The Mesocosm

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Jose Angel Calvo Obando by Jana
09/06/2015, 06:04
Filed under: Field Work


One year ago, Jose Angel Calvo Obando died in an accident. The Area de Conservacion Guanacaste lost a dedicated ranger and environmental educator, Pitilla station lost a loyal caretaker and us working there lost a good friend.

Jose was quiet and a good observer, not only of birds and other forest animals but also of people. He thoroughly enjoyed living in the forest and considered the stations his home. He was good with horses and an excellent cook. He could be a lot of fun, too. He supported us in many situations, and field work at Pitilla would have been a lot more difficult without him.

When we go there now something is missing.

Picture credit: N. Marino

Canada and Australia: partners in climate crime by dianesrivastava

Australia and Canada share a lot of good things in common. Both are large countries with a wealth of natural resources, and stunning natural landscapes. Both have government-funded medical care and education for their citizens, and some of the highest standards of living in the world.

Recently, meetings between the prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, and Stephen Harper highlighted that these two countries now also share a shameful track record on reducing carbon emissions. Tony Abbott is reported to be seeking an alliance of Commonwealth centre-right governments, including Australia and Canada, to counter U.S. initiatives on adopting carbon trading. This is not a quibble about how best to reduce carbon emissions, but a fundamental disagreement about the responsibility of nations to reduce global climate change. Under their current governments, Canada and Australia have consistently downplayed their responsibilities. In Canada’s case, this has included withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol, failure to cap emissions from the oil and gas industry and exempting pipelines from key environmental protection laws. In Australia’s case, it has included abandoning a national carbon pricing scheme and axing the Climate Commission – the organization responsible for communicating climate change science to the public.

Australia and Canada both justify their position as reflecting the importance of mining, oil and gas to their economies (Australia: 19% of GDP, Canada: 8%). These extractive industries are major carbon emitters, contributing close to half of Australia’s and about a third of Canada’s carbon emissions – and most of the recent increase in these emissions. In Canada, the 18% increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 is largely driven by expansion of the oil and gas industry. In Australia, emissions by the energy section increased 44% since 1990.

By protecting the non-renewable resource sector, Australia and Canada are sacrificing other national interests. Farming, fishing and forestry also contribute strongly to GDP and employment in both countries. In Australia, agriculture contributes on average 12% of the GDP, but yields are highly dependent on the amount of rain. Rainfall in southern Australia is predicted to drop substantially as a result of climate change (rainfall in northern Australia has proven difficult to accurately predict). Rain is also important in supressing bush fires. No one in Australia needs reminding that bushfires end lives and destroy livelihoods. In early 2009, the combination of a heatwave and two months without rain resulted in a series of bushfires in the state of Victoria that burnt 450,000 ha of land, killed 173 people and 11,500 livestock and completely destroyed five towns, costing 4.4 billion Australian dollars in damage. With 2013 the hottest year on record in the country and May 2014 the hottest autumn on record, this cost is set to increase.

In Canada, forestry revenues are disrupted by outbreaks of pests. The recent mountain pine beetle epidemic in B.C. killed 16 million ha of trees and resulted in massive losses in forest revenue, and has been linked to a series of warm winters. Further climate warming is predicted to allow mountain pine beetle to breach the Rockies and attack pine forests in the rest of Canada. Fisheries are vulnerable to effects of climate change on marine food webs, such as the thinning of calcareous shells and shifts in species composition. For example, less nutritious amphipods from the Atlantic have now invaded warming Arctic waters, which will have far-reaching effects on fish production and marine wildlife. Canada is pegged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to receive the brunt of climate change, and will set global records for temperature increases and intensification of snowstorms.

The effects of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of Australians and Canadians is predicted to be substantial by any measure, including economic, far outweighing the costs of implementing better emissions standards for the non-renewable resource sector. Protecting industries that contribute much more to climate change than to the nation’s economy is simply a false economy. Whereas influential nations like the United States and China have committed to carbon trading, Australia and Canada are peddling backwards. Canadians and Australians should remember that we share one more thing in common: the Earth’s atmosphere. Let’s stop filling it with ever more greenhouse gases.


