My adventures in Fiji

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Join me as I discover the intriguing world of biology and culture in spectacular Fiji. I will be recalling stories, posting pictures and typing up assignments on this blog so feel free to look around to stay updated. Vinaka everyone, I appreciate your support!

Ecosystem Restoration-The Florida Everglades

Unfortunately, I was sick for the coral planting. I am sorry to have missed out on this fascinating experience, however I still received the information about restoring an ecosystem. I am interested in pursuing such tasks in my career, so this assignment especially interests me. I had the chance to go on a tour of an area of the Everglades in Florida on a wind boat tour, which is the ecosystem restoration project I will focus on for this post.
The Everglades are a massive area of wetland in the center of the south of Florida that once flowed freely and acted as a band aid when large storms and hurricanes hit to absorb some of the impact. Wetlands soak up water like sponges that absorb the abundance of water during dangerous storms. These swamps, bogs and marshes are home to much wildlife and food in ecosystems, in fact they are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world alongside coral reefs and tropical rain forests. Biodiversity is the diversity of the different life forms on planet Earth. This includes the number of plants, microorganisms, and animals that contribute to an ecosystem. Every species has its own unique niche that contributes to the well being of an ecosystem. With a plentiful and dynamic group of species doing their individual jobs, more productive work gets accomplished, the ecosystem is stable as every role is being taken care of, it is able to thrive and self sustain. If a natural disaster or human induced destruction occurs, the ecosystem is able to bounce back more easily as it has its variety of species to rely on. As we continue to destroy habitats for our never satisfied craving for more land, the biodiversity of an ecosystem suffers. Even if an ecosystem is fairly diverse and the animals shift to a a new ecosystem, one type of animal or plant may need specific conditions such as temperature, air pressure or food to survive. With this different home, the animal may not be able to adjust and die off. Even one death of a species can disturb the food chain (maybe that animal preyed on another species to keep its population under control, now it is overpopulated and eating another species’ food) and the rest of the natural order of the ecosystem. Think of a healthy, stable ecosystem as a complete Jenga tower, each species represents a Jenga block. When we remove one Jenga piece, the entire tower is slightly affected. When we keep removing them, it becomes shakier and shakier until it collapses.
In 2000, it was decided that a plan called the Comprehensive Everglades Resoration Plan would be passed by the congress to preserve, protect and restore the ecosystem in the south of Florida, while still providing safe water for agricultural, industrial and municipal use and flood protection. This project has a 35-year timeline (it is a huge job!) and its budget is about $10.5 billion, this makes it the largest hydrologic project that the United States has ever initiated. But where did the need for this protection project begin anyways?
In 1948, a project called the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project was authorized to create hundreds of canals, levees and other water control methods to control floods and provide saltwater free water for farms, industries, and cities to use. Many people were and still are moving to Florida to retire or start their lives so they began building subdivisions, shopping centres and demanding more water for their everyday lives. This project proved to be successful and allowed people to have full access to fresh and plentiful amounts of water. However, it critically harmed the Everglades. This amazingly rich, resourceful place lost much of its ability to monitor its water flow, it lost many of its diverse species, the quality of the water greatly decreased and it lost much of it water period. This damage actually started as far back as the late 1800’s, when it was believed that digging to create canals and streams would jumpstart the agricultural industry in south Florida. Years and years of this change caused floods, algal blooms, large amounts of rain and deadly hurricanes to take a greater toll on this land as its wetland protection was dwindling away. More than half of the Everglades wetlands disappeared to this development from the late 1800’s until 2000. The loss of sawgrass reduced wildlife on an incredible scale as it acts as one of the producers for the food chain. People realized that something needed to be done for their safety and the ecosystem’s as the millennium approached. So this is where the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan came in. Its goal is to take unused freshwater in manmade canals (its fate would simply be to flow to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, what a waste!) and save it to provide to the Everglades. They will also remove barriers that obscure water flow and create water storage reservoirs, treatment marshes and more. This land is still wanted for sugar cane plantation development therefore purchasing it off developers has proven to be difficult, however 51% of the desired land has been purchased for a price of $1 billion by CERP. The purchased land can begin to have the positive changes upon it once CERP owns it. Meetings in communities, informative events and workshops have been put in place to try to recruit volunteers and spread awareness about the CERP and has been fairly successful.
This “River of Grass” is a treasure to the world, it is home to the endangered Florida panther, manatees, dolphins, more than 100 marsh species, various species of wading birds, orchids, the keystone trees of the mangroves, sawgrass that forms much of the marsh lands and the periphyton alagae, the autotrophic base of the food chain. Many of the wildlife are rare and endangered, making the protection of this place even more important.

