SOD Blitz: Volunteers take on Sudden Oak Death

10 05 2012

UC Berkeley students survey trees for sudden oak death. Photo: E. Loury

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

Ah, the signs of spring. The sun is out, the rain has stopped (for now)—and sudden oak death is on the move. This invasive, fungus-like tree killer, which is related to the Irish potato blight, moves in fits and spurts with bouts of warm spring rains. Every spring for the past four years, scientists from UC Berkeley have mobilized hundreds of volunteers to track the disease’s whereabouts in the Bay Area.

A bay leaf showing classic signs of sudden oak death. Photo: E. Loury

This massive citizen scientist effort is called a SOD Blitz (“SOD” for sudden oak death). “It started mostly as a way to engage people,” says organizer Matteo Garbelotto, a researcher at UC Berkeley who helped identify the disease-causing water mold, Phytophthora ramorum, in 2001. Because SOD outbreaks have a cyclical nature, they fall out of the news spotlight fairly quickly.  Garbelotto wanted to keep up public interest and awareness in the disease.  “When you actually do something, you look at it differently than just sitting in the chair and listening to even the brightest researchers in the world talking about it,” he says.

I recently attended the SOD Blitz at UC Berkeley, where Garbelotto briefed about 70 volunteers in how to spot the signs of the disease and collect data. The blitzes focus on bay laurel trees, which spread the disease to oaks without succumbing themselves, the way mosquitoes transfer malaria to people. Oaks can’t pass the disease to each other, so surveying bay trees provides the clearest picture of infection risks. The symptoms are also easy to spot on bay leaves. Garbelotto instructed the participants to look for brown leaf tips, where water droplets (and the water-borne disease) would accumulate. Other classic signs include a black line and yellow halo above the tip lesion, and little black specks throughout the leaf from disease carrying water droplets.

UC Berkeley student Heather Leslie collects leaves from a bay tree that shows symptoms of sudden oak death. Photo: E. Loury

I joined a pair of UC Berkeley students surveying the bay trees on a fire road behind the campus. The girls carried a collection packet of materials in a big manila envelope. When they spotted an infected bay tree, they jotted down its GPS coordinates (with the help of an iPhone ap), collected a handful of symptomatic leaves in a small envelope, and marked the tree with flagging tape.  They also made a note of any nearby oak trees that showed symptoms of the disease – which in oaks include bleeding bar and black opportunistic fungi.

Garbelotto’s lab will test all the collected leaves for the disease agent, and create a map of infected trees.  The maps can help homeowners decide whether their oaks might be at risk, and whether they ought to take steps to treat them. “When you combine all these maps, you have a really great distribution,” Garbelotto says. “There’s no way we can do it without the volunteers.”

If you care about oak trees in Santa Cruz, there’s a SOD Blitz coming up on Saturday, May 19 at10:30am. The location is the Cal-Fire Training Room on Gushee Street (behind the forestry office at 6059 Highway 9) in Felton. For more information, contact Nadia Hamey,  And you can find out about other SOD Blitzes throughout the Bay Area.  It’s a great way to spend a few hours outdoors and do something good for science!

Look for my feature in the upcoming edition of Science Notes this summer to get the full story on sudden oak death!

Citizen scientists collect data that will help researchers track the spread of sudden oak death. Photo: E. Loury


Blue Marbles and Ocean Microbes: A Sea Change at TEDxMonterey

20 04 2012

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

A volunteer placed a translucent, blue marble in my hand as I walked through the door.  Everyone else in the darkened auditorium held a similar token.  Ocean-philes of one kind or another, we were gathering at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for the third TEDxMonterey.  A community-organized event modeled after the popular TED talk series, the day’s line-up of inspiring presentations revolved around the topic of “Sea Change,” and explored the connection between people and the ocean.

My blue marble from TEDxMonterey

The blue marbles were part of a project started by Wallace J. Nichols, one of the day’s speakers. The marble represents how the Earth looks from space, a blue sphere colored by its predominant feature, our ocean. It also represents a drop of seawater, teaming with life. Nichols hopes the blue marbles will pass through the hands of everyone on the planet. When you see someone doing something to help the ocean, give a blue marble to them, and tell them to pass it on, Nichols said.  He hopes the act will help inspire gratitude for the life-giving gifts of the ocean, and efforts to protect it.

