Unfortunately, the Sustainable Collective blog is no longer online. I’ve given these orphaned blogs a home on my website.
Macro Photography for Mental Health – April 20, 2015
Sponge-y Climate Change Combatants – Feb 9, 2015
My Personal Awareness of Disaster Preparedness – Dec 18, 2014
I Want a Dodo for a Pet—A De-Extinction Poem – Oct 4, 2014
Macro Photography for Mental Health
April 20, 2015
People relieve stress in a variety of ways from running to gardening to baking to Netflix. As I savour my last two weeks as a student, I can reflect on how I managed to navigate the journey that is graduate school. After hours of working on the computer, reading scientific papers, or running statistical models, one activity more than any other has helped me to recharge—macro photography.
For the uninitiated, macro photography is taking pictures close-up, where the subject is larger than life size. Admittedly, living adjacent to a plethora of wonderful nature trails helps to find interesting subjects. However, the beauty of macro photography is that, even in the most urban environment, the world of charismatic microfauna is all around (provided you look close enough).
I am definitely not a professional photographer by any means. But publication of quality photos are not the purpose of these photographic mini-expeditions. My muddled mind clears as I fiddle with fern fiddleheads, snap slug stills, or film fruitfly fornication. For a blissful moment in time, I focus solely on the world of the wee and see my surroundings through an entirely new lens (pun intended).
Photographing is just half the fun. Once I get home, I immediately upload the pictures and try to identify the critters in the photos. Natural history is utterly fascinating. From these research tangents, I have learned a great deal about the diversity of creatures on my doorstep. What species are native to the area? Does that insect species display some strange mating behaviour? Is that slug going to eat all of my tulips?
Macro photography has become my version of mindfulness — where I am in the moment without another care in the world. So next time you feel stressed delve into the diminutive. Inspect the infinitesimal. Explore the eensy. You might just find your bliss hidden in the Lilliputian world in your backyard.
For more professional macro photography that will make you rethink the world around you — especially critters that make most people squirm — check out the Insects Unlocked project, which aims to produce (free!) insect photos for the masses. Also, these amazing naturalist macro photographers & many others provide me with daily inspiration.
For those who are curious, all photographs were taken with a Canon 60D using Vello extension tubes and a Canon 70-200 f/4 IS USM lens. An unorthodox macro set-up for sure, but you make do with what you have (especially on a graduate student salary).
Sponge-y Climate Change Combatants
February 9, 2015
On a chilly January morning just outside Vancouver, I descended 30 m below the ocean surface to gaze at a gutless, brainless animal fixed to a rock — the enigmatic glass sponge. How can such a seemingly lackluster creature convince someone to don scuba gear during the Canadian winter? Suffice to say this is not your average dish-washing sponge.
Massive glass sponge reefs were widespread 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period. According to paleobiologist Dr. Manfred Krautter, one ancient glass sponge reefextended a whopping 7,000 km across the Tethys Sea. Like most Jurassic creatures, glass sponge reefs were presumed to have gone extinct. Surprisingly, in 1987 — six years before Jurassic Park ‘brought back’ dinosaurs — Canadian scientists discovered living glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait off northern British Columbia.
Glass sponges act as 3-dimensional habitats for a variety of other species including fish, shrimps, and crabs. Some nudibranchs (sea slugs) even eat the glass sponges, which presumably tastes better to the slug than it would to us.
Like all marine sponges, the glass-y species in the Class Hexactinellida filter their food from the surrounding water. Their skeleton is comprised of tiny, needle-like structures called spicules made from silica, a principal component of glass.
Around 80% of a glass sponge’s dry weight is composed of their silica skeleton. The rest is made up of one giant cell with many nuclei. With no pesky cell barriers to contend with, glass sponges can send electrical signals across their whole body extremely rapidly, which is useful to stop filtering when there is too much sediment in the water.
Almost-hatched kelp greenling fish eggs occupy the crevices of a glass sponge. Many other species use the 3-dimensional structure provided by glass sponges as habitat. The male kelp greenling was close by protecting the eggs from predators. Underwater photographers were reluctantly allowed nearby. Photo by Chad Tamis.
