ecolonaught

Chronicles of a 21st century naturalist.


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The Milford Sound Track

timeline: 4 days (3 nights)

distance traveled: 53.5 kilometers

elevation change: 950 meters

maximum elevation: 1,154 meters

itinerary: car park at Te Anau Downs -> catamaran ride to Glade Warf -> Clinton Hut -> wetland board walk -> Mintaro Hut -> McKinnon Pass -> Dumpling Hut -> Sand Fly Point -> boat to Milford Sound visitor’s center

the crew: Tom Nelson and Sarah Nelson

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Fiordland National Park is located in Southland, on the south west coast of the South Island. It is the largest of the national parks at 12,500m^2. It’s name derives from a number of deep fiords that were carved out by glaciers in past ice ages.

Located in Fiordland National Park, the Milford Sound Track has much to offer. From New Zealand’s largest water fall to snow dusted alpine cairns, there is a reason it is the countries most popular track. My father and sister came down for a 22 day visit and this was the final stop on the itinerary (I wanted to make sure they would sleep well on the plane). In the end we agreed this was the most physically demanding thing any of us had done. We where happy to have gone through it together.

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Overview of the trip. Day 1 is shown in red (5 km). Day 2 is shown in yellow (16.5 km). Day 3 is shown in turquoise (14 km). Day 4 is shown in purple (18 km).

The first day consisted of a short boat ride and a short walk. As the boat approached the beginning of the track on Lake Te Anau we were able to get some great views of the rocky hills shrouded in mist. We were happy to see anything as Fiordland is notorious for it’s rainfall – more than 200 days a year with 6,800 mm annually on average. Once we reached the track it was a short walk  through beech forest to the Clinton Hut. On the way we stopped to check out a bog board walk that had some cool plants. The weather was great – almost no rain.

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The view from the boat on Lake Te Anau as we approached the trail head. Fiordland is overcast 2 out of every 3 days on average. This climate is driven by predominantly south westerly winds blowing up from Antarctica. The ocean air is moist, and as it rises over the mountains it loses density subsequently dropping it’s moisture on the land below.

The second day is decent length with a slight incline, all the while following the Clinton River up its course. The track begins in beech forest, and shifts towards more scrub as you gain elevation. As you head deeper into the valley the rock faces rise high around you, providing some much needed existential perspective and many waterfalls. Mintaro Hut is located at the head of the river, and has a porch overlooking the surrounding mountains peaks. Again we got lucky with only light showers.

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Ferns (pteridophytes) are an ancient group of plants thought to have originated during the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era 360 million years ago. Their vascular tissue set them apart from the plants that came before them, and reproduction through spores and frond leaf architecture set them apart from plants that came after.

The third day was the most arduous. Although short in distance, this is the day you must hike up and over McKinnon Pass. The track starts with a great deal of switch backs, with the vegetation shifting to subalpine with numerous buttercups and daisies. It started snowing as we approached the top, and the snow covered flowers and grass fields provided some unexpectedly beautiful white scenes as we were buffeted by wind. At the top we stopped for a much needed break and some hot coffee. The decent was not any easier – it was steeper as well as wet and slippery. There is a side track that takes you to see Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. Once we made it down the rest of the walk is nice and flat until you reach Dumpling Hut. With some snow and wind on top of the pass and some showers as we descended we had a decent day for tramping.

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A snow dusted cairn near the McKinnon Pass. These ponds occupy amphitheater shaped depressions once occupied by glaciers. The large ice mass sculpted and depressed the hard granite, which now holds the water like a large rock bowl.

The final day is a nice flat hike out to the boat pick up location. The track follows the Arthur River down the valley through more beech forest. The trail cuts through some cool rock passages, has a few bridges, and some real cool boardwalks. Only on the final day did we feel the true power of Fiordland precipitation. With heavy rain starting early in the morning, we were soaked through before tea time. However, the water added greatly to the experience. The valley walls were littered with waterfalls – literally too many to count. I had a hard time seeing them through my glasses, but it was worth it.

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So many waterfalls!

We were happy to get inside and warm up/dry off after the trip. Once in Te Anau we went straight to a cafe, had a big feed, and chugged some beer. After that, spontaneous road trip back to Dunners! Their flight home was the next day. Overall, the trip was a major success – the family bonded over the four days and we all came out super fit. It was also the first time I organized a trip by myself which was a good challenge. We are hoping to do another family expedition in the not too distant future!

