Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based learning:

We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.

The art of delegation: Perspectives from Academia

The talented graduate student (and all-around great guy) Morgan Jackson recently posted a question on twitter, asking for advice on the art of delegation, from an Academic perspective. This question really struck me as important, for graduate students who are pursuing academic careers and for tenure-track academics.  The reason why is pretty obvious: without learning how to delegate, burnout is inevitable.

To delegate means to entrust (a task or responsibility) to another person, typically one who is less senior than oneself.

The issue of how to delegate is, of course, common and widespread in the business community but academia is a bit peculiar. Let me explain my perspective: In some cases, delegation is straightforward, especially if a staff member is paid to do a particular job and if roles and responsibilities are well defined. Although these kinds of hierarchies exist in Universities and research institutes, these environments often include a high amount of volunteerism and some aspects of Universities (and research more generally) are run on collegiality and community-minded thinking.  Scientific societies would disintegrate if people didn’t share the work-load, and if society president’s weren’t able to delegate work to (often unpaid!) treasurers, web-masters and scholarship committees.  Universities wouldn’t operate effectively if Professors didn’t agree to sit on committees, often delegated by the Chairperson. Research laboratories would be unhappy places if some of the chores weren’t delegated, from making sure coffee supplies are well stocked, to ordering supplies – sometimes a paid technician does this work, but not always….

Academia is also full of “reverse hierarchies” – sometimes a more junior person has to ask a more senior person do take on a responsibility or task – this happens all the time: from seeking help putting together a symposium at a conference, to getting people to agree to sit on an editorial board.  Bottom line: there are COUNTLESS tasks in Academia that depend on delegation and often the tasks, roles and responsibilities don’t fit neatly into one person’s formal (paid) job description, and often the ‘senior to junior’ hierarchy isn’t straightforward .

And perhaps the most important point of all….  one of the biggest obstacles to delegation is the fact that many Academics are perfectionists. Academics, by in large, like to be in control of ALL THE THINGS, from preparing a CV, to setting up committee meetings, to driving a car to a field site. Professors, in general, have got to their position because of their ability to DO ALL THE THINGS and do them well. You can’t publish good papers without knowing how to write; you can’t publish papers without solid research funding, so you have to perfect the art of writing grants; you can’t get a post-doc position of tenure-track position without being able to put together a top-notch presentation and deliver it with the skills of a seasoned orator; you can’t get good teaching scores without investing time and energy into perfecting Powerpoint slides and learning the content….  etc., etc., etc.

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However, as Peter Adler wrote over at Dynamic Ecology recently, it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, the job gets more demanding on time, expectations on productivity remain, teaching can be time-intensive, and the Academics are expected to do some administration. From a personal perspective, I am far busier now than I have ever been in the past (but I try not to complain about it).  Good time management skills are not enough to get everything done. What’s needed is an ability to delegate. Again, without effective delegation, burnout is inevitable.

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With that backdrop, how do you delegate?

1) Know the players. Delegation requires knowing your community and knowing the skills and abilities of people within your community, whether it be a graduate student secretary, the treasurer of a scientific society, or a colleague down the hall. Before you can even think of delegation, realize that delegating any kind of work has a real, profound affect on somebody and on how they spend their time. It’s about people, so you must get to know these people! This means networking, whether it be around a coffee maker at work, over twitter, or attending a poster session at a conference.  Pay close attention to everyone you interact with, listen to them, learn their passions, learn what they like to spend their time doing.

2) Play nice. In addition to knowing your community, don’t be a jerk to your community! I mentioned Morgan Jackson at the start of this post; he’s an example of someone who is always willing to lend a hand, say a kind word, and be a team player. He plays nice. I am always happy to help Morgan in return, even though I am (in academic terms) his ‘senior’. This seems SO obvious, but I also know that not everyone plays nice. Some people are selfish, ignore those they deem as ‘inferior’, and require you to grovel to get an answer to an email.  It’s a tough world, and there are big personalities in Academia, and everyone has their own agendas.  This can be difficult to navigate, and politics in Academia can be fierce. However, a strategy that always wins is to play nice. Be collegial, polite, and try not to burn bridges. It’s hard to delegate if there’s nobody left that respects you.

