5 things an academic can learn from Steven Colbert

January 19, 2007

1) Smart is sexy.

2) Words rule.

3) A large chunk of your classroom doesn’t believe (2).

4) Humor is a way to work on the folks from (3).

5) TV ain’t all bad.

Congrats to Colbert on his 200th show this week. This is The Word that started it all.


Brown Food Web Friday–great green globs

January 19, 2007

The author on BCI, bathed in salineSeptember found me on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, tromping daily down the Fairchild trail to harvest some experiments. BCI is in the middle of Lake Gatun, a forested valley flooded during the creation of the Panama canal. BCI is thus a former hilltop, isolated by water.

Now, trails at BCI are of two kinds–those that follow ridge tops and catch what little breeze exists 30 m below a forested canopy (good), and those that cut across the topography, allowing you to get a good sense of how hilly this place once was (not so good). The best one can say about the cross country trails is that they clean out your pores and are every bit as effective as a rubber suit in sheddng a few pounds of unwanted water (see left).

Fairchild is a cross-country trail . Also it was the rainy season, meaning that the trails were actually little gushing rivulets. Also, many of you have already discerned that Barro Colorado means “red clay”: very slippery, clingy, red clay. Finally, there are the black palms that strew their 4 meter long fronds–covered with 5 cm needle sharp spikes– on this muddy, nightmarish, stairmaster trail from hell.


About halfway up one of the most wretched stretches on Fairchild was a newly fallen palm trunk suspended half a meter off the ground. It required a bit of finesse, as it was surrounded by aforementioned needle sharp spikes and required one to balance on one leg on a 45 degree pitch while swinging a mud-clogged boot to the other side. Needless to say, I really looked forward to this log every morning.

Over the course of the week, however, I noticed it began to, well, ooze. And drip. Slowly. Somehow, it just seemed to add to the ambience and became a signature memory of this field trip.


Turns out these kind of jelly-like secretions are not all that uncommon in tropical forests where the brown food web is as busy taking wood, leaves, and tapirs apart as the trees and tapirs are at putting themselves together. I sent the latter two photos (not the first one) to Betsy Arnold, a tropical mycologist at the University of Arizona, who replied:

Photo is very cool. From here, looks like a canker-causing pathogen in the early stages of attack. Those pathogens are likely fungal (most likely Asco or Basid) or fungus-like (could be Phytophthora). Early symptoms, as for sudden oak death disease in CA, can include bleeding wounds.

From this we can tentatively conclude that said palm may have fallen in part because it was being dismantled from the inside by a beastie from one of two kingdoms whose niches are approximately the same: Kill palms and convert their biomass into new Ascomycetes, Basidiomycetes, and/or Phytophthora spores. The fact that they do it in such a colorful way is just gravy on the biscuit.


Post script:

In the process of adding linky goodness, Google suggested this one:


Ever the empiricist, I googled “ax murderer”.
And no, eBay ain’t trafficking in them. Yet.