Everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame..

Today was our media day. The day we get to condense and distill our experience into a few sound bytes. The problem is we have too much to say. Trying to condense down an intense period of research is akin to saying the dinosaurs died because a meteor hit. Much of the subtlety is lost. We Instinctively expound on the positives. The excellent level of collaboration of Jenny’s group. The highly topical and very relevant research. The friendliness and general approachability of people. We haven’t once been told to ‘sod off’, though there were times when I felt we should have been! It is a great testament to the belief people have in their work that they are only too happy to talk about it. By the time we hit our second media interview, we are both more relaxed and ready to discuss the negatives. It all comes down to money. Jenny’s internship is virtually unique in an irish setting. Very little money is allocated to outreach and continuing professional development for teachers. The links between universities and schools are haphazard, tenuous and come down to the will of individuals. It’s not how society should be. The resource of the student, teacher and average Joe citizen scientist should not be underestimated. The public needs to know about the wonderful research being carried out in our universities in a more comprehensive and structured way.


Image courtesy of climateshiftproject.org

Short n snappy like the lifespan of a dodo

Spent today getting to know rocks. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds. Now I know where I need to drive to in Ireland to find a nice chunk of Cretaceous limestone. I started the process of compiling my lesson plans, which hopefully will grab the attention of videoed-out teachers. While researching palaeontology websites I came across this absolutely hilarious letter. Hope you enjoy it!

This is based on a supposedly real letter from a well respected US museum. The names of institutions and individuals have been changed.

Dear Mr. Smith:

Thank you for your latest submission, labeled “93211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post…Hominid skull.” We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago. Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety that one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be “Malibu Barbie.” It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to its modern origin:

1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.

2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-homonids.

3. The dentition pattern evident on the skull is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the ravenous man-eating Pliocene Clams you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time.

This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that: A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on. B. Clams don’t have teeth. It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon-dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal operation, and partly due to carbon-dating’s notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon-dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name Australopithecus spiff-arino. Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn’t really sound like it might be Latin. However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a Hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your Newport back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation’s capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9 mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,

Roger Jones

Chief Curator-Antiquities

Cartoon from the palaeontological association ( USA)

At first I was afraid, I was petrified…

Palaeontology is the study of old life. It doesn’t exactly jump for attention. We have something against old stuff. Even the iPad I’m typing on right now is a testament to our dislike of the old and our constant need for new and fresh. Anyone who has ever splashed out a few bucks on an original Atari 2600 (nerd reference alert) or a vintage 1980s stonewashed jacket knows that old has another connotation. It can also mean classic. Ok, maybe not the best examples of classics, but you get the drift. Today I decided to learn about the classics. The organism both great and humble that through multiple evolutionary combinations attained a form that enabled their survival for millions of years. Incidentally, I don’t consider humans part of this ‘classics’ subset. A few million years doesn’t quite pass muster.

A classic of human engineering, the jaguar

A plant classic, the monkey puzzle tree. A living fossils millions of years old. The oldest specimen alive to date is 800 years old. That’s what I call vintage

Since their origins in the Silurian period, land plants have been through a few ‘bad patches’. Probably the most commonly known is the Cretaceous extinction, or the dinosaur killer in common parlance. The end of the Cretaceous featured an unfortunate synchrony of very unpleasant geological and extraterrestrial events that must have made the living quarters a little unpalatable for most organisms. These events were, in no particular order, the impact of a large meteor in Mexico, eruption of the Deccan traps in India and unexplained anoxia of the oceans. Most people have heard of the chicxulub crater (probably not by name), but the other two events are almost muttered under the breath. I’d never heard of the Deccan traps or indeed the Siberian traps till my brother, who loves to give me nightmares, decided to tell me that lava can pour out of the ground for 30,000 years or more. Definitely beyond the timeline of most disaster movies. These events were so global in their effects that a layer of soot and a rare element, iridium, were deposited in the Earth. The soot and dust thrown up by the combination of volcanism and impact shock waves would have blocked sunlight and rendered it almost impossible for plants to photosynthesise. And therein lies the mystery. Without photosynthesis, how could plants survive and yet some species came through the extinction event unscathed. Without plants, how could animals survive and yet some did. For reasons that are not fully understood, some plants and animals emerged from one of the worst global environmental catastrophes and many others did not.