James Cameron recently took his blue marble to the bottom of the Marianas Trench before giving it away, Nichols said. I read about these marbles making their rounds at the Copenhagen climate meeting in 2009; now I’m excited to have one of my own.  I will have to think of some great ocean adventure to take my marble on before I find just the right person to pass it off to.

TEDxMonterey included a number of ocean visionaries, and contained references to Shakespeare (who coined the term “sea change” in his play The Tempest), algal biofuels, education, fishing, and talk by long distance swimmer Lynne Cox that I found particular inspiring—she broke the record for swimming the English Channel at age 15, swam across the Bering Strait, and swam over a mile in Antarctic waters with just a bathing suit, cap and goggles, to name just a few of her feats!

There was a good deal of science mixed in throughout the day, and I thought one of the most engaging scientist speakers was Melissa Garren, a researcher from MIT.  Garren called for a little recognition for the ocean’s tiniest residents: its bacteria and viruses.  She gave a nod to Prochlorococcus, a species of cyanobacteria that, along with other microalgae, produce half of the oxygen on Earth. Take two breaths, Garren said. For the first, thank the trees and macroalgae, like kelp. For the second breath, thank the microbes. Though they support our very existence, scientists only discovered Prochlorococcus in 1988. We have so much to still learn about the ocean.

Thank marine microalgae like these for half the air we breathe (photo: Daniel Vaulot, CNRS, Station Biologique de Roscoff)

Garren called microbes “the invisible engineers that control the chemistry of the ocean.” They influence how the sea feels, smells, tastes and looks. Two gallons of seawater contain more bacteria than there are people on the planet, Garren said. The audience of ocean enthusiasts collectively squirmed as we recalled how many mouthfuls of seawater we had each swallowed. When we pollute the ocean with too many nutrients, which fish farms often do, the bacteria populations can sky rocket.  When the microbe population is out of whack, the ocean experiences some nasty side effects, like a person who suffers the wrath of intestinal microbes, Garren said.

Sometimes corals are the collateral damage. Corals have a protective layer of bacteria that coats their skin of symbiotic algae, but bacterial diseases also plague them.  Garren recently discovered that the bacterial pathogen behind a widespread coral disease can actively “sniff out” traces of coral mucous on a microscope slide. It was a bit mindboggling to think of tiny marine bacteria hunting down their prey. The things scientists are discovering about the ocean constantly amaze me.

TEDxMonterey was a stimulating and inspiring event. I’ll leave you with the quote from Ariel’s Song in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which made it into one of the day’s talks. I just love the words—they give me chills every time I read them.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Oh, and one shameless plug. I’m very proud of a certain photographer who was featured as a local artist at TEDxMonterey for his stunning underwater photography. Check out his work here:

Marine science graduate student and underwater photographer Scott Gabara shows off his photos and camera setup at TEDxMonterey

Mushrooms Take Center Stage

19 01 2012

Mushrooms are the main attraction all weekend long at the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair (photo: E. Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

After four years of living near Santa Cruz, last weekend I finally ventured to the annual Fungus Fair for the first time.  With elements of nature, science, and hippie culture, it’s an event that sounded just so… Santa Cruz.

My expectations were tempered after hearing Meghan’s first radio story for KUSP, which shadowed volunteers searching for mushrooms to display.  The weather has been so unusually dry this winter that fresh fungi seemed to be in short supply.  In fact, I overheard a fair organizer say that this was the first year they had to send mushroom collectors out of the area, in search of wetter conditions farther north.

So while I was expecting maybe a few tables with mushrooms on display, I was startled to enter the Louden Nelson community center to behold – trees.  They had recreated a little piece of forest with artfully arranged fungi springing out of the logs and redwood duff.  And the tables were loaded with mushrooms galore.

The fair is an opportunity for a little indoor mushroom foraging. (photo: E. Loury)

The diversity of local mushrooms stunned me, especially their shapes and colors.  I enjoyed hearing mycologists, such as Chritstian Shwarz, leader of the UCSC Mushroom Enthusiast club, speak about their study subjects with the same level of enthusiasm I’m used to hearing from my former marine scientist labmates when they talk about the ocean.

My main draw to the fair was a talk about sudden oak death by David Rust, co-founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society.  This quarter I’ll be learning the ins and outs of the disease as part of my feature story for Science Notes, and I was intrigued by how the disease affects not just the mighty oaks, but all the species connected to them.  Many mushrooms grow on oak trunks and roots, and some are species-specific.