Diane Srivastava is a professor at the Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia, and is on sabbatical at Monash University, Australia. Melodie McGeoch is an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University.


Ecology in action at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste by dianesrivastava
26/07/2013, 14:45
Filed under: Uncategorized

My trip to Pitilla (Biological Station, Costa Rica) this year started with a high speed chase. I had stayed longer than I planned at the ATBC conference, and when my taxi reached the bus stop, the bus had just left. The woman who ran the little soda next to the bus stop, however, had the driver’s cell phone number, a rendezvous was arranged, and the taxi driver dove back into the taxi and careened through the streets of San Jose to the bus waiting by the side of the highway. Only in Costa Rica!

When I arriDianePhone20122013 450ved at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, six hours later, I found all the park guards and parataxonomists with Bushnell binoculars around their necks, a copy of the Birds of Costa Rica (Spanish edition) in their hands, and a frenzy of excited activity. Everyone was compiling a bird list for the last week, part of a program created by Maria Marta Chavarria and Frank Joyce to train park personnel in bird identification. Spinoff benefits included having park personnel more intimately involved in understanding the biodiversity around them, and providing a skill easily transferable to ecotourism. Another big initiative underway was selling carbon credits, originating from recently purchased land undergoing reforestation. The proceeds of the carbon agreement are to go towards funding the parataxonomists salaries for another five years, a welcome bit of job security.

All is not rosy in the park, though, with a large political storm brewing over the government’s intention to cut down 1000 ha of pristine old growth tropical rainforest on the slopes of Rincon de la Vieja to build a geothermal plant, despite attempts by the ACG to find a less destructive compromise. Relations have deteriorated, to say the least. On the eve of my arrival, the government had impounded the field vehicles used by some of the parataxonomists who work with a well-known tropical biologist.

One of the main reasons for my trip to Pitilla was to sit down with the managers of the Del Oro orange company, who have let us access for the last six years a number of forest fragments embedded in their orange fields. This research has generally shown that forest fragments are not identical to intact forest in functioning and biodiversity, but are similar enough that they are important in maintaining in the landscape.  Del Oro is currently using biological control on part of its lands, in an effort to reduce populations of psyllids that are potential vectors of a devastating bacterial disease, and I was able to tour their large parasitoid rearing facility that produced millions of parasitoid wasps each year.

My other reason for the trip was to take microscope photographs of bromeliad insects to supplement our growing website for bromeliad insect identification. As we look closer and closer at the insects, we are starting to see diversity within diversity; what we thought was one species of orthocladine chironomid is now at least two, possibly three, species, indistinguishable under a hand lens!

Horses, birds and bromeliads – all in a day’s work by dianesrivastava
26/07/2013, 14:41
Filed under: Uncategorized

This blog startsDianePhone20122013 464 and ends on a horse.  The park guard, Ronald, had asked me to accompany him on a ride around the park, and I jumped at the chance. Our first job on horseback was to find the white mare and the mule that had gone AWOL. A few years ago, almost all the horses were stolen in the night, so missing horses are always a concern. But the mare and mule were found, so it was time to settle in the saddle and start birdwatching. Horses turn out to be great for birdwatching, like a seat in the sky, until they start squirming. Of course Ronald merely glanced at the toucans (both species) before fixing his attention on some little brown birds in the shrubs, whereas I was transfixed like a tourist on the flashy big stuff like oropendulas and trogans. I was excited to find some patches of large Vriesea bromeliads, approaching the densities that there once were at Pitilla before the forest shaded them out. We stopped for coffee at another field station, before leaving the road for a trail that closed in around us until it was like a limbo contest to avoid the overhead vines and branches. Soon we were travelling across hills of regenerating secondary forest punctuated by valley of more mature forest with streams, hanging on to the saddle strap as the horses plunged down muddy slopes. By the time we got back to the station, after 8 hours of riding, pretty much every part of my body was sore!

