Ten years ago this week, I went on my first scientific field excursion, and the experience hooked me on biology, and especially on peat mosses. With my new blog starting up, I thought it would be an opportunity to revisit that field trip.
Part I: Biology is about Organisms?!
Many years ago as a biology major, I was taking lots of classes with titles like “Principles of Evolution” and “Cell and Molecular Biology” and “Organismal Diversity.” I learned through mathematical proofs that natural selection actually decreases the amount of diversity in a population, and about the complex interactions of proteins like topoisomerase, necessary for life to continue replicating. In other words, my career as a scientist began by being fascinated by concepts, rather than by organisms. Even for classes like Organismal Diversity, which breezed through all the phyla of life in a single semester, we were a bit detached from organisms in their natural environment, by seeing them on a PowerPoint or by poking them with a stick in lab.
That began to change in the spring of 2005, when I was studying abroad at the Bermuda Biological Station. I was taking classes in oceanography and marine biology, and for the first time in any course, I was actually interacting with the organisms we were studying. We also got some taste of the real day-to-day life of being a scientist: we went on a research cruise to collect micro-organisms in the Sargasso Sea, we swam out to a mangrove forest to sample and test salinity along a transect, and we set up an experiment to see whether amphipods in a horizontal water column would run towards or away from vibrations.
As the semester wound down, I was able to get a job working in the Duke Herbarium. This was my first interaction with Jon Shaw, although I knew some of his grad students– they were the ones always trying to convince us during seminars that moss mattered. The herbarium was beginning to barcode their mosses, starting with Sphagnum of course, and needed someone to enter all of the sample information into their database. There were two of us undergrads helping, and we worked most closely with a recent PhD grad, Jay, who is now working at the Smithsonian. Jay would make the repetitive tasks interesting as we would find a particularly old specimen, or he would open up the packet to show off what the moss looked like.
A couple of weeks into the project, we were meeting in Jon’s office as he explained that one of his grad students, Ping, needed to go on a long field trip to collect samples across the southeastern United States. Jay had been researching localities and associated species and would be the guide, and Jon suggested that we (the undergrads) tag along. My first instinct was to decline; ten June days in the hot, mosquito-infested swamps of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina would dissuade most sane people, most of all lazy undergrads. Still, I agreed and packed my bags full of sunscreen and DEET.
Our first day of field work (following 12 hours of driving the previous day) was in the Appalachicola National Forest, in the panhandle of Florida. The general habitat is pine savannah; specifically, longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustre) with a mostly open canopy down to the grasses and shrubs at the ground level. Pine savannah is one of those habitats that actually requires regular burning to function properly, and longleaf pine seeds actually require fire to be activated.
The first exciting thing about the trip was the chance to see about a dozen carnivorous plant species in a single location! The pitcher plants were the most conspicuous covering a lot of the landscape, and everywhere we stepped it seemed Jay was warning us not to disturb a sundew or a butterwort plant (especially the federally listed Pinguicula ionantha). As we returned to the car, Jay was initially stumped by a white flower on the side of the dirt trail, until he looked down and realized: they were Venus Fly Traps! Of course, Dionaea muscipula is native to a small region of southeastern North Carolina, so it definitely didn’t belong here. I decided that some fan of carnivorous plants saw all the pitchers and sundews and decided they might as well have a “complete set,” and scattered some seeds for good measure.
We didn’t get far on that first day before I found myself driving the van. Jay would be hanging out of the window staring at the side of the road, looking for “known associates” of Sphagnum macrophyllum, one of the species of peatmoss that Ping was after. The peat moss would frequently be growing in waterlogged roadside ditches, which we got perilously close to falling into with Jay driving. Instead, I enabled Jay to be free to study the roadside. I remember being fascinated by his botanical knowledge, and the full picture of the ecosystem that he could distill into a search image. By the end of the trip, even I could tell whether a relatively tiny aquatic plant, obsured by the grasses and shrubs around it, would be at a site just by glancing at the side of the dirt forest road.
That is how we began to nearly triple the number of known localities for two Sphagnum species. In the next part, I’ll introduce those plants that inspired the field trip, and later, my PhD.