So why does this effect humans if we’re the ones benefitting from the destroyed habitats? (More land for us=more houses built, more schools, hospitals built, etc.) Obviously animals provide us with food, but in regards to the approximated 300,000 species of plants, they provide us with oxygen, help absorb carbon dioxide from our polluted air, stabilize the earth, give us medicine, provide fuel sources and not to mention forest areas protect/absorb the impact of natural disasters. Is it fair that just because our population keeps growing therefore needs more and more technological and medical advancements, food, and space that the innocent creatures who were here first should suffer? Our planet cannot keep up with the strain we are putting upon it. If we cannot stop our developing, we need to at least make efforts to restore and preserve some vital areas in the world like the coral reefs, Amazon rainforest and the Everglades to sustain some biodiversity. We only have one world, it is our home and houses all that we know. We are continuously demolishing the place that sustains us which all the signs such as the rising sea level, extreme and abnormal weather patterns, more frequent tornados and other odd, freaky natural disasters are entailing. If it is true that we have passed the apparent, “point of no return” I refuse to accept it. If we all work together—I’m not talking amateur recycling here, some serious changes need to be made to actually show results, this means laws controlling the amount of fuel used per household each month, solar panels and other forms of green energy mandatory for each house, laws against burning fossil fuels, re-forestation plans for forests, protecting areas as green space, more fines for poaching, etc. This may sound unrealistic due to the price of the green energy and amount that some people care, however something needs to be done by using tactics like advertising and yes, fear to let people understand the severity of the situation. For example, I read in the Globe and Mail newspaper the other day that a recent study predicted that by 2100, the number of cities and towns to be underwater reached up to around 1,400. Some say they do not care because it will not hurt them, think again. And those may have passed away by that time still have loved ones who will be effected. If one has any human sense of love and smarts, they should think that not even will it hurt their families and friends but the entire world whether or not they are connected to you. We are all in this together; the animals and humans of the future deserve to live as fruitfully as those in the past. Just because humans were not as aware and even they became aware still ceased to stop burning fossil fuels, logging and further harming our Earth does not mean it should be left for the future generations to clean up and face the wrath of. Let us all stop feeling so entitled, pick up our slack, get off our lazy bottoms and begin to restore the crucial ecosystems, before it is too late!

Check out these videos to see what these beautiful wetlands look like and learn more about the projects that are working hard to restore this land!

Antibiotic resistance, a looming threat

We live in a world where hand sanitizer and disinfectants are praised by doctors and daycare teachers alike. Every surface that children come in contact with has been scrubbed and rigorously wiped of every trace of dirt and food by their paranoid caregivers. Over the last decade, the fear of germs and infections has been growing into more and more of a paranoia. Baffling scientists as more allergies appear and people’s bodies begin to combat the medicine that is supposed to help them. We rely on antibiotics to prevent or aid in keeping that nasty cold away or even protect against a serious infection. Is it so bad that we depend on chemicals; caffeine is a chemical right? Well, now that we are beginning to resist the antibiotics we have been relying on for years, they could become ineffective, leading to a global epidemic as scientists scramble to create new medicines that keep up with our continuously changing bodies.
The Oxford dictionary defines antibiotics as, “a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms”. Microorganisms are tiny, living microscopic organisms that are classified under the bacteria, archaea and only sometimes eukarya domain. They are present in the soil, algae, fungi and more of the biosphere. The role they play in ecosystems in quite important, seeing as they fix nitrogen and decompose dead organisms. Despite the positive part they play in life, microorganisms can appear as pathogens in the form of bacteria, fungi or viruses that cause diseases in plants, animals, humans and more. Antibiotics are naturally occurring chemicals, however the clinical practice of administrating antibiotics is quite new. Therefore the bacterium inside antibiotics (yes, bacteria often plays a part in producing these antibiotics) that has been evolving for billions of years all has individual genes that protect it from foreign substances and chemicals in its surrounding environment. Therefore the gene for antibiotic resistance could spread through an ecosystem and through natural selection, the resistant bacteria will prosper while the sensitive bacteria will die off as it causes organisms to be weaker. So the resistant bacteria will be more common and able to spread to different countries through food, animal and other trade of products, among other reasons, this is why it is such a global health concern.
Let’s say a person gets pneumonia and their doctor prescribes the usual, brand name antibiotic Ketek. The bacteria containing microorganisms (the pneumonia bacteria) in the body that is supposed to give in to the helpful attack of their antimicrobial medicine would begin to actually resist it. Therefore Ketek becomes ineffective to this person’s body and the sickness is able to spread. So then the doctor administrates a second-line agent that is slightly more dangerous, has more side effects and is more expensive but more powerful than the first-line agent antibiotic. However the resistance begins to grow stronger and stronger, spiraling out of control. This is currently shown in this case of gonorrhea, as it now involves the last-line agent of medicine to treat it. If the illness becomes untreatable, it could lead to far more death and frequency of the sexually transmitted infection.
In Fiji, they are not as aware of diseases and do not practice an adequate level of hygiene as our Westen, developed countries do. Some say that their bodies have adapted to be tougher against allergies and common illnesses as they are not so obsessively careful and clean, however as something like antibiotic resistance is spreading to sea mammals, no one is safe. For example, if a Fijian fisher were to cut their leg, acquire an infection and then some how immerse, splash, ingest sea water, or even eat a creature that contained the resistance, the animal could pass on the resistance and allow it to mutate in response. As their health care system and even technology is lacking, they maybe prescribe outdated or not as effective medicine that just cannot keep up with the evolving bacteria. This could prolong the infection and increase the chance of death. Also, as sicknesses will prove to be longer and potentially more deadly, the cost of hospitals or health care expenses will rise, causing a problem to villages and families with less money.
Some say that antibiotic resistance is natural as everything evolves and the resistance was bound to occur given the strength of the evolutionary past of bacteria. So how are we to prevent or at least control this threat? The answer that medical associations and doctors are sharing is to spread awareness of this crisis to not just medical personal, but the general public of countries worldwide. Also, for the government to better regulate how much and for what infection doctors are prescribing these antibiotics. When one takes unnecessary or improper antibiotics for an infection, there can be more harm than help done. Our body can survive and actually learn to cure itself of small infections without the aid of drugs. Our immune system will begin to grow stronger as well. The consumption of vitamins, fluids, less strong medicine and rest can treat minor ailments as many of the overly cautious antibiotic users have forgotten! For years, this is how humans fought illnesses, so taking a bit more of an old fashioned, relaxed handle on infection may prove to be beneficial. Until then, scientists and doctors will continue to research and develop to replace the antibiotics becoming obsolete and strategize for the future so that we can treat infections and diseases in the near future. Although antibiotics are so crucial in our world for combating bacterial infections, ironically the resistance of them is becoming a worldwide health threat. Financial and political support will be required to both finance and promote this to our populations so let’s make it our goal to get the word out quicker than the resistance is spreading!

