Finding the kernel of truth

Ever wondered where the expression “a kernel of truth” comes from?

It is fascinating to me that “truth” is associated with plant kernels.

Why this association? Is “truth” hard? Or is “truth” hard to find?

Perhaps then, another question could be “What is a kernel”?

Colloquially, the term “kernel” is used to refer to any kind of hard seed, or even the husk of certain grains. In fruits such as plums and peaches, the hard “seed” is also known as the “stone”, an apt description that comes to mind when one bites to hard into a plum fruit. Yet, these terms kernel, husk and stone are not very precise botanically.

Plant scientists take terminology very seriously, and are pretty religious about the specific terms they use for fruits. After all, it has been said that “by their fruit shall ye know them”. Therefore, fruits that have a hard kernel inside are known as specifically as drupes, and these includes all the fruits known as “stone fruits” and also walnuts, pecans, mangoes, and even coconuts.

Many drupe type fruits have a fleshy nutrient rich pulp layer over the tough fibrous or woody kernel to attract animal dispersers. The so-called “stone” or kernel is not actually the seed, but an envelope or casing within the fruit that protects the seed.

Delving into how fruits and seeds develop are of scientific interest because understanding how fruits develop is important for farmers and agriculturists who cultivate commercial fruits.

Fruit development also has taxonomic importance, and can help taxonomists understand relationships between different plants. For example, understanding whether a character is derived (i.e. a character that the current organism possesses that the previous do not) can help to illuminate taxonomical relationships between species.

Enter the Elaeocarps

The genus Elaeocarpus is a large genus (c. 350 species) of predominantly tropical rainforest trees. The ethymology of the genus Elaeocarpus actually means to “Olive fruit”, which refers to the olive-like appearance of many species in the genus.

Despite the huge diversity within the genus, Elaeocarpus is probably not very well known outside of Asia. In Asia however, the genus plays a significant role in the maintenance of forest diversity and ecology. In tropical Australia for example, the nutrient-rich fruits of Elaeocarpus species are an important food source for a large number of rainforest bird and mammal species.

In some Asian countries, certain species of Elaeocarpus also play a significant role in religious practices, as the hard stones of these species are used to make rosaries. In some southeast Asian countries as Papua New Guinea and Australia for instance, various fruit stones of Elaeocarpus are used by indigenous people as spiritually-significant objects and also as jewelry. In India for instance, Hindus and Buddhists revere Rudraksha beads, which come from various species of Elaeocarpus (primarily E. sphaericus and E. angustifolius). Some Elaeocarpus beads with special shapes or features such more or less than 5 lines running down the side of the seed (5 lines is the normal condition) are especially revered and attributed special spiritual properties.

Rosaries and bracelets of Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus “stones”) sold in markets in Ubud, Bali

Elaeocarpus is an interesting genus to study because of its huge diversity (Read more about tropical Australian Elaeocarpus). Many Elaeocarpus species have a hard or semi-hard fruit layer called the inner mesocarp.

Cut open sections of the hard inner “stones” (inner mesocarps) of three species of Elaeocarpus.

Some Elaeocarpus exhibit an interesting pattern in the seed, whereby the endosperm (i.e. the tissue in the seed that surrounds and feeds the developing embryo) has a convoluted ruminate pattern when seen in cross-section. This is not a common characteristic in seed plants, but has been documented for about 57 other botanical families of plants. Also, not all species within a plant family will exhibit ruminate endosperm, and among the 350 members of Elaeocarpus, only 28 species so far have been found to possess this condition.

Our recent work on fruit anatomy is led by Janet Gagul, a botanist from Papua New Guinea is about to complete her Ph.D thesis on the systematics (i.e. the study of plant classification) and developmental biology of Elaeocarpus from the Australia and Papua New Guinea. Janet is working with Professor Darren Crayn at the Australian Tropical Herbarium, who has published widely on the systematics and biogeography of Elaeocarpus.