A small sampling of the diversity on display (photo: E. Loury)

Rust’s talk was a great primer in the history and basics of the disease. I learned that the pathogen – a fungal-like organism related to potato blight – hitchhiked into California on ornamental nursery plants from Europe.  While the disease only causes cosmetic damage on the leaves of camellias and rhododendrons, it took a lethal turn once it spread to some of California’s native trees. Rust explained how the California bay laurel serves as a host for the disease’s multi-stage life cycle, and that the tanoak, while not a true oak species, is most susceptible to the disease.

Rust urged mushroom hunters to use caution when collecting – the pathogen can be spread by clinging to the wet mud on a hiker’s boots.  The audience uttered some groans of disappointment and dismay as Rust flashed photos of half a dozen fungal species associated only with tanoak trees – species they are in danger of losing if tanoaks disappear.

A cauliflower mushroom - my personal favorite! (photo: E. Loury)

I left the talk with my head buzzing with avenues of inquiry to explore for my story, and visited the rooms of vendors selling everything from mushrooms you could grow yourself, to beautiful fungal-inspired artwork.  I couldn’t help but buy a pair of mushroom-printed socks.  I rounded off my visit by sampling the mushroom quiche, and bringing my camera to the identification table to ask about a photo I had taken of a fungus among the redwoods on the UC Santa Cruz Campus. Most likely a conch, I was told, a hard and woody mushroom that grows on the sides of trees.

Next week Christian Schwarz has agreed to take me tramping around the UC Santa Cruz campus to check in on some of the oak trees and their mushroom tenants.  I look forward to sharing what I find!

A charismatic mega-fungus (photo: E. Loury)

Plants on a Hot Green Roof

18 11 2011

Rows of native plants at the Thimann Lab greenhouse, grown for coastal prairie restoration (photo: E. Loury)

by Erin Loury

There’s a room at UC Santa Cruz filled with chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and green tea, bananas and pineapple.  But far from ready-to-eat desserts, all are leafy and green, basking in the humid light of one of the three UCSC campus greenhouses.

A certain former UCSC student and plant aficionado in my life recently told me about the greenhouse on the roof of the Thimann Lab building.  Anyone can pop up to this greenhouse on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I came across some students studying at tables on the plant-covered patio.   The oldest of the campus greenhouses, it’s primarily used for instruction.

Workspace in the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)

Plant lab sections can visit a room full of carnivorous plants (I should have asked if they have this one with peculiar diet preferences), and also a tropical plant collection, which boasts the disproportionate number of tasties I mentioned earlier. There’s even an outdoor classroom up here, complete with speakers and a whiteboard.  If only all students were so lucky!

Jim Velzy, UCSC greenhouse director, points out two different species of plants in a hybridization experiment - brought back memories of Punnett squares! (photo: E. Loury)

Jim Velzy, the greenhouses director, was kind enough to give me a tour of all three greenhouses, including the ones used for research atop the Sinsheimer Labs and the Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, which are not open to the public.  All the greenhouses are located within a stone’s throw of each other, which is probably a good thing since it’s just Jim, the greenhouse operation’s manager Denise Polk, and four student employees that care for all the plants.

Some of the plants grown on the Thimann lab building, Jim told me, are for a coastal prairie restoration project near the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at the campus’s Long Marine Lab.  Seeds collected from native plants sprout in dozens of plastic tubes, awaiting transportation to the field.

Two campus divisions, Physical & Biological Sciences and Social Sciences, share the funding of the greenhouses, and researchers have free access to pots, soil and space. They can reserve a greenhouse and tailor it to their specific needs, like one that is currently sealed up and pumped with elevated levels of carbon dioxide.  Jim estimates that about 25 different projects occupy his 10 growth chambers, 10 incubators and 15 greenhouses at any given time.

“This facility is unique in that the instructional facility and the research facility are the same unit,” Jim said. “That’s not the case almost anywhere you go.”

Undergraduate students benefit from access to the state-of-the-art greenhouses, and a direct connection to ongoing research.  Students can work with the greenhouses for a senior thesis or volunteer with research projects.  Researchers benefit from the extra labor counting seeds or planting plants, and the connection to the instructional greenhouse gives them some overflow space for their experiments.

“Our biology faculty generally look at populations, distribution of species, speciation,” Jim said. “Those are all our claims to fame.”

On our tour, he showed me several experiments involving the hybridization of two closely related species.  A student in Dr. Kathleen Kay’s lab is studying how two species of goldfields that are nearly identical, and often grow next each other, maintain their distinct identities.