Works cited:
http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/03/26/antibiotic_resistance_a_growing_crisis.html
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=drug-resistance-antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-found-sharks-seals
http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs194/en/

Mechanisms of Speciation-My Parrot Story….

There once was an island just due North of the Fiji islands called Lushopia. Lushiopa was a rainy place covered in white sand and lush forests. It was home to many species of mammals, reptiles and birds. Let’s take the example of a species of parrots living there called the Bright Chested Parrot. These parrots had bright coloured feathers to attract mates and camouflage themselves from predators. They had relatively straight, long bills as they need to reach down under the soft sand and thin bark for worms and insects.
One summer evening, a tropical cyclone hit the island badly. Trees were uprooted, leaves were strewn about and animals were shaken and had some had lost their families. Turns out, a few of the species birds flying about were displaced from the wet, wild and violent chaos of the windy storm. They drifted down to the nearby island of Varadi when the storm had died down. Consequently, the Bright chested Parrot was one of the species of birds that landed on this new island. Species often move locations in search of better food sources and shelter, changing temperature and climatic conditions and competition for these resources, however in this case the move was forced and unnatural.
Although Varadi was only a few hundred kilometers southwest from Lushtopia, the mean temperature throughout the summer months was a whopping 29 degrees Celsius, two degrees warmer than Lushtopia. This seemingly small, incremental change in numbers has a major effect on the parrot. Animals adapt to live in their specific ecosystem therefore small changes and shifts in timing can end up creating too much strain on the animal’s behavioral patterns, food patterns and even its breeding cycle. This can go on to disrupt the delicate food chain, the ratio of predator to prey and may lead to more diseases within a population. As well as being slightly warmer, the island of Varadi had denser, rocky sand, less forest areas, thicker wood on their trees and large, jutting cliffs overlooking the coast. These environmental changes caused a few of the parrots to die off due to stress and inability to find food and build nests due to dwell in. However for centuries, the island of Varadi was forgotten.
An adaptation is a characteristic that an organism acquires for it to be able to survive in an environment and ultimately reproduce. Adaptation can take thousands of years; it’s all part of the grand scheme of life for animals if they are going to continue to live. Over the course of many years, the Bright Chested Parrot began to evolve by selective pressure. Selective pressure refers to the successful traits of a specific animal being carried on to the offspring and eventually to the entire population so that it continues to thrive and grow. These “pressures” are what push the organism to adapt to the best possible form in its environment. So the parrots shed some of their heavier, more water resistant feathers in order to keep cool in the hotter climate and because there was less levels of precipitation. They kept the long beaks however grew stronger, more curved bills so they could peck at the tough bark’s surface and under larger rocks in the sand to scoop up insects. They now roosted on cliffs to avoid predators prowling on land and tree climbing animals. All of these new traits were carried on to offspring as there now was a selective pressure for light feathers, curved beaks for collecting food and stronger beaks in order to the parrot race to benefit. Eventually, when human exploration began, the little overlooked island of Varadi was discovered by a boat full of European scientists, how convenient! These scientists landed and explored many of the South Pacific islands and were intrigued by the creatures on each diverse location. They took detailed notes (much like Darwin) and discovered that two of the species of parrots had very similar bone structure when further examined with their analogous structures.
This is where phylogenetics comes in handy. Phylogeny is the study of the evolutionary relationships between species or populations of organisms. We have heard a similar word when referring to taxonomy, phylum. (the taxonomic level below kingdom and above class) This is because phylogeny created an entire taxonomic group for itself, describing the race (stemming from the Greek word “phyle”) of a species. Anyways, the relationship between two groups of organisms can be tested through complex data sequencing that looks at the actual genetic information of the species–very small, molecular and cell studies. Phylogenetic work is crucial in expanding upon the work of Darwin’s and Haeckel’s biological Tree Of Life metaphors. This tree displays the common ancestry of species, it is supposed to demonstrate the idea of branching evolution and the interconnecting relationships of all different life forms.
Moreover, the Bright Chested Parrots, although completely fiction, show an example of speciation. For this to be correct, the original species must have formed a new species that is so reproductively isolated that they cannot reproduce with one another. This reproductive isolation ensures that the lack of interbreeding causes each separate species to become more varied and evolve in its own unique path. No funny business between the two different species of Bright Chested Parrots or they may produce some genetic mutated baby! The parrots were separated due to a geographical change in islands (this can be called Allopatric speciation) and their direction of evolution (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, genetic mutation) changed so drastically that reproduction is not even possible. This could mean that the species never have a chance to meet as they live in different habitats, relating to Ecological Isolation, or Gamete Isolation, where the gametes do not even fertilize because of the inability to recognize the markers on the other species’ gamete.

