Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Kitten

There is a new kitten living downstairs, at least temporarily.  His name is Charlie.  His previous owners bought him, and then for some reason shortly thereafter decided they didn't actually want him.  Their solution to this problem, while at a party and likely under the influence, was to decide to kill him with a brick.  Fortunately, one of the people who lives downstairs from me happened to be there, rescued the kitten, and brought him to live here until a better home can be found.  He is only a few weeks old, and is in that adorably energetic stage where he scampers all over the house and pounces on whatever he can find.  If you are looking for a model to exemplify the idea of new life at Easter, Charlie is nearly perfect.

The girl who lives here wants to rename Charlie "Cadbury," because he is chocolate-colored all over: 'white chocolate' socks, 'milk chocolate' body, and 'dark chocolate' tail + ears + nose.  He is amazingly cute, and I have a hard time imagining anyone ever wanting to harm him!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nature, Art, and Screaming Children

This morning, I decided to take a solo adventure downtown to see some museums.  The great thing about Brisbane is that many of their museums and galleries are free, except for special exhibits.  I toured the Queensland Museum, Art Gallery, and Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), with a quick stop in the State Library as well.  All of those buildings are right next to each other, along the South bank of the Brisbane River – an easy walk from my bus stop.  Because it is Easter weekend, several of the museums were offering special programs for kids and families, so it was packed with people and the noise level was rather high.

Walking across the river, to get to the museums

My first stop was at the Queensland Museum.  It is mostly a natural history museum, with a huge collection of taxidermy specimens and fossils, though it also has displays on Aboriginal history and culture.  I really appreciated the conservation focus of many of the exhibits, and how well they made complex ecological concepts accessible to the general public.  There was an entire room about endangered species in Australia, and one about marine conservation.  The other nice thing was that the displays were written for all ages – they didn’t significantly “dumb down” any of the information directed at children, and they also included plenty of interesting and relevant material to keep the adults entertained.  The Easter holiday program at the museum had to do with dinosaurs, so there were digging sites for the kids as well as other activities, and you could watch staff at work excavating actual dinosaur bones from rock.

I next stopped at the Art Gallery, which is similar to other fine art galleries I have visited, though with a focus on Australian artists and history.  It was nice and quiet, since they weren’t offering any special programs for kids.

I really liked this water feature outside the Art Gallery
- It reminded me of dandelions

Finally, I visited the Gallery of Modern Art.  It was one of the coolest modern art galleries I have seen, with a definite focus on making art interactive and accessible to everyone.  They were also having special workshops/events for families (including free ice cream, from a solar powered machine - the colors of the ice cream were designed to look like colors from a sunset watercolor painting by a particular artist).  This was probably the loudest of the three museums, but I really enjoyed it anyway.  There are definitely still art pieces reminiscent of the classic “blobs on a canvas” style, but most of the art is either interactive or designed to make you think.

There was an entire wall covered with these ribbons.  Each of them has a different wish printed on it, everything from world peace to a better night's sleep to wanting a tail.  You could take one, and tie it on your wrist; supposedly when it fell off, your wish would come true.  In return, you had to leave a different wish written on paper, rolled up, and stuck into one of the holes in the wall. 

 A massive table, where you could build cities out of lego-like blocks.

A 3-story slide, in the foyer

 There was a fair amount of art that was intended to make a statement on consumerism, or human interactions with the planet.  This is a walk-in supermarket, about the size of a gas station store, that looks normal - until you figure out that everything on the shelves is empty packaging.

There was a huge arch made out of nested cardboard boxes. 

A massive, ceiling-to-floor display made entirely out of plastic bags. 

Part of a display of "birds nests," all made out of shredded money.  A statement on the economic importance of our ecosystems, perhaps? 

A room, filled to perhaps 6 feet deep with balloons.  There are people in there; it is essentially like a ball pit, only cooler. 

Top view of the lego-city-building table.  Fun for adults & kids alike!

This was a performance by an "iPhone orchestra."  They played song medleys, using 'pianos' and other 'instruments' on their iPhones, broadcasting it through a speaker system.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Easter Bilby, and Other Stories

First, a couple more pictures for your enjoyment!