3) Prioritize. Delegation is an art, and one of the trickiest parts is learning what to delegate and what to keep on your own plate. It’s also important to avoid delegating everything. Some things are too close to your own expertise, part of your job description and/or are tasks that you just love too much to give up. However, some tasks can be shared effectively among others, and can move away from your to-do list. Write down ALL that you have to do, and put a star beside those that you cannot see anyone else doing (ahem, if there are stars next to all of the tasks, you will burn out. Start again, and see point #6, below). If your are lead-author on a paper, you sure ought to read over those final page proofs! However, maybe your co-author could do a final check over all references, especially if s/he hasn’t contributed as much to the paper..?

4) Have a vision (& communicate it!). Delegation will not be successful if those you delegate to are not sure what role they are playing in the ‘big picture’.  No matter the size of the task, it is being done for some reason. Having someone give a guest lecture is pretty obvious: the guest lecture helps achieve the learning objectives of the class and gives students a new perspective on the content. Sure, that makes sense. But did you communicate that to both the students and the person giving the lecture? EVERYONE involved needs to understand the ‘why’ behind the jobs and tasks at hand. This means effective delegation requires carefully assessing why tasks are being done, and working to communicate this. If people are part of a vision (even one they may not 100% agree with), it’s a lot easier to get them to take part.

5) Ask and Explain. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking (nicely). This goes much smoother if you have a vision and that you have communicated this vision, as mentioned above. In addition to asking, it’s essential that the tasks you are delegating are clearly defined. A volunteer might agree to sort specimens if you ask them. However, a simple ask may result the job getting done, but perhaps with a lot of mistakes. Asking, and then giving someone a 1 hour tutorial and access to resources on-line will result in fewer errors. Preparing a living document that explains your protocols for sorting and letting them refine and improve the document is even better!  All tasks, regardless of their size, need to be defined. Just because you think it’s easy to do, straightforward, and simple doesn’t mean everyone else will.

6) Let go. (TRUST) I have noticed that many Academics (myself included!) don’t delegate because they say “Ah heck, I already know how to do that, it’ll take too much time to explain or show them how to do it…” or “I’ll do that myself, it’ll be faster“. There are a few problems here. First, if you say this about everything, burnout is inevitable. Second, as an Academic / Researchers/ Post-doc, etc, you are responsible for sharing knowledge and training others, and this takes time. In the time it takes you to ‘just do the task’ five times, you could have trained someone else. Third, this may indicate that you don’t ‘trust’ anyone else to do the job. You must let go of this! Be a perfectionist at the right times, but let some things go. There are errors in everything we do, so sharing them around is fine, for some tasks.  Remember, you have developed a network, you are team player, and you have shared your visions and prioritized, and defined the tasks. It’s time to let go.

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7) Verify. Letting go does not mean letting go forever. There must be follow-up and discussion to ensure the job is done well. Accountability is key. Review the job, first on your own, and then with the person to whom the work was delegated. You must provide constructive feedback, but also listen to ideas, complaints and comments. This will help you redefine the task in the future, and they will feel more responsibility and ownership over the task. This also starts the amazing process of creating someone who can later become a delegator of tasks. This is what mentoring is all about… in your laboratory or classroom, you want people to walk away with confidence in what they do, and with an ability to take their skills sets and pass them along to others.

8) Reward. It’s absolutely essential that you reward those to whom you have entrusted a task or responsibility. If people do not feel their work is valued, and that they have not contributed in an important way, you have failed in effective delegation. If you reward, your vision will grow, your team will respect you, your (positive) network will increase. Rewards can be small or big: A few kind words, a big “THANK YOU”, some homemade cookies, a promotion, or a letter of reference. Here’s an example: I often get graduate students to give guest lectures in my courses. This saves me time, and helps me out when I’m overwhelmed. When students do these lectures, I offer to write them letters or recommendation specifically about their abilities in the classroom. Most take me up on this, and it’s a kind of reward. I also ensure to pass along kind words from the students in the class.

9) Get some training. The art of delegation is seldom on an Academic’s CV. It’s often learned by trial and error, and sometimes never really perfected. Like any skill, training is required. In some cases, informal training is enough. This can be via sitting on committees in scientific societies, learning from effective mentors, or just practicing. However, I think that most Academics are not very good at delegation, and more formal training is required. This could be in the form of workshops, perhaps for all incoming Profs at a University, or as part of a research conference. I would like to see these kinds of ‘management’ skills as part of EVERY graduate student’s program, as perhaps part of the seminar/course work often required during a graduate degree. WE MUST DELEGATE ergo WE MUST HAVE TRAINING.

