June 23rd, 2009

Ecologist at large

By KENNEDY WARNE

When I was at university, involved in the cutting-edge discipline of sponge classification, I regarded ecology as “soft” science, suited to those who lacked the intellectual molars to chew more demanding meat. Ecologists, I liked to think, were the ones Mark Twain had in mind when he wrote, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Candy Feller and team exploring a new river.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy Feller and team exploring a new river.


Now I think differently. Ecology is about getting the big picture. And today, with the extinction rate in overdrive and ecosystems in crisis, how sorely humankind needs that perspective. Candy Feller’s CV calls her an insect ecologist, but this really means she’s interested in everything that has to do with an insect’s world of interactions, which is a wide world indeed. Tracking those interactions may entail analysing the sugar content of flower nectar or making aerial surveys of mangrove deforestation as much as it involves slicing open twigs to see what’s living inside.

Candy is part of an ecological subdiscipline called biocomplexity, the study of the mechanisms—physical, chemical, biological—that determine ecosystem structure and function. She came to mangrove ecology in an unusual way. She was a scientific illustrator, and was assigned to draw the underwater component of a mangrove ecosystem. Actually to draw under water, using waterproof materials and a scuba tank.

Pelliciera reflections.

KENNEDY WARNE
Pelliciera reflections.


She found she liked mangroves. They reminded her of the rhododendron forests of her youth—the feeling of being enclosed and embraced by nature. These days Candy lives in Maryland, but at heart she’s a Carolina gal. I asked her what her favourite southern comfort food was. “Squirrel,” she said, without missing a beat. When she was little she and her brothers used to go out and shoot squirrels for breakfast. It was pretty much a no-brainer to find out she liked bluegrass music as much as I do. We swapped stories—I’d backed Emmylou Harris on a New Zealand TV show; she’d met Gid Tanner of the legendary Skillet Lickers. Then she opened up the iTunes playlist on her laptop and we spent an hour getting high and lonesome on four-part harmony.
Candy and Anne Chamberlain team up to trap tree crabs lurking in liverworts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Candy and Anne Chamberlain team up to trap tree crabs lurking in liverworts.


When she retires she says she’s going to work on a plant called Jack-in-the-pulpit, which was found recently to be pollinated by thrips. She finds that an interesting interaction—thrips are normally thought of as pests, not beneficial pollinators. “I don’t want to publish, just to know,” she says. “I like the idea of pushing my walking frame into the garden and studying wildflowers.”

Watching Candy in the field, I’m pretty sure the walking frame is a long way in the future. By midday I’m wilting in the heat, with Noel Coward’s lyrics about mad dogs and Englishmen running through my head, but Candy, mud-spattered and sweating, presses ahead with the work. She doesn’t miss much, either. Today she found a fish I had been hoping to see: the mangrove killifish, or Rivulus. It was swimming in a shallow puddle in the Pelliciera forest, darting down fiddler crab burrows when it was disturbed.

We bought the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted from these paddlers passing our research site.

KENNEDY WARNE
We bought the sweetest pineapples I've ever tasted from these paddlers passing our research site.


Rivulus is the only known vertebrate capable of breeding without a mate. It can develop male and female sex organs and fertilise its own eggs. What’s more, it can breathe air through its skin, like a frog, and one specimen spent 66 consecutive days out of water, living in a hole in a tree. The fish’s ability to survive out of water comes in handy for Rivulus researchers, Candy said—they swap live specimens through the post.

When the field work was over for the day we explored a new river system. We passed groves of Pelliciera where the buttress roots and their reflections produced rows of diamonds at the waterline. Candy stood in the bow of the boat, surveying the forest, enthusing about the epiphytic orchids, wondering out loud why the Pelliciera on this coast seem to reach a certain height and then stop growing. The birders in the group had eyes only for trogons, toucans and other avian exotica, but I suspected that Candy’s mind was on the mangroves, pondering how they fit into the complex ecological pattern she is helping define.

When the collecting finishes, the analysing begins.

KENNEDY WARNE
When the collecting finishes, the analysing begins.


I came across a statement from the late great US writer John Updike. His goal as a writer, he said, was “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” It seems to me that this is what Candy Feller is doing for mangroves, and I admire her for it.

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