Quiescence

Quiescence is defined as a period of rest; being quiet, still or inactive. It’s often used to describe period of inactivity in insects, but I think also applies well to my current of state of blogging, and what I see as the state of my blogging into the near future.  This short post is really just to update my followers and readers, and to explain my current situation.

Life has ups and downs, and cycles around a career and work similarly have periods of intense activity, change, and new challenges. As many of you know, I’ve taken on a role as an Associate Dean in my Faculty, and coupled with upcoming (remote) field work to Nunavut, summer vacation, and conferences in the summer, I must admit that regular blogging over the next little just isn’t going to be possible.

 

Nunavut awaits...

Nunavut awaits…

It’s hard to admit defeat, and face the reality that it’s just not possible to do everything I would like to do. I’ve always prided myself of being a regular blogger (until recently, I’ve posted once or more per week, for over two years, on this blog or on my other blogs), and I was even was bold enough to proclaim that my new administrative position wouldn’t interfere with science blogging! However, it’s just not fair to my readers to publish just for the sake of posting, as quick, hurried posts will certainly suffer in quality. It’s also not appropriate for me to feel guilty for not blogging (heck, I do not get paid to blog!), and even though it’s something I love to do, I just can’t make it work right now.

To my followers: I am sorry that this blog will be quiet for a while, and I must thank you all sincerely for all the support and positive feedback: regular blogging is fun and validating because of all of you.

All that being said, I would like to continue with the ‘ten facts’ series on Expiscor, so if you would like to contribute to that, drop me a line! I’m also very excited about some other ongoing outreach and science communication projects – stay tuned for news about these initiatives.

Quiescence is a wonderful state: it’s a calming, soothing place, and unlike diapause, doesn’t have an end-date. It’s without pressure, without expectation and without stress. It’s a state that I need as I strive to balance life and work, and it will help me slow down.  I do look forward to returning to regular blogging, but I just can’t promise when this will be.  For now, please follow me on Twitter for updates and news.

As they byline of Expiscor states: there are many legs out there in the world of arthropods, and many stories to be told. Discoveries certainly await, but they can also wait!

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations to the new Doctor of spider behaviour

I’m delighted to announce that lab member Raphaël Royauté successfully defended his PhD yesterday….  and he did it with grace, maturity, and poise. The defence was fair, but tough, and Raphael was able to show his breadth and depth of expertise on the broad topic of behaviour in arthropods.

Raphaël’s thesis was titled “Factors influencing behavioural variation in apple orchard populations of the jumping spider Eris militaris (Araneae: Salticidae)” and the during the defence, he was asked (not by me, remarkably!) to offer a ‘tweet’ of the his thesis. Here it is, coming in at almost exactly 140 characters.

Raph's thesis, in a tweet.

Raph’s thesis, in a tweet.

So, his research looked at behavioural syndromes in this remarkable jumping spider: Raphaël collected spiders in apple orchards, maintained them in a laboratory and ran them through a battery of behavioural test. He defined behaviours, looked at correlations among these behaviours (sometimes called ‘personality’), and how these traits varied during the development of individuals, consistency of these behaviours and whether behaviours differed depending on whether the spiders came from insecticide-free on insecticide-treated orchards.  Raphaël also looked at the direct effect of sub-lethel effects of insecticides on behaviour and will soon be publishing the ways that insecticides mess up their personalities.

Raphaël has really done incredible work – but looking back, I should not be surprised. Soon after he arrived in the lab we worked together on a short project about the activity of spiders right after snowmelt, at at that point, I was impressed with his intellectual curiosity, drive and motivation, and overall approach to scientific research.

Raphael and me, in 2008

Working together on Raph’s first project at McGill

After that first project, Raphaël came back to McGill to work on a PhD with me and Dr. Charles Vincent as co-supervisors. And now, many years later, he is now successfully defended a PhD. What a marvellous journey, and I can honestly say that I’ve learned far more from Raphaël than he could have learned from me.

Good luck Raph! (And you’ll be missed in the lab)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

Charles Vincent (l), Raphaël (c) and me (r), just after the Defence (17 March 2014)

The effect of insecticides on jumping spider personalities

This post was written by C. Buddle and R. Royaute (a PhD student in the Arthropod Ecology lab).