Janet was interested to understand the hardening process of the mesocarp, and also the development of ruminations within the seed endosperm during the process of fruit development, and to understand whether this character is derived. And for her study, there was no better species to study than Elaeocarpus ruminatus itself, a species that was named on the basis of having the ruminate endosperm character. Janet collected fruits of the species every 2 weeks over a period of 6 months from the end of the flowering period to time fruits were mature. We then made anatomical sectioned of these fruits at these different stages of development to see how the seed develops.

Toughen up, then ruminate! Sections of Elaeocarpus ruminatus fruits at different stages of development. A dark cell layer (the first hints of the “stone”) around the developing seed is evident by week 6, and the convoluted ingrowth patterns (ruminations) are seen by week 16.

Our observations have now been published in Australian Systematic Botany. Essentially what we found was that the hardening of the mesocarp is a process that takes place before and independently of the development of ruminations in the endosperm. And secondly, endosperm ruminations are a derived character within Elaeocarpus.

The time to ruminate

If the purpose of religion is to get closer to truth or divinity, it is fitting that the hard “stones” of Elaeocarpus should feature so prominently in religious or spiritual practices. Whether it is the need to contemplate on a hard “truth”, or to delve within to see the “truth”, every Rudraksha bead contemplated upon or counted hopefully brings us closer to understanding divinity.

And what of our foray into the anatomy of a “stone” fruit?

I think that anatomical exploration is a metaphor for the search for “truth”. On this journey, I have seen and am properly awed by the simple and sophisticated beauty of the different cells and tissue layers that make up the fruit of Elaeocarpus ruminatus. Perhaps “beauty is truth, and truth is beauty”, as John Keats famously said. In hindsight, I’d offer yet another philosophical metaphor, specifically for what Elaeocarpus ruminatus may teach – DEVELOP A FIRM INNER STRUCTURE, AND THEN RUMINATE!

Further reading

Corner EJH (1976) ‘The Seeds of Dicotyledons.’ (Cambridge University
Press: Cambridge, UK)

Gagul JN., Tng DYP, Crayn DM (2018) Fruit developmental biology and endosperm rumination in Elaeocarpus ruminatus (Elaeocarpaceae), and its taxonomic significance.” Australian Systematic Botany 31, 409-419.

Phoon SN (2012) Rudraksha: the bead tree of India and related species. Gardenwise 38, 22–25.

Posted in Botany, Ethnobotany, Folklore, Fruits, Gondwana, Knowing Plants, Philosophy, Plant Anatomy, Plant Curios, Plant Morphology, Spirit, Tropical Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The quest to be savvy in scientific outreach

Doing scientific outreach is indispensible for anyone in this age who is serious in wanting to build and sustain a career in the field of science and academia.

Science has moved beyond “Publish or Perish” to “Publicize or Perish” (See Tom Raynars blog post on this).

Make no mistake, publishing is STILL the top priority, but now doing outreach for our scientific work is equally important. (So it is actually Publish and Publicize or Perish!)

Papers may be published in top tier journals and not get widely cited due to poor outreach, while other papers may be published in journals with more modest impact factors and get more reads and get cited more widely simply because it was well publicized.

But these nuances about being an academic and about scientific outreach were not things I got an opportunity to learn during my doctorate years, at least not in any structured course. Nevertheless, I realized that I have always been interested in reaching out to a broader audience.

But it was not until I had to finally teach a course about scientific outreach that I started to look into the subject in earnest. And what I learnt about using social media was a great eye-opener for me. I have shared all the lectures I developed for the course so far on slideshare and intend to add more posts on other specifics on the course such as using videos in scientific outreach.

I am nowhere close to being a wiz at scientific outreach, but I am understanding a lot more things about the topic.

Some of the things I am now convinced of are as follows:

1) Early career researchers MUST HAVE web presence

Basically, it was impressed upon me the critical importance for early career researchers to have an online presence (as emphasized by Chrissie Painting).

We are a dime a dozen in our general field, yet we are a one and only in our specific combination of expertise. An online presence is essential for helping us to highlight (and also constantly elaborate on and refine) our specific strengths.

This seems obvious, but it is shocking for me that not all postgraduate students are actually building an online identity in their early stages of their research career.