Plant Study-The wondrous vesi tree

On one of the most amazing days of my life, our class went for a three hour, treacherous hike just outside of Levuka. The tour was guided by a local man named Epi. Epi was born and raised in a traditional village nestled in between the many vast mountains of the island of Ovalau. Once we all reached the end of the great forest and made it to the other side of the mountain, we tied on our sulus and tiredly yet happily prepared ourselves for the traditional lunch in the village waiting for us. Everyone was so kind and proud of their home. Even with the slight language barrier, they would sincerely try to answer any question about their village lives: from their food, waste management, their exceptional rugby team and more. Observing the children laughing and scampering about and visiting the school they attended was so inspiring. That is the experience I came for, being able to truly play and learn about the traditions with the local people of Fiji.
Earlier in the day, on our adventurous hike, Epi explained that the rainforest is like a natural pharmacy. One can survive there by learning to listen to the land and acquiring knowledge about the diverse plants in a medicinal and edible respect. Fijians respect their greenery and value the environment in a spiritual and physical manner. They utilize every part of nature in a productive and self-sufficient way in their day to lives.
We observed an interesting tree that is frequently used and is known as, “the iron tree” or “ironwood”. This sacred, tropical evergreen tree called vesi has extremely hard, durable and thick wood; hence the name. It had quite a tall and impressive stature, reaching up to about 7-40 m in height when full grown. It intrigued me so much and appeared along many of our excursions that I wished to look into it further. It is a bit of a history in this country, when Fiji was still a British colony, they did not have a means of making too much money on their own by farming or selling their products as their resources were not under demand. The Fijian people used this tree for a variety of things, the bark has medicinal purposes and the juice can be used as a natural dye and bug repellent, but it is mainly used as furniture, carvings and other items in the timber industry. It was and remains to be a great source of their income. This is why when Fiji became independent in 1970, their coins emblaze images of significant objects that were carved from the vesi wood such as a war club, the Lali drum and the traditional tanoa basin for kava drink were displayed on the 10 cent, 5 cent and $2 coin. This lets us know how important the vesi tree was in helping Fiji form a name for itself and that it plays an important part in Fijian culture.
Vesi is scientifically called Intisia bijuga. Taxonomy wise, these plants can be classified under the domain Eucaryota, the kingdom Plantae, the phylum tracheophyta, the class magnoliopsida, the order Fabales, and the family Fabaceae. It is found across the Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Palau, Tonga and Fiji. It thrives in hot, moist climates such as moist mangrove swamps and tropical rainforests. I observed it in both types of habitats, the wet ground of coastal swamps and along forest trails. After some observation of the flowers, here’s what I have to report. It is a monocot, although it appears to have five petals, (I made the mistake of counting five petals as well!) there are four green sepals that confused me and actually only one large white or pink petal (depending on the plant) that protrudes over top of the sepals. Three long stamen are clearly visible with their filaments and anther. Since these trees grow along the coast, their flowers are greatly pollinated by the wind, however of course birds and insects play a large part in pollination and thus the greater process of reproduction. The leaves are vibrantly green and have a thick, waxy cuticle with veins that stem from the centre despite being monocots. They bear large seedpods that span up to 30 cm long! These pods contain about five seeds. The healthy seeds are brown and circle shaped, with tough seed coats. This thick seed coat means that germination (where plants sprout from their seeds and begin to grow) takes a while due to the lack of water entering the seed. To speed up the process, a small incision can be made in the seed and immersing it in water for a few hours is recommended. This can sometimes be a delicate process as water, oxygen, light and temperature levels greatly affect germination; however intsia bijuga seeds will grow slowly but surely under full sunlight (some shade is acceptable) and nestled under the soil to avoid beating rain or animal’s footsteps. At the Eco Park, the guide told me that their fruiting season occurs in the end of the winter months, (between April and October) so watch out for falling seed pods overhead when walking under most forest canopy! He also told me that when grown in tropical forests under shade, the branches spread out more as opposed to growing upright when exposed to majority of the sun, very cool how plants adapt like that!