We are pleased to announce a recent publication from our lab, titled Interpopulation variations in behavioral syndromes of a jumping spider from insecticide-treated and insecticide-free Orchards.  As is traditional in the lab, here’s a plain language summary of the work:

Agriculture has strongly intensified in the last 60 years, causing major concerns the sustainability of biodiversity. Agricultural practices can reduce habitats available for wildlife and also release toxins in the environment through the use of pesticides. Not all organisms living in agricultural fields are harmful, and many predators, including spiders, can help to reduce pest density. We have a relatively good knowledge that the diversity of spider species in agriculture, especially under our temperate latitudes, can help reduce pest damage. However, many of the factors that influence spider predation on pests depend on the outcome of behavioural interactions and we don’t know much about that topic. Spiders are often cannibalistic and aggressive with one another and these types of behaviours may limit their efficiency for pest control. We also need to understand if these aggressive tendencies vary depending on the type of agricultural field considered, a pesticide treated field may favour very different behaviours than one that is managed organically. Another important point is that populations are composed by a multitude of individuals, each with its own behavioural tendencies. Some individuals take more risks when confronted with predators (i.e. they are more bold), others are more active and explore larger areas or consume more prey. These tendencies – often referred to as personality traits – may also be correlated with one another.

In the context of agriculture, this may mean that certain individual spiders may contribute more to biocontrol because they consume more prey, or that certain individuals are more at risk of being in contact with pesticides because they are more active. To understand, how agricultural practices, and particularly insecticidal applications, affects personality and behavioural syndromes in spiders, we focused on the jumping spider Eris militaris, an abundant and charming jumping spider occurring in apple orchards in Quebec. Here’s a lovely photo from Crystal Ernst to illustrate how attractive they are: (thanks, Crystal, for permission to post the photo here!)

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 3.34.45 PM

We collected spiders from pesticide-treated and pesticide-free orchards, brought them back to the laboratory, and did a number of behavioural tests on the individuals from the two populations. Compared to the insecticide-free populations, we document that individuals from orchards that did receive insecticides experienced a shift in their behaviours syndromes. The overall shape of this syndrome is multidimensional, but it suffices to say that the correlations among different behaviours (the ‘syndromes’, otherwise known as the ‘personality’) differed depending on where the population came from.

A 'mirror test' - used to study behaviour in E. militaris (photo by R. Royaute)

A ‘mirror test’ – used to study behaviour in E. militaris (photo by R. Royaute)

In sum, the personality shifts that we documented for E. militaris are potentially quite important since the relationships between different behaviours may affect a spider’s ability to be an effective generalist predator in apple orchards. We need to consider how management  (including use of insecticides) may affect specific behaviours, and more importantly, the relationships between the different behaviours.

Reference

Royaute, R., C.M. Buddle & C. Vincent. 2013.  Interpopulation Variations in Behavioral Syndromes of a Jumping Spider from Insecticide-Treated and Insecticide-Free Orchards. Ethology. doi: 10.1111/eth.12185

Expiscor (11 Nov. 2013): Changes

Expiscor is moving!

It’s been fun bringing you Expiscor each week, but things are changing and this blog feature has found a new home. Starting later this week, I’ll be blogging over at SciLogs.com.

Yes, I’m excited. 

Excited!

Excited!

It is truly an honour and a thrill to be invited to join the cast of impressive science bloggers, from Malcolm Campbell and his “Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast”, to Paige Brown’s “From the Lab Bench” to GrrlScientist’s “Maniraptora” and  Matt Shipman’s Communication Breakdown 

Expiscor will also change its style; I don’t provide nearly as good a “link-fest” as other people do (e.g., Ed’s and Malcolm’s are amazing!) and so instead of a weekly set of links, I will bring what I view as a short-list of fascinating discoveries, mostly from the world of Arthropods. These highlights, to be posted on Monday (as usual), will be more than a list, as I will try to provide a bit of context and opinion around each story. I see opportunity in the blogosphere to highlight new findings, stories, and photos related to the natural history and biology of spiders, insects, and their relatives.  In addition to these weekly highlights, I will write semi-regular long-form posts, again with a focus on arthropods, and some of these will be cross-posted on arthropodecology.com.