10) Be a leader. Don’t shy away from leadership. Everything mentioned above is about leadership.  Professors are leaders, perhaps a leader in front of the classroom, as a research leader within your institution, a leading expert in an op-ed piece, or a leader on a committee about academic programs. Effective leaders are effective at delegation; in fact, I might argue it’s impossible to be a leader without being effective at delegation.  Behind every good leader is an even better team. It’s so cliché, but also so very true.

In sum, delegation is about empowerment and leadership. It’s about giving someone else ‘ownership’ over a task that is part of something bigger. Delegation will help you work on things that YOU need to work on, and help you avoid burnout. It’s a required skill for success in Academia.

(BIG thanks to twitter-folks to took part in the conversation about delegation, especially Morgan, Terry, Chris, Staffan, and others)

A guide for writing plain language summaries of research papers

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to have plain language summaries for research papers. That post generated terrific discussions, new collaborations and many ideas, and I am now trying to write plain language summaries of my own research as it gets published. The goal of this current post is to provide some guidance about how to write plain language summaries. This work does not come from just from me, but rather from continued discussions with others, notably Mike Kelly and colleagues over at TechTel. The idea of plain language summaries resonates with so many people, from the business and marketing community, journalists, through to science writers, researchers and academics. I am continuing to work with Mike, and will share more as our ideas and projects develop. For now, however, it’s timely to provide some idea about how to write plain language summaries. As usual, your ideas, opinions, and comments are always welcome!

To revisit, what are plain language summaries?

Plain-language summaries are a way to communicate a scientific research papers to a broad audience, in a jargon-free and clear manner. Jargon is defined as technical terms understood only by specialists in a field of study.  In this post, I am assuming that plain language summaries are aimed at a ‘scientifically literate‘ audience, but an audience that is not specific to a discipline. Most scientists who publish in the peer-reviewed literature are familiar with Abstracts – which are a short synthesis of the research, and which typically highlight the research objectives, method and main findings.  Abstract are typically aimed at the audience that will read a specialized journal, but often contain technical terms, and typically jump into a specialized topic quickly and concisely.  A plain language summary is different because it focuses more broadly, is without jargon, and aims to provide a clear picture about ‘why’ the research was done in additional to ‘how’ the work was done, and the main findings.

Plain language summaries are a valuable contribution as they allow research to be accessed by a broader audience, and because the people who do the research write them, the findings are directly from the source and should capture the proper context for the research. Plain language summaries can provide a means to promote research, whether it is through a publisher, on the blog of a scientific society, or for a University’s Media Relations Office. Department Heads and Deans can take these summaries and both understand and promote the high quality science done by their Professors, research scientists, and students. Journalists could read these summaries and not have to wade through technical terms, and have a higher probability of getting the message right. Colleagues can better understand the work that all scientists do, even when disciplines are quite far apart. Other scientists, journalists, the public, government officials, friends and family, can all better understand science if all research papers were paired with a plain-language summary. Plain language summaries make research available, tangible, and are a way to truly disseminate research findings to all who are interested.

How to write a plain language summary:

The first, and perhaps most essential step, is to explain ‘why’ the research was done. The overarching reason and rational for the research must be explicitly stated in general terms. It’s easy to slip into the habitat of justifying research because “Little is known about x, y or z”.  However, this is not adequate for a plain language summary – ‘something’ is surely known on the topic, it’s just a matter of defining that ‘something’ and explaining how the work is expanding beyond, perhaps to a new research direction, or in a different model system.  Mike Kelly, from his perspective (and background) in marketing, was particularly instrumental in helping recognize that the “why” of research is vitally important, and explaining this should never be taken for granted. Scientists need to start a plain language summaries from a broad, ‘big picture’ and more general framework, and work to place their research paper within this context: they must address and answer the ‘why’.  It takes a lot of time to define the ‘why’ and describe it to a broad audience – take the time – it will make the other steps much easier.

The second step is to state the more specific objectives of the research.   This should flow easily from the first step if there is a clear rationale for the work. The research question is a continual narrowing down to a finer study topic, logically flowing from a big picture overview of the discipline into which the research is nestled. A research objective could be phrased as a question, or goal, and may have several sub-questions.

The third step is to explain ‘what’ you did to answer the research objective. Too much detail will be overwhelming and confusing, too little will not allow the reader to envision how things were done. Try doing a flow-chart that depicts the process of the science, and use this as a guide to writing how the work was done. The goal of a plain language summary is not to allow other scientists to follow your methods, but rather to provide readers with a sense of how you did the work, in broad brushstrokes.

The fourth step is to provide an interpretation of results and make them relevant. Unlike a scientific paper, which typically presents results in a linear fashion and independent of a discussion, plain language summaries should integrate the results with a discussion or interpretation. A plain language summary should show readers how the results to fit together and provide insights into the bigger framework or context of the research. It is not necessary to provide all the results, nor is it necessary to provide specific details about each observation of experiment; rather, the results must tell a story and inform the readers of what you found and why the findings are important relative to your research question. The end of your summary should scope out again, and leave the readers will a strong and positive sense about the contribution of your science to the big-picture that you developed at the start.

The last step is to go through the plain-language summary with a keen eye for meaning and jargon.  Assess each sentence and see that the writing is drawing out the meaning from the research, whether it is a description of the study organism or system, or a rationale for quantitative modeling. Without attention to meaning, at all levels, a plain-language summary will be a re-packaged Abstract, which is to be avoided.  Circle or highlight all terms that could be considered jargon  – have a friend, an uncle or a colleague from a different discipline read over the work to confirm that the jargon is gone.  When jargon is identified, rewrite in non-technical terms – it will take more space, but this is better than having terms that cannot be understood by a general audience.

Then: edit, edit, and edit again.

Some hints….

  • If you are visual person, draw the plain language summary before writing it, this will help draw out the meaning and allow you to understand the flow of the summary and how the different sections fit together.
  • It will likely be helpful to first write your plain language summary with headings.  Use headings such as “Why we did this work”, “How we did this work”, “What were the interesting things that we discovered”, etc. Afterwards, re-work the summary to remove the subheadings.
  • Don’t talk down to your audience. A common mistake is the ‘dumbing down’ of the research and this must be avoided. As mentioned, you are assuming the audience for this summary is scientifically literate, and thus you need to speak to them in this way.
  • Aim for about 500 words – more is too much, fewer can be difficult, especially if your research is highly technical.
  • Have your summaries read by other people outside of your discipline, and then have them explain it back to you. If it’s a good summary, the explanation of your own work should be clear, accurate and precise.  If it’s not, find out the trouble-spots and re-work the summary.
  • Finally, don’t rush the process. Plain language summaries are very difficult to write; they take time, and often draw upon skills that have not been part of a researcher’s typical training. Write the summary, leave it for a day or two, and come back to it. It is very important to get it right, as these summaries have the potential to be read by many more people than would normally read a scientific paper within a journal.

In sum, I hope you find that there is value in plain language summaries, and that this guide provides some ideas about how to write one.

You may have more tips or better ideas – please share! (comments welcome…!)

On the game of Academic Publishing

Back in March, I was asked to present a talk to Professors at Cape Breton University about finding success with Academic publishing.  This was in part because of my own experience with publishing, but also in my role as Editor-in-Chief for The Canadian Entomologist.  This talk took some time to put together, but it was a lot of fun to think in detail about how the publishing ‘game’ is changing, and how’s it is difficult to navigate – especially for early-career Academics.

In this post, I am pleased to share my presentation with you – I hope it is useful to some, and I hope it sparks discussion about finding success in publishing.  I realize some things were missed, and the presentation itself is rather static and cannot capture the dynamic discussion that was part of the seminar given at Cape Breton.

Please share!

Strategies for teaching a field biology course

…Part 2 from a series of posts about the value of field biology courses

I previously wrote about the value of field courses in undergraduate University programs, and promised to follow up with a post focused on the ‘how’.  It’s also timely since my field biology course from this term is wrapping up, so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the past term.  It is important to write about some practical strategies for instructing field biology courses because I sometimes hear from my colleagues (and some University administrators) that field biology courses are too expensive, only possible with small class sizes, impractical for introductory classes, and otherwise difficult to successfully integrate into an Academic program.   I have been teaching field biology for a number of years, and believe that most of these criticisms are not valid.    I hope this post can dispel some myths about field biology courses, and convince more people to offer outdoor experiences and experiential learning as part of University curriculum.

Sampling pond invertebrates, five minutes from campus

1. Think global, act local.  Field biology classes do not need to go to exotic locations to be successful.  Many people associate field biology with traveling to a Caribbean Island, a rainforest, or the desert – true, these are prime locations for field courses, but it’s not necessary to travel far to teach field biology.  Our own backyards are ideal locations to study.  In fact, our own backyards are highly relevant to field biology since they are habitats that can be most relevant to our own well-being!   A trip to a local agricultural field will firmly implant the importance of food security and the relationship between food production and global food markets.  A trip to a urban park can be an opportunity to discuss and learn about introduced species and how they are affecting our local biota (European starlings, anyone?).  A trip to a roadside ditch can illustrate how local dispersal plays a role in governing the population dynamics of aquatic macroinvertebrates.  All of these concepts can be illustrated by habitats found within walking distances of many University campuses.  No flights required.

2. The yellow school bus.  Without a doubt, transportation is expensive, and even local trips can be costly.  However, it’s important to remember that ALL courses are expensive, and the fees associated with a yellow school bus are analogous to fees for chemicals, glassware and other consumables associated with a wet chemistry laboratory.  Unfortunately, my experience has been that Administrators do not see outdoors labs through the same lens as indoor labs. Although indoor ‘lab fees’ are often within Departmental or Faculty budgets, renting buses is often an expense that is not accounted for in the same way.  This can be a key reason for the impression that field biology courses are expensive.  I urge you to work within your own systems to find a way to make the yellow school bus as important as all other fees associated with delivering any University course.  Until this institutional shift is made, you will need to come up with creative solutions to the transportation issue.  For example, I often work with my colleagues to find a way to share busses, or do some laboratories within walking distance of our campus.  It may also be possible to have students take public transit to a designated field site.

3. Group work!  A few years ago I was faced with increased enrolment in my field biology course and this presented a challenge.  Suddenly ‘in the field’ lectures and discussions would be impossible (how do you speak to 60 students outside, in a gale-force wind?).  Discussing strategies with colleagues was informative, and I learned that many field biology courses were capped to avoid taking too many students outside.  I didn’t like this – and I could not cap my course without good reason, especially since my course was a requirement for the program.  The solution?  Group work and student-led learning!  For most of my laboratories, I have designed specific activities that don’t require any formal ‘outdoor lectures’ (which, by the way, are generally useless).   Upon getting off a bus, students are often put into groups (sometimes predetermined, sometimes not) and they rotate through different activities.  Here are some examples:

(i)  In a lab about agroecosystems this term, groups of students walked separately through different field crops at the local horticultural centre, and were asked to observe various aspects of the small-scale agriculture system.  The instructor and the TA walked among the groups and took part in the discussions as necessary.  The students were asked to ask questions, make observations, and then meet at a designated time to discuss their questions with the head of the horticultural centre.

(ii) In an earlier offering of my course, students were put into groups at a local forest, and were asked to move around to different locations where they were met by instructors or TAs, and at those locations they took part in small activities related to studying biodiversity in the forest – invertebrates at one location, bird calls at another, plant identification at a third, etc.

(iii) I have sometimes sent all groups off to do the same activity (e.g., measuring soil types in a forest or agroecosystem) and then bring the data back to a classroom and their data provided the content for a lecture about variability in nature and bias in observation.

(iv) As a final example, in one laboratory to a wetland conservation area, individual students were asked, ahead of time, to research specific species that we would see while visiting a field site.  The students became the experts and they were asked to share their knowledge with their peers (i.e., when they were in groups, in the field).  The students became the instructors, and nothing reinforces concepts and content like having to teach it!

….Fundamentally, field biology with a larger class size must embrace the idea of doing group work.

Students, working in groups

4. Bring in the experts.  Field biology is complex to teach in part because of nature’s variability and because an instructor cannot be the expert in all things.  I use the approach of inviting my colleagues (and graduate students) to take part in (and lead) specific activities related to their own expertise.  By in large, I have found my colleagues to be very open to this idea, and provided I do not ask them for help every year, they are most willing to take part.   For many of my colleagues who do not teach in field biology courses regularly, this is a nice opportunity to get outdoors and take part in a different style of teaching.  It’s also a big advantage to students as they are able to appreciate different teaching styles, and gain a recognition for various levels of expertise by instructors.  In fact, this week I am inviting a geologist to take my students on a walk around Mont Royal in Montreal.  Understanding the geological foundations to our local ecosystems is only possible in this class because of the generous involvement from my colleague.  In sum – a  field biology course can be improved by bringing in additional help.

5. Set-up your lab with a lecture:  I have found it immensely useful to set up a field biology laboratory with some kind of content in advance of the trip.  This allows for ‘setting the stage’ so the unfamiliar can be a little more familiar.  To relate this back to my geology field-laboratory, earlier in the term the same colleague came and gave a (indoor) lecture on the geology of the greater Montreal area.  The students therefore have had exposure to the topic in advance of the lab, and were asked to do some readings prior to the laboratory.  This avoids that problem of tying to deliver lectures outside.  Trying to combine experiential learning, in the field, with learning content and concepts, can be difficult.  Use an earlier lecture slot as a means to set up the field activities and laboratories. Sometimes this will mean unique scheduling options for your course.  For example, I have timetabled my course by doing a one-hour lecture each Tuesday an one four-hour field lab each Thursday – the Tuesday lecture can be used to cover some content and allows me to devote the entire field laboratory to field activities.

Field Biology in the winter – why not?

6. Embrace the unpredictable:  Taking students out in a rainstorm, or when it’s -15C, is part of the field biology experience.  Nature can be unpredictable, and we need to embrace this instead of shy away from it.  In the Montreal area, seasonability is a driving force in all our ecosystems, yet field biology courses tend to be focused in ‘nice weather’ seasons.  My colleague Murray Humphries is always telling me that our students must realize that winter ecology is as important as what happens in the summer!  He’s right! (Murray, by the way, does take students out on winter trips in his mammalogy course, and they do winter tracking and other activities relate to cold-weather science).   We can see and do a lot of field biology in all seasons, and must change the mindset of associating field biology with the warm months.  And, as an anecdote, of all the camping trips that I did with my father when I was (much) younger, I remember vividly the ones with rain, sleet, snow and wind storms.  Nice weather is boring.

In sum, field biology courses are doable, providing the instructor can be creative and embrace alternative approaches to teaching.

What are your own strategies?  Please share…

Plain-language summary of research results: Mites, rotten wood, and forests

Last week I wrote a post that outlined a proposal to require plain-language summaries of all research papers. I decided that I would start to do this with my own papers to see how difficult it might be, and also to see if this could help to make the research more accessible to a broad audience.

So… here it goes. This is a summary of paper written with my former MSc student Andrea Dechene, about mites, forests and fallen logs:

         Mites are small animals, closely related to ticks and spiders. They are so small that it is very difficult to see them without the help of a magnifying glass or microscope. There are many kinds of mites, and they are found almost everywhere, including forests. Mites are important in forests because they can affect how leaves and rotten wood decompose on the forest floor. 

          In this research, we studied whether certain kinds of mites were associated with logs that were decomposing on the forest floor, and we did this work in north-western Quebec. We collected mites living in the wood, on the ground near the wood, and on the forest floor about 1 m away from logs. Mites were collected by taking a handful of soil, leaves or rotten wood, putting this in a zip-lock bag, and then the samples were taken to a laboratory. In the lab, these handfuls of soil, leaves and wood were placed on a bench below a light. Mites do not like bright lights and they try to get away by moving away from the light – in this case, they move downward where they think it is safe. The samples are on a screen, however, and the mites fall through the screen and into a jar that contains a liquid that will kill them. These jars are taken to a different lab where the mites are inspected with the help of a microscope. With the help of books and other resources, we could figure out all the different kinds of mites and sort them into their different varieties.  Some kinds had names while other ones did not 

         We discovered 80 different kinds of mites and over 15,000 mites, in total, fell into the jars. That means a lot of mites live in forests! We also discovered that different kinds of mites live in the rotten wood compared to the forest floor and compared to the leaves. We found that the most different kinds of mites actually lived in the leaves that were over top of very, very rotten wood. This is an exciting result because nobody figured this out before, and it means that long after wood decomposes, there are still animals that ‘remember’ the wood was there and are using it as a suitable place to live. Lots of scientists have worked on rotten wood and it is well known that wood is very important for many animals and plants in a forest. Our work is different because we looked at some of the tiny animals in forests and they are also telling us that rotten wood is a good place to live. Next time you see a fallen tree, remember that many kinds of mites depend on that tree and you should leave it where it is.

Mites live here.

Phew.

By the way, here is the actual Abstract from that paper:

The removal of timber during harvesting substantially reduces important invertebrate habitat, most noticeably microhabitats associated with fallen trees. Oribatid mite diversity in downed woody material (DWM) using species-level data has not been well studied. We investigated the influence of decaying logs on the spatial distribution of oribatid mites on the forest floor at the sylviculture et aménagement forestiers écosystémique (SAFE) research station in the Abitibi region in NW Québec. In June 2006, six aspen logs were selected for study, and samples were taken at three distances for each log: directly on top of the log (ON), directly beside the log (ADJ) and at least one metre away from the log and any other fallen wood (AWAY). Samples ON logs consisted of a litter layer sample, an upper wood sample and an inner wood sample. Samples at the ADJ and AWAY distances consisted of litter samples and soil cores. The highest species richness was collected ON logs, and logs harboured a distinct oribatid species composition compared to nearby forest floor. There were species-specific changes in abundance with increasing distance away from DWM, which indicates an influence of DWM in structuring oribatid assemblages on the forest floor. Additionally, each layer (litter, wood and soil) exhibited a unique species composition and hosted a different diversity of oribatid mites. This study further highlights the importance of DWM to forest biodiversity by creating habitat for unique assemblages of oribatid mites.

The Extractor – getting mites from the samples

Thoughts? –I kind of like the plain-language summary.

The plain language summary was not easy to write and it took a lot of words to explain certain things. Despite the challenge, I’m convinced it was a worthwhile use of time.  Please consider doing this with your own papers!  

Reference:

Dechene, A. and C. M. Buddle. 2010. Decomposing logs increase oribatid mite assemblage diversity in mixedwood boreal forest. Biodiv. Cons. 19: 237-256. http://www.springerlink.com/content/r3681l0185620311/

Arthropods in the tree-tops: Canopy ecology in Quebec (Part 1)

This blog post is reproduced here, with permission, from the Spring-Summer 2012 Newsletter of the International Canopy Network.  Given the length of the article, I have split the newsletter into three separate blog posts – this is Part 1. 

Canopy research in most parts of eastern Canada is in its infancy, which is somewhat surprising because I think many Canadians feel a significant connection to forests and to trees – you might even argue it’s part of our culture, along with ice hockey and maple syrup.   I have spent a lot of time doing research on arthropods in forests, but only relatively recently began to shift my focus upwards to the canopy.  The reason is quite straightforward:  when studying the biodiversity of insects and spiders in forests, you just can’t ignore the canopy!

PhD student Dorothy Maguire demonstrates “Single Rope Technique” for accessing the canopy.

As I moved (up) into canopy research, I had originally planned on doing some process-oriented, experimental food-web research in the tree crowns.  I was optimistic that I could go to the literature to find some base-line inventories and those studies would provide a starting point for my research.  I quickly realized, however, that literature on arthropod diversity in “northern” canopies was virtually non-existent (with the notable exceptions being the excellent research done in the temperate rainforest system of western Canada, e.g., Lindo & Winchester 2007, 2008 and related publications). It therefore became clear that the first years of this new research direction would be focused on descriptive biodiversity research.  This is not a bad thing as it allows for the kind of work entomologists and arachnologists love to do:  trap some bugs, identify them, complete a faunal list, and investigate diversity patterns.

Canopy Access

Our laboratory has used two main methods of canopy access over the past six years: a mobile aerial lift platform, and single rope technique.  The mobile lift was acquired by a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  It provides a safe way to get people into the canopy (its maximum height is about 26 m – which in our system, takes us to the upper canopy).  Its main limitation is that the lift platform has to be driven into a field site, meaning there must be a 2 m wide trail for access.  This means that selection of field sites, and individual trees, can be somewhat biased and limiting.  You could also argue that all our trees are on soft forest edges.    For that reason, we have more recently starting accessing canopies using the well-known single-rope technique.  It has the benefit of getting you to any tree you like, but can be limiting if the researcher needs to complete complicated tasks at the ends of branches.  However, we are finding the single-rope technique a valuable method for getting our work done in Quebec forests.

Our laboratory’s “mobile aerial lift platform” used to access the canopy.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will be about spatial patterns of diversity.