A barometer for knowing where one stands in terms of an online presence would be to do a Google search on your name. When I googled my name, all sorts of things on Star Trek, The Next Generation came up (Because TNG is an abbreviation for The Next Generation). But I OWN the top spot. My photo also comes up first. This is not about being vain or getting famous (although getting famous can certainly be used as a tool to help with ones scientific career). Rather, I think everyone in an academic career needs to carve out a digital niche.

So getting my students to develop or fill out their google scholar, researchgate, Orcid and LinkedIn profiles was the first step., Mendeley and other are also good to have profiles in, because all these sites do slightly different things. (See more on my slideshare presentation)

2) The website of scientist – the intersection between the professional and the personal

Having a presence on professional sites is actually basic, but it is the first thing that needs to be organized and gotten out of the way.

Having profiles in google scholar, researchgate or LinkedIn is not enough, as they do very to to show what kind of a person you are.

The next step is that we need an interface between the professional and the social, the personal and the public.

And so I think that having a basic site is paramount. This is incredibly easy to set up in places like wordpress or wix (See my slideshare notes on blogging), and I got my students to do up one for themselves during the course.

The personal website is important because it an appropriate place to feature both professional documents and also elaborate on related personal interests.

It can literally serve as a place to put up your CV, a publication list, self-archive your publications, upload videos of work you have done, write about philantrophic causes you are interested in, volunteer work you do, musical productions, artwork, political and religious philosophy (limit this if you want your site to function well as a personal-professional interface), etc.

Headers of of postgraduate student websites from the Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia.  Vinicius Patire, Joice Reis, Yuri Costa, Rafael Felix and Michael Awoniyi did their sites in WordPress.

In short, if done well, the personal website can serve as your expanded resume or CV with your personal touch.

I use a free wordpress blog, and even though it is not updated as regularly as I would like, the material I already have on my blog site functions as a static site so that anyone can come to get a sense of who I am and what I do (or have done). And I can feel free to add a bit of humanness to an overtly cerebral profession.

But striking the balance is important.

Because the purpose overlaps with professional objectives, I would not be putting in pictures of family travels (unless it is relevant for some reason), my fanciful meal I had last night, or the most sexy car I hope to own on my website.

There needs to be a guiding principle for what goes into a personal website if the idea is to use it to augment an online presence, and to interface with the public.

On that not, the other thing about a website also is that it is like a meeting point for all my other social media (see below) and professional sites. There are links in my website About me or My Research page to every other online avenue (researchgate, linkedin, etc.) where I have a profile.

3) Outreach to the broader community

Although fundamental, these professional sites may actually do very little to help with scientific outreach to a broader audience.

The personal website can be one of the most powerful engines to reach out to the public, IF you have the talent, energy and time to maintain a blog. I highly recommend blogging for scientific outreach, but I will admit that it is not for everyone.

But the next best, or in some cases, even better, alternative, is to engage in microblogging (see my slideshare notes on the topic). And here I mean social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, which encourage (in the case of Twitter, mandates) short blurp-like posts.

As with blogging, content is king in microblogging, but it is so much easier to generate content for Twitter and Facebook than to write a full length post for a blog site. And it is also easy to populate your feed with visuals (such as those in this post) made using online tools (such as Pablo and Canva).

It is also much easier to attract views and follows. And building a following is one of the keys to effective outreach.

Still, building content and a following will take time, but it will happen.

A few caveats are that it may be good to engage in more than one. Google+ going down should serve as a sobering warning that nothing online is permanent. And it really does not take too much effort to modify a blurp or add more words to a tweet to post on another microblogging place.

Additionally, most sites can be linked these days through the IFTTT site such that if you post in one you post in the other.

A closing note – reach in first before reaching out

In following posts, I intend to blog more on the specifics of what I learnt and taught during the Scientific Outreach course (I think I learnt much more than I taught). But one of the most important lessons I learnt was that we need to reach in to find where out personal interests interesects with the needs of the world to guide our research and our scientific outreach. Afterall, the reason why most (I imagine) of us wanted to do science started from a personal interest or passion, long before we had any complex scientific words to express it.

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Transformed trees! Drought changes the plumbing system of rainforest trees

Trees in tropical rainforests play an important role in the water balance of the planet. Every tree is like a fountain, drawing water up from the soil and putting it out into the atnosphere.