Don’t worry, you’ll still see amazing photos on Expiscor, like this one from Nash Turley:

Expiscor is flying away to SciLogs (photo by N. Turley, reproduced here with permission)

Expiscor is flying away to SciLogs (photo by N. Turley, reproduced here with permission)

You might wonder why I have opted to move Expiscor from its current home to a community blog. For me, it’s about continuing to improve and expand the blogging side of my academic life, and working alongside the other bloggers on SciLogs.com, I think, will help further hone my skills. More importantly, however, is that this move will allow me to reach out and connect with a very broad and interdisciplinary audience. Science communication, to me, is all about continually pushing the limits, expanding, thinking about and re-working the ways to bring exciting scientific discoveries to the world, and SciLogs is exactly aligned with this belief, as its mission statement highlights:

The SciLogs combine the strengths of both science culture and the blog medium. They provide scientists and those interested in science with the opportunity to interact in interdisciplinary discussions about science in all its forms… 

ArthropodEcology.com will remain active, although it certainly won’t be as active as it has been over the past year. The original idea behind the arthropod ecology blog was to highlight research activities within my laboratory, and to provide a forum for writing and discussing Higher Education. It’s grown a lot since then, and in some ways, the site will return to its roots, and I hope to get my graduate students and other people within my local community interested in writing their own posts under the arthropod ecology banner.

To my loyal readers, followers and friends: I must thank you for continued interest and support. The community of people associated with this blog is truly tremendous, and you give me energy, ideas and support every day. You help me uncover fascinating stories, provide me with terrific content, including photographs. You have made me a better scientist and a better person.

In sum, I pledge to continue to fish out discoveries and bring them to you; what’s changing is the location, and I do hope you will keep following along over at Expiscor’s new home.

And I know you want it… here’s your tweet of the week, from Minibeast Mayhem. Yeah, invertebrates are awesome.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 2.50.47 PM

Congratulations to the lab

Last week my laboratory attended the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting, held in Guelph. I was so proud of the whole lab – we had an impressive showing at the meeting, and I was especially impressed with the three undergraduate students who presented their research to Entomologists from across Canada. Wow – I don’t think I had that amount of confidence when I was an undergrad!

I am THRILLED to announce that three arthropod ecology students were recognized for their excellent presentations.

First, Master’s student Étienne Normandin was awarded first prize for his oral presentation in the Biodiversity section.  His talk was titled Biodiversity of wild bees in two urban settings: Montreal and Quebec city. He’s co-supervised by Valérie Fournier at Laval University. Here’s a photo of Etienne doing some field work:

Field work!

Field work!

Second, PhD student Dorothy Maguire was the runner up in the the same Biodiversity section. Her oral presentation was on Insect herbivory in fragmented forest landscapes: linking land use with changes in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Dorothy is co-supervised by Elena Bennett. Here’s a photo of Dory doing what she loves!

Tree climbing!

Tree climbing!

Finally, PhD student Raphaël Royauté was runner up in the student poster competition, for his work titled Does physiological state affect individual variation in boldness in a jumping spider?  Raphaël is co-supervised by Dr. Charles Vincent, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Here’s an older photo of me and Raph, not long after he first came to the lab for a short internship.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Raphael (left) and Chris (right), working hard.

Arthropod Ecology Mission Statement

Last week, during our laboratory meeting, we worked to develop a laboratory mission statement. My real inspiration for this came from my friend and colleague Elena Bennett – she also got me connected to Jessica Hellmann’s excellent post on the topic.  A mission statement is really just a way to clearly define who we are, what we do, and why we do the sorts of things that we do. From a research laboratory’s point of view, the goal of the exercise is (in part) to help all members of the laboratory feel part of something bigger. Something that has broad relevance to a community that extends far beyond the walls of our institution, and far beyond the boundaries of our own specific research projects.

