end of the field season

It’s been a long summer field season. Plants started flowering late (and they persisted), we aimed to accomplish a lot (and we did), and the weather stymied our fieldwork efforts (we avoided lightning). Nonetheless, it is time to say good-bye to MN and fieldwork and hello to Illinois and labwork. Riley, Erin, and Drake finished up the last of the big projects, backed up the computers, cleaned up the Hjelm house, packed up their cars, and drove to Illinois for the upcoming adventures in our lab at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Riley, Erin, and Drake wrap up field activities in Minnesota (for now).
…and just in time to avoid the snow in the forecast.

Rare and Precious Drill-bits

The seasons have finally begun to shift here at the Garden with the last heat waves of summer breaking onto crisp October shores. Friday morning, I continued my working weighing biomass, adding 88 new samples to the data set. There are still many samples to be weighed but I believe I have now passed the halfway point.

Friday morning’s samples weighed and entered

In the afternoon I returned to counting seeds. Stuart explained that the seeds I was counting were no ordinary seeds, but in fact ones that were very rare and difficult to collect, and that my counts would play a pivotal role in determining whether they were to be preserved or propagated. I felt proud that I was contributing to prairie conservation in such a direct and meaningful way. It was also fascinating to see firsthand the multitude of designs and strategies plants have for seed dispersal!

Hesperostipa spartea seeds (the spiral ends twist at different rates depending on humidity)
Hesperostipa spartea seeds + hand for scale
Looks can be deceiving, there are close to 880
Carex seeds in this small pile!

Un Buro™ Muy Terco

Howdy-Ho Floggerinos!

Today I was challenged to count seeds from a few different species of plants. The intention behind this assignment I believe was to teach me how to utilize the Lab’s SeedBuro™ 801 Count-A-Pak® using a variety of seed types. However, the seed-counter had other plans, absolutely refusing to count in spite of our sweet pleads and gentle coaxing. Without the mechanized aid of the SeedBuro™ I was forced to improvise. First, in classic American fashion, I tried brute force, emptying each pack into a Pyrex dish and counting every seed by hand.  This worked well for the first few packs of 50-60 seeds but I soon found myself overwhelmed as the seeds began to number into the hundreds. For the large seed packets, I decided to deduce a count by dividing the total mass by that of a single seed mass (SSM). I found the SSM by taking 5 random samples of 10 seeds from the packet in question, weighing them, and averaging those masses. I then divided that average by ten which gave me my SSM. Finally, I took the total seed mass and divided it by the SSM which gave me a seed count. This procedure allowed to me to count a 2,390 Carex seed sample in just a few minutes.

Seeds from two different plant families (Poaeceae on the left and Cyperaceae on the right) to be counted
The seed counter adamant that there are no seeds in the tray

After an afternoon of seed counting I returned to work weighing biomass and finally completed weighing the contents of the second Day 4 cardboard box. I have now collected the biomass data from over 420 plants. I am very excited to begin learning how best to process and analyze all this data!

The clear tub is filled with all the newly weighed samples from the box on the right.

Today was a weird day. It was good, though.

On this day, September 24th, 2019, Erin, Drake, and I planned to have a regular field day. The weather was nice and the motivation was present, but somehow things just didn’t go our way. Early in the morning, I went into G3 to find another mouse was trapped trying to get in the seed drier (for context, we found 4 mice in traps yesterday (Monday) and Drake was going to flog about them but forgot). Nonetheless, it was a surprising start to the day.

Then things started going downhill… and no, we didn’t measure P2 today (for those of you who are unaware of the layout of P2, it is arranged on a slight slope. Yay puns). We went to do demography at the Town Hall site, but ended up venturing through dense thicket and corn only to find ourselves in a random person’s yard. They had a dog and it was scary. Only later did we find out that those points were no longer meant to be in the stake file. Rat! Even after avoiding those points entirely, demo at Town Hall was rough. Many of the points were under a pile of lopped juniper; dry awn leaves are deadly, and my hands are still bleeding from digging through desiccated branches.

