Whitebark pines are majestic trees with a whitish, often wind-curled trunk that grow up high in the Rocky and Sierra Mountains, in the Western US. They’re icons of Yellowstone National Park, where they provide high-calorie seeds for many animals, including grizzly bears that eat the seeds before hibernating. Some whitebark pines manage to live for a thousand years, but many of them are now dying.
At the end of my post about the first part of my Master’s fieldwork, I mentioned that there was a thrilling second part coming soon. In this my second blog post, I can say that it was an adventurous and photogenic experience, if somewhat over-generous in mosquito bites. I only wish there were a third part to my fieldwork, insect-free for once, to round it off nicely.
Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park contains the tallest trees in Canada. It’s a few dusty hours down logging roads from Cowichan Lake on southern Vancouver Island, and that’s probably why not many people go there. It was, apparently, a much more popular destination in the early 90s when the protests that led to its creation were internationally famous; but the intervening years have brought retrenchment and decline to the park’s infrastructure. The trail down to the Carmanah Giant is closed, and the trail upstream is no longer maintained. The park headquarters and a hummingbird research station upstream are both gone, and – most importantly – the road is falling into disrepair.
We were there to collect a second batch of samples for my MSc project on somatic mutation in Sitka spruce. The earlier blog post explains the research – in case you’re interested in an overview — but briefly, somatic mutations are changes to the DNA sequence of individual trees that might help tree species evolve more quickly (or they might not – that’s what we want to find out). Because mutations happen very infrequently, we need to increase our chances of finding some by taking samples from the tops and bottoms of old, large trees. The taller the trees, we think, the more mutations we will find. Although we considered many ways of getting samples from the tops of trees (drone, rifle, slingshot…), climbing them is most efficient and, coincidentally, most fun.
When we left for Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park we were eight people departing from three different cities, and once again we had too much cream cheese. It was quite an expedition. From the CFCG there were Sally Aitken, Jon Degner, and myself. There were also three exceptional arborists and big tree climbers, Matthew Beatty, James Luce, and Ryan Murphy, as well as two photographers/videographers/drone enthusiasts, James Frystak and TJ Watt, who dropped by for a few days each and took amazing footage.
The main difficulty climbing trees this large is getting a rope up into the crown. James Luce calls this process “fishing for tree bass.” He shoots a weight attached to some fishing line over a high-up branch using a giant slingshot, and pulls up larger and larger ropes until there is a solid climbing rope hanging from a solid branch. He then clips into the rope with his harness and mechanical ascenders, and walks up the rope into the canopy. Reaching the top of the rope, he climbs up the limbs to the top like a ladder, attaching himself to trustworthy branches or the trunk as he goes. Once at the top, he collects a few handfuls of needles, drops a tape to the bottom of the tree to measure height, and then either descends or traverses to a nearby tree to sample once more.
Standing in the tops of these trees feels surprisingly solid. The wind makes them sway in big circles, but so slowly that you only notice it when you look at other trees swaying with another rhythm. Because the spruce we climbed were so exceptionally tall, the tops of ordinary trees below look small and far away, and the tops of other large trees are as obvious as church steeples. Throughout the crown the limbs of the trees are draped with mosses and lichens, in thick mats or hanging loosely, which occasionally harbour small plants that would more usually be found on solid ground. Previous research in the Carmanah valley, by Neville Winchester and Richard Ring in the 90s, has also revealed an abundance of canopy anthropods, including roughly 120 new species.
Since we wanted to register some of the trees we measured with the BC Big Tree Registry, we got to choose names for our spruces. The first two we climbed were 77-meter spires in an open clearing: we named them Major Tom and Ground Control, in honour of David Bowie, but also as a reference to our radio protocol. Ground Control referred to Jon and me at the base of the tree, collecting samples, keeping pedestrians clear, helping with measurements, and answering questions from the climbers about sampling techniques. If Matthew or Ryan were in the canopy we usually referred to them as Canopy 1 and Canopy 2, but by radio James was always Major Tom.
The biggest spruce we found will be named the Party Tree, after the centrepiece of Bilbo’s birthday party in the Lord of the Rings. It was also a tree that we had a bit of party in, though, because all of climbed it at once – five of us that day hanging in the canopy. I think everyone would have loved to spend more time in the monumental crown of that 84.4-meter tree. During some spare time in Carmanah we also found the two tallest recorded amabilis firs in BC, at 60 m and 63 m tall. We’ll submit them to the Registry as well, although I’m sure any diligent big tree hunter could find many taller firs in that park.
I had been worried, before visiting Carmanah, that there might not be enough large spruce for my project… and that was a ridiculous worry. Within 30 minutes walking from the trailhead we found more than enough big trees. We were spoiled for choice. We climbed 23 trees averaging 76 meters – that’s more than double the height of the UBC clock tower, and taller than the sequoia featured in the famous National Geographic composite of tree climbers in winter. Jon and I spent our days rushing madly around on the ground processing samples and measuring things while the climbers rushed around equally madly, although vertically. But it was a successful trip, a fun trip, and (as Matthew pointed out) the sort of trip that quickly becomes legendary. I’m very glad to have met such great people, and seen a bit of the magic of canopy research.