Me holding one of the baby sea turtles that was in the shipment from Melbourne.  They are absolutely adorable creatures! (Photo: Kent Sargent)

Me and my snorkel buddy, on our open water (off the boat) snorkel at Heron Island. I think I am on the left.  (Photo: Brianna Michaud)

I have been settling in to a more normal life over the past week.  I commute to school every day, which takes about an hour, since I have to ride two different buses.  The key thing about buses in Brisbane is that you have to hail the driver in order for the bus to stop so you can get on; if you forget to signal, the bus will drive right past you.  Despite what you are probably thinking, I did learn this the easy way, though many newcomers do not.  I have only made a couple of errors on the bus system thus far: I got on a bus going the wrong direction, and I also attempted to hail the wrong bus yesterday morning.  Both of these issues were solved fairly quickly and painlessly.

Easter is coming up very soon!  It is a 5-day weekend here, because of both Easter and Anzac day, and is a fairly major holiday, with a lot of people traveling.  Most of my group is taking off - some people are heading to the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, others are renting + driving a camper van (yikes!) with no particular destination.

The Easter Bunny does visit Australia, but there has been a fairly recent movement towards eradicating the Easter Bunny in favor of the Easter Bilby.  The bilby is a native + threatened species, which looks something like a rabbit but is actually a marsupial.  Most mammals in Australia are marsupials; the only eutherians (the category involves placentas) that have arrived on their own are rats and bats.  All other eutherians are introduced species, and in many places, they have wrecked havoc on the ecosystem, outcompeting the native species in their same ecological niche.  Rabbits are one such species: non-native, and incredibly destructive, through overgrazing and creating an abundance of prey (which maintains invasive predator populations at abnormally high levels).  Hence the conservation push towards promoting the bilby rather than the rabbit.  The picture above shows a chocolate bilby, on sale right next to the Cadbury's chocolate eggs in the grocery store.

Two days ago, we had a lecture on the impacts of the most recent series of floods in Queensland (that happened back in January).  The water level in Brisbane when it flooded was 6 or 8, maybe 10 feet high on streets that my bus takes every day to get to campus.  The flood arrived and receded within a period of about a day, and you can still see the debris and watermarks all over the place.  Several years ago, Australian politicians were talking about "drought proofing" Brisbane.  Now, all they can talk about is "flood proofing" the city.  Neither, of course, is actually possible.  The Australian environment has had drought/flood cycles for eons, which are unpredictable both in their timing and their intensity - neither of which lends itself to feasible city 'disaster-proofing' plans.  The other thing to keep in mind is that Australian ecosystems function the way they do, and have as much biodiversity and endemism as they do, because of (not in spite of) these cycles of droughts and floods.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Back in Brisbane

I'm back from my field trip adventures, and have moved into my homestay.  It is in a suburb of Brisbane, in a quiet neighborhood.  There is a lot of wildlife around (mostly birds), and there is a park just down the street with a lovely creek running through it.
The family seems very nice.  My "host mum" lives upstairs (where I am), and her daughter and granddaughter live downstairs.  They have a guinea pig, two cats, and a dog.  All of the animals live outside.  The dog is quite literally the male equivalent of Kaeldra - big yellow lab, young (1 year old), barks, jumps, and is kept outside because he eats/destroys everything.  He particularly enjoys electrical wires and plugs.

Regular classes start on Monday, so I have the weekend to settle in, get oriented, and start working on my Heron Island research report.

Carnarvon Gorge

We just finished our stay at Carnarvon Gorge, which was amazing.  It was an interesting combination of the Grand Canyon, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, with a lot of Eucalypts, and some kangaroos thrown in.  Carnarvon is a national park, and a beautiful one at that.  For the most part, the landscape is what is known as dry sclerophyll – sparse trees (mostly species of Eucalyptus) with leaves designed to withstand a lot of sun, and a grassy understory wherever fire had come through and cleared out a place for the grass to grow.  Carnarvon Gorge is, not surprisingly, a massive gorge, surrounded by huge sandstone cliffs topped with a layer of basalt from a geologically recent volcanic hotspot; the basalt holds the rest of the rock in place.  Down in the low-lying areas of the gorge are streams, and there you see a set of vegetation more reminiscent of a rainforest: huge fern palms, tree ferns, and other plants with big glossy green leaves.  The name Carnarvon is a reference to an English lord, who as far as I’ve heard never had anything to do with his namesake gorge.