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Midwest family getting damp in the NZ bush.

Milford Sound Track is New Zealand’s most popular great walk for a good reason. The scenery, vegetation, and experience are worth the effort and money. It is of moderate difficulty so anyone who has been on a few other tracks should have no problems with this one.

 

 

See you on the trails,

-GTN

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Gillespie Pass Curcuit

timeline: 3 days (2 nights)

distance traveled: 46 kilometers

elevation change: 1,329 meters

maximum elevation: 1,629 meters

itinerary: Blue Pools -> Young River Mouth -> Young Hut -> Gillespie Pass -> Siberia Hut -> Wilkin River confluence -> jet boat to Makarora

the crew: Sonny Falco and Johannes Mosig

 

I went on my fourth New Zealand tramp January 13th-15th in Mount Aspiring National Park. The track is called the Gillespie Pass Circuit which included some beautiful, but challenging, terrain.

mount aspiring national park

Mount Aspiring National Park is in the South central part of the South Island of  New Zealand, in the West Coast Region. The park was the 10th created, established in 1964. It also contains the Matukitui Valley, Routburn, and Rees-Dart tracks.

 

The track begins North of Makarora, heads south along the Makarora River, follows the Young River up into the Young Valley, ascends the ridge and passes through Gillepie pass, descends into the Siberia Valley following the Siberia River, and then heads into the Wilkens Valley. From there you can either hike back into town or catch a boat ride back.

Gillespie Pass Track

The route of the Gillespie Pass Circuit. Day 1 is in red. Day 2 is in purple. Day 3 is in blue. Due to weather contraints we were unable to visit Lake Crucible, and took a jet boat back to town a day early.

 

Day 1 (red): We started at the Blue Pools scenic area, just North of Makarora , where the track is adjacent to sheep/cow farms and has mostly open grasslands with lots of invasive species. Once you get close to the Young Valley entrance the vegetation shifts to silver beech [Nothofagus menziesii] forest. Elevation is slowly gained as you travel to Young Hut. Sun was out all day.

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The legendary Blue Pools. The blue color is created by “glacial flour” in the water. These minute rock particles are created by the grinding action of glaciers against rock, and reflect light while they are suspended in the water.

 

Day 2 (purple): The day begins heading further up the Young Valley. Elevation is more quickly gained here and the vegetation quickly shifts to subalpine with Hebes, small tussocks, daisies, and buttercups abounding. The track takes a steep incline as it heads up the East face of Mount Awful and up to Gillespie Pass. The top is truly alpine with mat plants and lichen throughout. From the Pass there is a great view of the surrounding mountainscape. The descent has a much lower grade and passes through another subalpine zone with more Chinochloa, Dracophyllum, and Aciphylla. The final leg of the long day is walking though an open grass meadow along Siberia River to Siberia Hut. Mostly sunny with some clouds during the early afternoon.

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The view from the pass wasn’t too bad.

 

Day 3 (blue): An easy day from Siberia Hut to the jet boat pick up area begins with more open meadow. Soon though, you are back in the silver beech forest until you reach the Siberia-Makoroa River confluence. We got picked up by a jet boat from there back into town. RAIN.

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A wild weevile [Curculionidae] was spotted. The beetles mouth is located at the end of the snout, which it uses to bore into the seeds, wood, stems, roots, or leaves of plants that it eats.

All in all, the track has awesome mountain views, cool vegetation, and a good cardio workout to offer and I highly recommend it. However, the track can be treacherous especially under poor weather conditions and thus earns the “Experienced Trampers Only” categorization from the Department of Conservation for a reason. Choose a few days with nice weather for this one.

 

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German on the ridge line.

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Norwegian in the natural habitat.

See you on the trails,

-GTN

 


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no range for old men

Wow… it has been a long time since I’ve posted anything. There were some good reasons for this, but I’ll save that discussion for a dedicated post. For now let’s just revel in some beautiful alpine scenery.

On Saturday, December 19th the Botanical Society of Otago had a joint field trip with some other conservation organizations to the Old Man Range in the Central Otago region. The weather was nothing short of spectacular – all sunshine all day. There were many cool plants, insects, geology, and science discussed while we explored the area.

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The caravan during our lunch break. Some people used the down time to feed their plant photography hunger.

