Testimonial: Zachary MacDonald from Canada

Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program Awardee (2017-2018)

East China Normal University (Wildlife Sciences)

Zachary MacDonald

On the northwest slope Tianmu Mountain (天目山; "Heavenly Eyes Mountain"), located 85 km west of Hangzhou, Zhejiang, lies one of China's best-known protected areas, Tianmu Mountain National Nature Reserve. A combination lush sub-tropical climate and considerable variation in altitude supports a notably high diversity of species. It is for this reason that the area was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996, contributing to UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. As a recipient of the Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program’s senior research scholarship in 2018, I had the pleasure of travelling to this Reserve to investigate patterns of biodiversity along the slopes of Tianmu Mountain from February to July 2018.

My research visit to China was the first major collaboration between the lab in which I work, the Applied Conservation Lab at the University of Alberta, and Professor Zhang Jian’s lab, the Ecoinformatics Group at East China Normal University. Professor Zhang has a considerable history of research at the University of Alberta, where he completed both his PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship. While Professor Zhang is best known for his research on plant diversity, much of my own research has been devoted to the ecology and evolution of butterflies. As any ecologist will attest, butterflies and plants go together like peanut butter and jelly. And so it was, Professor Zhang and I were enthused to propose a study addressing relationships between butterfly and plant diversity along the slopes of Tianmu Mountain.

With illustrious designations as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a nationally protected area, working in Tianmu Mountain National Nature Reserve was an overwhelming privilege. We quickly discovered that the diversity of butterflies within the Reserve totalled to more than 250. This is substantially greater than the total number of butterflies within my entire home province, Alberta, with 178 species. (It is worth noting that Alberta delineates an area approximately 55,000 times greater than the Reserve, indicative of its incredible biodiversity.) I will not soon forget laying eyes upon Tianmu Mountain’s incredible butterfly welcoming party for the first time. Dozens of butterfly species circled the mountain top, searching for mates, in a behaviour known as hill-topping. I get shivers writing about the experience even now, months later.

Over my five-month visit, we successfully established a long-term study that will contribute to our collective goal of documenting and understanding the complexity of Earth’s biodiversity. This would not have been possible without the Canada-China Scholars’ Exchange Program, Global Affairs Canada, and the China Scholarship Council, which collectively funded my research visit. The kindness I experienced during my visit was something I cannot easily put into words. The staff and students of Professor Zhang’s lab were incredibly gracious, and I look forward to watching this interesting work develop.

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