Not many students get the opportunity to travel into the field. Even fewer students get to take such a trip accompanied by a couple of experts!
This past summer I had the honour of exploring the Pontiac region of Quebec with Canadian Museum of Nature botanists Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela. We embarked on a three-day exploratory trip to sample the plant biodiversity within the local area, which is located a few hours drive from the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau.
As a co-op student from the University of Ottawa, this was my first real field experience. I was not disappointed! We did not have any target species to collect, so this allowed us to spread out and collect the species that were most abundant and representative of the area. By the end of the trip we collected close to 200 specimens!
Each morning we would wake up, choose our driving route, find an area of interest and then spread out to search for interesting plants. We would repeat this for a few different sites in a day and then return to camp.
Once we returned, each plant was identified, given a collection number, sampled for DNA, and then pressed and dried. The plant specimens were stored in a plant press until they were returned to the museum for processing.
Although we had no specific targets, we were constantly keeping an eye out for invasive species such as Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) and Phragmites australis subsp. australis (European reedgrass).These two species are found in wetlands and ditches and are a big threat to native biodiversity.
Phragmites australis subsp. australis in particular is a growing problem in the National Capital Region. If we noticed any along the highways we would stop to collect a sample and mark the location. We found a few occurrences of this reed on our travels, but it does not yet appear to have spread as aggressively to this part of Quebec.
Apart from learning about the local plant biodiversity, I also learned many practical things, such as:
- Raccoons are extremely smart animals! (They also make robot-like sounds… weird!)
- Sleeping in a tent can be really comfortable, even when you discover in the middle of the night that your tent is not as waterproof as previously thought!
- A dry and warm shelter can be built using only inexpensive tarps and some rope.
- A coffee press is the most essential piece of equipment on a collecting trip!
Local collecting trips such as the one we did are extremely important to our understanding of the ecology in the immediate area.
By periodically sampling in the local area, comparisons can be made to past and future collections in order to better understand how biodiversity has changed over time. It is important to keep a record of plants occurring (essentially) in the museum’s own backyard!
A big thank you goes to Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela for organizing the trip and sharing their knowledge and passion for plants with me!