Posts Tagged ‘Biodiversity’

Today I had the privilege of attending a memorial to celebrate the life of Dr.Rex Kenner, curator of the Cowan Vertebrate Museum (now housed in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum), who passed away earlier this year on January 23.  It was held inside the peaceful sanctuary of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver.

I’ve always considered Rex one of my foremost mentors.  When I was doing my undergrad in biology at UBC, he was one of the few scientists I met who really seemed like a “real” biologist.  So many times you meet people who major in biology, but they are only concerned with biology on the small scale – genes, metabolic processes and the like.  Even myself, who majored in genetics.

Rex was the kind of scientist who cared about the big picture – the ecology, the biodiversity and the nature of the species he studied.  Every time I came to the museum to volunteer or dropped by his office to say hello, he’d have an interest tidbit to share about a specimen he was working on or a project he was involved with.

Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered today that Rex’s undergrad and Ph.D work was in the realm of physical chemistry!  More surprises followed, as I learned about his work with the Taiwanese community, his contributions to the many nature groups throughout the Vancouver area, his monthly rounds of bug sampling and bird watching, and the origin of his collection of brightly hued sweaters.

Many speakers rose today to share their memories.  Each one emphasized Rex’s generosity, his contributions to the community, and his passion for the natural world.  I was gratified to see representatives from the Cowan Vertebrate Museum come up on stage to acknowledge and remember his work and his impact on students, staff and researchers.

For myself, Rex taught me an appreciation for biodiversity and a passion for science outreach.  I truly believe that an institute like the Beaty Biodiversity Museum contributes more to our understanding of life and our place on this earth than any of the myriad of minor “breakthroughs” we hear about in the news on a daily basis.  And within these institutions, it’s people like Rex who will inspire people to love science and nature.  I continue to strive to match his example, though I doubt I am half as selfless as he was!

In closing, a few words from the celebration today:

Rex was green before green was cool; didn’t drive a car, didn’t own a home, didn’t need a lot of stuff. He stepped lightly on the earth. We are all better for having known him.

And the parting words:

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

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Woops!  Attentive readers may have  noticed that this post went “live” a little sooner than intended before being quickly nuked by yours truly.  😉

So I had a bit of a stressful week and a bit.   CALAS is harassing me again (hey, they’re finally doing stuff that doesn’t seem to waste member money!!!  lol), but it seems to be under control.   Work has been awesome though – I implemented a neat search feature which allows for dynamic search and display of data tables.

Brain candy for the week:

  1. Search for CALAS Pacific in Google and I’m one of the top hits!  HAHAHAHA.  Thanks to everyone for making that happen!  Keep it up folks – lets direct people to a site that cares about animal welfare more than it cares about self promotion and protectionism.
  2. Nature News reports that although conservation targets were not met, efforts are still making an impact on preserving biodiversity. However, up to one-fifth of vertebrate species are still at risk, particularly the “uglies” like sharks and amphibians.
  3. Some cool research being done to grow human livers in the lab from researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  Waiting for some entrepreneurial PI to start up “Liver Labs” – Your Source for Hepatic Pharmacological Testing.

Some upcoming posts – My thoughts on “Mo-vember”, CO2 as a method of euthanasia, and any neat biodiversity tidbits I come across.

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The platypus is is a much-maligned animal as far as mammals go. This monotreme, endemic to Eastern Australia/Tasmania, has since been mislabeled as a marsupial, inaugurated as a college football trophy, and commandeered as the mascot of a Mac OS X developer tool.

Anatomically, the platypus is a mess. Platypus lay eggs like a bird or reptile but also has hair and lactates like a mammal. But it has no nipples… ?! It is semi-aquatic, with a beaver-like tail to aid in propulsion. And like fish, it can detect electrical currents, which is how it hunts for prey.

And don’t even think of pulling any smart ass jokes (How do you pluralize platypus? Platypi? Platypusses?) – as one of the few venomous mammals, this bad boy can poison you 80 different ways!

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It’s finally here!

The UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum opened it’s doors today, Oct 16, to the public after a series of tantalizing summer previews.

I was there mid-afternoon and wow, there was a lot to see! Volunteers in red shirts were swarming the area, ready and eager to answer questions from the public. I was gratified to see so many people volunteering for the museum but a part of me was bitter – why did it take UBC so long to bring this museum into the public eye?

The entrance to the museum is the same as during the previews: an awe-inspiring, 360 degree walk around the blue whale skeleton to the lower levels. Once there, rows upon rows of carefully sealed cabinets held the vertebrate, avian, fish, fungi, plant, bug and fossil collections. Each cabinet was labeled with beautiful photographs of the contents, a far cry from the sticker-and-marker approach taken when the specimens were housed in the old Biology building!

And most importantly – the displays!

Many of the specimens that UBC owns were donated from private collections amassed in the 1800s and early 1900s, when it was more popular to have mounted stuffed animals on display. Included in this group are numerous antlered species and a beautiful penguin specimen! More recent specimens are thanks to the diligence of volunteers (like myself in days gone by!) who painstakingly turn dead animals (often road kill or birds who have crashed into glass buildings) into carefully dried and preserved specimens which can be used for teaching, display and research.

