Europe, first month

It’s been more than a month since we left Montréal for our months-long trip to Europe. How time flies! We spent the very first week of our trip in Paris (which I visited last year but Paul has never been). It was mostly cold, cloudy and occasionally rainy. I wasn’t at my best but we still had a lost of fun walking around the city, visiting the Louvre, having picnics everywhere! After this first week, the adventure began: we went on the road, visiting parts of France (Normandie, Bretagne), moving from place to place with our rented car, and sleeping in it! I can say we sleep fairly well! We are very careful when it’s time to transform the car into an hotel (ha!) and I can already tell you that we don’t regret our decision to travel this way! It gives us total freedom to decide where and when to go, to move or to stay. We check our budget regularly and it’s going really well so far, which is quite reassuring after a month on the road!

I was looking forward to that feeling when you’re in an unknown country where people speak a foreign language… expatriated? So I was very much looking forward arriving in Spain! I understand Spanish up to a certain point and this is excellent practice! What struck me first when we arrived in Spain are the mountains! They are splendid and make the landscape completely different from France where it’s very flat, at least where we’ve been. I love the new landscape! Having grown in the Laurentians (region in Québec, Canada), I am used to a mountainous landscape and I love it. I realised, arriving in Spain, how I missed the mountains! They are quite different from the ones I know, though. Ours are soft and very round, here the mountains are sudden and abrupt. They remind me of the mountains of Monteverde in Costa Rica!

The Spanish are absolutely charming, and we get on well with the little Spanish remaining from my Spanish classes and the google translate app ( and that will be even more useful in Germany and the Czech Republic !!). Coffee is delicious here, and I treated myself to café con leche (latte) and tortilla (potato omelette) in the first spanish rest area where we slept. We have been lucky so far since the beginning of the adventure on the road, we find working wifi relatively easily, and thanks to Paul who did tremendous work in preparation of the trip ( he read all the travel guides and compiled the information on a map he created in his computer… a lot of programming, I’ll let him explain it to you in good time). We know what we want to do and see! Paul is the chief organizer and I am the master photographer! 🙂

We were very motivated before the trip to blog regularly, but we have come to realize that travelling as we do is a lot of work! So we have decided that we wanted to live and experience this moment at our own rhythm, and so we put te blogging aside, but we haven’t forgotten it ( i have to mention that my computer is kaput, and with the speed of free wifi it is very difficult to add photos to the blog posts and takes a lot of time and patience (read frustration)). Maybe we’ll have more time to blog in the future!

In the meantime, here are a few dreamy pictures from the last weeks 🙂

Starting an entomological collection

Recently I signed up to take an extra biology class at my university, BIO6441 Systématique des Insectes (Insect Systematics), an advanced course of entomology. The main objective is to learn insects’ families through the elaboration of an entomological collection (scientific designation for pinning insects in a box).

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My colleagues and I went two weekends ago to the SBL (biology station I briefly introduced in a previous post) for the beginning of the class. On the menu: hunting as many bugs as possible. Indeed, we need to build up a scientific collection composed of the greatest variability of insects as possible.

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Tablet containers are great to temporarily store your specimens!

We swung all weekend our butterfly nets in open fields, in woods, on lakes shores, on the road, in a peat bog: even under water! We caught as much little creepers as there was, while being besieged by hordes of mosquitoes, horse flies and deer flies. For as much as we were outside, the warm sun kept the insects active and catchable: it began raining coincidentally (and fortunately) when the hunt was finished.

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Beautiful wasp.

In short, I had a great weekend with amazing people and hunting conditions. Now the biggest work begins: mounting all my specimens and trying to identify the species. Over the course of the summer, I’ll have many opportunities to grow my collection, the class will only start again in September. I’ll try to post some pictures for you guys, feel free to comment below if you have any question about building an entomological collection: it’s a lot of fun and discovering! Enjoy the pictures!

Paul

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Moth on the surgical table.

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My big bumblebee.

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An assortment of dragonflies + a small moth.