Professor Emeritus Sir Alan Mark was along for the trip as our naturalist guide. He provided a number of interesting stories, as he has been conducting field research on the range for many years. The oldest field experiment in New Zealand is an introduced snow bank treatment using a snow bank fence. The fence creates a drift area, so a snow bank is present behind it long after the spring sun has melted the surrounding cover. The snow cover creates different environmental conditions, which result in a different plant community beneath it. This suggests that there are a group a species specially adapted to snow bank creating areas, though the exact environmental factors and associated plant traits that involved in this are unknown as I understand.

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The old man (blue hat) and his snow bank fence. The snow piles up on the right side, changes the environmental conditions there and thus supports a distinct plant community.

Another interesting example of environmental conditions affecting plant community structure was observed at a site where 60 sheep died due to an extreme weather event ~80 years ago. Much of their skeletons are still present at the site, but that is not the only legacy they have left. Soil analyses have demonstrated that soil nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations are higher where the sheep died than in surrounding areas. This is because the nutrients from the sheep leeched into the soil and have since been stored in the soil microbial community or in the plants that have soaked them up. These altered soil conditions have also created a distinct high fertility plant community, with plants that have higher nutrient content  and faster growth rates replacing the typical residents. I didn’t get any cool photos of this one, though I’ll see if I can borrow one.

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Cool alpine plant placeholder picture.

Historic indicators of the last glaciation event are evident in the Old Man Range in the forms of massive deposited boulders, glacially etched chasms, and sculpted topography. But ice still works to shape the landscape. Depicted is a field of hummocks, or little soil mounds, that have formed naturally  through the freeze-thaw cycle. Measurements show that the hill tops, which freeze through during winter, are on average colder than the hollows, which are insulated with snow pack and do not freeze completely. This temperature difference, oscillating through summer and winter conditions, creates a soil wave action effect which drives the shape and movement of the hummocks like waves through water but on a much longer time scale. The hummocks also create microclimate conditions similar to the snowbanks. This seems to drive differences in the hollow vs. hill top plant species present.

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The hummocks, or soil “waves”. Their depth ranges from  around 0.2 – 0.6 m which is enough to create different microclimates within the hollows and hill tops.

We spotted many insects enjoying the summer feast of plants. There were mostly grasshoppers and beetles, but also arachnids like mites and spiders.

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A scarb beetle walking over a mat of moss in an apline bog habitat.

All in all it was a great day to be outside with cool people.

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The famous obelisk. How was it formed?

 

Happy holidays and all the best in the new year. I hope it’s filled with adventure, intrigue, and everything else you are keen on.

-GTN


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brewing up good science

One of the great things about being co-supervised by people at Landcare Research is that I get to engage to top notch scientists, ask them about their research, and sometimes help them in the field!

From May 8th – 10th I was able to lend a hand to Barbara Anderson and her Master’s student Rob with their field work at Mt. Cardrona.

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The view from Mt Cardrona Summit. Fiordlands are seen snowcapped in the distance.

Rob’s research is on soil decomposition. When large organisms like trees and other plants die their organic matter become incorporated in to the soil. In areas with lots of vegetation the plant debris and litter that covers the ground is called the “O Horizon”. After awhile the plant material becomes partly decomposed and mixed with the next layer down, forming a nutrient rich environment called the “A layer”. It is here that most microbes reside and respire.

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Dead plant material gathering on the soil surface, forcing the litter layer. As particles decrease in size they are incorporated into the soil, forming the A horizon.

Understanding the metabolic action of these microbes is important because they are vital to nutrient cycles. They decompose previously living tissue and extract bound carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients to be released into the environment once again so that other organisms may reuse these resources to grow.

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The snowy summit of Cardrona. Field work isn’t all fun and games!

Global soils store 3-4 times the amount of carbon than what is stored in global plant biomass. Therefore, understanding what, and how, factors influence soil nutrient cycling is paramount, especially in light of climate change. Two factors that are likely to have a major influence over soil microbial activity are temperature and humidity.

To elucidate the influence of these factors, Rob will be using the tea index across elevation and aspect gradients. The sites are positioned every 100m from the summit (~2000m) to the paddock (500m) spanning a ridge that has a sunny side and a shaded side. This range of elevation and ridge aspect encompasses a range of environmental conditions constrain microbial activity.

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Rob exhuming the first tea bag from the summit.