Letter on possible causes of oceanic anoxia

Eddie: What if we’re the last animals left alive? We’ll have to repopulate the earth.
Crash: How are we supposed to do that? Everyone here is either a dude or our sister.

Now I’ll get to the concept of a classic. The earth has undergone several climatic upheavals which should have led to total extinctions, yet some species persist. These are the species on the edge. The survivors. Evolution is not a steady stream of linear changes but rather it follows a more punctuated pattern. Extreme conditions seem to force evolutionary change. Following the major extinctions of the Cretaceous and Permian, life flourished with apparent ease and new species quickly filled ecological niches. Some species such as crocodiles, mammals, ferns seem to have the ability to weather the storm of changes and maintain their ecological foothold. This doesn’t necessarily equate to them having a more complex or sophisticated body plan but rather that they have a robustness of design. In particular plants have an incredible arsenal of survival skills. Many plants can adjust leaves, stems and roots to cope with low water levels. Some plants can withstand fires and indeed rely on being razed to the ground to disperse their seeds. Plants have developed a particularly formidable arsenal of chemical substances which can be used to prevent herbivory, to signal to other plants and to initiate reproduction. The gamete carrying pollen of angiosperms is particularly tough when subjected to environmental challenge. Even when doused with hydrofluoric acid (breaking bad fans will recall its destructive force), pollen has retained it’s viability. It seems unsurprising in this case that angiosperms recovered well from the late
Cretaceous extinction.
For our sake, I hope the Deccan traps stay quiet, and that meteors swing past us and our oceans remain relatively oxygen rich. I wouldn’t like to anticipate the odds of our survival. We are newbies, with all the fragility that that entails and we are facing into a period of serious environmental change. The mystery of life came through catastrophic extinction events is something we should be taking heed of, to safeguard our own future.


The day the world nearly died



Extreme plants


Svalbard world seed bank- just in case, but who’ll be around to sow them?

You’re so vein…

When the heart and other muscles are damaged the human body undergoes a process of healing to produce new branches of blood vessels. Indeed any sustained period of growth leads to a spreading out of veins and capillaries as the body tries to nourish new cells. Just as in humans, plants transport materials through a network of tubes, known as xylem and phloem. These tubes terminate in the leaf where they form an intricate network known as leaf veins. In monocots such as grasses, the veins maintain a steady parallel pattern, whereas dicots such as Roses form a more spread out pattern. Under the watchful eye of Chrissy Evans-Fitzgerald, I got to witness the beauty and abstract form of leaf venation. This isn’t my first experience so far of Science and Art colliding, but it’s the most aesthetically pleasing to date.


Inspiration for card makers everywhere! Leaf venation using staining techniques

Just as stomatal density can act as a predictor of atmospheric conditions under which plants are grown, it seems logical that leaf vein density should adjust to match increased demand for water and nutrients. Chrissy’s work focuses on determining if leaves are plastic enough to adjust in short periods of time by altering vein density. It is an intriguing question, but like many such questions, technical issues stand in the way of obtaining an answer. Chrissy details the months she has spent adapting and experimenting with preexisting techniques for staining leaves.

The beautiful abstract art created by leaf veins

Chrissy’s leaves are subjected to an intense regime of chemical treatments to decolorise the leaf. Following this treatment, the leaves are recoloured using a two step staining protocol. Once leaves are stained, a slide can be prepared and leaf vein density can be determined. An imaging software programme is used to overlay a grid and vein density is measured through a fairly laborious process of drawing over the leaf. Along with other chamber projects, Chrissy’s will be looking at atmospheric effects on the leaf.

http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/evans.html Chrissy’s bio


Plos article on vein density

Unstable staples

The cultivation of wheat is possibly one of the most important steps in the advancement of human civilisation. Wheat, a highly bred member of the grass family probably originated from wild grasses which would have thrived in post ice age conditions. To put its importance into context, two out of every five calories consumed worldwide come from a wheat product. Problems with wheat yields can be a major driver of food price inflation.

http://www.kew.org/science/ecbot/papers/nesbitt2001wheat.pdf A history of wheat production