This massive tree is able to get its water and minerals through root pressure and transpiration. The roots of this tree adapt from their original fibrous root system to the recognizable buttresses as they mature. Buttresses are very prominent roots as they stick out of the ground and snake out far from the trunk of the tree. They act as an anchor and provide much needed support so these trees can dwell on limestone soil and receive enough nutrients from the thin layer of nutrient lacking tropical soil. (these plants prefer more alkaline soil!) So back to water transportation, root pressure only occurs in certain conditions when the soil is moist as the water collects and is forced to enter the xylem. Water enters the xylem through osmosis as it moves from an area of high concentration to low concentration through the plant’s membrane. This process ensures enough pressure for the water to make its way partly up the stem, however transpirational pull accounts for most of the movement up the xylem. Transpiration (like plants sweating) occurs on the leaves of plants, water evaporates from the pores into the atmosphere, making it necessary for more water to be drawn up. When there is an abundance of water in the guard cells, the stoma are forced open due to this turgor pressure. When there is not enough water within the plant, the stoma close to conserve water, also at night, when there is no light. The gases (carbon dioxide and oxygen) being stored in the mesophyll and diffusing through the leaf as well as the water transportation in and out of the leaf are all so that photosynthesis can function, it’s all based around this process in the end! (The leaf is the site of photosynthesis, and every cell’s role is to ensure that that happens!)
There is news that a community in Suva, Fiji has passionately developed land for a forest reserve that aims to save the vesi tree as it becomes endangered. After being so heavily logged through commercial logging, tanoa bowl manufacture and furniture demand, the lack of re-forestation and plantations has been having devastating effects on this desirable plant. It is up to the people of Fiji and the other countries to save this tree. In its ecosystem, it stabilizes soil, protects the coast from unwanted wind (it windbreaks) fixes nitrogen for all life forms to use, shades areas for humans and apparently has some connection to the endangered Alexandra birdwing butterfly as its life cycle depends on the tree in some way. I suppose the Fijian people were not aware that their actions would have consequences therefore did not plan their logging and overall consumption of the wood properly. This plant takes quite a long time to grow, it may take up to 75–80 years to fully mature so initiating tree harvests will prove to be difficult to maintain and could be many years before the harvestable age of 50 years comes along. One would have to watch for insects, termites, crabs, fungal diseases and other threats that could disrupt propagation. Even the re-planting could be an opportunity for locals to commence jobs in agricultural organization, development and more. All in all, it has to start somewhere to lead into our future, because what Fracis Areki of WWF says holds a lot of truth, “The species faces the possibility of imminent disappearance as an economic and cultural plant resource.”

Works cited:
http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Intsia-vesi.pdf
http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/32310/0
http://www.worldagroforestry.org/SEA/Products/AFDbases/AF/asp/SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=17930
http://central-america.panda.org/?53880%2FCommunity-forestry-on-Fiji-saves-native-tree-species

Koroniva Research Centre

Today we visited the Koroniva Research Centre to find an example of plant propagation. There was not exactly an opportunity to note this however we saw a great deal of science related things such as a forensic lab, information on invasive species, common and not so common insects in Fiji, a farm housing test specimens of pigs and more. I have opted to discuss the food preparation and production section of the tour.
There is one lab that deals with food labeling and safety in the centre and one separate room that contains different machinery that packages and seals the food. The packaging room had several aluminum machines such as a vacuum sealer for plastic packages and a labeller. After all of the safety and the nutritional testing, the expiry date and nutritional chart is slapped on to the food so it is safe and
The lab looked very clean and organized with test tubes neatly lined up on the counter, beakers placed on the table, a large clean sink and various cans and packages of food on shelves. So have you ever wondered how the nutrition facts are accurately written on the label of your granola bar? Or how many calories and carbohydrates are precisely measured in each can of beans you eat? Food manufacturers must analyze the ingredients in their products by sending them to a lab or using some sort of nutritional data base that already has the food’s fact on record.
This lab is an example of where such nutritional values are measured in large quantities. The scientists then determine if the food is safe and up to health standards to put up on shelves for the population’s consumption. After they calculate the nutritional facts for the bulk items, the divide their calculations into the average serving size for the item. The answer will and cannot be exact for every item, however it will be a very close calculation. New products are experimented with here to determine if they will be permitted to be put up for sale. I do not know what Fiji’s health standards are however I am sure there must be basic rules and regulations that nutrition scientists must follow like which chemicals are banned in food products, the level of sodium allowed for each item according to its size, and so on.
I believe this is a very important process as it plays such a big role in our day-to-day lives. We eat packaged food every day therefore we should have access to the nutritional values of the fuel we are putting in our bodies. Especially nowadays, as we are becoming more aware of the common fatalities of obesity, heart attacks caused by cholesterol and excess fat consumption, one should be able to the read the nutrition facts of the food that they eat so they can make better lifestyle choices and hopefully incorporate beneficial foods into their diet for a healthier future.