As Jessica states clearly in her post, a Mission Statement  “…is a description of the purpose for your organization, primarily as it now is and/or will be within the next few years. A good mission statement should accurately explain why your organization exists and what it hopes to achieve in the near future. It articulates the organization’s essential nature, its values, and its work. The statement should resonate with the people working in and for the organization, as well as with the different constituencies that the organization hopes to affect. It must express the organization’s purpose in a way that inspires commitment, innovation, and courage.”.  A mission statement should be short, easily remembered, jargon-free, proactive, and readable to people outside of our organization.

Here’s what we did to come up with our (draft) statement:

1) We each wrote down a few words or a short sentence on an index card. We tried to write things that we felt described what the laboratory does in a broader sense (i.e. beyond our own specific interests). Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 10.04.24 AM

2) We mixed up these cards and each person took someone else’s card. We then went around the table and read what was on the cards. This allowed us a terrific jumping off point for the discussion and generated the necessary words and ideas.

3) The ‘scribe’ (in this case, it was me) wrote down each descriptive word (in our case, things like ‘arthropods‘, ‘human disturbance‘, ‘biodiversity‘ came up a lot), and as a group, we wrote down some verbs to help us think about the ‘action’ that we take with the things we do. Here, verbs like ‘explore‘, ‘quantify‘, ‘share’ came up a lot.

4) We wrote the mission statement – in two parts. (a) We tried to provide a few sentence of context, and to ground our laboratory in the ‘why‘ and the ‘what‘; (b) We wrote a few sentence of ‘how‘ we do our research.

5) Edit, edit, edit. This was done during the lab meeting, but also over email

Here’s the end result:

Mission Statement:

Arthropods (insects, spiders and their relatives) comprise most of the known biodiversity on the planet. Human activities are rapidly changing our environment, from climate change to landscape fragmentation and urbanization, with unknown consequences for local and global biodiversity. Arthropods have profound effects on ecosystem function, human health, goods and services, and culture. Our well-being is connected to this “smaller majority”, yet we know little about where they live, what they do, and how their diversity is changing. In our laboratory we: 1) Quantify patterns of terrestrial arthropod biodiversity across a suite of ecosystems, over a range of spatial and temporal scales; 2) Explore how arthropods respond to and are affected by human-induced environmental changes; 3) Investigate the interaction between arthropods and ecological processes; 4) Share our knowledge, ideas, and passion about arthropods.

How did we do? We would love your feedback on this.

Here are a few thoughts and reflections:

  • This was a very worthwhile process – it was an amazing discussion and gave as opportunity to really delve into areas that were well beyond our individual research interests.
  • I have always believed that ‘patterns in terrestrial arthropod biodiversity’ was really what I spend my research time thinking about; it’s good that the collaborative process of developing a mission statement ended up reflecting that!
  • Any specific habitat (e.g., canopy systems, the Arctic), or even any type of arthropod (e.g., beetles, spiders) never remained in our final mission statement. This is terrific, and shows well that the laboratory has diverse interests, but more importantly, that we encourage research in different places and with different model taxa.
  • Yes, jargon remains. This is difficult. We agreed, as a laboratory, that our mission statement would be aimed at a ‘scientifically literate’ audience.
  • I’m an ecologists and we do ecology, yet that word did not end up in the final product. Curious.
  • We ALL agreed about the importance of ‘sharing’ and engagement with a broader audience -many of us do various kinds of outreach, from blogs and tweets to volunteering to talk about insects in local elementary schools. I was extremely pleased and proud that our laboratory sees this is a core activity.

This process if far from over: the next step is a “Vision Statement“. As Jessica points out, a Mission statement is more about what we “do” and why, whereas a Vision Statement “...looks at least five years into the future and defines a future state. It is an articulation of a world that the organization and people are working toward, not what is expected to happen now“. Ok, that’s a task for a future lab meeting!