Domesticated wheat grown under ambient carbon dioxide a.k.a bog standard wheat

Being a city slicker girl, I’d never given a huge amount of thought to the provenance of what I ate, aside from being mildly amused that so many of my favourite foods are grass derived. I’ve noticed that some foods have gradually increased in price but have dutifully absorbed the cost and moved on. There has been an increasing trend toward more extremes of weather, flooding events and droughts and the knock on effect of the can be and has been increases in food prices. Food security is a major issue for all, not just the third world. Today, Lisa Keogh gave us a lesson in food economics and the possible impact of changing climate.

http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/keogh.html Lisa’s bio


Lisa’s work has focused on growing both ancient and modern grain varieties under elevated carbon dioxide and decreased temperature. Essentially these are conditions which we may find ourselves living in in 80 years or so. Global warming, as we understand it, is a bit of a misnomer. The reality is increased heat energy does not necessarily lead to increased temperature and can in fact lead to cooling due to varying complex effects on ocean currents and precipitation.


Lisa’s research reveals that although there is a general trend toward greater productivity with increasing carbon dioxide, which would be expected for C3 plants, the quality of plant produced is dubious. Lisa’s wheat in particular looked very different to normal wheat, with some ears showing sterile underdeveloped flowers. Other plants had extra ‘ears’ or tillers. A particularly worrying result was that traditionally cold tolerant varieties fared quite poorly in the study. I was a little worried about these freakish, mutant wheat and I began to envisage a future where croissants and pasta are only for the über wealthy! Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing though. What s interesting about our food production history is that in pushing for more quantity, what we have ended up with is less quality. Although superficially increased carbon dioxide may seem like a boon to farmers, the nutritional value of what is produced may cancel out any benefits of increased production.


Mutant wheat….Mr. Burns would be proud


Guess the crop….hint: ready brek

http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/y4011e/y4011e0v.htm The future of grain production

You can’t have promise without compromise

Not happy with the boiling we got down in Wexford, we’re back in a super hot greenhouse again today. This time in Rosemount. I really feel for the plants. Sure they evolved clever little pores that could cope with the demands of life on land, but they can’t exactly go looking for shelter when the temperatures rising. Today we are looking at how the temperature of leaves correlates to stomatal conductance. The simple version? Stomata close, plant gets hot. We have a particularly cool toy, a thermal camera, which produces images like the ones shown below. If you’re an 80’s movie buff, you’ll remember these from the movie Predator.


I get very red-faced when people take my picture….


Predator…never got to test the cold mud theory..

Our host for today is the very erudite Dr. Charilaos Yiotis (from here on he will be referred to as Harry). Harry knows stuff. A lot of stuff. It’s ridiculous. Every question, every topic, he has some pertinent piece of information to impart. I can see why stomatal conductance is his baby. It is at a perfect juncture between Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Maths. I’d imagine knowing a lot of stuff helps. Apart from learning about stomatal conductance, photosynthesis strategies and plant defences, we get a run down on Greek cooking, politics and classical history and of course, language.
We test leaf conductance in the morning on a range of plants of differing evolutionary provenance using the Cirras ( I now know what it’s called and how it works!). Using the thermal camera, following some movie recreations of course!, we check leaf temperatures from reference and test leaves. Harry shows us how to use our temperature data to produce figures for leaf conductance. Our figures don’t match exactly match up to our conductance values, but we can see why snapshots with a camera is infinitely preferable to watching a graph readout for hours. We hope it works for Harry!

http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/yiotis.html Harry’s bio.


Cirras a.k.a evil machine that won’t behave itself..

After another lively chat at lunch, Breda and Aidan adding to the banter, we head over to Péac. I get straight into the million and one questions about Péac. How can you be sure what temperature to use? Why pick this group of plants? How do you match the light conditions of a relatively young planet? Harry is a patient guy. He explains the compromises that must be made. Without a time machine, it is very difficult to match all of the prevailing environmental conditions of the Devonian, Silurian or whatever period you’re looking at. There’s a lot of educated guessing. There is a need to keep a happy medium for the mixed community of plants present. It’s all about compromising on ideal experimental conditions to be able to produce data that is useful. A dead plant doesn’t tell you much.

