Tessa’s Ambrosia Adventures in Europe: Part 1

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while. Mostly because I have been keeping busy away from home.

For the last three months I have been in Europe assisting researchers at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland studying the population dynamics of Ambrosia artemisifolia and Ophraella communa in Italy, France and Switzerland.

Ambrosia information poster in Abbiategrasso, Italy

Everything started last year in December 2015. After being burned out by months of job searching, I decided to look further away for a short and interesting opportunity to work on. While on Facebook, I noticed a flyer on the Monash Uni Biological Society page looking for summer students to study Ambrosia in Europe. I admit that I’d never heard of Ambrosia artemisifolia before (even though it is an invasive weed in parts of Australia, those parts are a good distance from where I’ve grown up). I had never done anything like this before, so sent off some emails and waited. Some time later a skype interview was arranged. Due to the time difference and peoples availiabilities it was organised for midnight Australia time. As i’m a big nerd, I’d organised to have my friends over to play Dungeons and Dragons beforehand, so by the time it came around for the interview I was exhausted from 5 hours of providing monsters, shady fellows and a good amount of traps for my friends. Suzanne and Heinz who interviewed me noted that I didn’t have too many questions about the position, which i’d later get to explain.Several months, seemingly reams of paperwork and a lot of cafe work saving money later, I arrived in Switzerland.

The view from my room in Fribourg taken on my first day in Switzerland. I was quite excited about being able to see snowy mountains from my window.

Fribourg is a city of 36 000 inhabitants (2012) the capital of the Canton of Fribourg and located between Bern and Lausanne. The Canton lies between the Jura mountains and the Alps, on what is known as the Swiss Plateau. I’d always told people that I’d grown up on a mountain (Mount Toolebewong, 650m), which by Australian standards had been fairly high, but by Swiss standards, was not.

Culturally, Fribourg is very special. It is in a bilingual Canton, with the majority of the city speaking french, but after you cross north or east over La Sarine the river on which the city lies, you will find Swiss German spoken. The Canton is very catholic, with religious statues apparent all around the place, from on bridges, to caves and beside the roads. Also where you will see Priests and Nuns walking down the street chatting to people (something that I haven’t seen in Melbourne).

My first weeks in Fribourg mainly consisted of entering data from the previous years fieldtrips, learning my way around the place, complaining about the winter-like autumn conditions and realising that my high school french was no way near good enough to get me round everyday life. On my first visit to the supermarket I didn’t understand that I had to weigh and label my fruits and vegetables before arriving at the checkout, and didn’t understand what the person was saying when I asked for help. I ended up leaving them there, and had to come back another day to buy them again.

After entering data recorded on paper in the field for this, and another project earlier in the year, I have come to appreciate several things. 1:people, even on their best handwriting behaviour will still write something that you cannot understand 2: a well constructed field sheet will save you a lot of time when you are in the field  3. even with a well constructed field sheet there will always be factors that you didn’t account for that will require their own hand drawn column on the end of the page. In the field there are always so many more things to think about, rather than your handwriting. When I create my own sheets for future fieldwork, I will attempt to take all of these points on board.

A standard fieldsheet for data entry

Our first fieldtrip was to Avully, our site near Geneva in Switzerland. This was my first experience at driving on the right hand side of the road, and if I had been trying to freak out my passangers Suzanne and Abu (a volunteer PHD student from Iran), I would have succeeded. I had previously thought that roundabouts would be the hardest part to master as you have to give way to cars from different sides. In reality the hardest thing I found was just keeping your car in the middle of the lane, when you are used to driving on one side. In retrospect driving for the first time on the freeway at 120 may not have been the most relaxing spot, but as they say it was a  “trial by fire”.  I can now say that it only took a few drives before I was back to being a confident driver (if not one that didn’t understand all the roadsigns).

At Avully with Abu from Iran

The site at Avully was part of a farm, a section that had previously had plant material dumped there and was now covered in Ambrosia plants (or had been at the start of the experiment in 2013).

When we arrived on site we needed to do the following things:

  • Refind the marked 0.50×0.5m plots and replace any broken labels
  • Count the numbers of Ambrosia in each plot
  • If necessary, establish more plots to reach >100 labelled plants
  • Choose between a number of Ambrosia plants (ideally 10-20) in each plot to label
  • Monitor the labelled plants for height, width, life stage etc
  • Note down general site characteristics like vegetation height and composition

Suzanne had been monitoring this site for 3 years, and had seen a change in Ambrosia numbers over that time. In the first year the whole place had been covered, but in 2016 we only found very few, and had to establish some more plots to have enough plants to label and monitor. It appears that Ambrosia artemisifolia ia a very poor competitor against other species, especially grasses.

Labelled Ambrosia plants

The work itself involved a lot of sitting and looking into a small plot, lots of counting and noting down small details about the health and vigour of tiny seedlings. The plants at this site were mostly less than 5cm on this visit.

After the new driving experience, and getting acquainted with the fieldwork methods, I was very tired when we got home.

My next fieldwork experience was a few weeks later when I went to Italy to assist Yan, a postdoc at Tubingen University with her experiment.  Yan was growing Ambrosia in cages with four treatments (Raised temperature and no Ophraella communa, Raised temperature and Ophraella communa, Normal temperature and no Ophraella communa and Normal temperature and Ophraella communa) with the aim to see what selection and genetic change occurred over a few years.

The Ragweed Leaf Beetle Ophraella communa was found in northern Italy and southern Switzerland in 2013 (Muller-Scharer et al. 2013) after initially being rejected as a biocontrol agent of Ambrosia artemisifolia (in preference for another species). In comparison to Australia, Europe does not have a strong history of successful introductions of biocontrol agents, so the Ophraella introduction provided opportunities to study this process unlike before.

One of Yan’s cages

On this trip we transplanted more plants that had been grown in Switzerland into her cages, so to have a high enough number in each cage. Many had died after the previous transplanting. Luckily enough we could still find the holes that been dug for the dead plants and add the new ones to those, rather than digging in the soil.

We also had to weed the cages of dicots (who would not die with monocot herbicides), spray herbicides against the grasses and water the plants so they didn’t die en masse again. It was hard work with a lot of bending over and squatting in strange poses as to not damage young plants. My legs were actually quite sore after the few days.

BONUS fun of the trip was the drive over the alps, having my first real Italian pizza in 8 years. During the drive I was completely awe struck and could’t believe how beautiful everything was.

The drive from Fribourg to Abbiategrasso via Grand St Bernard: truly awful
Italian pizza




One thought on “Tessa’s Ambrosia Adventures in Europe: Part 1

  1. Sounds like a great experience. I’m sure you’ll get a chance to enjoy similar experiences in the future.
    Loved the part about the fruit and vegetables confusion. And that pizza in Italy must have truly been second to none.


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