Lactase Evolution

We all know someone in our lives who suffers from a cramps, diarrhea, gas, bloating, pain in the abdominal region and other unpleasant symptoms after about 2-30 minutes of consuming dairy products. This unfortunate condition is caused by the difficulty or even inability to digest the sugar lactose, it is known as lactose intolerance. Lactose is found in milk products therefore common foods like ice cream, milk and chocolate prove to be off limits for those who suffer from lactose intolerance.
As we learned from our fruit lab, all living things produce enzymes. Enzymes act as catalysts in breaking down sugars and proteins into smaller molecules during a chemical reaction. The enzyme lactase is found in the small intestine and breaks down lactose into the simpler forms of glucose and galactose. After being broken down, these sugars are able to be absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy.
In this day and age, dietary restrictions are quite common and easy to manage. People find ways to receive adequate nutritional alternatives and read labels to avoid any medical issues. As lactose intolerance is just that, an intolerance—not an allergy, eating small amounts of lactose products will definitely not be deathly, merely result in discomfort. As dairy products contain nutrients and vitamins such as vitamin D and calcium that are vital in bone growth and development, one with this intolerance must add alternatives to their diet to maintain a balanced diet. For example, a lack of calcium can lead to osteoporosis, where the bones become brittle and fragile due to a lack of sufficient calcium intake. Alternative solutions include taking vitamin D and calcium supplements, consuming lactose-reduced or lactose-free products of milk and cheese, drinking soy milk, eating foods like dark, leafy greens, nuts and hearty fish such as salmon to receive the recommended 1,300mg of calcium for our age group (9-18). Adults will need about 1,000mg of calcium each day as their bones are no longer growing. To get accurate results of the severity of the intolerance and advice for alternatives that fit the needs of the individual, one should consult their doctor. Tests to properly diagnose lactose intolerance include stool tests, blood tests and breath tests.
Now statistically, who suffers from this and why are they affected? This is a question that relates back to genetics and evolution. Take the heritance factor of this intolerance; there is a possibility that the likeliness of primary lactase deficiency (the decrease in the enzyme lactase over time) is increased as it passed on from the parent to the offspring by inheriting a gene. By discovering this, scientists can better determine those at risk and create methods for an ideal, healthy lifestyle. Looking at it ethnically, African people, Chinese people and Aboriginal people are more likely to suffer from lactose intolerance whereas those in Northern Europe such as Sweden and those in India are far less likely to. This can be explained by looking back historically into their diet. In the case of the Indo-Fijians and the native Fijians, I found out that in India, cows are sacred and common animals. They are important in a symbolic and nutritional sense. The people drink cows milk however do not harm or slaughter the cow. Droughts and famine are fairly frequent in India, so in times of hardship the cow would prove to be especially important by drinking its milk. The body would have been required to produce the cells in the small intestine that form the enzyme lactase in order to survive. Therefore the Indian people have adapted to drink milk to survive and in turn reproduce. In Fiji, the cattle industry was not as present in the environment and contact with milk did not last past infancy or childhood. Consequently, the native Fijians would not be accustomed to digesting dairy products and might lack the enzyme lactase as their bodies did not need it to be formed.
Moreover, when the Indian people immigrated to Fiji in the late 1800’s to work on the sugar cane farms, they would have already been fit to digest milk products. This is why the testing of giving water containing lactose resulted in 100% of the 12 Fijian subjects being intolerant and only 62.5% of the Indo-Fijian subjects being intolerant. Although this was more than half of the subjects, it still shows that these people’s body’s are programmed to be able to digest lactose after years of living in a country where milk is not necessary for one’s well being. The goal of a species is always to be able to survive, adapt to grow stronger in their environment and reproduce to increase their population; Darwin’s theory of natural selection encompasses the process by which an animal adapts to their environment.
Furthermore, the example of the Indo-Fijian vs. the native Fijian’s tolerance to lactose demonstrates natural selection as a new species was introduced to the environment (the Indians to Fiji) and resulted in some of the population of Fiji to be more fit to survive, or to be tolerant to digest lactose in this case.

Prokaryotes in Fiji!