We camped in canvas tents (held up by a metal pole in the center), and slept on cots, both of which seemed strange to me, being accustomed to backpacking.  We were actually in a campground just outside of the gorge, since it is a national park and there aren’t camping areas inside.  Our campground was still beautiful however: lots of birds (we saw raptors, kookaburras, cockatoos, and many songbirds) and animals (kangaroos, wallabies, and an echidna that attempted to hide under a tent).

This is the back end of the echidna; it is a monotreme that is more-or-less like a large hedgehog 

Our tents

Kookaburra sitting in a gum tree (Eucalypt).  They are very, very loud at 6 a.m.

The morning after we arrived in the gorge, we went on an all-day hike.  This was our longest day of hiking – 14 kilometers, in 9 hours with plenty of rest stops.  Parts of the gorge seem to be from a lost world.  Ancient plants, like the cycads, have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.  We hiked through secluded side canyons, with streams and small waterfalls, trickling over moss-covered rocks and boulders, with a backdrop of massive sandstone cliffs.  Overhead, the lush canopy of tree ferns, and even king ferns (rare, huge, and wonderful), almost makes you feel as though you have indeed travelled back in time to the Jurassic period. 

Tree ferns 

We took a hike through one narrow side canyon, deep green from the moss underfoot and on the walls, and several degrees cooler than the main canyon.  It had a stream flowing through it, and we had to scramble up and over rocks and logs, and frequently wade through places with knee-deep water.  It looked as though we were on the set for an Indiana Jones movie, and we consequently sang the theme song multiple times.

The entrance to the Indiana Jones adventure

Carnarvon Gorge does not just have natural beauty and ecological significance.  It is also a sacred place to Aboriginal people.  Over thousands of years, Aboriginal tribes have created rock art, held important ceremonies, and buried their dead in this canyon.  The Aboriginals sometimes came from hundreds of miles away to visit Carnarvon, the ecological explanation of which is that the gorge always provided a reliable source of water, even in El Nino years.  We saw several places with rock art.  Most of the art is a stencil technique, made by blowing a fine ochre powder around an object.  Hands are the most commonly depicted art.  Each hand is believed to symbolize a family – father, mother, and three children, each associated with a finger (the father with the thumb, the mother with the index finger, and so on).  The stencils often show a hand with a bent finger or thumb, indicating that the family member associated with that particular digit was absent or dead.

Rock art: mostly hands and boomerangs

The kangaroo family is sorted into types more-or-less based on size.  Kangaroos are the largest members, wallabies are smaller, and still other species are even smaller.  We saw a lot of Eastern Gray Kangaroos and Pretty Face Wallabies in the camp and on the trail.  It has been a good year for the kangaroos, and there are a lot of young animals, including joeys.

Pretty face wallaby.  Note the characteristic white stripe along the cheek.

Eastern grey kangaroo, with joey (you can just see its legs; it is folded into an awkward position in the pouch)

John, our terrestrial ecology professor (in charge of the Carnarvon Gorge field trip) is getting married in the middle of this semester.  I ended up teaching him how to rotary waltz during the rest stops on our bus trip back to Brisbane; he wants to learn how to waltz for the wedding.  Good thing I’ve picked up basic waltz-teaching skills over these past few years!  I’ve taught two of the girls to rotary waltz, as well, and have given mini crash courses in mazurka, cross-step, and West coast swing, and have practiced East coast swing and lindy hop too.

