Sunday, June 27, 2010

Life on the stump.

It's now three years since a large Angophora costata in our garden fell on our roof during a storm. As it fell, its enormous roots lifted from the sodden ground, leaving what appears from the surface to be capacious accommodation for sundry creatures. When I last saw our Red Bellied Black Snake at the end of summer, it appeared to have made its home there, conveniently located adjacent to the frog pond where food abounds.

Now the wood is decaying and the fungi are clearly pleased with what they can digest from it. I just took these images of the residents.

Jelly fungi

This is a jelly fungus, Tremella spp. It feels just as you'd expect: soft and gelatinous. Tremella are parasitic on other fungi and in this case, it's possible it's feeding on the hyphae of the next fungus:

Bracket Fungi

A bracket (or shelf) fungus. I'm unsure of the species, but suspect that the green colouring might be a lichen growing on the fungus itself. Lichen is the result of a mutualistic relationship between an algae and a fungus, so if this is lichen, it's an example of two symbioses: one parasitic, one mutualistic. If anyone reading can identify the fungi and confirm if it's wearing a very fetching lichen jacket, please, let me know!

Busy place, the stump.

And on the sandstone rock next to it, another thriving ecosystem is growing:

Moss & Lichen

Here are moss and what I'm pretty sure are hornworts, which comprise the pale green flattened lobes and horn-like capsules in which the spores are produced. 

Monday, June 21, 2010


I am so happy to let you know that my blog post on the evolution of chloroplasts has come third in the 2010 3 Quarks Daily Prize in Science, judged by Richard Dawkins! I am now the delighted recipient of the Charm Quark. Those of you who are regular readers will know that this is a pretty humble blog in the scheme of things. It's fantastic that 3 Quarks Daily is supporting bloggers like me who don't get huge traffic or coverage out there in the world. It should be an inspiration to everyone who taps away quietly in their garret, wondering if there's anybody out there reading. 

The 3 Quarks Daily people asked me to post my acceptance speech on their site, and this is what I wrote:

I feel utterly charmed!

Thanks so much to the good folk at 3 Quarks Daily, to those who voted for my blog post, and of course to Richard Dawkins. I’ve been a fan of his since I first read “The Selfish Gene” back in the seventies, and knowing that he came to visit my little blog and liked what he read is both boggling and thrilling.
They say that you should write about what you care about, and that’s just what I did in posting on the evolution and genetics of chloroplasts. I’ve come late in life to biology, having spent time on a couple of earlier careers. My childhood growing up on the outskirts of Sydney with weekends pottering in the bush instilled in me a love of Australian flora, and that in turn directed me to horticulture. When I studied it, however, I realised quickly that it wasn’t going to teach me the nuts and bolts of how plants work. For that I needed a science degree and so I returned to Macquarie University. After my first lecture in my first biology unit, I knew I was absolutely in the right place. 
I want to express my deep gratitude to the biology staff at Macquarie, who have been unremittingly encouraging of my passion for science and general geekiness. Without their support I’d never have had the courage to try writing about biology. In particular, thanks to Dr Adam Stow (the Genetics lecturer for whom I prepared the presentation on which the blog post is based, and who is now supervising my internship in his lab), to Associate Professor Brian Atwell (my planty mentor) and to the Head of the Department of Biological Sciences, Professor Lesley Hughes, who always seems to have time for me. And finally, my fellow student and dear friend, Julian May: thanks for the nomination! 
Congratulations to the other finalists and winners. The standard of their work is magnificent, and I feel very proud to be in their company.
And thanks of course to my husband, Martien and my daughter, Maxine. No one could ask for a family more tolerant and supportive of a somewhat obsessive and passionate biogeek. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A change in season.