But how can we measure the metabolism of microscopic organisms on the top of a mountain? Cue the tea bag index. Microbes digest dead plant material. The rate at which they digest can be estimated by measuring the rate of weight loss in the dead plant material they eat. If we were able to develop a  unit of recoverable plant mass that could sit in ground for long times and have standardized weights, we could use these units to estimate soil decomposition rates across locations. This is what the tea bag index does.

Two flavors of tea are used – green and rooibos. Green tea is made of young leaves and roobios has mature leaves that are more lignified. The two break down at different rates, which allows Rob to estimate both the steep and shallow slope of the mass exponential decay function.

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Science is exciting!

By burying mass produced tea bags in the ground at different locations we can gain information about the factors that influence decomposition rates by comparing weight losses. There’s nothing better than science with a strong cup of tea! I’ll be following up this post with results when they are in.

 


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Takahe Valley

My most recent field expedition was to Takahe Valley; a place with an interesting conservation narrative, beautiful scenery, and a fantastic place to do research.

I went to Takahe Valley March 7th – March 10th with along with two Landcare colleagues and another PhD student. Our purpose was to assist with end of the summer field data collection.

The  crew grabbing lunch.

The crew grabbing lunch.

Those of you well versed in your New Zealand native birds will recognize the name takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri). The species was thought extinct when the last 4 known individuals were captured and killed in 1898. However, Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered a remnant population of the birds in a place isolated from human activities near Lake Te Anu (Takahe Valley) in 1948. Concerted conservation efforts since rediscovery have resulted in relatively successful recovery. The Fiordland National Park was created to ensure them a safe home, and deer control is carried out within the park to reduce competition for food. The wild population estimate as of 2013 is 263.

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A takahe in captivity. Phtoto by New Zealand Department of Conservation (http://blog.doc.govt.nz/2014/12/01/takahe-finds-love-te-anau/)

I wasn’t able to see any of these beautiful birds (locally “blue chickens”), but I was able to see signs of their presence including well traveled tracks, digestive remains, freshly munched tussock grass, and tracks. Hopefully next time I will be able to sneak a peak!

I was able to see some other charismatic birds though including a Kea (Nestor notabilis), NZ rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris), rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris), and tomtit (Petroica macrocephala).

A Kea investigating our campsite, as well as me, to see if it can get an easy feed.

A Kea investigating our campsite, as well as me, to see if it can get an free feed.

The Fiordland foothills are composed of gneiss (metamorphosed from mostly granite and diorite). Apparently this is some of the oldest rock in NZ, originating from the Ordovocian period. The valleys and basins were etched through glacial erosion during the last ice age. Alpine areas have exposed rock or scree substrate, while basins soil is composed of podzolised gley and organic soils. The vegetation in our valley ranged from sub-alpine herbs up on the exposed rock and scree at the valley ridges to wetland species down in the basin. Beech forests and tussock grasses can be seen covering and deferentially partitioning large swaths of the valley.

The basin has a river flowing through it. This area is dominated by wetland vegetation.

The basin has a river flowing through it. This area is dominated by wetland vegetation.

Tussock grass vegetation dominates portions of the basin, as well as some portions of the lower and upper walls, of the valley. Forest dominates most of the midsection.

Tussock grass vegetation dominates portions of the basin, as well as some portions of the lower and upper walls, of the valley. Forest dominates most of the midsection.

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We camped partially up the valley, at the head wall. This area has some tussocks but also some sub-alpine herbs due to the higher elevation and some wetland plants from the the head water flow.

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The head wall ridge. This area has exposed rock and screes, mostly dominated by sub-alpine plants with some small tussocks.

The main purpose of our trip was research. There are transects of tussock grasses here that have been measured for over a decade, investigation the masting events of the tussocks (Chionochloa sp.). Masting is the phenomena of some plants to usually not produce many flowers/seeds most years, but every few years they will all create massive amounts of flowers/seeds. In North America most oak trees (Quercus sp.) display some level of masting.

A feather’s fate; only to drift on the low breeze; never to fly again

Another component of the research is to investigate the interacting influences of anticipated climate change, increasing soil N, and increasing soil C on tussock growth as well as reproduction. Climate change is simulated by putting translucent plastic around the bases of the tussock (creating a mini green house gas effect). Soil N is increased by adding fertilizer. Soil C is increased by sprinkling sugar on the plots. We had to count the number of tillers (stems) on every experimental plant (counts ranged from ~30 to ~800). The cages are to protect the tussocks from takahe, as this is their favorite food.