Concurrently to my frigid dive, scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of Victoria published a scientific paper that described the astonishing quantity of bacteria these animals can eat; glass sponge reefs in the northeastern Pacific remove upwards of 227 metric tons of bacteria from the ocean daily and incorporate that carbon into their tissues. That is equivalent to 38 male African elephants’ worth of bacteria per day!
While not completely understood, glass sponge reefs could play a considerable role in marine carbon sequestration in the northeastern Pacific, which has potential climate change implications. The ocean as a whole absorbs approximately one-third of anthropogenically emitted carbon from the atmosphere and acts as a carbon sink.
Unfortunately, many glass sponge reefs were destroyed in years past by destructive fishing practices. While the reefs are not yet fully protected, bottom trawlers agreed to avoid many of the sponge reefs in 2002, and commercial prawn fishers have also voluntarily agreed to keep traps off sponges. Encouraging plans are in motion to provide full protection to these delicate reefs with appropriate buffer zones where fishing is prohibited.
This week, as a movie about a talking sponge gets a wide-theatrical release, give a quick ponder to the thankless live sponges at the bottom of the sea — an underwater filtering Jurassic world.
For more information about glass sponge reef biology and conservation visit:
- Sally Leys Lab — University of Alberta
- Marine Life Sanctuaries Society
- Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
- Living Oceans Society
- David Suzuki Foundation
Notes from the Field: My Personal Awareness of Disaster Preparedness
December 18, 2014
March 11th, 2011 was a day I will never forget. The Tōhoku earthquake, one of the most powerful quakes in recorded history, rocked Japan. The ensuing tsunami devastated the country and caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. That day is also the first time that I dealt with a potential oncoming natural disaster firsthand.
I was blissfully oblivious to the events unfolding 3,000 km away as I photographed a humpback whale a few kilometers offshore a remote island in the northern Philippines. For a few days prior, inclement weather had kept our 6-person whale research team on land, but on March 11th the ocean was calm. The team, led by Dr. Jom Acebes of the non-profit Balyena.org, was thrilled to be back on the water, but our cetacean-induced excitement was short-lived.
Camiguin del Norte, a remote island in the Babuyan Archipelago, where I was conducting humpback whale research in March, 2011. Red X demarcates our accommodations in the town of Balatubat and the approximate route we took to get to higher ground after a tsunami warning following the Tōhoku earthquake in Japan.
At around 3 pm, as we bobbed offshore in our small outrigger boat, Jom’s cell phone began to buzz non-stop. Concerned family members in Manila were all simultaneously attempting to reach us. Bits of information were frantically relayed. A strong earthquake had hit Japan. A tsunami warning was in effect. The tsunami, should it head our direction, would reach us sometime between 5 and 10 pm. Get to higher ground…
Camiguin del Norte is part of the Babuyan Island Archipelago, separated from the main island of Luzon by a notoriously dangerous 4-hour ‘ferry’ ride. To the north are the even more remote Batanes Islands, then Taiwan, and then Japan. Essentially, there was no considerable landmass between us and the epicentre and no way to get off the island.
We reached shore around 4 pm and scrambled off the boat. We got word that the revised ETA for a potential tsunami was between 6 and 9 pm. We had at least 2 hours. After rushing back to our nearby accommodations, which sat a whopping 2 m of elevation above sea level, we collected a few belongings (and our research data!) before setting off into the mountains surrounding the village.
When we arrived on shore, I had imagined a hectic scene of frantic families collecting their belongings. Instead, kids played basketball, parents prepared dinner, and the ubiquitous sound of karaoke permeated through the air. In essence, nothing differentiated this afternoon from any other. Did they not know there was a tsunami warning?! After a brief conversation with townsfolk, Jom discovered that they did indeed know about the warning, but they heard it was coming exactly at 7 pm. They saw no reason to rush. In fairness, locals are used to being thrashed by typhoons, rattled by earthquakes, and have a front-row seat to the occasional volcanic eruption. A tsunami warning did not seem to faze them.