The inspiration of Pati Ortiz by dianesrivastava
26/07/2013, 14:26
Filed under: Field Work, Uncategorized
The bioluminosa left by Pati at Pitilla, one field course

The bioluminosa sticker left by Pati at Pitilla

In the equipment room, at Estación Biológica Pitilla (Costa Rica), there is a sticker on a cabinet that says “bioluminosa” – the artistic signature of Patricia (Pati) Ortiz – with the letters morphing into trees, ferns, wings, insects…everything that Pati loved. Pati died tragically 7 March, 2013, by the San Luis waterfall near Monteverde, when she ran to help a student struck by a falling rock and was herself fatally hit in the head by another rock. I first met Pati in 1997, the first year I started doing research at Pitilla, when my weeks of solitary research in the jungle were interrupted by the arrival a field course of rambunctious Californian undergraduates. Ably sherperding them was Frank Joyce, and his team of TAs drawn from throughout Central and South America, including Pati – from Ecuador. We instantly became friends.

From Frank Joyce.

Pati and son Genero, in 2012 (photo courtesy Frank Joyce).

She was a dynamo of energy, enthusiasm and passion for ecology, as delighted in showing students a mite on an opillionid leg as teaching them the Spanish lyrics to songs on her guitar. Over the years, I learnt a lot about tropical ecology by hanging out with Pati and Frank on the annual visits of the field course to Pitilla, backpacking with them to Peñas Blancas, or visiting them at Monteverde. However, I probably learnt even more about how to be a whole ecologist. The extraordinary thing about Pati was that she managed to integrate ecology with every part of her being, whether it was as a scientific researcher, an educator, a filmmaker or an artist. Pati did a MSc at the University of Costa Rica, and when I visited her there she was eager to show me the video she had just shot of an unusually complex courtship behaviour of her study organism – a fly. That video became a short film that was shown to acclaim at film festivals, and Pati enrolled in a New Zealand program to learn the ins and outs of natural history film making.

It was a few years before I saw her again, amazingly once again at Pitilla where she had rejoined teaching the field course. We had both become mothers then and had almost identically-aged children, but nothing else had changed: Pati was still bursting with delight in life and nature. She was just completing a one hour documentary, telling the story of a river from its source on the slopes of Monteverde to its finale in the mangroves of the Pacific coast. At first she tried to simply narrate it, but then decided that she had to put herself in it, swimming up to her underwater camera to point out a caddisfly on a rock. She also composed music in which she overlaid the sound of the river with her voice singing. It was this same river that she would later die next to, the one that she was so much a part of and was so much a part of her. Everything she was comes together in that tragic moment: the rainforest, the river, the teaching and helping others. Pati Ortiz left far more than a bioluminosa sticker at Pitilla, she left the imprint of her joy in nature in me and a thousand more. Thank you Pati.
Pati talks about her teaching at:
Pati’s “El Rio” water music:

Many Hands Make a Mitey Webpage by gennifermeldrum
11/03/2013, 11:28
Filed under: Uncategorized

I would like to announce the completion of a massive update of the UBC Biodiversity Research Center Mites and Microarthropods Webpage.

The major task of the update was adding 158 new microarthropod species to the database that were identified as part of my Masters research and the research of Youhua Chen and Jiichiro Yoshimoto. This task involved drawing and photographing all of these species in 3 views (dorsal, ventral and side), as well as deciding what menu or grouping of similar looking arthropods they should fit into. The website looks amazing thanks to the drawing and photographing talents of Pamela Matute, Dorota Niewczas and Michael Millar. There are a few of my drawings and photos featured as well.

In addition to adding the new species, a major re-organization took place in which new groups or categories of mites were created and others dissolved. Some of the pages were also re-designed. All the changes sought to make the webpage simpler to update, the mites easier to find, and the categories more taxonomically relevant. With the help of web programming wizard Kelvin Kou we also brought the webpage into the 2010’s by updating the code to CSS format. He incorporated many changes into the code that will allow the page to be viewed on a smart phone and by blind users.

This was a commendable effort to all who helped in process. I think the result is beautiful. The page still heavily reflects Derek Tan’s original design, to whom I am greatly indebted for making a great page to start with and showing me pointers along the way for how to take photos, edit the picture menus in photoshop, and update the codes in dreamweaver. Many thanks to all. I hope you enjoy using the site!Image

-Gennifer Meldrum