Heron Island, Part 3: April 7-9

Thursday night, our group and the Lewis & Clark group went for a night snorkel in the harbor.  We each had a glowstick rubberbanded to our snorkel (yellow for students, red for instructors), and carried an underwater flashlight.  We swam out in groups of three buddy pairs plus one instructor/tutor.  Myself, Monica, Brianna, Megan, Joseph and Kent were with Ian (the instructor who runs our program).  The water was chilly when I got in; I am one of the few students who doesn’t have a wetsuit (I haven’t been diving, so I wasn’t given one).  I was wearing my rash guard underneath my stinger suit like usual, though, and was plenty warm after we started swimming around for a bit.  The weather was pretty good, and the waves weren’t too huge.  We swam out pretty far – all the way around the shipwreck near the harbor entrance.  Kent spotted an octopus.  It was red, and was maybe the size of a grapefruit.  Ian soon had it swimming around, and it latched onto his torch!  We also saw 12 adult turtles, both greens and loggerheads.  There was also a baby turtle attracted to our flashlights.  So cute!  We saw a lot of sleeping fish of varying sizes, a couple of corals with their polyps out, and a lot of small fish, shrimp, and plankton (again, attracted to our lights).  The water became turbid very quickly, and sometimes it was hard to see even with up to 6 or 7 flashlights shining around.  I was very glad to be out there in a group.  It would be pretty scary to be out in the water alone at night; you could get lost incredibly easily.

On Friday night, we participated in a turtle release.  A group of baby turtles had been incubated in Melbourne, and then shipped back to Heron Island for release into the ocean.  Our group got to go down to the beach with the research station staff, and help place the turtles in the sand and direct them towards the water.  They were very lethargic due to being cold, and seemed confused.  I got permission to pick them up and turn them around when they went the wrong way, and I was personally allowed to pick up the last straggler and wade out into the water with it.  Only one turtle in 1,000 will survive to adulthood, but it was still exciting to watch the baby turtles swim away.

We finished our research projects, and gave presentations on Friday as well.  Based on my group's research, there is no halo effect with regards to meiofauna around coral bommies - rather, the meiofauna distribution seems to be current-based.  My research group (lab component of the halo effect project; 4 people) was nicely surprised with being told we had done an especially fantastic job at our research, and each of us was given a $10 credit towards items in the gift shop!

The boat ride back to Gladstone was MUCH better than the boat ride there.  I took 2 seasickness medication pills, and slept for the entire ride due to the side effect of drowsiness.  The two-hour nap did me a lot of good!

Heron Island, Part 2: April 3-6

It is kind of strange to have lecture at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but every moment on Heron Island is a learning opportunity.  After we got through a few more lectures, we had lunch, and then grabbed snorkel gear and headed out onto the reef.  Our first snorkel trip was into the harbor.  Visibility was bad, and my mask kept filling up with water.  I didn’t see that many animals, but other people apparently saw a lionfish and a few sharks.  We were all wearing these full-body blue stinger suits – they are a tight, thin, stretchy material (which jelly stings can't penetrate), with mittens and stirrups and a hood.  We kind of looked like those people who perform actions for special effects movie people to create CGI characters off of later.  Aka, we looked very dorky, but were safe.

Our second trip was to Shark Bay.  It didn’t live up to its name; I saw no sharks.  The visibility was much better, although my mask still filled up with water, so I had to stop to empty it every few feet.  We saw so many interesting creatures around the coral structures!  My favorite was a HUGE snail – its shell was at least 2 feet long.  Baby Great Pink Sea Snail, perhaps?  Snorkeling was a lot easier than I had thought it would be, but I am still very glad I took 6 months of intensive swim classes before coming here.  I didn’t need the advanced swimming skills so much as the not-panicking skills and the treading water skills.  The wind and the waves made our second snorkel trip a little intense.  I was very glad for the stinger suit, as three different little jellies floated right past me – purple, brown, and clear.  Another group saw a Portuguese Man of War.

We were assigned our research project groups.  I worked on something called the Halo Effect relating to meiofauna, which I will describe in more detail later.

Sunday morning, we rescued 2 baby sea turtles from the birds (seagulls and noddy terns), and put them in the touch tank – they were later transferred to a bucket.  We had to keep them until dusk, or else they would have been immediately been picked off by predators once they entered the water.

 The touch tank is really neat - it has living corals (soft, branching, etc.; no fire coral!), sea cucumbers, a royal blue sea star, a beautiful clam, and many other creatures.

On Monday, the majority of the group left to go SCUBA diving.  The few of us that were left went for a snorkel with Ian, in the hopes of seeing some sharks and rays.  I picked out a new snorkel at the dive shop, which had a much better seal.

