Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Day 71: Broken into 4

To make up for the short posts of the last couple of days, I am writing 4 parts today.

Part 1: Spiders

My latest assigned task is to run the insect transects left to me by the Godwit crew who left us about a week and a half ago. Before the Godwit crew left, they had been going out each morning to collect insects from these pitfall traps, daily in some places and weekly in others.

Imagine a plastic cup with ethanol about a quarter of the way up. Then imagine digging a hole into the ground so that it perfectly fits this cup, right up to the brim, so the brim is even with the rest of the ground. Then leave the cup there in your imagination. Walk away. Go about whatever the day has in store for you. You can even forget about the cups for the rest of the day, it's ok, because science is still going on. So what is going on? You are going to have to come back to that cup you put in the ground. And when you carefully lift the cup out, there will now be life in it! No, this is not spontaneous generation, which Louis Pasteur disproved with his meat in a flask experiments. So the other explanation, which is obvious and you probably already know, is that life/insects that were walking along, minding their own business, kept walking only to discover that they suddenly fell into a liquid which they cannot escape due to the slippery sides. Some people use a soapy water mixture to break the water tension so the bugs can't escape that way. The Godwit crew used ethanol to preserve the insects that may die between sampling times. So when you sample them, you have to take a spoon and fish out each insect and put it into a different bottle so you can take it back to the lab and identify the insect to order. This is a simplification, it's a bit broader than insects and includes a wide variety of invertebrates, including spiders and snails and flies and ants, but basically small moving things that a Godwit would find tasty. A Godwit, or the more specific species, the Hudsonian Godwit is a football sized shore bird with a long bill and long legs that makes yearly migrations from South America, such as in Argentina, to the arctic, such as Churchill or Alaska. Their population is in a decline, as are many shorebird species, but no one really knows why yet.

So why do they collect these invertebrates? To answer the question of: how much food is available for Godwits and other shorebirds at a given time of the year? This is really important and forms the basis of the Mismatch hypothesis. The mismatch hypothesis has to be explained in three steps. First, normally or in past conditions, the migratory birds go somewhere to breed and time their breeding so that the hatch date of their eggs will be close to, or match, the same day that the invertebrates are at the peak of their abundance. Second, it would be beneficial for the hatch date and the day that food is most available to match up because the chicks born would get a lot of food in the first few days, critical for growth! Third, the hypothesis says that due to climate change and warmer and earlier springs, the invertebrate abundance peak is happening earlier, but that the birds are still migrating at the same time and breeding at the same time so that the hatch day is after the peak invertebrate abundance day, hence a mismatch. If the mismatch continues, the chicks are less likely to get the food they need to grow, and thus be more vulnerable to starvation, predation, sickness, storm events, cold weather, stress, etc. It's not good.

So this is one of my tasks. I have to walk down to the transect near the Met building (meterological building where weather measurements used to be taken back in the army and rocket days), fish the insects out of the cups with a spoon, some alive, some dead, and then take it back to the lab to id them and to measure them. This allows the Godwit researchers to calculate the total biomass at that location, biomass is used as an indicator of how many insects are available for Godwits to eat.

It is not my favorite job. I have so far found 2 frogs, both luckily alive so they were released and allowed to hop away. I have found a female spider with 20 baby spiders dug into her abdomen! They were all alive which made it really stressful trying to count and measure all of them! The spiders creep me out the most. I put a spoon gently and slowly into the bottle to carefully lift a live spider off of the top of the water and it suddenly jumps up and tries to grab the spoon! Of course I drop the spoon. Of course I spill the bottle. Of course the spider starts its frantic skittering to get away. But I recover faster and block it with the ruler, getting a measurement at the same time. Now she can run away as fast as she likes. I got my data.

Part 2: Bannock

Today was quite special today, though. It was a slow science day, mostly playing around with graphs and reading journal articles, so I got to sneak into the kitchen. I made bannock. Bannock is a traditional Scottish dense bread that was brought over with the Europeans. When it was brought over and introduced to the natives, it just took off! It took off so well in the native community that many people misconceive it to be a traditional aboriginal food. The study centre sometimes makes a special dinner for the tourist groups and learning vacations who stay at the centre. During this dinner, they serve arctic char and bannock. I love bannock! It is so delicious. And having not really cooked or baked anything all summer, I was itching to get into the kitchen, and I was itching to learn how to make bannock. Today, I got my wish.