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Some soft bodied insects + an intruder in alcool vials. From left to right: lady bug larvae, dragonfly larvae, stonefly larvae, caterpillar, damselfly larvae, spider, other caterpillar and caddisfly larvae (out of the picture).

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A close-up of the damselfly larvae.

Tribulations of a young scientist

Lately I’ve been participating at a few scientific events within the framework of my master’s degree and it has been a very busy and stimulating couple of months. Approaching the end of my journey in my supervisor’s lab, the pressure to produce enduring results is increasing steadily: I’ll need notably to write one or two paper(s) to publish. So in the meanwhile, I had to share with the scientific community my results so far and their meaning in the grand scheme of things.

Since I’ve not yet introduced properly my work on this blog, let’s get rid of that now. Doing a master’s degree in the biological science department of Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada), I’m interested in the invasive species systems where populations of wild animals or plants are experiencing a great range expansion across the territory, colonizing new habitats. More specifically, I’m studying the impact of range expansion on the population genetic structure of the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).

USDA

Source: USDA

For those of you who are unaware of this little beetle, it’s a small insect (about the size of a grain of rice) native of pine forests of western North America (from British Columbia to north of Mexico). Found in great numbers during an outbreak, these beetles mass attack several pine tree species and drill holes in their bark, laying eggs underneath it. The larvae then develop while eating the phloem (the living tissue of the tree): this herbivorism along with the introduction of pathogen fungi species rapidly kill the host tree. When there’s millions of these beetles across the landscape, the forest stands swiftly turn from green to red.

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Source: USDA

Historically, the Canadian populations of the mountain pine beetle have been secluded by the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and have been part of a natural equilibrium of forest regeneration. However, since the beginning of the current outbreak (early 2000s), populations have undergone a massive range expansion, crossing the mountain barrier to Alberta and heading northward to the Canadian territories and Alaska.

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Present and historic distributions of mountain pine beetle and pine species. Dotted arrows represent potential expansion.

Several agents may be in cause: climate changes allowing warmer winters and higher survivability of the beetles, forest industry’s logging methods homogenizing the stands properties, upper atmospheric winds transporting beetles kilometers away, etc. Of course, we can’t tell for sure what’s behind this new behavior. One hypothesis researchers attempt to verify is the possibility of an evolutionary process granting beetles the sufficient tools to continuously expand their range through novel habitats and novel tree hosts. Unfortunately, current statistical methods aimed to answer those kind of questions perform poorly on populations experiencing a massive range expansion. My humble task in this story is to identify the conditions where those statistical methods can’t be trusted and when it is important to analyse genetic data with more caution.


So going back to my recent scientific “twists and turns”, here’s an overview of the meetings I have been attending.

2016 US-IALE Annual Meeting in Asheville, NC

USIALE

The International Association of Landscape Ecology (IALE) is a huge association of academic and governmental researchers mostly working in USA and all working on various questions related to landscape ecology and spatial analyses. For example, I assisted to presentations sessions about spatial connectivity in fragmented landscapes, on natural disturbances such as forest fires, on landscape genetics… Even on thermodynamics! This great variety of subjects vulgarized by more than 200 participants made my first week of April a stimulating one. I had the opportunity to chat with specialists in my field of research: people I’ve been reading papers since two years now! On top of that, I gave a presentation on the first morning and it went very well, my English coming out better than I would expect. I received interesting questions and commentaries, and some of the attendees seemed quite involved with my project.

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Great place to have a taste of the vast selection of local beers!

And of course, I can’t skip saying two or three things about the meeting’s location. Leaving a cold and harsh Montréal, I was quite surprised and glad to step out of the plane in a sunny and springlike Asheville. Trees were blossoming and temperature was perfectly cozy. My colleagues and I had a great time each night picking which of the hundreds of bars and micro-breweries we would try and wandering around the atypical streets of this booming city nested in the forest and mountains. Although being quite busy all week, we had the chance before leaving to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have a peak at this vast wild landscape.

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Snowy and windy at the top!