Regardless, we were not taking any chances and we began walking into the surrounding mountains. After hiking for an hour and a half, we sat down on a rock outcropping overlooking the Pacific and I watched the sun slowly descend, while we all awaited further instructions. Despite the beauty of our surroundings, tranquility was difficult to achieve, as all the animals in the field — pigs, chickens, dogs, and goats — were all copulating with their respective partners. I remembered the reports of odd animal behaviour prior to the 2004 tsunami in SE Asia. Was this the animals’ one last desperate act?
Just after sunset, a local man approached. As it turns out, our ‘tsunami evacuation hill’ was on his farm. Keep in mind that the island received less than a dozen tourists per year and few of them ventured into the mountains. In spite of our trespassing, the farmer kindly invited the whole lot of us in for tea.
Thankfully, the tsunami waves emanating from Japan did not cause any damage in the Philippines. Our local boat driver, who remained with his family at home, reported that the waterline receded slightly, but the coast was otherwise normal. With headlamps donned we returned to our accommodations around 11 pm, confident that we were no longer in danger.
Three years later, the aftereffects of the Tōhoku disaster are still prominent in Japan. While the Philippines has not experienced a recent tsunami, the country has been hit with a litany of naturaldisasters — the frequency and severity of these disasters has been linked to climate change. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda), flattened the city of Tacloban and killed over 6,000 people. Last week, in contrast, the Filipino government was lauded for its much improved preparation prior the powerful Typhoon Hagupit. Coordinated disaster preparation efforts and evacuations were effective in reducing the loss of life.
Filipino representatives were in Lima in early December as part of the UN climate change summit, and the delegation is pushing for considerable emissions reductions. The Philippines are leading a bloc of the “Most Vulnerable Countries” that are facing imminent threats due to climate-change related impacts. Tsunamis are inherently more difficult to predict than typhoons and are not related to climate change; however, natural disaster awareness and preparedness in remote communities will be critical to saving lives in the future.
In hindsight, the farm animals on the hill were actually acting normal.
 There is a cell phone tower on Camiguin, so the cell reception is remarkably better than in many Canadian cities, despite the island only getting consistent electricity in the 2000s
 For comparison, Japan to the Babuyan archipelago is less half the distance to Hawaii or mainland North America (other than remote parts of Alaska).
I Want a Dodo for a Pet — A De-Extinction Poem
October 4, 2014
The 1st of September, 2014 marked a dubious anniversary. Exactly one hundred years ago, Martha, the last living passenger pigeon, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. Since that time, the once innumerable passenger pigeon has become a symbol for extinction. However, recent research has revealed that vanished species could potentially be brought back to life through a process broadly termed ‘de-extinction’. The technology could also help introduce added genetic diversity to critically endangered species like the Sumatran rhinoceros.
I do not wish to dwell on the intricacies of de-extinction that are skillfully described elsewhere. There has already been a DeExtinction TEDx conference and nature writer Carl Zimmer wrote an excellent piece for National Geographic.
Rather than rehash NatGeo (or reference Michael Crichton), I have decided to express my feelings on the topic through rhyme.
I Want a Dodo for a Pet
I want a dodo for a pet
If it were so then I’d be set.
A birdy friend to whom I’m bounded
A lifelong pal to keep me grounded!
I’d love to see, I’d be so keen
To come across a thylacine.
Return the tiger from Down Under
Reverse this sad extinction blunder!
I long to view a mastodon
Alas I can’t, as all are gone.
Help me science achieve this want
Resurrect this ancient ele-phant!
Woolly rhinos regenerated?
Oh how they’d be venerated!
Rhinos roaming in the Arctic
Such a sight would be cathar(c)tic!
A giant sloth in my backyard?
To make it so should not be hard.
Moas, mammoths, giant auks
Would we open up Pandora’s box?!
De-extinction wrong or right
Bring back creatures if we might?
Ethics, morals, dare I reflect?
What type of pet should I select?
I want a dodo for a pet
On second thought I will not fret.
For with my friend I’d like to jog
And dodos can’t…
I want a dog!