We are past the middle of July now, and everyone is well into the routine of intensive data collection. The American undergraduates are working on some interesting personal projects, reminding me of just how painstaking ecology can be.
There is Anna, for example, who is comparing the rates of pollination between plant species in and out of the open-top chambers. She has to collect flowers that have senesced but still have a green stigma, and carefully dab the top of the stigma onto a little spot of melted fuchsin jelly upon a microscope slide – this transfers any pollen stuck to the surface of the stigma into the slide for future counting (to be done back in Philly). It is quite comical to see Anna at work in the office ger, like an alchemist, melting a blob of vivid pink jelly over the flickering light of a big black candle.
Q, meanwhile, is collecting quite a number of seeds from all of the plant species that we find in our experimental plots. This is so that various seed “traits” can be measured to help us answer questions regarding the factors structuring the vegetation communities in the steppe. This requires him to monitor the populations of each species on the upper and lower slopes in order to collect the seeds at the optimum moment – when they are ripened but not yet dehisced (that is, fallen off, or dispersed from the parent plant). Right now, Q is resident seeds expert, and can tell you the exact state of seed development for about forty or so species.
Yet another painstaking undergrad is Audrey who is investigating the grasshopper communities and the effects of their herbivory on the plant communities. During the first stage of her project – getting to know the grasshoppers – the entomologist in her has come to the fore, and she looks a natural with her capturing net, jars of ether soaked cotton wool, and insect pinning equipment.
I will leave it at that for the moment regarding the undergrad projects and you will have to wait for another day to hear the details about the work of Michael, Patrick, and Rachel.
Some further updates from the field though, to acquaint you with the current surroundings of the Dalbay Valley… Maybe it was the fact we spent three days away and hence saw a difference when we got back, or maybe the plants had just reached a critical stress level through lack of water, but things had really changed when we returned from Naadam. On the Saturday, all the plants looked bright and healthy. The following Wednesday, however, many of the large Aster alpinus flowers had wilted before opening, new flowers on the spikes of Veronica incana had not opened while the lower flowers had withered away, Potentilla acaulis leaves had curled up in the open-top chambers and started to turn brown; Carex leaves had turned flame orange at their tips. Two thunderstorms the past two evenings have not seemed to ameliorate the situation for the plants – this is what living in a semi-arid grassland is like!
Talking of the thunderstorms, last night we had a spectacular gust of wind! We watched the electric storm approach us from a long way off –
in the mountains beyond the lake. The thunder came in long deep rolls and the lightening was a good as the best fireworks display – a wonderful rosy pink colour. Then the wind and rain started at camp. As it was evening, most of us were relaxing in one or other of the gers –
myself in bed, reading the last chapter of the Dicken’s novel that has been my companion for the past 2 months. One or two teasing gusts of wind rattled the ger a little, making us look around at each other with a little bit of excitement. Then, of a sudden, a huge gust blew and the ger seemed fit to fall over – it seemed to slant against the pressure and our belongings (hung up over the wooden spokes of the ger roof, or slatted into the lattice wall) rained down on us, I was buried in my bed by photographs, a lucky horseshoe, notepaper, jumpers, socks, and other garments. This gust is worth noting though, as Clyde (Goulden) reports that one observation made by many of the herder families he is interviewing in the area is that there are many more strong winds occurring in recent years than formerly. And apparently this trend might be becoming apparent in the regional meteorological data, as there are more days of the year with wind speeds reaching over 20 mph.
Enough for now, we may report of future storms though, as thunder rolls again as I type…