He also showed me endangered California wallflowers native to sand hills grown by Dr. Ingrid Parker’s Lab, and an experiment investigating how invasive Scotch broom suppresses the growth of Douglas fir seedlings.

A growth chamber maintains constant conditions for a flat of woodland stars. (photo: E. Loury)

We poked our heads inside growth chambers used by Dr. John Thompson’s lab.  Jim called Thompson a “father of coevolution,” the study of how closely connected species, like plants and pollinators, change together over time.  Jim showed me Lithophragma, or woodland stars, that have coevolved with a species of moth that lays its eggs inside the flower, and also pollinates the flower.

Another greenhouse overflowed with spiral ginger plants from Costa Rica, which have coevolved with hummingbirds, as seen in their flowers with a distinctly hummingbird-tailored, sippy-cup-like extension.

Sprial ginger flowers have evolved a perfect fit for their hummingbird pollinators (phto: E. Loury)

Achieving constant, reliable conditions in incubators (which are used to germinate plants), and growth chambers (which maintain constant light and humidity) are key to producing publishable results, Jim said.

“When you publish a paper in Science, Nature, Plant Physiology, whatever you want to publish in, the better publications are going to require that you have your plants under set conditions,” Jim said. “You eliminate all variables except for one.”

He also revealed a surprising similarity between plant science and high fashion – a little brand name recognition goes a long way.  Thus, the pricey Conviron E15 growth chambers (which cost about $30,000) or Percival incubators are worth every dollar if they help a researcher establish credibility with a publication.

I felt very fortunate to get a behind-the-scenes look into the blooming world of plant science on my own campus, and felt nostalgia for my undergraduate days in an introductory biology plant class at UC Davis.  I remember a TA telling me that once you start learning plants, it gives you whole new way of looking at and appreciating your environment, even if it’s the landscaping around campus.  Now I can say I also have a whole new appreciation for the rooftops on Science Hill!

Thanks, Jim, for a great, informative tour!

Pitcher plants wait to catch a meal at the Thimann Lab greenhouse (photo: E. Loury)

Not Your Average Birdhouse

24 10 2011

Researchers and conservationists are giving some seabirds an extreme home makeover on Año Nuevo Island (photo: Erin Loury)

Erin Loury

by Erin Loury

On a little island off the coast of central California, researchers, conservationists and artists are teaming up to help some threatened sea birds raise their next generation. The helping hand comes in the form of some stylish new housing.

The Rhinoceros Auklet is a small seabird that researchers call the “the penguin of the North Pacific.”   When it comes to setting up shop, these seabirds have some special needs.  They only nest on islands, safe from the predators they would encounter on the mainland, and they dig those nests in the ground, burrowing long tunnels into the topsoil.

A Rhinoceros Auklet (photo: Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons)

On Año Nuevo Island, soil erosion threatens some prime seabird real estate.  A combination of human use, dry summers, heavy storms, and trampling sea lions and pelicans sloughed five feet of topsoil from the island in the 1990s.  Without stable soil, the burrows can blow away or collapse and kill the chick inside.  To top it off, Rhinoceros Auklets only raise one chick a year.

That’s where a little human engineering comes in to play.

The Año Nuevo Island Restoration project, headed by California State Parks, the non-profit Oikonos and Go Native Inc., is giving the island a little TLC to make it a better bird habitat.  In addition to planting 10,000 native plants to stabilize the soil, the team found a creative way to give the birds a boost in the nesting department.

Students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, instructed by ceramicist Nathan Lynch and Rebar designer Matthew Passmore, crafted 90 ceramic burrows that the team buried in the soil. The burrows consist of a long tube that curves at the end like the crook of a pipe.  The shape mimics the style of burrows that Rhinoceros Auklets construct for themselves, with a bendy bit serving as a place to tuck their chicks out of the light.

The burrows create a solid place for the birds to nest without fear of collapsing tunnels.  They also have a handy little lid over the nesting area that researchers can lift to check in on the birds.  Once they know a nesting pair is incubating an egg, they won’t disturb them until they estimate they egg is ready to hatch.

The birds have been warming up to their sturdy new digs.  After the first burrows were installed in 2010, a single pair used one to successfully raise a chick. This year, 33 pairs of auklets cozied up to the new burrows.   It’s no wonder the team dubs these ceramic nests things like “The Love Shack.”

You can read a great description about the project, and follow their progress online.  And just for kicks, another recent of example of crafters giving seabirds a lift: knitters make sweaters for the oil-splashed penguins of New Zealand.