Sunday, February 25, 2018

Flora of Earth Expeditions

Recently, my Global Field Program cohort got their Earth Expeditions placement for this year. It would have been my last Earth Expeditions with my classmates but I have already completed three of them after last year's trip to Belize. I am definitely going to miss this part of my life - travelling to a foreign place to learn about ecology and pedagogy, meeting amazing people, and experience moments that will inspire you for a very long time, if not forever!

I have observed many new things during my Earth Expeditions travels and there are many things to write about (if I had my journals with me, hah). But for this entry, I thought I could write about the plants that defined each of my Earth Expeditions. I am not a plant guy. However, having a mentor whose knowledge and passion about the natural world is so deep, I suppose the interest in plants (and birds) rubbed off on me.

For my first Earth Expeditions in 2014, I went to Townsville, Australia focused on coral reef ecosystems and how the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority leads the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. I signed up for this course for the masters credits to try things out. The class brought us to different locations and habitats. I am so glad to have seen Eucalyptus trees in its native habitat. What took the cake is seeing Koalas in the wild on the Eucalyptus trees on a leisurely, guided stroll on Magnetic Island. It felt so unreal to see teddy bear-like creatures on trees in real life! Plus, the Koalas were on trees in people's yards! GUYS. KOALAS. IN PEOPLE'S YARDS. SO CUTE.
A tall Eucalyptus tree.
Big Eucalpytus trees in a Eucalyptus forest.

Two years later, I decided to enroll into the Program and embarked on my second Earth Expeditions to Baja California, Mexico. I was pleasantly surprised of how green the desert system in Baja California is. I thought that all deserts are void of life. I am just super disappointed that nobody has come up with the name "Cardon" forest or at least cacti forest to describe the landscape of Baja California. Everything was brand new to me but my favourite plant of Baja California has got to be the Cirio. It is also known as the Boojum tree and its weird growth often became the subject for scary folk-esque stories. My instructor described the Cirio as being a tree with the tortured soul of an evil coloniser. (The desert at night can look very creepy. I felt like there should be some sort of myth or legend concerning the flora of the desert of Baja California.)

They grow very tall!
See. Cardon forest... Maybe Cirio forest?
Creepy... and beautiful.

Last year's Earth Expeditions to Belize introduced me to now my most favouritest symbiotic relationship of ants with Bullhorn Acacia. I know, I know. I loved the seagrass in Belize but the Bullhorn Acacia just has the most interesting story. The swollen "bullhorns" along its branches are actually hollow. On closer inspection, you can see a hole on the underside of the tip of the bullhorn. This hole is used by ants as their nest. The ant colony protects its host Bullhorn Acacia from herbivores and I personally think they are super effective since I got myself bitten TWICE while carrying out an inquiry exercise on how quick their reaction is to responding to a disturbance. My ring finger was swollen for three days and it was the most painful ant bite in my life. (I wonder if our body builds up immunity to ant bites over the years. The ants in Malaysia can deliver painful bites but gosh, the ants in Belize bit like hell!) The colony of ants are attracted and "paid" by the Bullhorn Acacia with supplies of carbohydrates and proteins and lipids. There are glands on the underside at the base of the leaves that produce nectar full of carbohydrates and nodules on the tips of the leaves that are rich in protein and lipids called Beltian bodies.

I sadly only have one picture of this plant. I regret not visually documenting this plant more extensively.
These are just a few of the plant species I am blessed to have come across during my Earth Expeditions. While I may be done with Earth Expeditions, I think I will continue to learn more about plants in the future. There are so many species to be acquainted with locally and I hope my future travels around the world will introduce me to new plants.

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