The thicket we went through at Town Hall to get to… a person’s back yard.
After our adventure at Town Hall, we did demo and seedling refinds at the aptly named East Town Hall site. There, we found 4 new flowering Echinacea (which is actually quite amazing considering we only visited 30 existing plants). We also found a deer skull. AND AN ENTIRE DEER VERTEBRAL COLUMN. My mind essentially imploded when I realized I stepped on what I thought was a rock but turned out to be a spine... Wow. Just wow. 
A deer skull (there was maybe some brain still left in it).
The deer spine… SO cool to see intact.

After lunch, Erin and I finished harvesting heads in P1! All experimental plot harvesting is done now! Hooray! did some measuring… Except the mosquitoes were incredibly bad and I forgot water. After one row, we went back to Hjelm to get some bug spray but thing quickly got complicated. As I emerged from the kitchen of Hjelm after refilling my water, Erin pulled a honey bee out of her hair (she thought it was a Bouteloua fruit). The honey bee decided to be cool and stab her finger with its stinger. Not a great place to be stung if you need fingers to measure and use Visors. Fortunately, the cool, refreshing taste of an ice pack was able to keep Erin going, and we were able to measure more rows in P1 and collect some sideoats seed as a team before the day ended!

Quiet Days with ImageJ

It was a quiet and productive day the Lab save for a few interruptions from our fine arachnid colleagues, who are lately becoming rather bold. This afternoon Lea introduced me to ImageJ, a free and opensource image processing software developed by the NIH. To study how spacing effects reproductive success Lea took photographs of her stunt ranch plots 9 times between April 17 and June 16 2019. These photographs will be analyzed with ImageJ to identify flower species and location within each of the plot and eventually the processed data will be combined to create a large spatial data map. At least that’s the goal, right now we are more in a building expertise phase. Having made little headway this afternoon, I plan to continue tinkering with the software on my own and hopefully have a working analysis macro in a few weeks. Additionally, I continue to add entries to the biomass dataset which I hope will help provide a deeper insight into plants reproductive success.

Open Season (On Native Prairie Plants)

Happy hunting season! We donned our stylish orange vests for a morning assessing demography and surveying plants at our last large prairie remnant. Lately there’s been all kinds of caterpillars out and about, including lots of woolly bears (one of which had no brown saddle at all, foretelling the harshest winter possible—gulp!)

Hopefully this little guy is a lucky charm against woolly bear omens

We found plants 200 and 201 both flowering—just as they were in 1995, when they were first tagged. Though 200 produced only one dud this year, 201 prevailed with three lovely heads—just as it did when it last flowered, in 2016!

Riley demonstrates the appropriate amount of enthusiasm for finding plants older than him

At lunch we enjoyed the rest of Stuart’s cake with ice cream, a lovely treat for a hot afternoon. Stuart may have voyaged back to Chicago, but we continue to enjoy the rewards of his efforts!

Posting this photo before eating dinner was a Bad Idea. Boy am I hungry now.

After finishing up in the remnants Riley and I returned to P1 to continue measuring. We collected grass seeds to broadcast this fall, and helped some common milkweed disperse.

Watching the seeds rise on what seemed like no breeze at all was pretty magical

Sometimes your best isn’t good enough

This morning Priti and I learned how to use the computer to count scanned achenes. I found counting to be a much smoother process than cleaning and, in a couple of hours, had counted over 5,000 achenes. An average Echinacea head produces about 150 achenes. The number of achenes a head produces is a pretty good indicator of what is called “reproductive effort”, the energy expended in the pursuit of reproduction. Sadly, a harsh reality of life is that reproductive effort doesn’t always translate into reproductive success. A much better predictor of fitness is seed set or achene viability, however this is difficult to find without splitting open every single achene. However here at the Echinacea Project they have quite the clever work around, X-Rays! Each sample of achenes are randomized and those fruits that make it through are collected into sheets of 20 samples and doused with low, completely safe levels of white-hot X-radiation. The X-ray images are fed into a computer program which allows researchers (like me!) to see inside and classify them by the fullness of their embryo (Empty, Full, or Partial). This provides a stronger indicator for the fitness of the individual plant. The coming week I am excited to learn more about what affects Echinacea seed set or reproductive success.