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/devonian/devonian.php Life during the Devonian


Chamber protective gear…also doubles as zombie apocalypse protection

We’ve discussed the dangers of working in mini worlds with various group members over the weeks. Harry explains the effect of low oxygen. It’s similar to the effects of altitude sickness, hallucinations and dizziness followed by coma. It sounds ok till you get to the coma part. I’m thinking Jenny needs to add Sherpa to the job requirements. High oxygen carries the danger of becoming a human torch. But hey, danger just adds to the excitement.


Stuck for BBQ ideas? Flaming Brachiosaurus anyone?


Cooling off in the greenhouse

http://www.co2science.org/subject/s/summaries/stomataltrees.php a summary of stomatal conductance

When is a hole not a hole?

I’d been harboring a secret dread of stomatal counts since the very first day in UCD. The idea of manicuring a leaf and plucking off the varnish looking for tiny holes just seemed, well, a bit tedious, a bit fiddly and destined for failure. Amanda, yet another super-friendly and helpful Ph.D. (must be something in the water), brought us some beautiful Ginkgo leaves, which we subsequently butchered with a backed-blade (sorry Ginkgos). Obtaining the prints was blissfully easy. Paint, dry, lift with tape and onto a slide. What can I say, all those days spent, to quote my mother, “wasting your time putting on that stupid nail varnish” paid off. After a brief discussion on how to count stomata, (not the 1, 2, 3 bit!), we headed with nervous anticipation into the microscopy room. Slides focused and primed for action, we added our little counting boxes and off we went. Amanda’s infectious laughter, reminiscent of a kid who’s just discovered bubbles, provided the perfect backdrop to our little stomata counting party. Wow, there they were as clear as day and all you had to do was count ’em up, scale ’em up and you could tell how much carbon dioxide was present in the atmosphere. The images are astounding, like really pretty, flowery wallpaper.


My little fluorescent flowers (stomata to the uninitiated)

We take a glance at some triassic leaves. Two things are obvious. There’s a lot of holes of unknown origin and its very difficult to discern which ones are stomata. We leave this count to Amanda’s superior experience. Amanda gives us the counts for the fossils and added to our own data, we can now determine that the carbon dioxide level was approximately 200 ppm above present values. I am immediately struck by how accessible and relatively simple this technique is, although I can envisage many debates about statistics and sampling.

http://www.denison.edu/sustainability/duarb-253.html All about Ginkgos

At lunch Amanda pulls out a cup decorated in Ginkgo leaves. Now that’s dedication! After lunch, having passed our leaf grinding initiation yesterday, we move up a level. Isotope analysis. Another relatively simple method (except for the scary equations) to indirectly determine carbon dioxide levels based on how heavy isotopes of carbon are incorporated into plants. Today we get to grind in glass. Tomorrow, grinding with one hand while hopping on a pogo stick. Filtering our tiny pile into grindings into a 2cm wide glass vial turns out to be a little challenging, particularly while being observed. I’m doing oh so well and then boom crumbled leaf everywhere. I look pityingly at Amanda. This will be her life for the foreseeable future. Earlier on we were regaled with tales of fastest stomatal counts, Aidan is top of the leader board by Amanda’s tally. This job definitely wasn’t designed for speed. Amanda shows us the isotope analysis ‘boats’, teeny-weeny containers (like the ends of fuses) into which individual leaf grindings must be poured. Where’s Tinkerbell when you need her…..

I take off to the local library, realising the time has come to tackle an actual paleobotany book. I find the Science section. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs, fossils, fossils, fossils, geology. Huh? Where’s the plant fossils? I consider complaining, especially since the pathway to the library is lined with fossil-impregnated limestone paving (Talk about false advertising). I settle on a generic fossil tome, remembering that Jenny has promised us a look at her own book. Towards the end, I find 8 pages in a 255 page book, dedicated to plants. I’m glad Jenny is around, making sure our humble producers aren’t consigned to a dusty shelf.

http://www.ucd.ie/plantpalaeo/porter.html Amanda’s bio

Our ultra clean high tech bench

Ginkgo biloba (or Rocky Balboa as I call it, mainly due to its comeback kid nature. See reference above)

Plastosaurus Rex, a victim of the late Cretaceous peak oil crisis