Welcome to Beautiful Gavin Lake!

In early July, Tyler, Joanne, Ian, Sally, and I (the Aitken lab crew, a.k.a. the A-Team) were dispatched to the BC interior to liberate some pine and spruce tissue samples from the clutches of an army of berry-picking bear cubs.

The REAL A-Team.

The REAL A-Team.

The sneaky bear cubs defending their strawberry patch.

The sneaky bear cubs defending their strawberry patch.

Our destination was the Gavin Lake Forest Education Society camp (http://gavinlakecamp.wordpress.com/), which, among other things, serves as basecamp for many UBC research teams working in the UBC Alex Fraser Research Forest (AFRF) and an annual group of 4th year Forestry students participating in the education-veiled debauchery known as “Fall Camp” (one recent cohort saunaed so hard the sauna roof caught on fire).

The cut block where the two field trials were planted.

The cut block where the two field trials were planted.

Sampling the lodgepole pine seedlings.

Sampling the lodgepole pine seedlings.

Our elite squad of tissue wrangling researchers made the 8 hour trek north to collect lodegepole pine and interior spruce tissue samples from a field site in the AFRF. The field site was established on a recently harvested cut block in spring 2013, and contains two separate field trials, one of lodgepole pine (2200 seedlings) and one of interior spruce (3100 seedlings).  These two field trials are medium-term (10 – 15 year) validation studies for our current common garden experiment at Totem field on the UBC Vancouver campus that are part of the AdapTree project. Such validation studies allow for an understanding of how translatable our results are from a seedling trial conducted outside of both of the species natural ranges, to more realistic scenarios of reforestation in the BC interior. In other words, it will tell us if coddled seedlings in raised beds, experiencing mild Vancouver weather accurately represent the seedlings out there in the wild trying to make it on their own. In OTHER other words, it will tell our graduate students if they wasted the last 5 years of their life. Just kidding, but only just.

The cut block, now 18 months after being clear cut, was home to three black bear families that passed their time munching on the sea of wild strawberries that have since recolonized the site. They were very considerate creatures, always maintain a healthy I’m-not-going-to-eat-you distance.  We also saw several deer around the site.  This little guy was particularly handsome.

Handsome Jack.

Handsome Jack.

Mama and baby eating all the strawberries.

Mama and baby eating all the strawberries.

Seeing as the designated UBC research cabin had already been commandeered by another crack squad of UBC researchers, we were upgraded to the lakeside Prime Ministorial cabin, which was very nice, as you can see here. During our free time in the evening we took advantage of our gorgeous surroundings by swimming, canoeing, and hiking around the lake. I must admit, aside from the mild inconvenience of having to wake up at 7:00 in the morning, it felt like more of a vacation than work.

Work is so HARD sometimes.

Work is so HARD sometimes.

Our humble lodgings.

Our humble lodgings. Sally shows us how to assemble a ‘Glory Bowl’.


Summertime Sequencing: A Cautionary Tale

It’s the beginning of another beautiful Vancouver summer and in the Aitken lab we all know what that means: the graduate students get to sit on their cushy office-chair thrones while the summer help toils away in the field.  As a member of the indentured portion of the lab I pass along to you, dear reader, a brief account of my tribulations as a summer lab student.

The Iron Fist himself

Who could ever enjoy themselves here? What a Helliwell hole.

The first instance of the cruel and unusual punishment that I’ve been subjected to this summer came on the first two days I was back.  At the command of his eminence Sir Jon “Iron First” Degner, I was banished to the dark reaches of the Gulf Islands.  Oh, woe is me.  I was to squire for Sir Jon on his crusade to conquer Garry oak genetic material in some of the most northerly and isolated populations in the species range.

We travelled to Saltspring and Hornby Island where I was made, against my will, to casually stroll through stunning Garry oak meadows, stopping only all the time to look at the abundant wild flowers and bald eagles or to eat a sandwich.  We made camp in Fillongley Provincial Park, a treacherous place full of picturesque ocean panoramas and driftwood laden beaches, where we dined on fire roasted onions and perogies.   How, you may ask yourself, was I able to endure such demoralizing and arduous conditions?  Life finds a way I suppose.

Last week I was sent outside three times to work in the UBC gulag, aka ‘Totem Field’.  “Please,” I begged Prince Ian “Soulcrusher” MacLachlan, “don’t send me outside on this beautiful summer day!”  My pleas, however, fell on deaf ears.  For hours I worked in perfectly bearable conditions, the radiant summer sun exquisitely balanced by the cool ocean breeze, only getting to pause all the time to watch the Anna’s hummingbirds perching on and darting about the Sitka spruce.

Prince Ian making sure I’m thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.

The fearsome hummingbeast that tormented us while we worked.

The other prisoners and I sampled newly flushed interior spruce foliage like this for two days and it nearly killed every one of us.  The following day we were forced back outside to measure the heights of lodgepole pine seedlings in the same egregiously bearable weather.  I don’t know how I survived, but it may have had something to do with the sushi I had for lunch.

So beware, dear reader, of summer employment in the Aitken lab.  What they flaunt as a position of indoor, air-conditioned  lab work quickly warps to become oppressively delightful outdoor labouring with really lovely people, hummingbirds, and perhaps even the odd sandwich.



A picture is worth a thousand words

We’ve all seen those photos that illustrate local adaptation better than a graph, text or an equation, and as a result get used in talk after talk (think benthic and limnetic sticklebacks, mouse coat colours in different environments, or peppered moths). Our Sitka spruce common garden materials with populations from across the species range has been studied by three PhD students in our lab (Makiko Mimura, Jason Holliday and Joane Elleouet), and we have shown lots of graphs of the dramatic differences in growth, phenology and cold hardiness among populations. However, we decided it was time to take advantage of the need to thin the experiment by setting up individuals for a photo shoot. We cut an average-sized, representative tree from each of nine selected populations that were roughly evenly distributed across the range, set those up against a uniform wall of the Forest Sciences Centre. We enlisted the Faculty of Forestry’s graphic artist and photographer Jamie Meyers to take the photo.

From left to right, ordered by mean annual temperature: Redwood (CA), Columbia river (OR), Vancouver (Southern BC), Ocean Falls (Central BC), Prince Ruppert (Northern BC), Kodiak Island (South-central AK), Icy Bay (South-eastern AK), Rocky Bay (South-central AK), Valdez (South-central AK).

Finally, for fun and for illustration, we had lab members dress as if they were in the home environments for each population. Here is the result:

We wear our clothes, they wear their genes.

We hope these photos will be useful to our group and to others for years to come.

Written by Sally Aitken.


Awakening buddies

Springtime in Vancouver is well established. The sun makes more frequent outbreaks, the fantastic cherryblossom period that made our streets so pink is drawing to an end, shy tender green leaves have appeared on the tip of deciduous bare trees…

What about conifers? Static, boring, would you say?

Look closer when you walk through the forest, conifers are quitting dormancy as well. Buds that protected vegetative meristems are swelling, swelling, and…eventually breaking, pressured by the appearing needle primordia underneath the protective scales…

As I am spending quite much time in a Sitka spruce garden experiment, It appears to me that each bud has a kind of personality on its own. Let me introduce some of them:













… and Happy!

Happy summer of fascinating discoveries to all biologists!