Maybe the fittest plants are those who avoid collection


Hello All!

It has been an exciting and busy two weeks here in the Lab. I have been weighing the collected biomass of four species of California wildflowers (Lasthenia californica, Layia platyglossa, Collinsia heterophylla, and Phacelia tanacetifolia) to assess their reproductive fitness. A poster ( completed this past summer by Keyzamar Román found that, at least for Lasthenia, fruit production is highest in heads produced early in the growing season where seed set is highest later in the growing season. I am curious to discover if the biomass follows a similar trend or whether it remains consistent after the plant has reached maturity. I hope to have a complete data set soon and, in that effort, I have since increased my samples per hour weighed from a rookie 15 to a meaty 25.

And Then There Was One

After the excitement of yesterday’s goat herding adventure, Riley and I were happy to return to life and work as normal today, but that didn’t stop us from checking in with our favorite mischief-makers first.

Basil photobombs Riley’s pic with the newly dubbed Cream Cheese

We knocked out a small demo site before tackling harvest in P1 and P8 before lunch. After lunch we trucked out to P2 to harvest more heads. Though Echinacea flowering has concluded, the views from the plot are still gorgeous and bright with other flowers.

You can almost smell fall on the way!
Riley carefully examines a head and determines that it should be harvested before the whole flowering stalk wanders off

After heading back to Town Hall Riley bid me farewell and took off to the Twin Cities for his brother’s wedding. The mathematically-minded may have worked out that Town Hall’s population currently numbers just one person– me! (Unless you count the 72 ghosts in the basement, of course.) That’s a pretty lonely way to live though, so I convinced Baby the goat to come home with me and rematch for the WWE title.

I’m sure no one will notice the bites missing from the couch
Four legs good, two legs [on scooter] better!

Goating through with only two

Today was a new type of day for me and Erin. When we arrived to the farm, we arrived to a ghost town. No other members of Team Echinacea present, Stuart was away, and Dwight and Jean were even out of town. The only other folks present were the goats. It was good to see at least someone was in town.

Unbeknownst to me and Erin, the goats were plotting escape. Last night, an extremely powerful storm swept through Solem Township (and most of Northern Minnesota). When Erin and I looked outside during the storm on Labor Day evening, rain appeared to be coming down in sheets. Needless to say, it was extremely windy. This left multiple escape points for goats to exit the paddock due to large dead trees and branches lowering the fence. Fortunately, Erin made a heroic decision to check if the fences had any debris, and when we saw that they were being dragged down by trees, we sprung into action.

This dead tree was a heavy one that was still partially rooted… Erin and I couldn’t move it off the fence so we had to saw it.

Our plan was simple… Erin distracted the goats with food on one side of the paddock while I went to work making sure dead tree parts were off the fence. However, while we were planning, Baby, tried to escape the fence at the section in the photo above. A while ago, Baby and I got into a bit of a tussle when I tried herding her back into the group by grabbing her and more or less dragging her back into the herd by force. While I was doing that, I tripped… Some observers said that Baby “gave me a full-out suplex” that day (that, of course, is just a rumor). Nonetheless, Erin was able to stop Baby in her tracks while she tried to escape. Erin out-muscled and out-smarted Baby to get her back into the paddock while I set up a temporary fence. Only later did I find out that Erin is the current WWE Champion.

In the end, Erin did a wonderful job distracting goats while I moved and sawed dead trees and branches. It is good to know that all the hours we spent training to herd goats finally paid off, and the two of us were able to do it alone.

The rest of the day, Erin and I went out to Staffenson Prairie Preserve and finished flowering demo, did seedling refinds at Nessman, and did some measuring in P1 (while hearing the goats bleat at us the whole time… we bleated back some, too). In the end, it was a good, productive day, and I look forward to the next few weeks of field work with this ultimate skeleton crew.

Staffenson… It’s a pretty place!