These are the experimental plots on the red tussock (C. rubra).

These are the experimental plots on the red tussock (C. rubra).

We also collected invertebrate data for each plot to see if the treatments (temperature * N * C) had an influence on invertebrate diversity or community composition.

Me emptying invertebrates from pitfall traps. These traps passively capture insects by trapping them in a cup filled with death liquid.

It was a fantastic trip filled with good company, good weather and goo food. I eagerly await my next expedition into Takahe Valley!

-Greg


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NZ Ecology Society Conference

My birthday was last week, and I had a great time! Although I don’t really have any insightful statements, I do have a lot of ecology to talk about. I celebrated by attending this year’s Ecology Conference at Massey University in Palmerston North. I was able to learn a great deal about New Zealand ecology by sitting in on some great talks as well as speaking with some inspiring scientists. I will be summarizing the highlights here.

I’ve always been fascinated by the trade-offs between sexual and asexual reproduction. Sexuality reaps the benefit of genetic diversity, but is a density dependent interaction (you need to be able to find a mate).  Being able to do a direct comparison is difficult because species usually can’t do both – but some do! Like the NZ snail. It reproduces sexually in a diploid state, but is able to switch to diploid (3 or 4 sets of chromosomes) as subsequently reproduces asexually. Laboratory experiments demonstrated the the asexual snails outperform sexual snails in every fitness metric (growth rate, strength, reproduction time, and reproductive output), but are only found in watersheds that are high in nutrients. This suggests that polyploidy is a competitive advantage if there are enough resources for extra sets of chromosomes but is unable to persist in low nutrient conditions, driving asexual populations locally extinct. Mechanisms related to how this with is made remain, but it is certainly a line of research worth continuing.

One research lab investigated the flammability of different types of plants by putting them in a grill! (with standardized procedures)

Through analysis of a wealth of extraordinarily preserved fossils and amber specimens it has been shown that although New Zealand’s contemporary insect communities are quite disparate, in the past a wealth of invertebrate diversity existed on the islands. These specimens date to before the last ice age, and so it is likely that changing climates and range reductions drove many of them extinct.

In an amazing demonstration of stabilizing selection pressure, it was demonstrated that a serious NZ invasive weed, gorse, has evolved larger seeds outside of its home range. In Europe it is paracitized by a beetle larvae, which feasts upon its seeds when young. It prefers larger seeds because they contain more food, thus when the beetle is present it exerts a pressure for smaller seed size. When the beetle is removed from the equation when gorse is transported to new territory that pressure is removed, seed sizes become larger over a few generations as larger seeds mean greater survivability in general. Neat!

I can’t wait to be presenting my own exciting findings next year!

 


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The program

The reason I ultimately decided to make the trip to New Zealand was the specific research program I applied for. I find this work fascinating, and hope that you will too.

I am enrolled in a 3 year PhD program with Dr. Steve Higgins at the University in Otago and Dr. William Lee with Landcare Research. Steve and my program are housed in the Botany department, although his research focuses on ecological modeling. Bill is an experimental and theoretical ecologist, and Landcare is a national government agency that  works on conservation biology issues.

My research focuses on evolutionary ecology, or using evolutionary theory to explain ecological phenomena. The study of ecology has two questions at its core: (1) why are there so many species? (2) why do species occur where/when they do, and how? Ultimately ecology seeks to gain insights to the underlying mechanisms of patterns we observe in nature. I will implement theory, experiments, and models to address these questions in an evolutionary context.

Although global diversity is great, it is not evenly distributed. Some groups have diversified greatly, while others have remained sparse. Furthermore, some lineages that are poorly diversified in mainland systems are highly so in nearby islands. Such is the case in New Zealand, and the primary question of my research. We hypothesize that groups of plants that colonized earlier geologically will have greater diversification due to radial divergence and niche preemption, or when they arrived they were able to take advantage of many novel habitats and speciate to utilize them. Later arriving species then are forced to fit into these communities, and are unable to diversify into new niches because they are already occupied. Earlier colonizers should also have competitive advantages, which would make them dominant and most abundant in community types.

Genetic data with phylogenetic modeling techniques will be implemented to construct evolutionary trees, as well as estimate colonization time. Experiments will be used to quantify competitive ability within and between lineages. After these data have been collected patterns of diversification will be modeled.

Hopefully you agree with me that understanding the underlying mechanisms speciation are interesting. I’ll provide updates as research progress is made.