Just one large mature tree may transpire well over 100,000 litres of water a year.

Imagine how much water a forest of trees would put out into the atmosphere, and the importance of this in maintaining the local climate.

Yet, tropical rainforests in many part of the world are likely to face more frequent or more severe droughts due to climate change.

What is going happen to rainforest trees?

As part of Professor Susan Laurance´s research team at the James Cook University in Australia and collaborators University of Edinburgh and Imperial College in the UK, we set out to investigate how drought would affect rainforest trees.

But how does one go about studying changes in mature trees in a tropical forest?

The Daintree Drought Experiment

In 2015, Professor Susan Laurance established a large scale field experiment in the wet tropics of Australia to do just that.

In a preexisting 1-hectare rainforest monitoring plot in the dense lowland tropical rainforests of Cape Tribulation, northeast Queensland, Australia, Susan has set up the Daintree Drought experiment.


This setup includes an infrastructure of plastic sheets in the understorey of the rainforest which reduces the rainfall that gets into half hectare of rainforest to artificially create a drier dry season, while the other half a hectare obtains the normal amount of rain.

The purpose of the experiment is not to kill the trees, but to understand how trees are changing in the short term by simulating two years of drought in the field.

Specifically, we wanted to know if trees are changing in their ability to conduct water. In previous work, we showed how wood anatomy can reveal the strategies trees use to conduct water, and so we focused again on wood anatomy.

The wonderful advantage of this plot is also that it has a canopy crane that enables researchers to access the rainforest canopy. The crane allowed us to reach 30m up into the canopy to sample tree branches from four species of trees which we could find individuals of in both the drought-affected and non-drought affected areas of the forest.


And from the cut ends of these branches, we made anatomical sections to examine more closely. We also examined some leaf features, such as leaf thickness, to see if there are any changes.


Inner transformations in trees

Our results have just been published in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Basically, we found that the trees were changing in their wood anatomy, consistent with the the fact that they have less water to use.

Some species developed smaller vessels.


Others species showed a shrinkage in ground tissue (parenchyma tissues) in their wood, likely reflecting the use of water stores.

And one of the species even started to show blockages in their water conducting vessels.

Myristica occlussions

We also found thinner leaves in some of the drought-affected individuals.

We can conclude from our study is that mature rainforest trees can modify their anatomy to some degree as an adaptation to drought.

We do not know yet what is the limits of this plasticity, but the changes in the hydraulic properties of these trees would certainly reduce the ability of trees to transport water, and that would also mean the trees are less able to put out water into the atmosphere.

What we can speculate is that in the long term, if real and prolonged drought occurs, the reduced ability of trees to transport water may lead to local changes hydrological cycles, and ultimately changes in the forest vegetation.

We expect to get more insights on these issues with the ongoing Daintree Drought experiment.


Tng DYP, Apgaua DMG, Ishida YF, Mencuccunu M, Lloyd J, Laurance WF, Laurance SGW (Accepted) Rainforest trees respond to drought by modifying their hydraulic architecture. Ecology and Evolution

Apgaua DMG, Tng DYP, Cernusak LA, Cheesman AW, Santos RM, Edwards WJ, Laurance SGW (2017) Plant functional groups within a tropical forest exhibit different wood functional anatomy. Functional Ecology 31, 582-591.

Tng DYP, Apgaua DMG, Campbell MJ, Cox CJ, Crayn DM, Ishida FY, Laidlaw MJ, Liddell MJ, Seager M, Laurance SGW (2016) Vegetation and floristics of a lowland tropical rainforest in northeast Australia. Biodiversity Data Journal 4, e7599.

Laurance, S. (2015). A raincoat for a rainforest. Australasian Science, 36, 20–22.

Posted in Ecology, Plant Anatomy, Plant Morphology, Plant Science, Tropical Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Knights among giant trees

Eucalyptus viminalis (White Knight)

Eucalyptus viminalis (White Knight)

It has been some time since I last visited Tasmania, but the memory of meeting giants (trees) there remain fresh in my memory.

