Biologist Zooms In on Ants and Other Species

GigaPan camera documents space and species in U of G’s Dairy Bush

Alex Smith

Prof. Alex Smith takes 640 shots every week to create a panoramic image of the University's Dairy Bush for a blog sponsored by the Fine Foundation.

Every Wednesday around noon, Prof. Alex Smith leaves his office in the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) and heads for the woods. Armed with tripod and camera bag, the integrative biology professor visits the Dairy Bush topping the rise at the northwest corner of campus. There he places his tripod in the same spot as last week ― one of its legs parked in an obliging marker tuft of grass ― attaches his robot-controlled camera, and aims it high up the tall basswood tree just off the path.

After a few adjustments, the Canon G10 sets to work. For the next 45 minutes, it will click up and down and all around a full 320 degrees while Smith wanders the area, flipping over rocks and logs, peering at tree trunks for scurrying insects and greeting the occasional passerby. Back at the office, he’ll upload his fresh images ― 640 shots in all ― and perform some magic on the computer keyboard to stitch together this week’s panoramic shot.

Call up a recent GigaPan instalment and you can see how that slice of nature looked in early May. Summon earlier shots going back to last August, and you can view the changes through three seasons. Zoom in or out. Grab the photo to “move” from left to right or up and down. View snapshots that Smith has pulled from the panorama, read his annotations and comment on the photo.

Smith plans to keep up his weekly visits this summer to complete a year’s worth of panoramic shots in that same spot. Call it a year in the life of the Dairy Bush, or as he says, a narrative about time and space ― same space, different time.

Smith was appointed to the Department of Integrative Biology in early 2009 after five years here as a post-doc and research scientist. He’s one of seven department faculty members studying aspects of DNA barcoding at BIO. Ants are the primary interest of this molecular ecologist, although he also works with flies, parasitic wasps and amphibians. Smith also handles programming for visiting scientists. Early this month, visitors hailed from Finland, Mexico, China, Peru and Kenya.

In turn, Smith’s own research in spatial population ecology takes him to other parts of the Earth. In northern Costa Rica, he’s studying ants living on volcanoes, part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”

Hike from sea level to the mountaintops at about 1,500 metres high, and you cross “bands” of topographic and climate conditions, each home to varying communities of ant species. Smith has collected and barcoded the creatures, and figures those geographic bands may span less than 200 metres.

Besides that vertical change, there’s also horizontal variation. Stand in the cloud forest atop one peak and you might as well be on an island, inaccessible to the next peak rising through its own cloud.

Learning more about the sizes of communities might help in gauging the impacts of things such as climate change, explains Smith, who has also worked in Belize.

Why ants? Why not, asks this researcher, who explains that integrating field and molecular biology allows him to look at life through differing perspectives. Gesturing at a carpenter ant running across a tree trunk, he says: “Most of life is like that ― less than a gram, less than a couple of centimeters ― and doesn’t experience the world the way we do.”

He’s beginning a similar study on tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. Call it “spaces and species,” or how species of African ants colonized those stepping stones, including Madagascar and the Comoros and Seychelles islands. For that study, he and a new master’s student will rely on specimens collected by other researchers and archived at the California Academy of Sciences.

“Spaces and species” is also the theme back in the U of G Dairy Bush. The ecologist in Smith is purely interested in what changes occur in the “circle of life” caught by the GigaPan camera on its weekly round atop his tripod. That includes anything from that carpenter ant to the emerging shoots of bloodroot, Solomon’s seal or the ubiquitous maples here.

There’s also a teaching function. One biologist colleague has used Smith’s online photo series in a community ecology course that involves student outings to the Dairy Bush.

Whether here on campus or in a Central American rainforest, Smith says, the GigaPan camera and robotic mount offer another tool for documenting research sites. Consider it a high-tech version of a naturalist’s field notes. He also views this kind of panorama as an outreach tool for science, for his unit and even for the University. Through the GigaPan website’s snapshot function, he heard from a viewer in Spain who had spotted a spider in one picture that Smith had overlooked.

That was a shot not of the Dairy Bush but of his downtown Guelph backyard where he lives with his partner, Alison Judd, a fine art instructor and printmaker at U of G.

Smith studied at Trent and McGill universities before coming to Guelph. He grew up in Douglas, a village in the Ottawa Valley, where he ran a trap line, fished, and explored field, forest, swamp and stream. His parents, now retired teachers, are both Guelph grads from 1965.

“I was encouraged to explore,” he says, remembering his dad digging postholes once and lowering the preteen by his ankles to retrieve leopard frogs before hammering in the posts.


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