Just to review, all living things are divided into the group of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Prokaryotes are organisms that are usually unicellular and do not have a nucleus. They do not have membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria and vacuoles. As a result, DNA is in a single loop rather than organized into chromosomes like in eukaryotes. In eukaryotes, the multiple chromosomes are organized in compact, linear structures in the nucleus of the cell. Where eukaryotes are classified by taxonomy as eukaryota, prokaryotes are classified in the domain of bacteria and archaea, which is divided further into the kingdom of Eubacteria.
My chosen prokaryote is cyanobacteria, which is found in algal blooms and other aquatic environments. Cyanobacteria are bacteria that survive through the process of photosynthesis. They convert the sun’s thermal energy and water into chemical energy; this is why they are called oxy-photosynthetic bacteria. As cyanobacteria do not have membrane-bound organelles or a nucleus, they execute the process of photosynthesis through the layers in their cell. Light trapping thylakoids are present in the folds of the membrane, playing a vital role in nitrogen fixation, cellular respiration and of course photosynthesis.
Despite being uni-cellular organisms, the ball shaped cyanobacteria often grow together in filamentation and spread across oceans, lakes, soil and rocks. Eutrophication can develop algal blooms of cyanobacteria that negatively impact the aquatic ecosystems they dwell in due to the toxicity and effects of hypoxia. Eutrophication is when run off from fertilizers or other nitrogen and phosphorus containing substances contaminate bodies of water and begin a boom of phytoplankton. The mass amounts of surface blooms can block the sunlight from entering a body of water thus hindering the process of photosynthesis to occur, resulting in a lack of oxygen for fish and other creatures. Such surface blooms look like a layer of blue-green film across the water. Phycocyanin accounts for the blue-green colour of cyanobacteria; it is a pigment that absorbs light with the help of the compound chlorophyll. Proof of how widespread this slime is pictured in this satellite image taken by NASA Aqua below. This image displays a bird’s eye view of a cyanobacteria bloom that spans kilometres long in the tropical waters of Fiji.
The good side to this slimey bacteria is that they are nitrogen fixing bacteria. These microorganisms can convert nitrogen in the form of gas in the atmosphere into ammonia and nitrogen dioxide, which is crucial for all plants as it enables them to absorb it through their roots. An example of their impact can be seen in the endangered coral reefs of the world’s oceans. They provide usable forms of nitrogen for coral communities and prevent or attract certain animals from grazing on valuable coral. The fixation of nitrogen in the reefs can account for twice the amount of fixing compared to on land. These important autotrophs are able to thrive in many different areas across the planet as they are effective in reducing nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Despite their tiny size, cyanobacteria greatly support the nitrogen and carbon cycle in our atmosphere and help to sustain all life on Earth.

Comparative Anatomy: Dolphins vs. Humans

An animal evolves in order to survive and further reproduce; biological traits that hinder this process slowly seem to vanish over many generations. The goal is always to survive and be able to reproduce, therefore when species acquire traits that better adapt them to their environment, they become more apparent in their descendants. Species evolve by genetic drifts, natural selection and mutations. Therefore we can define evolution as the gradual process of change in a species over the course of generations; however all life forms are essentially striving for a better form than the previous.
All species of dolphins are said to be descended from mammals living on land called the Mesonix. The Mesonix were present in the Mesozoic Era and over the course of the next 30 million years they began to evolve into water dwelling animals. This is likely due to a change in temperature, climate and other environmental conditions. Their lower body turned into the propelling flukes, their forelegs turned into the balancing pectoral flippers, and eventually hind legs were not needed and began to disappear entirely. The hair vanished and the bones became lighter to increase the speed and efficiency of swimming in water at a continuous rate. There are different signs that indicate this past animal form; their pelvic and fin skeletal structure, their need to surface to inhale oxygen to breathe and more. (insert photo)
Dolphins are very muscular creatures in order to defend themselves and a streamlined body due to their constant, quick movement in the water. Humans have four main types of tissue, epithelial, muscle, connective and nervous tissue. Dolphins have these tissues included like their heart, liver, the lungs, kidneys, stomach and blood, however they have various tissue that differs from us like the melon and blubber as opposed to fat. In further regards to their similarity, there are many similarities in the bone structure in the pectoral fins of a dolphin to a human that displays its history of life on land. This diagram shows the skeletal structure of a dolphin’s pectoral fin compared to a human arm. The pectoral fins allow dolphins to move around to control their direction. Humans use their arms for stability, movement, defense and to pick up and operate objects. Dolphins have all of the same bones a human has, however they are in different proportions. This includes the humerus, the ulna, the radius, the phalanx and the numerous carpals. This similarity in skeletal structure leads back to their similarity to a mammal’s structure.(insert photo)
Here I will compare the dolphin’s digestive system to the human’s. The digestive system sorts proteins, vitamins, minerals and carbs and breaks down food into usable forms and allows the body to absorb nutrients to fuel our muscles, tissues and cells. Humans begin this process in the mouth, the food is swallowed down the throat to the esophagus, mixed in the stomach, emptied into the duodenum, released into the large intestine, then the small intestine, the rectum and finally released at the anus. (insert image)
Dolphins have a far different process. This is because they are built to store food for long periods of time. They are carnivores and eat a great deal of fish throughout the day. The bottlenose dolphin will eat up to 65 kilograms of fish in a day and metabolize it quickly. They have one stomach that is separated into three chambers called the forestomach, the glandular compartment and finally the pyloric stomach. The first stage of digestion allows the dolphin to store food for later digestion, this is the muscular fore stomach. It essentially kneads the food and begins the mastication process by compressing the fish that are normally swallowed whole. The second step is the glandular compartment that contains the material that breaks down the food with enzymes and gastric juices such as hydrochloric acid and pepsin. The third chamber is the pyloric stomach, which ends the entire digestive process after empting the food into the intestines. This food enters the duodenum in a controlled flow by the sphincter muscle. After this, it exits through the multi purpose genital slit that contains the anus and vagina. (insert image)