(BIG thanks to my amazing laboratory for helping develop a mission statement)

The spider hunt: jumping spiders of Mont St Hilaire

Last week I finally managed to get out of the office and into the field. More specifically, to one of the most beautiful forests in the greater Montreal region – Mont St. Hilaire.  This UNESCO biosphere reserve has a fascinating geological history, amazing flora and fauna, and contains some lovely habitats not found in other parts of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, including some rocky outcrops of higher elevation (circa 300-400 m above sea level – not much by some standards, but certainly higher elevation than the rest of the St Lawrence lowlands).

Yifu (left) and Margo (right) atop Dieppe summit at Mont St. Hilaire. Excellent spider-hunters!

Yifu (left) and Margot (right) in the fog, atop Dieppe summit at Mont St. Hilaire. Excellent spider-hunters!

One of the objectives of the field trip was to kickstart a jumping spider survey of the region – jumping spiders are the darlings of the arthropod world – charming and charismatic critters, beautiful, and with stunning courtship behaviours. They attract attention to spiders (in a positive way), and one of my goals is to increase awareness about our eight-legged friends.

The trip started out in fog, and we felt as if we were in Middle-Earth for most of the morning. My two helpers, however, remained enthusiastic and optimistic. We had an early lunch, and the sun finally started burning off the clouds and fog, and the jumping spiders came out.

We were quite thrilled to see Euophrys monadnock hopping around the rocky outcrops. Males of this (tiny) species are vibrant, with their yellow pedipalps, yellow tarsi, and two red legs.

Euophrys monadnock, atop Mont St Hilaire

Euophrys monadnock, atop Mont St Hilaire. Photo by C. Buddle

As we were heading back into the forest, we also encountered an Ant that wasn’t quite right. Its movements were a bit off, and its body shape was not quite right. In fact, it was not an Ant, it was a jumping spider that mimics Ants. Stunning little creature!

A jumping spider, not an ant! (Photo by Yifu Wang)

A jumping spider (a female Peckhamia pictata), not an ant! (Photo by Yifu Wang)

In sum, a successful day – the sun came out, the jumping spiders were jumping, and we were reminded of how important it is to get out into the field every now and then.

It’s a wrap! How about a thesis on Arctic spiders? How about two of them…?

This week I am thrilled to report that two of my MSc students have successfully completed their degrees! Both the projects are part of the collaborative Northern Biodiversity Program – a project aimed to quantify and understand ecological change with Arthropods from Canada’s north.

A BIG congratulations to Sarah Loboda and Katie Sim  – they are both tremendously talented students, excellent Arachnologists, and wonderful people to know.  Last night we had our annual Lab BBQ – and at that event, I was pleased to give Sarah and Katie a small token of appreciation.  Here’s a photo showing them both with their wolf spider photographs (photos by the incredible Thomas Shahan):

Katie Sim (l) and Sarah Loboda (r) - successful MSc students!

Katie Sim (left) and Sarah Loboda (right) – successful (& happy) MSc students!

Sarah Loboda’s thesis is titled Multi-scale patterns of ground-dwelling spider (Araneae) diversity in northern Canada. Her research focused on broad diversity patterns of ground-dwelling spiders collected from our 12 study sites, spread across Canada’s north. Our project spanned 30 degrees of latitude and 80 degrees of longitude –> yes that is a lot of land area! Sarah identified over 300 spider species from 14 families, and over 23,000 individuals.  Publications are forthcoming so I won’t give details here, except to say that we can learn a lot about diversity patterns over broad spatial scales using a study taxon such as spiders.

Here's where the Northern Biodiversity Program took our field teams!

Here’s where the Northern Biodiversity Program took our field teams.

Katie’s work (co-supervised by Prof. Terry Wheeler) had a different slant, but was still on Arctic spiders. Her thesis is titled:  Genetic analysis of Pardosa wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) across the northern Nearctic. The first part of Katie’s thesis was about understanding the phylogeographic history of the Arctic spider Pardosa glacialis, with particular attention to post-glacial dispersal patterns, as inferred by population genetics. The second part of her thesis was focused on whether or not there is enough evidence to suggest two northern Pardosa species should remain as separate species, or be merged into one – based on both molecular and morphological characters.  Let’s just say that Katie had to be a ‘field genius‘, ‘lab genius‘ and ‘spider genitalia genius‘.  Here’s an example of what she looked at, a lot:

The epigynum of a wolf spider species, (part of) the topic of Katie's research.