Monday evening, my group began our research project by getting in the ocean and tagging + measuring 6 coral bommie sites.  A bommie is basically a lone outcrop of coral (picture a large rock in the ocean, but made out of coral, with other bommies scattered nearby).  We are studying meiofauna distribution around these bommies, to figure out if there is a halo effect of grazing (the hypothesis is that meiofauna closer to the bommie get eaten earlier in the day, so you would see meiofauna concentrations that make concentric rings around the bommie in their distribution).  You can see a halo effect with algae grazing, so it seems as though there would be one with meiofauna as well.  The term "meiofauna" is simply a size category; think of the creatures I studied as plankton that live in the sand.  This research project is an area of study that is new to science.

Tuesday, we started our research in earnest.  Our snorkeling crew of the day was in the water three times, morning, afternoon, and evening.  We decided to make the mid-day sampling period just for observations, and not bringing back more sediment.  (This mid-day observation was eventually scrapped altogether, due to time constraints.)  The sediment sampling is very tedious and takes an incredibly long time.  We had to identify and count meiofauna – small organisms – so my plankton identification skills came in handy.  There were a lot of copepods, nematodes, polychaetes, ostracods, and flatworms.  One sample had over 500 copepods and worms combined!

Preparing to do research

Tuesday afternoon, the entire group went snorkeling with Ian.  We walked out to these pools on the very edge of the reef.  We had to be careful to not get washed over the side of the pool into the ocean, but it wasn't that much of a challenge.  Overall, it was an amazing experience - the best snorkeling of the entire trip.  The light hit the water just right, so the reef and all the fish were brilliantly illuminated, like those National Geographic pictures you see of the Great Barrier Reef.  There were SO many fish!  Damsels, parrotfish, wrasses, you name it.  Schools and schools of them, hanging out in and around the coral.  We saw a couple of boxfish, and a giant lobster, but the highlight was a group of about 20 squid of varying sizes.  They are very graceful in the water, and are amazing to watch.

Note: there were small, blue Portuguese man of wars all over the beaches!  Good thing we had our stinger suits on.

Heron Island, Part 1: April 1-2

We took an overnight chartered bus from Brisbane to Gladstone Harbor, as the first part of our journey to Heron Island.  We stopped twice on the way – once at a rest stop, and once at Maccas for breakfast (I had them make me an Egg McMuffin without the bacon).  The trip was about 7 hours, and I slept for nearly all of that (longer than any night in the hostel!).  I had my own set of 2 seats to myself, which probably helped.  When we got to the harbor at 7 am, the bus driver dropped us + our stuff in the parking lot, and informed us that the ferry didn’t leave until 11 a.m.  This was the first time we had heard that we were supposed to entertain ourselves in a parking lot for four hours.  I ended up taking a walk up to a lookout point with some of the other students, which was nice if hot, and finished “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which had a sad ending.
Our group in the Gladstone Harbor parking lot

I never get seasick.  I have thoroughly enjoyed every ferry or boat trip I have ever taken, no matter how choppy the water or how small the boat.
The ferry to Heron Island proved me wrong.
It was two of the most miserable hours I have ever spent.  Our tickets were the cheapest you could get, which meant that our seating on the ferry was on the bottom deck, inside.  We weren’t supposed to go on deck or up a level.  The winds were particularly brutal on this day, and our two-hour trip across the open ocean was horrible.  The waves smacked the boat around, as if we were on a roller coaster.  People who tried to stand had nearly no hope of keeping their balance, and were lifted into the air and slammed back down again every time the boat hit a big wave.  I was incredibly nauseous, and spent the entire ride thinking that I was going to throw up like some of my fellow travelers (no one from my group).  It was awful.  Even the people who had taken seasickness medication were feeling horrible.

Our destination, however, was worth the suffering.  Heron Island is GORGEOUS!  It is very small, and sits in the middle of a coral reef (with another reef nearby).  There is a UQ research station on one part of the island, and a small resort on the other part.  The ocean is a beautiful pale, pale aqua near the shore, because it is so shallow, and deepens in color the farther out from the island you go.  We took a walk around the island as part of our class on the first day – to look at the sedimentation patterns, and other geological and biological features.  The easiest way to describe it is to picture the island as a series of concentric rings.  The outermost ring is the beach, with particles that are not well mixed (i.e. big rocks close to the water, and sand that gets finer as you go up the beach, or right down by the water).  Basically, it looks like a picture postcard of a tropical island beach.  