Aitken Lab alum Jason Holliday was recently profiled in The Scientist.
“His work was among the very best in the world at that point in time,” says University of California, Davis, forest geneticist David Neale. “It was broad; it was comprehensive; it was carefully done.”
Nice window into how research projects (and their funding) build on each other, too.
Sampling for my Master’s project began in May 2016 when Lea and I drove Bean (our lab truck) out of Vancouver towards Haida Gwaii, with lots of unnecessary gear and too much cream cheese. Our mp3/ipod hookup (which is certainly not considered unnecessary gear) broke 45 minutes into the trip, leaving us with no music except intermittent radio. What followed was an epic 28-hr set of travel conversations, over three days, that I could spend this entire blog post recounting – including a history of each of our entire lives, year-by-year in total detail, since birth. The high point of the trip out was the precipitous mountain scenery between New Hazleton and Prince Rupert; the low point was Lea eating all the M&Ms in the trailmix (REALLY, LEA?).
We arrived at Moresby Camp on Moresby Island, where we camped while we sampled at a nearby clearcut. The campsite sits on the end of a little peninsula into a long inlet from the east coast of Haida Gwaii, at the mouth of a river and surrounded by the highest mountains on the islands. Company consisted of bugs, occasional rain, one massive bear, and a rowdy crack-of-dawn party of birds in the estuary. In the morning, Bill from Taan Forestry took us out to the cutblock (thanks, Bill!). Here Lea won honours with distinction by remembering her bug net. I forgot mine, and regretted it. Over the next five days we searched for 10 or so tall Sitka spruce to sample. We took samples of needles or buds from the top of each tree, as well as samples of the inner bark from the base of each tree. We also counted rings, took pictures, GPSed things, measured tree heights and diameters, sawed stumps, swatted flies, fell off tree trunks, fell onto tree trunks, fell under tree trunks, and generally worked hard.
If you’ve made it two paragraphs into this post without quitting, you’re too committed to quit when I explain my research topic (even if I bore your socks off – not that I will). So, the research: I’m studying somatic mutation, the same kind of mutations that in humans cause cancer. Somatic mutations are mutations (changes to a cell’s DNA sequence) that happen in the body cells of an organism instead of in reproductive cells like the precursors to sperm or pollen. And unlike in humans, somatic mutations can be inherited in trees. Because somatic mutations happen when cells divide, and because trees can be large, we expect there are lots of somatic mutations in trees.
What’s interesting about somatic mutations is… a lot of things. Mutations are the raw material for evolution, so if trees boost up their mutation rates with extra somatic mutations, they could adapt more quickly and more closely to local environmental conditions (temperature, precipitation). This could be important for adaptation to changing climates, too. Similarly, long-lived trees need to evolve defenses against the short-lived insects that eat them. Maybe somatic mutations help trees overcome their own long generation times (which slow down evolution) and keep pace with fast-evolving insects. There are other interesting points, too – somatic mutations have to do with ageing, and the evolution of mating systems, and horticultural varieties (pink grapefruits!), and competition between branches and buds, and selection within individual trees.
No one knows for sure how many somatic mutations there are, in a tree’s lifetime, so I’m going to try to find out. The idea is to sequence samples from the top of the tree and compare them with samples from the bottom of the tree. Differences between the two are somatic mutations. Improvements in sequencing technology mean that these mutations, which happen maybe once in a million or ten million base pairs, should now be possible to detect — we hope. Luckily, for the sake of fun, field technology lags behind sequencing technology, and actually obtaining the samples involves a lot of mucking around in the cutblock with envelopes and a small annoying electric saw.
A few days into sampling we were going a bit crazy. “Smell me,” said Lea, after an overly-long day of tumbling around the cutblock. “I smell good.” I thought that was unlikely, and I refused to comply. But she’d been spending most of her spare time bathing down at the river, because I’d been unmercifully crushing her at board games – and so her options seemed to be either bathing or re-reading Harry Potter while giving me dirty looks. I may be exaggerating the ill-will board games generate, but I’m sure she smelled much better than me. Anyway, clearly a rest day was needed. Our rest day was an all-day hike up Mt. Moresby, which included some good views, some snow, and some interesting plants.
Well, after finding nine suitable trees to sample from (each whimsically named), we took the overnight ferry and drove the long drive back to Prince Rupert. And now (I hope) you’re clamoring for a Part II to complete Part I of this blog post. Well you’ll have to wait. Not because I’m too lazy to finish it (which is probably why Joane divided her post in two parts), but because sampling Part II hasn’t happened yet. But it promises to be lots of fun, too – we’re planning to climb the biggest spruce we can possibly find… I’ll tell you about it sometime.