The epigynum of a wolf spider species, (part of) the topic of Katie’s research.

In sum, I am thrilled to see Sarah and Katie finish up their work, although their success also comes with a touch of sadness, as I will miss their daily presence in the laboratory.  Stay tuned… we shall soon report all the details from their research.

An indoor field trip: visiting Canada’s national spider collection

Last week I traveled up to Ottawa with two of my students – our goal was to visit the Arachnid collection at the Canadian National Collection of Insects (CNCI) (and Arachnids and Nematodes). The spider collection is housed on the fourth floor of the Neatby building, in a room that seldom has its lights turned on.  Canada’s National Spider collection has been without a curator since the 1990s, when Dr. Charles Dondale retired. In fact, his name is still on the door.

Dr. Dondale

The spider collection has historically been one of the finest, world-wide. It contains numerous type specimens, and houses thousands upon thousands of vials, all within stand-up cabinets. These vials contain rich biological information – they contain a spider with a species name, where it was found, who collected it, and when. These kinds of museum data are absolutely vital as we try to understand our biodiversity, and how it might be changing in the face of environmental stresses. Museum data form the basis of taxonomic revisions, and museum specimens (identified to species, by experts) are an important way for someone to learn taxonomy (that is how I did it!).

Our goal in the spider collection was to data-base some specimens – this means taking what is written on (old) labels, and entering data into a data-base (one that will eventually go on-line). On this trip, we were looking for some records of purse-web spiders in North America, and for northern black widow spider records. We also worked to database the jumping spiders (Salticidae), with a particular focus on those species occurring in Canada.

The task of data-basing.

The task of data-basing.

You might wonder why we would take time away from our own (busy) laboratory in Montreal to drive up to Ottawa to enter data; surely there are better uses of that precious resource of time (and money)?  Nope: A visit to the CNCI is always worth it.  Here’s why:

1. Label data are useful data! I have quite a few projects ongoing this summer, including a better understanding of the distribution of jumping spiders in Quebec. There’s no better way to find certain species than going to where they have been found before.  How do you know where they have been found before? Although much can be gleaned from publications, there are hundreds of specimens that have been collected and stored at the CNCI, but whose data has never been used in a publication. Looking at vials and reading labels is a good place to start, and while doing this, it only makes sense to enter the information into a data-base. It’s not exciting work, but having data digitally accessible allows my own research interests to move forward more effectively.

Treasures in the cabinet.

Treasures in the cabinet.

2. I’m an Arachnologist in Canada, and as such, I feel a responsibility to use the collection in Ottawa. The spider room at the CNCI is where (historically) Canada become a global leader in spider taxonomy. Charlie Dondale and others (notably James Redner) wrote some of the most important papers and books about spiders in North America, and their (free!) books remain a critical resource for Arachnologists throughout North America.  The hallowed grounds of the spider room are where much of this work occurred. It’s a special place, and one that is worth visiting.

3. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The future is not bright for this spider collection. Surprisingly, a replacement for Charlie has not be hired. We need an Arachnologist in Ottawa (I’ve written about this before). I worry deeply for this collection, and even a few visits per year are better than none at all – it shows there is still broader interest in the spider collection, and that it remains an important resource for people from other regions of Canada. Showing continual use and interest in the collection is a great way to show its value.

4. If it’s lost, let’s hope the data are not. Time for thinking about ‘worst case scenarios‘:  every time I am at the CNCI I see evidence of further degradation of the spider collection. Spiders are stored in ethanol, long-term, and without  curation the ethanol degrades, discolours, the specimens get brittle or break apart, the labels fade or become unreadable, or perhaps a vial or two break.  The spider collection has not receive high consistent curation for a very long time. At the very least, we better have the data from those specimens, and that requires data-basing.

Trouble in the collection: A vial with a cracked glass lip.

Trouble in the collection: A vial with a cracked glass lip.

In sum, the spider room at the CNCI is a national treasure and it was really great to be there. We didn’t get much done (only about a hundred specimens databased – and, truthfully, I did very little of the hard work – my students did all the heavy lifting).  But it was a start, and means that we’ll need to come back. I sincerely look forward to the next visit!