10th Annual Conference of the CEF

Back in Montréal, I attended a short meeting of two days at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM), reuniting a wide range of people working in the forest industry in Québec: among which many researchers, students and forest engineers. The Conference was good, but a bit far from my personal work interests for me to be really engaged during the talks. In spite of this, my presentation went really well again and I had a good time interacting with other students and my lab colleagues.

TRIA-Net Annual General Meeting

Shortly after the previous conference, I had to take a flight to Edmonton (Alberta) where I had to present along with a colleague a scientific poster. This meeting regroups a network of Canadian researchers trying to figure out together what we could do about that mountain pine beetle situation in Canada. It was my second presence to this meeting and it’s always great to see again all those interesting and competent persons working every day directly with this insect. I didn’t had the chance to explore Edmonton, but the University of Alberta campus and its surroundings sure are much nicer than our own campus at Université de Montréal.

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Source: TRIA-Net, University of Alberta

FCM Summer School

I had to cut short my participation at the TRIA-Net meeting to go to a summer school a bit north of Montréal, after taking a red-eye flight from Edmonton. This formation is offered by the Forest Complexity Modelling program who financed my researches last year. The one week formation happened this year at the Station de Biologie des Laurentides, a research facility owned by my university in a wild setting, not far from Montréal.

MCF

Source: Virginie Angers, UQAM

Arriving on Wednesday, I was a bit groggy after the night flight but I soon recovered and was able to take part in discussions with other students attending the course. Through the rest of the week, we had good presentations from researchers on various topics, mostly about the modelling of forests ecosystems. My colleague and I quite enjoyed the spot, that we know very well by now, although there were lots of black flies.

Paul

Mapping the PCT

Cartographie

Next summer, I’m planning to make an exciting trip with a good friend of mine. Maybe you saw the movie Wild with Reese Whiterspoon? If it’s not the case, I suggest you to rent it: it’s a good little movie. It’s the (true) story of a young woman going through a long journey on the West Coast, to help restore order in her personal stormy life. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) offers to this lost soul all the quiet and natural wonders required to reach a more peaceful state of mind.

Although really digne, Cheryl Strayed’s (the young woman) motive is quite different from mine. Watching the movie, my eyes widely opened themselves to this crazy adventure accross the US: this could really be a life changing event. Constantly surrounded by nature for more than 2500 miles (roughly 5 months of hiking!), crossing deserts, snowy crests, mystical valleys, giant forests… An enterprise where everyday is enchanting, where modern responsabilities of life are put aside. This is also what my friend glared at (at least I believe so) when sitting in the theater a few months ago.

“Hey, what about hiking the PCT next year?”

On my side, I also began copying out some maps. Gabrielle gave me recently, for my birthday, a cute Moleskine notebook, composed of enough pages to hold my daily thoughts on the trail. I thought it might be appropriate to draw in the first pages some broad maps of the route we’ll take across 3 different states (California, Oregon and Washington). Completely inexperienced in the art of cartography, I simply traced screen shots of GoogleMaps, dividing the itinerary in 4 zones.

Map representing the projected route in Oregon (red line), the forest patches (green stripes) and the stretches of water (in blue). Each point and letter designate a possible point of resupply.

Carte Oregon

Map representing the projected route in Oregon (red line), the forest patches (green stripes) and the stretches of water (in blue). Each point and letter designate a possible point of resupply.

For the record, I simply superposed a grid in Word on the screen shots. With the help of some basic little calculations, I then determined the raster’s resolution and the size of the picture, in order to adjust it to my notebook size.

Besides making the first pages of my notebook look pretty, such maps could become useful to make a quick assessment of the journey’s progress and to estimate the amount of days necessary before reaching the next resupply point. Also, I hope to be able to note everyday on it our current position, with a view to keep every details of this marvelous adventure.

In the following months, I’ll probably keep nattering about this PCT thing, while the preparation will become more and more polished up. It’s a great life experience that I’m really looking forward, I hope to interest you a little bit with it!

Paul