Exams are nearly over for the semester, and once they're finished I'll find myself in the curious position of being free of them for some time. I'm taking a sabbatical, if that is something an undergraduate is entitled to call her break from the routine of exams and assignments and lectures and pracs. Next semester, I'm only taking one unit in my degree: the final half year of 3rd Year Advanced Biology. That's primarily going to entail an internship (starting on Monday) in the Conservation Genetics Lab with Dr Adam Stow and Ph.D student (and wildlife photographer!) Paul Duckett. I'm assisting with genetic analyses of a species of tree skink. It's a great opportunity to learn more about a field that fascinates me and essential techniques of the trade. My goal is one day to use this knowledge and somehow apply it to plants and their symbionts. Not entirely sure how, yet....

I've also just been appointed to an exciting new job as a part-time research assistant with Dr Chris Lusk, starting late July. Chris is researching juvenile rainforest plants, and later this year we're off to some fabulous locations to do field work, including western Tasmania. That part of the world boasts some of the most ancient and pristine rainforests on the planet. I touched the edge of them a few years ago, on a family holiday to Tassie. It's almost impossible to express just how beautiful Tasmanian wilderness is. So I'll content myself with some photos of that trip.

 The Gordon River, Western Tasmania

Huon Pine rainforest. 

To return to this place with a botanist's eye is a thrilling prospect.

But almost as alluring as all this is the chance of spending more time in the garden. The Forest of Sabine is growing apace, and I'm starting to think about filling in the gaps between the trees and shrubs--and things for planting in any other spots I can find. I've been amassing seeds and once the weather warms up I'll be germinating them in the shade-house.

The seeds so far:
  • Lomandra filiformis, a graceful monocot with thin, strappy leaves with a beautiful bluey-green tinge.
  • Poa labillardierei, Common Tussock Grass.
  • Dianella caerulea, Paroo Lily or Blue Flax-lily. It's a useful clumping monocot with small but spectacular blue and yellow flowers.
  • Anigozanthus flavidus, Kangaroo Paw. This is a bit of a cheat. It's not local, but comes from Western Australia. And it needs lots of sun, so won't work in among all the other plants. But I love it, and who wouldn't? Fabulous flowers, unlike anything else you'll find.
  • Elaeocarpus reticulatus, Blueberry Ash. A small tree with delicate white or pink flowers. We already have one (white flowered, as you can see), but who could resist more?
Elaeocarpus reticulatus.
  • Telopea speciossima, Waratah. We don't actually need any more of these because the Forest of Sabine is brimming with them, but I thought if I could grow a few they'd make nice presents for plant-loving friends. Here's a shot we took of one in nearby bushland.
Telopea speciossima
Finally, I'm going to spend more time blogging about plants and science. Those nice folk at 3 Quarks Daily have inspired me!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

3 Quarks Daily... Semifinals! (And finals!)

I've made it to the next round! Thank you so much to those who voted for my blog entry.

You can see the rest of the semifinalists here. The finalists will be announced in a couple of days, and then Richard Dawkins will judge the first, second and third prizewinners. Fingers crossed!

Edit: 11 June. Well heck. I'm a finalist!!

There are nine of us, the six who were voted by the public from all 80 nominees, plus three wildcards chosen by the judges.

This means that Richard Dawkins is going to be reading my blog post. Is it totally gormless of me to say that's one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me since I started studying science? It is? Okay, won't say it then. (Oh, hi Richard.)

Anyway, I'll calm down now and keep working on my Plant Ecophysiology research report on the effect of sugar-stimulated soil nitrogen depletion on plant growth and soil biota. And I promise, I won't blog on it. For your sake and mine.


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Vote for me! (Please!)

I'm so excited to have been nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize for the best blog post in science writing! (Thanks, J!) The nomination is for my post on the Evolution of Chloroplasts, which was featured in a recent Carnival of Evolution.

But now I need your help. Public voting is open for only four more days. It closes on June 7 at 11:59 PM (NYC time). If I make it to the top 20, then the editors of 3 Quarks Daily will consider whether it should go into the final round, which is judged by... Richard Dawkins! (Be still my beating heart. Richard Dawkins reading my blog? Gosh!)

So please, go here to vote and pass on the word! Thank you.