Now, interspersed between the cabinets, these specimens are proudly on display. Mounted birds, jars of fish, carefully pressed plants and even fossils, embedded into the floor – all this, and more!

Many activities were running during opening day, including cake cutting, a presentation from Dr. Wayne Maddison, and a scavenger hunt that earned participants a pin to take home.

For myself, my favourite activity was the craft station, where participants were asked to write a message on a maple leaf shaped piece of construction paper. The messages would adorn a wall in the far end of the museum. I dedicated my leaf to the late Dr. Rex Kenner, who worked tirelessly in the museum, maintaining the collections year after year, with UBC cutting the budget, limiting work hours, and generally being the pain in the ass bureaucracy that it is. My leaf read: “For Rex Kenner – It’s finally open!”.

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The first census of marine life was recently completed.

It’s a long read at 68 pages, but the images are breathtakingly beautiful and, at least to me, somewhat poignant. This stuff won’t be around forever.

Take a look here.

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I squealed like a 10 year old girl today when I found out the news 🙂 The Beaty Biodiversity Museum, located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC, is scheduled to officially open October 16. Finally! They’ve had series of tantalizing “previews” throughout the summer, but this is finally the real thing!

The website suggests that the “treasure trove” of specimens will be available for the public to view on the 16th and 17th. I desperately hope this is true – these gems have been locked away in a dusty wing of the Biology building for far too long! I was disappointed earlier in the summer when I attended the preview and only saw a handful of specimens on display so I’m really crossing my fingers on this!

Hours are 11am to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Mondays and Tuesdays are reserved for research.

Passes are $12 for an adult or $35 for a family. Free for current UBC staff and students!
If you’re a UBC alumni, bring a friend and admission is 2 for 1!

Remember, this is a research and teaching collection – Many of these specimens have been lovingly prepared by volunteers (such as yours truly, back in the day) and over-worked curators (Rex Kenner – I don’t forget you! Your baby is finally open) who make memories from road kill. Be respectful, be ready to learn, and be in awe of the AMAZING diversity of life you will find.

Check out the website! I’ll be there on opening day!

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The oceans often don’t get enough consideration when it comes to sexy environmental efforts. Sure, there’s the dolphins and the whales, et al. but what about the water itself?

The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium reported earlier this month of a hypoxic, or low oxygen, zone the size of New Jersey in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Much of this is due to the addition of nitrogen and phosphorus, delivered by rivers which empty into the ocean after collecting toxic amounts of chemicals from . Nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to rapid algae growth, which may be eaten by predators or may die and settle on the ocean floor. And at this point, it is the bacterial decomposition of algae and predator by-products which depletes dissolved oxygen.

This is bad news for oxygen-sensitive species which includes many types of commercial fish, shrimp and crab. As the oxygen levels decline, many species die off or leave the area in search of better habitats, resulting in a biological dead zone.

It’s not just oxygen depletion that oceans have to worry about – there’s also the incredible influx of carbon dioxide. Carl Zimmer wrote earlier this year on the effects fossil fuel consumption on ocean acidification. It’s even attracted the attention of popular media outlets such as The Economist.

In a nutshell, the oceans have become 30% more acidic since the Industrial Revolution. Scary! For animals with calcified shells, an increase in acidity can be lethal as their shells become more brittle and thin, through the process of dissolution.

Unfortunately, like many of the world’s problems, the best ways to fix the problem is to cut back on consumption and to exercise more restraint in usage. Chemical fertilizers are a big source of nitrogen and phosphate, though they can also come from industrial wastes. And fossil fuels… well. Consider it another (in a long list of) reasons to leave the car at home!

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Saturday was the first of five preview openings for UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. All five events run 10am to 3pm or 4pm and are free to the public and feature activities for the entire family.

One of the first things I noticed was that UBC has finally figured out that it is damn hard to find anything on campus if you’re not a regular student. (Even today, I encountered a very lost Asian man looking for a building whose name started with “L”. Hmm…) From the bus loop, there were maps and numerous signs directing people to the museum.

The museum is located within the Beaty Biodiversity Centre, a multidisciplinary research institution situated between the Aquatic Ecosystems Research Laboratories (AERL) and the Food, Nutrition and Health (FNH) buildings. From the road, the whale skeleton is visible – it is a mammoth 25m long and hangs suspended in a giant glass atrium.

Inside, there was a long line up of amateur photographers, families and science enthusiasts jostling for the best view. The whale is visible from a full 360 degrees, thanks to a cleverly designed descending ramp.

25m long blue whale skeleton hanging in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC

At the bottom of the atrium were displays of selected specimens from the various collections housed in the museum, including mounted and unmounted birds (Wilsonia species, flightless cormorant), small mammals (weasels, chinchillas), skulls from various antlered species, an incredibly well preserved turtle, and some GIANT bugs. While impressive, I was a little disappointed at the relatively few items on display. I hope the finished museum will feature more specimens – I saw no pelts (the Vertebrate collection has a beautiful tiger pelt which was donated privately, for example), and very few plant, fish and invertebrate representatives.

