are produced in late summer to tempt the giant sphinx moth. This is the only insect with a proboscis of sufficient length to get to the bottom of the orchid's nectar-filled spur. This summer, a gigantic specimen of the orchid with a huge mass of tanlged roots was discovered 45 feet up a bald cypress tree in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The orchid is estimated to be about 50 years old. Ghost orchids often manage to produce three or more flowers during a summer flowering season. Since its accidental discovery on the 7th of July (by hikers searching for an owl, no less) this specific plant has produced a record 20 blossoms in two flushes of ten flowers lasting up to four weeks at a time. Such generous beauty makes the plant particulary vulnerable. The ghost orchid is in danger of disappearing altogether, like that WWII plane, due to the covetous intentions of over-zealous collectors. If you've read a book called The Orchid Thief, or seen a movie called Adaptation, then you'll know all about it. Many people have gone down the road to madness after meeting a ghost in the swamp...

Credit to NC Orchid for the beautiful photograph of Polyrrhiza lindenii. Visit his Flickr page for more amazing pictures.