Monocot vs. Dicot discoveries at Thurston Gardens

Today we took the city bus into Suva. Our plan was to walk through Thurston Gardens, then the renowned Fiji Museum and end with the busy market. As we zoomed by in the public bus, I was discreetly observing all the locals going about their daily business; some ambling about town in a relaxed fashion, scattered children running about shrieking, adults weaving their way through the crowd and crossing the street with an experienced air. I notice that many of the Fijians have a chill vibe about them; no one ever appears to be in a rush or seems to be particularly phased by any minor obstacles. I find this intriguing and quite refreshing. After leaving the boisterous boom of the bumping public bus it was time to visit the gardens.
In the tranquil space of Thurston Gardens I took a few pictures of some plant and flower species I came across. I was looking to capture shots of vascular plants to classify whether the plant was a monocot or dicot. I spotted an impressive tree that sparked my interest. It looked very healthy and large; the vascular tissue arrangement that bundles together in a ring within the tree’s trunk allows such plants to grow very tall. I recognize that this tree is a dicot because all deciduous trees are dicots. I took a close glance at its leaves and saw that the small veins stemmed outward from the middle vein that aligned in the centre. Of the approximated 17,000 species of dicots, this tree sure stood out, as it looked more native to the Fijian country’s tropical rainforest climate than the deciduous trees I’m used to in Canada. (INSERT PHOTO)
I did not spy any monocots on my short stroll through Thurston Gardens so I selected an old picture from my photo library. The flowers pictured are orchids, scientifically known as Orchidaceae. I understand that they are indeed monocots because they have six petals, and dicots have petals in multiples of three, (as opposed to multiples of four or five like dicots.) There were not any leaves on these orchids so I could not analyze the venation to ensure their veins ran parallel in the leaves, however I am certain they are of the monocot species. These delicate flowers get their required water, glucose and other nutrients through the xylem and phloem which is arranged in vascular bundles that are scattered throughout the stem. (INSERT PHOTO)
Monocots and dicots are not similar in their seed, root, stem or pollen structure either. For example, in majority of dicots, the root grows from the bottom of a primary root in a region known as the radicle. This radicle allows the undifferentiated meristem found in the roots to constantly produce root tissue. The major root burrows very deeply underground with smaller, less significant roots to branch off. This means dicots have a taproot system. Monocots, on the other hand do not really have a primary root and have new roots that arise at irregular positions from the stem. These roots are not as deep underground however there are many of them and they spread out across the area of the soil. Therefore monocots have a fibrous root system.

Bula friends!

It took a total of thirty hours of travel but we have finally arrived in the distant land of Fiji! Equipped with my giant duffel bag, tons of sunscreen and an empty mind I stepped off the giant plane in an exhausted daze. Sunny skies, a warm temperature and swaying palm trees greeted us as we began our tropical, scientic adventure.
We piled in on a bus for the alleged two hour trip however we were sorrowfully mistaken as our guide Afnan is obviously on “Fiji Time” therefore the ride was quite a bit farther than expected. “Fiji Time” is a term used to describe the relaxed mentality the Fijian people have about time. It’s lovely not to stressfully rush around and have this ‘go go go’ state of mind however my tired self was not impressed as the bus slogged along the small highway for a grand four hours. We essentially drove across the entire island so it was a great chance to observe the villages and wild countryside. Scrawny dogs, schoolchildren and fantastic swooping mountains sped by.
We finally trundled into the capital city of Suva. It was bustling with lots of locals and shops around. It did not have the most attractive downtown, however we spotted a few parks that looked enticing. After being confined to a seated position for an extended period of time, getting to the University of the South Pacific was appreciated in more than one way. Our anticipation built as the bus rolled to a stop. We reached our final destination–hurrah!
Now it is time to start exploring and learning about biology in a new, beautiful location. Dolphin watching, coral planting and waterfall trekking await us. I cannot wait to delve into our activities! Bye for now.