The next ring in from the beach consists of Australian-type vegetation – sparse, with big trees that have thin, downward-hanging leaf-like-structures.  Finally, in the center of the island is a dense, moist forest, where it is like walking through a jungle.  The trees have huge leaves, and there are birds everywhere.  One type of bird (the noddy tern) builds nests in those trees out of fallen & decaying leaves + their own excrement to stick the leaves together.
 A Noddy Tern, with the characteristic white marking on its head

We went to the harbor on the island, and saw many sea creatures in the shallows.  Huge rays (cowtail (they are kind of patchy like cows) and eagle), black reef sharks (only one or two), and several turtles.  We weren't allowed to go in the water, because they’ve been having a minor jelly problem, which meant that we needed to wait for our stinger suits to arrive.  We went back to the harbor later, on our night walk.  Saw many of the same types of creatures under red light – but there was this HUGE loggerhead turtle.  Maybe 4 feet across?  It came up to the surface several times while we were standing there, and it was amazing to watch.

We also had a great amount of luck on our night walk, and got to watch a lost baby sea turtle figure out how to climb over the rocks on the beach to get to the ocean.  It had about 30 people cheering it on (because some of the resort folks were having a party nearby).  It struggled, and got turned around or flipped over a few times, but it finally made it.  It was an awe-inspiring experience, and I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment – even though I did nothing but watch and send it good thoughts, and its likelihood of survival in the ocean is unfortunately not very good.

On our second day on the island, we went on a reef walk.  We waded and clambered all the way out to the reef edge, which was very far away!  The water was up to our upper thighs, in places.  We saw a lot of really interesting creatures – a lot of sea cucumbers, royal blue sea stars, a “pincushion” sea star, eels, a shark (which we caught and held momentarily), grazing crabs, sea hares that squirted purple ink, Christmas tree worms (orange, red), fish, many different types of coral…  When we got farther out, we had to walk on top of the dead coral, because it was so densely packed – the coral makes a shelf about a foot high off the sand.  Unfortunately, some parts of the coral were less stable than others.  I fell through the coral in a fragile place, and it scraped me up.  It was like quicksand – everything around it was fragile too, so when I tried to get back up on top, I fell through again and again (about 5 times in total).  The scrapes didn’t hurt overmuch, but I had to put this orange antibacterial substance on it when I got back, because coral scrapes can get infected easily.  We saw jellies – little ones, purple or brown.  This was not comforting at all, and was a reinforcement of the reason why we were not going snorkeling until the arrival of our stinger suits.

After dinner, we dashed for the beach.  We had seen that single baby turtle the previous night, and were hoping for more.  The walk was very nice, though better when we could convince the others to turn their bright white headlamps off (a few people had red lamps, which theoretically don’t bother the turtles as much).  We didn’t see anything for the first part, other than birds, but were rewarded later on.  We spotted 3 individual baby turtles running for the water (actually, kind of running in circles, but they eventually made it to the water).  Then, Jacob, Preston and I ended up walking ahead of the group, and Preston spotted a HUGE turtle climbing up the sand towards the buildings.  We followed her quietly, with Jacob’s red light on.  The rest of the group eventually joined us.  The turtle was about four feet across, and looked very tired.  She started munching on some grass-like substance, and then began digging a hole in the sand with her huge front flippers.  She was presumably about to lay eggs.  We wanted to stay and watch, but she seemed perturbed to have us there, so we continued down the beach.

There’s a resort on the island, with a bunch of small cabin-like buildings.  All of them seem to leave their porch lights on at night, even when there is no one home.  We found a large group of baby turtles that had just hatched, wandering around pitifully on the porches, having been attracted by the light.  We picked them up and took them back to the beach.  They need the walk down the beach to the water, to set their internal compasses, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a nudge in the right direction.  It was awe-inspiring to watch these turtles get turned around the right way, figure out how to clamber down the beach, and rush into the surf.