Aside from the displays, visitors also had the opportunity to view a movie detailing the journey of the Blue Whale from the East Coast to UBC. One interesting factoid: The whale skeleton actually broke into over 1000 pieces while in transit. When it arrived at the university, museum staff had to reassemble the broken bones!

Outside on the grounds surrounding the museum, tents were set up with family-friendly activities such as bone assembly games, microscope stations, and arts and crafts. All of the stations were staffed by enthusiastic red-shirted volunteers. It was a welcoming atmosphere, with lots of people wandering around, watching, listening and learning.

The next preview session is May 29th, which is also UBC’s Alumni Weekend. It’s free, it’s hands-on, and it’s science celebrating the diversity of life. I would encourage everyone to check it out!

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Artist's rendition of the whale skeleton

I was super excited to see the arrival of the blue whale skeleton at UBC today. This beauty will be the centerpiece of the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. The museum is housed within the Beaty Biodiversity Centre, which comprises an interdisciplinary group of over 50 scientists with interests in biodiversity research.

The Biodiversity Museum project has been many years in the making. I volunteered at the museum during my undergrad and my supervisor often talked wistfully about the “new museum” that would one day house all of the collections together. At the time, the vertebrate and insect collections were on the 4th floor, the fish collection was in the basement, the plant collection in another wing entirely. And I’m still not entirely sure where the fungus collection was!

As a result, most people were unaware that UBC has an amazing collection of vertebrate specimens, plants, fish, insects… the list goes on! Over 2 million specimens were housed in the dark dingy corridors of the old biology building. Now they have a new home and I really hope people will take the time to see some of the diversity that this planet holds. To make it even more accessible to the public, UBC plans to hold seminars and lectures on biodiversity topics, as well as conducting programs for school-aged children and families.

Natural history museums such as this not only serve as a repository of life, they also serve as valuable teaching and research tools. Many times during my volunteering days, I would encounter grad students taking measurements of samples, or collecting a bit of hair or feather. As an undergrad, I would often borrow specimens for class presentations.

The museum is one of the places where I most strongly feel connected to science. When you work long enough in a lab, you get into this mindset where it seems normal to be working with chemicals and molecules you can’t see, and it’s easy to forget the “big” science. To me, museums are an example of the “big” science. To see the diversity that it holds, and to know that you are a part of that, I think that’s something special. To be able to see species that may no longer walk this Earth… that’s something special too.

So come and check out the Museum! Can’t decide when? May 22 is International Day of Biological Diversity – I’ll be there! According to the website, there will be a welcoming ceremony, museum tours (including opportunities to view the whale!), hands-on activities and a talk from museum director Wayne Maddison.

[Photo by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum website]

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As a family, cichlids are not especially noteworthy. Cichlids are “perch-like” bony fish found all over the world and are most diverse in South America and Africa. Familiar names in the cichlid family include popular aquarium fish such as the angelfish or the discus. Cichlids such as tilapia are also commonly found in the seafood department.

Not so interesting, right?

The Habitat
A more interesting story looks at a subset of the cichlid family, the Lake Malawi cichlids. Lake Malawi is a geologically young lake in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Since it hasn’t been around for millions upon millions of years, it’s an amazing example of species colonization and adaptive radiation.

Whenever a new habitat forms, whether it be a volcanic island (like Hawaii!) or the formation of a lake (like Lake Malawi), it is initially barren of life. This is new real estate! But over time, species from neighbouring habitats will, by chance, colonize it. Plants may get blown in, or an errant current may disperse a school of fish, for example.

The Genetics

Due to variation in our genes, no two individuals are the same. By nature, living things tend to have preferences – some tolerate cold temperatures better, while others need more light, for example. Having preferences can be beneficial, ecologically speaking, because it prevents competition between members of a species for the same habitat. And over a LONG time, these preferences can lead to differential mating. For example, if some members of a species preferred brackish water and spent the majority of their time in brackish water, these members are more likely to mate with each other rather than someone on the other side of the lake. This is probability. And finally, over a long LONG time, genetic differences may accumulate due to this preferential mating. And so you have it – from adaptation to different environmental niches, a colonizing species can radiate into many different species, each one specialized to exploit a certain niche.

The Fish
The Lake Malawi cichlids are an amazing example of this process. Species of Lake Malawi cichlids can be readily divided into groups: an open-water, sand-swelling group and a rock-dwelling group. Within these two general types, hundreds of species – each slightly different from the other – have been defined. Many more are thought to be still be undiscovered!

And, it isn’t over. Estimates have placed the origin of the Lake Malawi cichlid diversification at 10,000 years ago, or less. On a geological scale, this is nothing. Genetically, this means that there is not yet a great deal of difference between different cichlid species. As such, many different cichlid species are still able to hybridize with each other where niches overlap or when placed in a laboratory setting. Aquarists take advantage of this, for example, to breed fish with different colours and patterns.

This pattern of colonization and subsequent radiation is found repeated in many other species and habitats. Check out a few other famous examples in the silverswords of Hawaii or the finches of Galapagos!

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