Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Going Places: Ecology Begins!

This semester has been defined by labwork and field trips, punctuated frequently by PKV intervals.

What follows is a brief glance at the field trips we've been on so far. The visit to the Klang Gates Ridge is featured on my birthday entry.

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Insect Biology: Ulu Gombak, 29-31 August

We spent three days over the Merdeka weekend at the Ulu Gombak Field Studies Centre, which belongs to UM. It is a popular place with foreign scientists, and Prof Sofian said that a team from the University of Cambridge once gassed a single tree and collected the insects that fell from it; five years elapsed and they still hadn't finished studying the specimens.

This is one of my favourite pictures from the trip, and I daresay my best of Thary (or the future Professor Thary) to date.

Professor Dr Sofian Azirun, lecturer and one of the Deputy Deans of the Science Faculty. The wild durians were ripe and a number of us feasted on them while hiking in search of insects.

Something between a fossil and a hidden treasure, Haji Mokhtar Ibrahim (or Pak Haji as we call him) has been serving the university since the days when Professor Sofian was an undergraduate. He's retired, but still roped in on field trips and lab sessions because of his vast knowledge and experience.

On a clump of Sealing Wax Palms (Cyrtostachys lakka) near the classroom building at the centre, a Signature Spider nests. Here, the male (much smaller, to the left) is presumably approaching the female prior to mating. I'm not sure if the dead insect in the female's jaws is a gift from the male, but it could well be.

Is the spider in the sky, or is its web over a pool of water, or neither? It was a most unusual angle, and I think the only thing ruining the picture is the dust on the spider's web, which unfortunately looks like in-camera dust.

We had to aggressively keep watch over our insect specimens as this colony of ants was very efficient in translocating insects placed on the windowside worktop where the microscopes were. To give an idea of scale, the needle piercing the moth is so thin it can travel through a human's blood capillaries.

In general, and in principle, Thary has little patience for my photography. Unless, however, I am photographing a subject he is greatly interested in, which explains the shot of the Baeckea at the Klang Gates Ridge, and this. On our way back from exploring the river on the evening of Day 2, Thary spotted this giant millipede. A rather lengthy photoshoot naturally ensued.

On the third day, Shannon and I rose early to make time exposures of the river in the early morning light. It was a fun experience, and I will always remember this river as the agent that stole How's appetite.

This is the class, after we'd collected samples from a river not far from the centre. I'm loving my Gorillapod more and more!

On the night of 30 August, I realised this was my first Merdeka without fireworks. At home, or anywhere in town, it would be possible--even inevitable--to hear the fireworks. But there we were, isolated in a jungle not far from the city, yet far enough to shield us from the sound of celebration.

As I reflect on the noise in the country (celebratory, political and otherwise) versus the voice of God in the wilderness, it became a little clearer to me what my calling might be.

It was as if God was saying, "People will shout for all kinds of reasons and for as long as they have the voice to shout. But put your hand to the work that will last forever; be a steward of that which I have created and keep working. Keep working no matter who the rulers are or what they say. Here in the wilderness you will find Me."

And perhaps, in the wilderness also, I found myself.

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Advanced Ecology: Pulau Ketam, 1 September

We were supposed to study the ecology of kampung populations as one of our projects for the course (which, by the way, should be called 'Basic Ecology'). So about half the class went to Ulu Yam and half to Pulau Ketam. All of this was done in the absence of Prof Susan, who was away in France at the time.

So infertile is the soil, that almost all non-mangrove plants must be cultivated in specially prepared (i.e. imported from the mainland) soil. This is one place you won't find papaya trees growing out of drains.

Pulau Ketam is famous for its seafood restaurants, but I never imagined their temples would be adorned by statues of seafood! What happened to the more common phoenix and dragon?

Bicycles and boardwalks; the quintessence of connection and communication on Pulau Ketam. This is proof that my camera's LCD screen doesn't do justice to shadow detail; during playback in-camera, I couldn't see the bicycle.

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Tropical Forest Ecology: FRIM, 6 September

I used the wide-angle for this shot of the class beneath the majestic Dryobalanops aromatica (a.k.a. crown-shyness) trees. Here, Mr Yong is describing the Ganoderma fungus.

One of the things I remember most on this trip was what Mr Sugu said when we were in a rather narrow stretch of the trail.

"If you can't hear me, try to pack a little closer. If there's no space on the trail, walk into the forest [i.e. stand between the trees]. Pelajar ekologi hutan tropika tak boleh takut kotor, tak boleh takut pacat, tak boleh takut pokok. [Tropical forest ecology students must not be afraid of dirt, leeches or trees.]"

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Marine Ecosystems: Morib, 20 September

Sampling of organisms in the Littoral or Intertidal Zone along the beach at Pintu Gedong. Our trip was timed to coincide with the tide, which was expected to be at its lowest around 3.00 p.m. We arrived by 1.00 and so had time to familiarise ourselves with some of the locals at Morib, namely...

The common Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) is extremely comfortable around humans here.

And yes, they are gluttons. Come armed with biscuits or any other tidbits; they make an excellent bait if you want to observe or photograph the macaques up-close.

Professor Chong Ving Ching, present Head of the Ecology and Biodiversity division at UM.

Digging for burrowing organisms during low tide. We found a good number of clams, crabs, snails and worms. From left: Shannon, Divya, Noni and Azizi. Shannon was the only fellow ecologist in our group; the other three are Environmental Management students.

There were also a number of pigeons on the coast. This was shot while I chased one of them; I really should do this more frequently...

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Tropical Forest Ecology: Rimba Ilmu Herbarium, 27 September

Shannon, How, Thary, Saiedah and I missed the trip to Gunung Ulu Kali (in the vicinity of Genting Highlands) as it clashed with our Insect Biology field trip. So we had to substitute it with a day's work at Rimba Ilmu.

(Dad is right; these trips should be planned in advance so as not to clash. Mr Sugu planned the Tropical Forest Ecology trips at the beginning of the semester, but Prof Sofian took some time. The clash could have been avoided.)

At first, Mr Yong intended for us to help clean up the Shade House in the botanic garden, but the officer in charge wasn't around on Saturday; nevertheless, Shannon and I have volunteered to help out whenever it might be done. So it was that we spent some eight hours mounting plant samples (leaves, fruit, buds etc) for the Herbarium's vault collection.

These ominous lockers store innumerable plant mounts which collectively serve as a plant identification database.

Mr Yong greeted us that morning in pyjama-like (i.e. very homely) trousers and a large-ish mug. It made the few of us wonder if he spent the night at Rimba Ilmu. (This picture was taken towards the end of our session.)

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