Friday, July 02, 2010

Extramural Contact Course

This week has been the 'contact course' for the extramural paper I am studying this year through Massey- Flora of New Zealand. 'Full on' and intense, but ahhhhhh it has been such a worthwhile week. Suddenly, seeing things in the lab/field, all those 'words' that you read about in the texts just 'come alive'.

And I felt like a little kid again, seeing some 'simple' things that I just never really knew about before, and being surprised by them. Joyful, joyful happy days!

I was a bit anxious when the week started with two microscopes in front of me that I never knew how to use: I worked out it was 35 years since I had last set foot in a biology lab with a microscope! But the lecturers and demonstrators were all very helpful through the whole week, so that hurdle was soon crossed....

So, what exactly did I get excited over, looking down a microscope? First day, it was seeing the little green Chlamydomonas alga swimming around at lightning speed- and even better, the colonies of Pandorina and Scenedesmus algae going slowly enough for me to watch them dancing on the slide! (I found it hard to sleep that night- I had dancing algae swimming in front of my eyes!) We also got to see Chara, and 'seeing is understanding' rang true here: all the things we had been reading about Chara and the transition from certain green algae to land plants suddenly made perfect sense.

Seeing the details on bryophytes was another highlight. By now I was getting the hang of the microscopes..... And on the liverwort Marchantia I could see the gemma cups, the air pores, the ventral scales. Looking at the 'jelly-like' substance that was Porella liverwort it became obvious what is meant by 'no true leaves'. And I could have watched the beauty of the capsule and operculum and peristome teeth on the Funaria moss all morning if I had the time!

When we started looking at ferns, I discovered that I had a 'trilete' spore on my slide. I had read about these often, and now suddenly, there right in front of my eyes was one I had scraped off a fern sorus....

Next came floral formulae. Ever since I began this course, my walks have been 'ruined' as I keep stopping to examine things that I pass. But now, we were being equipped to examine the flower parts in a structured way, that was soon going to help us quickly see some differences between some families of flowering plants. (The young demonstrator for this lab was amazing by the way: how he managed to find so many relevant flowering plants in winter was a real tribute to his dedication.)

Two days in the lab peering down microscopes can tire even the most enthusiastic soul though, and Wednesday we took off for a field trip to look at some forest remnants. And just to give my loyal readers some of the photographs they have come to expect, here are a few...... First photo is taken from one of the terraces as we travel 'downhill' to the Rangitikei River.
And here we are at river level, where we parked to go and explore the Pryce's Rahui Reserve.
In this reserve, we all learned how to use a 'key' to identify various plants. Then we divided up and went into different parts of the forest to examine the type of growth. One of our esteemed class members memorably described his section of the forest as the 'crap forest'. I was glad to find I was in the 'swampy' forest- any excuse to get muddy is fine by me!! There were some large kahikatea and many pukatea with their wet feet buttressed in the swampy ground, and the plot was quite fascinating.

And now another quite irrelevant photographic stop: there were some beautiful fungi in this damp forest.
The 'sad' part about this trip was that all three forest remnants we visited showed evidence of disturbance. After a lunch/discussion stop, we were off to Sutherland Mangahoe Reserve, where we climbed up to find a flat section on a ridge top that had a younger stand of nearly all podocarps- and the question was raised, had a land-slip brought this about? Then we visited McPherson's Reserve where we were faced with the huge destruction to tawa wrought by the 2004 floods. Within a year of the floods, the tawa, young and old, were dying. Some research is showing that the sediment load left behind by the floods is what has caused this- with the trees being suffocated by lack of oxygen. We have a lot of questions to address in Manawatu/ Rangitikei hill country areas about slippage and land use....

Thursday was back to the lab. We did some intense looking at flower types in different families. It was a busy time- but by the end of it- a few pennies had dropped in this brain about what it all meant. Again I was fascinated by some 'simple' things that I had never seen before, eg the globules spilling out of and down the stamen I had on the dissecting scope were pollen grains.... Then in the afternoon we were exposed to divarication - a trait special to some New Zealand plants- and we had to explore what that was and how you might measure it. Lots to think about.

But all too soon, the week of the contact course was coming to an end, and a practical test loomed on Friday morning. There were 60 plants we had to learn with common and Latin names, but specimens of them all had been laid out in the lab all week, which had been so helpful for learning them- so much easier than from photographs. Plus we had to able to draw and label and work out various things related to the week's lab/field activity. It seemed like it might be a tough two hours. But in the event, the test was much easier than I had feared. Seeing something loom down the microscope didn't elicit too many 'oh my gosh what is that' panics: mostly the details came back fairly quickly to mind...

And then it was all over, and a few of us moved across to the Massey cafe for lunch and coffee etc. It was great to meet the others studying this paper, quite literally from all over the country- as we had someone from Haast and someone from the Bay of Islands... It was a productive and enjoyable week: full marks go to the Massey staff involved.

But the sun was shining and it was a glorious winter's day. Now it was time to put the camera in the backpack, the iPod in the ears, and head out for a bit of a relaxing walk......


  1. Re the young demonstrator, isn't it great when you find someone very keen and passionate about their area of expertise.

  2. Yes.... it was. All the staff who worked with us were passionate about what they were doing, and also cared about helping us to understand what we were learning. It was a great week.