There are so many different recipes to make bannock, each tasting differently from the last, but meeting the same basic principle: dense bread. The recipe that Rob and Rosalind, the chefs at CNSC, use is a Thompson Cree recipe. It is really simple: flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, water, oil, milk. Mix, knead, poke with a fork, let rest, bake, eat. Well, that's how I made this one, with Rob's guidance and flour dusting assistance. There are a lot of varieties on how to cook it. Instead of baking, the dough can be deep-fried and be more of the consistency of a donut (soooo amazingly good!). Or the dough can be wrapped around a stick and roasted over a fire (haven't tried this one yet, but it has become highly recommended). The ingredients can change as well. Instead of oil, blubber and fat from what ever is available can be used. Or raisons can be added. I suppose you can also add whatever spices you want, but I'm not sure it is necessary since the bread is basically just flour, you can eat it with anything, a hearty stew or with butter and honey or jam, or, which I have Krista and Celia to thank for, with cream cheese and pepper. All variations are delicious! I really like bannock. I think I'm going to have to make it when I get home.

Part 3: Skip if you really liked part 2

I gave you the warning to skip this section. I really think you should if thoughts of melted butter on bread and warm campfires are still in your head. Seriously, you will not like this next section. You have been warned.

To those who do not take warnings seriously, this section is about scent. I am not talking about the scent of a flower, or the scent of baked bread, or the scent of perfume. Well, perfume may not be a terrible example if you think of the perfume made from a murdered girl as in Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The story of a murderer. Really, that is the mind set of this section: disgust. Still want to read on?

I returned from baking the bannock back to the lab. As soon as I opened the door, a wall of air hit me, smelling of fermentation. Stepping into the room with a look of disgust openly displayed, I started to distinguish a fruity scent mixed with the fermentation. LeeAnn was there as well and mirrored my face when I complained of the scent. She thought the same, but didn't know what it was. She had left for half an hour or so and came back to the stench in the same way I had. That's when I started sniffing around the lab benches.

I have never really used my nose to locate a specific small location before. We humans are so smell deficient. We are unable to distinguish scents, and can only track them if they are really strong and becomes visual once you get close. Think of a pie. You smell it, you know it's a pie, you walk in the general direct, nose pointed into the wind, and you look until you see a pie. Now think of a rotten fruit, a tiny thing that can be hidden anywhere in this room, and emitting a strong odor. I had such a hard time trying to pinpoint the location of the scent. It is not a sense that I have ever honed, nor needed to hone. And pursuing a stench by following your nose seems to be such an weird thing to do, sniffing avery few feet to catch the direction.

But after a few minutes, I became acclimatized and didn't notice the scent as strongly. I had to leave the room for a bit and come back to try to narrow the space further. Once I got it to a corner of the lab, LeeAnn and I tried our visual cues. Breaking out a flashlight, looking in every box. I thought that perhaps the squirrel had stashed something somewhere, since it's been running through the lab for a couple days. (The squirrel was found dead yesterday in the old gift shop. It had tried to chew through the wall, which probably killed the poor thing. Why didn't you go into our trap? There was cookie in there, waiting for you. Then you would have been released back to the wild!) Then, I thought that someone had tossed something in the corner, since the scent started sometime between 3 and 4:30, and it was suddenly strong! Or maybe a chemical spilled that was causing this weird reaction. Or something like someone putting on hand lotion and walking out - what a terrible scent for hand lotion! We didn't find the source. My hope is that tomorrow it is either gone, or a stronger scent so we can find it more easily. In conclusion, my olfactory senses need work, and I did warn you. No more delicious thoughts in your head.

Part 4: Yoga

I went to yoga in town this evening. It was a class meant to open the hips. There was a lot of forward bending and groin stretching. It was a pretty challenging class tonight. But I am so proud of myself. I have definitely gotten more flexible this summer. I didn't need to use straps for some of the poses today during some of the forward bends, where the hamstrings are stretched out. I could actually wrap my fingers around my toes and touch the flour without props. The next step is to get my head to the floor! For a brief moment of exertion, I decided to push further on the pose where you sit with your legs stretched out in front of you. I managed, for a second or so, to touch my head to my straight knees! I couldn't hold it, but it is definitely proof of having become more flexible.

Yoga normally begins and ends with savasana, corpse pose. You lay on your back with palms up and legs flat and just relax, melting into the floor. Erin, our yoga teacher (teacher is a much better word than instructor, she was doing much more than giving direction to the practice and demoing poses, she was teaching one on one, focusing on each individuals pose and how to improve that person. Erin is an amazing, caring teacher), played a crystal bowl during savasana. The concept is to create a resonance that will amplify the specific frequency of the bowl until the vibrations seem so loud that they are felt inside the body. It is similar to running your finger around the edge of a wine glass to get that deep tone. The physics behind it is all about waves and oscillations. The player adds energy to the system that matches the natural frequency of the bowl, that can lead to the playing of harmonics. It is so perfect when you hear it. The feeling from these bowls is so uplifting after a long yoga session. I was in a state of dazed peace, with such a strong love for everything in the world. Thank you, Erin.

Added tidbit:
I booked my flight back to Waterloo today. I have mixed feelings. Tomorrow means only two weeks left. Last year, I came up here at the start of two weeks and felt like that was such a long time. Right now, two weeks seems like a blink of an eye, so I don't want to blink.

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