Seasonality of Arctic Beetles

I’m excited to report on paper written by Crystal Ernst, PhD student in my lab, and well known as the “Bug Geek“. This paper is a product of the Northern Biodiversity Program (yes, it sure is great that the papers from this project are starting to appear!), and will be one of Crystal’s PhD thesis chapters. The paper is titled Seasonal patterns in the structure of epigeic beetle (Coleoptera) assemblages in two subarctic habitats in Nunavut, Canada

A very nice Arctic beetle! (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

A very nice Arctic beetle! (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

Here’s a plain-language summary of the work:

Although we often think of Arctic systems as cold and lifeless, Canada’s tundra habitats are home to a high diversity of arthropods (insects, spiders and their relatives). Beetles are important insects on the tundra – filling ecological roles as predators (feeding on other insects), herbivores (feeding on plants), mycophages (feeding on fungi), and necrophages (feeding on dead or decaying animals). In this research, we wanted to find out what happens to ground-dwelling Arctic beetles as a function of seasonality. We were curious about whether different species occurred at different times during the short Arctic summer, and whether the functions of the beetles changes over the summer. This is an important area of study because beetles perform important ecological functions, and knowing how these functions change over time may have broader implications for northern ecosystems. This is especially relevant in the Arctic since these systems have a short ‘active season’, and climate change is disproportionally affecting northern latitudes. If climate change alters an already short summer, what might happen to the beetles?

This research was done as part of the Northern Biodiversity Program (NBP) – a broad, integrative project about the diversity of insects and spiders across northern Canada. The NBP involved collecting samples at 12 sites in the Arctic, but at one of these sites (Kugluktuk, in Nunavut) we had an opportunity to do a more detailed collection over the entire summer of 2010. This involved setting out traps for the entire active season, from June through to August. These traps were plastic containers sunk into the ground – beetles that wander along the tundra fall unawares into these traps, which contain preservatives, and are trapped until a researcher collects the samples. Traps were placed in wet and (relatively) dry habitats so that we could compare the two habitats. After the collections were returned to our laboratory, the beetles were identified to species, counted, and the biomass of the beetles was estimated – biomass lets us determine what happens to the ‘amount of beetles’ on the tundra in addition to figuring out ‘how many’ (abundance) and ‘what kind’ (species) were in the traps. The beetles were also classified into their key ecological roles. The data were then compared as a function of when traps were serviced to let us assess what happens to beetles as a function of seasonality.

We collected over 2500 beetles, representing 50 different species – remarkably, 17 of these species represented new Territorial records. This means that 17 of the species that were identified had never before been recorded in all of Nunavut! Although many ecological functions were represented by the beetles we collected, most were predators. We documented that wet habitats had different kinds of beetle species than the drier tundra habitats, even though the actual number of species between the habitats did not differ. We also uncovered a seasonal affect on the functions of beetles in the system – as the season progressed, the beetles tended to be represented more by predators compared to earlier in the season, which was dominated by beetles representing a diversity of functions. The mean daily temperature also related to the seasonal change that was observed in the beetles.

PhD student Crystal Ernst, happily working on the Arctic tundra.

PhD student Crystal Ernst, happily working on the Arctic tundra.

This work is one of the first to carefully quantify how beetles change during short Arctic summers. We found a diverse assemblage of beetles, filling a range of ecological roles. These ecological roles, however, do not stay the same all summer long, and the shifts in the beetles were related to mean daily temperature. Given that Arctic systems will be significantly affected by climate change, this is worrisome – if temperatures increase, or become more variable, this may affect ecosystem functions that are mediated by beetles. This is more evidence supporting the need to track climate change in the Arctic, and play close attention to the small animals of the tundra.

Reference:

Ernst, C., & Buddle, C. (2013). Seasonal patterns in the structure of epigeic beetle (Coleoptera) assemblages in two subarctic habitats in Nunavut, Canada The Canadian Entomologist, 145 (02), 171-183 DOI: 10.4039/tce.2012.111