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Orchids in South Africa
Profile: I am an International student from Germany and have been in Canada since January, 2006, enrolled in a PhD program in plant reproductive ecology with Dr. Lawrence D. Harder in the U of C’s Dept. of Biological Sciences. I completed my Master’s thesis from the University of Rostock, Germany, on the pollination biology of several bladderwort species in the Indian Western Ghats. I am also an Alberta Ingenuity Scholarship recipient.

I will be spending the next eight months doing fieldwork around Cape Town and the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa, as part of a study on the reproductive biology of orchids in the genus Disa.

Orchids are exceptional in the plant world because one-third of the orchid species do not produce nectar and instead rely on other techniques, such as mimicking other flowers or insects, to attract pollinators to their flowers. As a reproductive strategy, not supplying a reward to pollinators results in less visits to flowers that don’t produce nectar, and thereby the receipt of less pollen than rewarding flowers. So why did the phenomenon of pollination by deceit evolve? My hypothesis is that nectarless flowers may receive lower quantities of pollen for fertilization, but that the pollen they receive is of higher quality, because canada goose parka kensington waterproof on sale contains a higher proportion of cross-pollen than self-pollen. The receipt of high quality cross-pollen is important for plants, because canada goose parka kensington waterproof on sale ensures the production of healthy and competitive offspring. I think that rewardless species can persist despite low visitation by pollinators because they can mitigate the negative quantitative consequences on offspring production with a higher offspring quality than rewarding species.

I will be comparing the pollination outcomes of more than a dozen species of rewarding and rewardless wild Disa orchids. I will be spending much of my time observing pollination taking place and following bees, butterflies and other pollinators as they travel from flower to flower. It’s very intensive fieldwork that involves a lot of dashing, running and stumbling, while trying not to crush the flowers I’m studying!

Before I started out to South Africa, I asked around about transportation amongst all those people that have been to South Africa. Nearly everybody said “Oh, you just buy a car and off you go!”. Well, it’s really not that easy, at least if you are on a budget! First of all, cheap cars are – as everywhere in the world – usually moving pieces of trash, precariously held together by paint and stickers. Second, South African car models are often very basic, and are driven until they reach biblical ages. To give you an example: There was one specific case, an 17-year old Golf, that looked so deceivingly nice from outside that I took canada goose parka kensington waterproof on sale to a mechanic for a check. However, it revealed astonishing amounts of oil splattered all over the engine once the mechanic opened the hood.

That aside, it also wouldn’t start, didn’t have a functioning AC or fan (remember, it’s just getting summer here!), and most doors and windows needed quite some coaxing to open and/or close. It would have been relatively cheap, but the mechanic gave me a look that quite clearly told me that I should rather not consider this particular specimen. Thankfully the same trustworthy mechanic, Maurice, pointed out another car that was almost twice as expensive, 2 years older, but in a much better shape. So now I’ll be driving a 19-year old Honda Prelude (a very 1980s-looking sports car – only the red flames along its sides are missing…) – that is, once I can actually transfer my money to my South African bank account! I will not elaborate on how I actually got this account, because it wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I will say just this: Transferring money from my Canadian bank account is even more unpleasant! There are all kinds of inflexible regulations, complicated procedures, and sneaky fees that make international money transfers a time-consuming, annoying, and shockingly expensive affair. But since it has to be done, it is being done. So much for that.

The car is meanwhile waiting for me in the garage, I secured it with a down-payment and a firm handshake with the mechanic. And in order to make me permanently remember the waiting car, I get to do all kinds of fun stuff in the meantime – like going to the Traffic Department for a vehicle registration number! This seemingly harmless request from Maurice turned out to be a rather instructive lesson in African bureaucracy. Thank God I had company – my friend Diane, a biomath Master’s student who shares my office, drove me around and helped me through the madness. After finding the impressive looking Cape Town Administration Building, we were sent to the main train station to get passport photos, which were necessary to complete the forms. The train station is subdivided into a first-class part and a second-class part by the actual train tracks, which are accessible only with a valid train ticket. Without ticket, you have to experience the entire station.

Hoping to find a photo booth on our side of the station, which was the second-class part, we made our way through the expansive bazaar that has engulfed the station. You can get any imaginable kind of clothing, very bling jewelry, lots of kitchen implements, herbal medicine, blankets, and the assistance of various doctors in this bazaar – and we were assured that at least some of the sellers “really like white babies”! After I had recovered from the implications of this comment, we learned that functioning photo booths are only in the first-class half of the station. So we got to see more bazaar, though of a slightly higher standard in the other half, got the photos, made our way back, and lined up in a relatively short-looking queue that was served by 4 attendants in glass booths. It wasn’t quite obvious that those four people, and the people already being served, did not only attend to their own business, but also that of friends, family, extended family, and apparently all neighbors until the 4th street removed! By then it was lunch time and the existence of all the food stalls outside the Traffic Department made sense. The mechanic’s wife had actually advised us to bring sleeping bags and a book at least the size of Tolstoy’s “Of War and Piece”.

We stuck through it, though, and once we actually got to a booth, got served quite quickly and efficiently. A hilarious side note was the continued existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the former Soviet-ruled eastern part of Germany, which ceased to exist in 1989) in the computer system of the Cape Town Traffic Department. A discussion about the fine differences between, and the history of, the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR ensued, and we learned that the computer system is brand new and has been implemented less than five years ago! I really hope that this precarious morsel of information about German history makes its way up the bureaucratic ranks and some day reaches the computer programmers, so that this sad chapter of German history can be closed for good! All in all, this endeavor had taken “only” about 2 hours -Maurice and his wife were very astonished when we came back to the garage brandishing the fancy, official-looking Traffic Register Number – apparently, we made it in South African record time!

The next task is finding an insurance for myself and the car – quite necessary, given that South Africans drive on the left side of the road and use their left hand to manually shift the gears. This is already quite a handful to take care of, but then there are also all sorts of unruly pedestrians (pedestrian crossing lights usually don’t work, or are ignored anyway) and exceedingly dangerous mini-taxies that operate on a totally different set of traffic rules. So I’ll probably be a danger to myself as well as to them, and should accordingly get a good insuran

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