To put it more accurately, emblazoned into my psyche.

Among the giants one could meet in Tasmania, the White Knights would certainly be among the most unforgettable, particularly because of the stunning white trunk that rises from the dark forest understorey and reaches towards the heavens.

Am very pleased therefore to write this post to accompany my recent popular article that has come out today in Tasmanian Geographic Issue 50.

For any of you who love big trees, the White Knights of Tasmania are a must-visit.

Posted in Giant Trees, Must see plants, Tasmanian plants | 2 Comments

Twitter and your Research Program: tweeting your publications

This is such an important post on Why and How scientists should tweet their reseach by Alex Smith (@Alex_Smith_Ants in Twitter, and also blogged by Stephen Heard) that I felt compelled to Press it.

via Twitter and your Research Program: tweeting your publications


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Meeting with Maya-caceae

Mayaca fluviatilis likely DSC_9627 (1)

Wading in a small shallow backwater rivulet in northern Bahia, Brazil, brought me to a plant family that I had never seen before – the Mayacaceae.

I had only managed to take a quick photo but back home I managed to identify the mysterious plant as Mayaca fluviatilis, or stream bogmoss – an aquatic plant that is widely distributed in the tropics and subtropics of the Americas.

It is well and truly a flowering plant, and is a close relative of the spiderworts (Commelinaceae) with spiderworts. However, the finely-structured mosslike stems does give it a resemblance to mosses.

The bog moss is also sought after by aquarists, and I can certainly understand why – it makes for a fine submerged plant in an aquarium.

One thing I have to say though, having come from Asia and also having lived in the northeastern parts of Australia – it is quite refreshing to be wading around in rivulents near mangroves without having to think about crocodiles.

Maybe this is a good excuse to get more involved with aquatic plants.


Mayaca was at the base of the mangrove roots, forming dark green mats. 

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Towers built on turd – the Tayloria mosses

pablo (3)

Tayloria gunnii, one of the more charismatic-looking mosses of Tasmania

The human-made structures that we know as towers must have been inspired by mosses.

Or maybe humans drew the idea for the design of towers from the superconscious, where the form of moss capsules are imprinted on the fabric of the ethers.

Metaphysical connotations aside, there is no denying the uncanny resemblance between the form of Tayloria moss capsules with the towers of man.

I made this association whilst stumbling upon three interesting species of mosses in Tasmania.

Tayloria gunnii in the image above looks like Seattle’s Space Needle tower, and it is not difficult to find simialr looking human-made structures that resemble Tayloria tasmanica below.

Tayloria tasmanica

Tayloria tasmanica is an uncommon moss found in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The capsules resemble the Kuala Lumpur Tower. 

Everything else about these mosses are just as interesting, if not more.

These mosses belong to a family called the Splachnaceae (the namesake genus is Splachnum – commonly known as dung mosses)

Mosses from the Splachnaceae have a penchant for, and tend to grow on, animal poo. This feature is unique among mosses.

Unique point number two: these mosses are entomophilous, which mean that they are dispersed by insects – flies specifically. Unlike most other mosses that have wind disperse spores, these mosses have chemical means of attracting invertebrates to their capsules and in the process the flies “pick up” the sticky spores

Flies then go for poo, and the cycle is complete.

But these mosses are not restricted only to poo apparently.

One interesting piece of natural history comes from a historical collection of a Tayloria moss, which was made on the clothing of a decomposing human cadaver in the wilderness of Tasmania!

And I have seen some Tayloria mosses growing on a piece of animal bone.

Moss on bone

Tayloria octoblepharum on a piecce of animal bone

While the relationships between the northern hemisphere Splachnum mosses and fly dispersers are well established, those of Tayloria remain poorly studied.

I have not actually had any luck to observe a fly landing on the capsules of any of the Tayloria mosses I have seen.

Any keen students of plant-animal interactions to take on the challenge?

Two towers

Two towers! Tayloria gunnii growing amongst Tayloria octoblepharum.


See Awkward Botany’s blog post on the Splachnaceae

Posted in Appreciation, Botany, Mosses, Must see plants, Plant Curios, Plant Morphology, Tasmanian plants | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment