Summer in the trees: Undergrad research on canopy spiders and beetles

Note: this post is written by undergraduate Honour’s student Jessica Turgeon, who is a member of the arthropod ecology laboratory. This post is part of the requirements for her project, and is an introduction to her research.

I’ve always been interested in nature and the environment but was never a big fan of insects. As time went on and I learned to appreciate all organisms big and small I realized that I didn’t really have a preferred “pet taxon” but rather was interested in ecology and community structure. I found others that my interests were shared with other members of the arthropod ecology lab, and I was able to start an Honour’s project in the lab earlier this fall.

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

I was given an opportunity to do an internship at Kenauk Nature, a 65,000-acre plot of land near Montebello, Quebec. This property is primarily used for the hunting and fishing industries, but they are branching into scientific research. Kenauk was keen to support three McGill interns to complete the Black Maple project, the pilot project for Kenauk Institute.

The Black Maple project revolves around black maples, since Kenauk is the only area in Quebec to have a black maple stand. The project consisted of three sub-projects, one for each intern and each project dealing with a different taxon. While the two other students worked on plants and birds, my project was about arthropods and their diversity in Kenauk. We wanted to characterise the community structures of beetles and spiders based on vertical stratification and tree species: this involved tree-climbing!

Jessica - getting ready to climb up!

Jessica – getting ready to climb up!

During the summer, I looked at abundance data and concluded that beetles were more abundant in the upper canopy and that spiders were more abundant in the understorey. This internship transitioned into my Honour’s project, where I plan to look at species richness and functional diversity to answer my questions on community assemblages. To my knowledge, this has never been done at Kenauk Nature and would provide great baseline data for the owners of the property.

We sampled in three sites, each containing three trees. Each site had one sugar maple (Acer saccharum), one black maple (Acer nigrum) and one American basswood (Tilia americana). Within each tree we sampled five times: twice in the understorey, once in the middle canopy and twice in the upper canopy. We also used two different types of traps: beat sheets, an active technique, and Lindgren funnels, a passive technique. Both trap types are specialized, with beating more tailored towards spiders and Lindgren funnels invented to collect beetles. When beating a branch, the arthropods fall on a 1m2 sheet and are then collected whereas Lindgren funnels are hung in a tree and passively collect arthropods that fly into it.

LindgrenFunnel

As part of our job, we learned how to use a single ropes climbing system, a one-person method of using ropes to climb a tree. All three interns caught on quickly and it easily became our favourite part of the job. However, we did have to sort through the samples, a job requirement that wasn’t nearly as fun as climbing trees. But this is what happens in ecology: you romp around in the woods to collect your data then spend time in the lab analysing them. It was nice to experience this first-hand and I must say, I liked it and am looking forward to future projects like this.

Now that the summer is over and collection is completed, I spend all of my free time in the lab identifying beetles and spiders. All of the beetles are identified and about half of the spiders are identified. From this work, Kenauk Nature can proudly say that the property supports 24 families representing 117 species of beetles! Once the Kenauk Institute officially launches, more rigorous research can be done to try and increase these numbers.

Learning Taxonomy... spider drawings (of male palps) help.

Learning Taxonomy… spider drawings (of male palps) help.

All in all, from the sampling in the summer to the identification in the lab, this has been a great experience. Here’s to hoping the second half of my honours project will be as equally fun and challenging as the first half was! Stay tuned for a blog post to be published in the spring of 2016: it will summarize the main results from this Honour’s project.

Heating, cooling, and trying to drown Arctic pseudoscorpions

The Beringian Arctic pseudoscorpion is a charming Arachnid, living under rocks near sub-arctic rivers and streams, in primarily unglaciated parts of the Yukon. It has captured my fascinating for years, and the story of its natural history is starting to unfold. However, some fundamentals about the biology of Wyochernes asiaticus remain unknown: as the most northern pseudoscorpion in North America, how does it survive in such cold climates? How is it adapted to frequent flooding that occurs in its primary habitat, next to streams and rivers?

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

Science is a collaborative process, and I teamed up with two thermal biologists to start to answer some of these physiological questions. PhD student Susan Anthony and Prof. Brent Sinclair*, both from Western University in Ontario, came to the Yukon with us last summer, and together we collected pseudoscorpions at Sheep Creek, just north of the Arctic Circle. Part of Susan’s PhD research is about the thermal biology of Arachnids, so Susan and Brent wanted to see what we could learn about Arctic pseudoscorpions. They brought the wee arachnids back to Ontario, and Susan ran a series of experiments, resulting in a recent publication (in Polar Biology).

Susan Anthony and Brent Sinclair, both from Western University.

Susan Anthony and Brent Sinclair, both from Western University.

The experiments may sound a little cruel, but they are the standard approach when studying some of the cold tolerance, thermal biology and physiology of arthropods. Susan heated up and cooled down the critters, and discovered that they can survive up to about 38 degrees Celsius, and down to about -7 degrees Celsius. The upper threshold is relatively low compared to other arthropods, which makes sense since W. asiaticus lives at high latitudes. Because the specimens didn’t survive freezing, we know it’s ‘freeze avoidant’ rather than ‘freeze tolerant’. This is aligns with what we know from many other northern (or southern! i.e, in the Antarctic) arthropods. Presumably the pseudoscorpions adapt to the north by being able to supercool, or perhaps by cryoprotective dehydration,. However, its lower threshold isn’t that low, given the extreme cold winter temperatures in the Yukon. But since our collections were in the mid-summer, this might mean it’s not yet started to adapt, physiologically, for the colder winter conditions.

The next experiments involved immersing the pseudoscorpions in water and seeing how long they survive. This was done because we were very curious to know how these tiny animals might live in habitats that flood frequently. Amazingly, 50 percent of the arachnids survived under water for up to 17 days (!), and after testing with de-oxygenated water, Susan had a similar result: they certainly weren’t relying on oxygen in the water for breathing. Susan did notice, however, that they appeared to have a silvery bubble or ‘film’ around their bodies when immersed so we assume they used this air bubble for breathing during the immersion period, something known from other arachnids.

Sheep Creek, Yukon - a habitat that frequently floods: now we know how the tiny Arachnids survive the flooding!

Sheep Creek, Yukon – a habitat that frequently floods: now we know how the tiny Arachnids survive the flooding!

Putting this in the context of the pseudoscorpion’s habitat in the Yukon: it seems that the sub-arctic rivers in the Yukon typically flood for periods up to 10 days, in the spring. Our little arachnid likely just hunkers down in their habitats under rocks, breathing from air trapped around its body, waiting for floodwaters to recede.

I’m very excited about this paper, in part because of what we have learned that links the ecology of the species to its physiology. I’m also excited because this work represents a major advancement in the fundamental knowledge about Arachnids. Our work is the first to uncover any basic biology related to the physiological adaptations of pseudoscorpions to cold/heat and to immersion tolerance.

This is kind of stunning: the Pseudoscorpiones are an entire Order of Arachnids, yet nobody has ever worked to figure out how they adapt, physiologically, to extreme environmental conditions. AN ENTIRE ORDER! And it’s 2015! An analogy would be figuring out that some butterflies (Order Lepidoptera) bask in the sun, to thermoregulate. Or, like figuring out how ducks (Order: Anseriformes) don’t freeze their feet when standing on ice. These are ‘textbook’ examples of thermal biology and physiology – such facts could be considered common knowledge. Yet looking to the Arachnids, the story of the thermal biology of pseudoscorpions has only just begun. One paper at a time, we will continue to make progress.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion: it has stories to tell. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion: it has stories to tell. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

As Tschinkel & Wilson state, every species has an epic tale to tell. Even tiny arachnids that live under rocks above the Arctic circle are proving interesting for many scientific disciplines: each chapter of its story is starting to unfold, and I’m quite sure there are a lot of very interesting chapters still to come.

Reference:

Anthony, S.E., C.M. Buddle and B.J. Sinclair. 2015. Thermal biology and immersion tolerance of the Beringian pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus. Polar Biology.

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*A sincere thanks to Brent and Susan for including me on this paper, and for being willing to come to the Yukon with our team, to do collaborative research. I’ve learned a great deal in the process, and am delighted that partnerships between ecologists and physiologists can work out so well.

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

Questions and answers about spiders

Spiders, spiders, everywhere. I get asked a LOT of questions about spiders – from students, friends, neighbors, over twitter, and from journalists. I recently spent some time talking to a journalist in my hometown about spiders in Quebec*, and thought to share the details here! Here’s a copy of some of the Q&A with the journalist:

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

A beautiful dock spider (photo by Sean McCann)

Q1) Why your obvious fascination with spiders?

Spiders are fascinating because they have remarkable biology and life history, and are certainly as beautiful as all other animals. They are the top predators in their own world, feeding on insects that may cause economic damage to our crops, or catching mosquitoes that seek us out for a blood meal. They build stunning webs, have remarkable diversity of body types and the live almost everywhere on the planet (all terrestrial parts, except the Antarctic). As babies the ‘balloon’ up into the air, and are among the best dispersers in the world – better than many flying insects. They are among the most common animals in ecosystems – we have recorded, for example, that wolf spiders occur in densities of over 1 spider per square m in parts of the Arctic tundra. What’s not to love?

Q2) How long have you been interested in them and why do you think they have a bad rap with so many people ?

I became interested in spiders when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph. A botany Professor there was working on the old cedar trees growing off the cliff faces of the Niagara escarpment, and during one summer he hired me to help with that work. While hanging off cliff faces, I couldn’t help but notice SO MANY SPIDERS and this piqued my curiosity, Professor Larson then allowed me to do a research project in the lab, and I did that project on spiders. Like to many things … a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As I learned more, I became more and more fascinated by Arachnids, and continued on to do another undergraduate research project on spiders, and it just continued and continued until this day. I have been working with spiders now for over 20 years of my life.

Arachnophobia is real and serious for many people, but in many cases, people are not necessary arachnophobic, but rather have a general (unfounded) loathing for spiders and I believe this is largely because they have not explored their incredible biology and natural history. With education, I find people can shift from fear to curiosity and amazement. There have been studies done that illustrate that the ways that spiders move, and their extra legs, may contribute to a general fear of spiders – in other words, they can surprise us and are so “Leggy” that it causes a startle reaction and this perhaps leads to fear. This is very common in our society, and this feeds a cycle of fear, as our children learn fears from us. There may be some genetic basis to being afraid of spiders, also, and this probably relates to the fact that some spiders are indeed venomous to humans. In this part of the world, however, there are very few spiders of medical importance, and spider bites are exceedingly rare. Although everyone has a story about a spider bite, most of these are not verified, and other more likely causes should be investigated. Misdiagnosis is common in the medical field, also.

Q3) Why are they beneficial in the garden? And, even in moderation I assume, in the home ?

Spiders are beneficial because they eat many insects that themselves can be harmful to our gardens. In our homes they also feed on other insects that live in our homes. Without spiders, we would certainly have more other critters in our house and garden.

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

A cellar spider, with prey (c) A. Bradford

Q4) How many types of spiders do you think we have in this region and what would you estimate their total population to be?

There are over 40,000 different species of spiders in the world, over 3,000 species known in Canada, and over 600 species known from Quebec. That is a LOT of different kinds of spiders! There are certainly more species of spiders in the world than there are mammals or birds. I estimate an average yard in any small town in southern parts of Canada harbour easily 20-30 different species, and our local forests certainly can have over 100 different species.

It’s difficult to estimate population (i.e., how many of each kind of spider), but it’s fair to say that the old saying that you are always within three feet of spider is likely quite accurate, at least when you are in natural environments. The sheer biomass and density of spiders in some parts of the world is truly astounding.

Q5) What are some of the most common kinds of spiders?  What do they do during the winter?

Common spiders in our homes include things like the “Zebra jumper” Salticus scenicus it’s the little black and white jumping spider that is common in our window sills or on the walls of our houses, especially on warm summer days. Many of us have the Cellar spiders Pholcus phalangioides in our houses (they have long, gangly legs, but are not to be confused with “Daddy long legs – aka Harvestmenpersons – they are cousins to spiders, but not actually spiders!). In our gardens in the late summer, we see many individuals of the black-and yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia – it’s very large, with black and yellow striping on its abdomen, stringing up its huge webs in our gardens. Another very common orb-weaving spider, that also matures in the late summer, is Neoscona crucifera. We often see funnel-web or grass spiders (Agelenopsis) on dewy mornings: they can build their sheet-webs (with a funnel retreat at one end) on shrubs or on our lawns, in very high densities – obvious with a heavy layer of dew. We also find Canada’s largest spider in southern Quebec – an impressive animal!

The cute Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

The cute and common Zebra jumper (By Alex Wild)

Spiders do various things in the winter – in some cases the egg cases overwinter, and in other cases the spiders overwinter. Most spiders are “freeze avoidant”, meaning that they cannot freeze without dying, so they often adapt by ‘supercooling’ which essentially means they produce antifreeze in their bodies so they will survive below freezing temperatures. Spiders generally find places to hide in the winter, whether it’s in leaf-litter, under rocks, or finding a way into our warm basements.

Q6) Do you have a personal favourite spider?  If so, why, and what is it called?

I really like the ant-mimicking jumping spiders such as Peckhamia pictata  – it occurs in Quebec, and is a marvellous mimic of ants – most people don’t notice it because it fools us by its shape and behaviour – and so very easy to mistake as an ant instead of a spider. There are, in the world, about 300 different species of jumping spiders that mimic ants – a behaviour that is more common in the tropics, but also happens with some species here in the north.

Q7) How long have spiders been around on Earth and how long do spiders, on average, live?

Spiders have been around for perhaps 400 million years, which is a very, very long time. They have been on this planet far longer than us!

In this part of the world, spiders typically live one year, although some larger species may take more than one year to reach adulthood. In captivity spiders can live a very long time – I have a Tarantula named Harriet, in my lab at McGill, and she is approaching 20 years old.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

*indeed, this Q &A was Quebec-focused, so may not be generalizable to all parts of the world!

Take a survey about science blogging!

Dear readers,

I’ve teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau from Louisiana State University and 20 other Canadian science bloggers, to conduct a broad survey of Canadian science blog readers. Together we are trying to find out who reads science blogs in Canada, where they come from, whether Canadian-specific content is important to them and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information. Your feedback will also help me learn more about my own blog readers.

It will only take 5 minutes to complete the survey. Begin here:
http://bit.ly/ScienceBorealisSurvey

If you complete the survey you will be entered to win one of eleven prizes! A $50 Chapters Gift Card, a $20 surprise gift card, 3 Science Borealis T-shirts and 6 Surprise Gifts! PLUS everyone who completes the survey will receive a free hi-resolution science photograph from Paige’s Photography!

Thanks for taking part!!

Science blogging and science policy

I’m super-excited to be part of a panel later this week*, on science blogging and science policy in Canada. It’s part of the Canadian Science Policy conference happening in Ottawa, and this particular panel is hosted by Science Borealis. This session has broader goals of understanding and strengthening the links between science communication and science policy, and also promises to be interactive and provide perspectives from panelists on effective blogs, and blog writing. It’s also exciting that a blog post will result from this workshop, so the audience can see a product resulting from attending the session (there will also be a Tweet-up in Ottawa on Thursday evening – FUN!)

But wait… Imposter syndrome approaching! Although I blog frequently, what do I know about science policy or about how my blogging activities link to science policy?

Ok, let’s start with science policy, defined by Wikipedia as

Science policy is an area of public policy which is concerned with the policies that affect the conduct of the science and research enterprise, including the funding of science, often in pursuance of other national policy goals such as technological innovation to promote commercial product development, weapons development, health care and environmental monitoring. Science policy also refers to the act of applying scientific knowledge and consensus to the development of public policies.

That helps. Sort of. I should say, the part about applying scientific knowledge to consensus and development of public policies helps, and I think this is where blogging has a big role to play. To me, blogging is a lot about dissemination of research (as a scientist in Canada) or about sharing ideas around science or higher education in Canada. For example, blogging a be writing about a recent paper, or thinking about ways to communicate science at an academic conference.

Blogging can really be an effective way to share stories about science, and when they hit the more main-stream media, this can be one small step towards linking science to policy. As an example, after blogging about our research paper on northern beetles, and in combination with a press release from my University, I believe we were able to effectively share our work with a broad audience. Since this work related directly to ecological monitoring and biodiversity conservation in the Arctic, it can perhaps more easily get into the hands of policy makers when we think about northern development in Canada, especially in the context of climate change.

Blogs can also connect to people st a more emotional level: a blog and tweet about a paper on pseudoscorpions, for example, led to a CBC story about curiosity and passion in science. We need curiously and passion for science. We need kids, school-teachers, naturalists, and retired people to have an interest in science, and enthusiasm for science. If people don’t know about what we do as scientists, how will this be fostered? And, of course, we want voters in Canada to know about our science. Votes lead to exciting shifts in the landscape of science in Canada. Blogging can help!

Finally, it’s important to be reminded that the bulk of my research funding comes from Canadians**, and as such, it is my responsibility to let people know how I spend their money! This information is so valuable and plays into politics and policy development in important ways. I want people to be aware of the wonderful science we are doing in Canada whether it is about a diabetes breakthrough or discovering and describing new species of flies.

I’ll finish with a question: what do YOU think about science blogging and science policy? I value your comments, and will bring them to the session one Friday: please share your ideas and opinions.

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*the session will be at 13:30, Friday 27 Nov.

**the bulk of my research funding comes from NSERC, paid for by taxpayers of Canada.

Spiderday (#22)

It’s been a couple of weeks, but nevertheless, here is another edition of SPIDERDAY! All the best Arachnid-themed links, pulled from the web in the last little while.

Just look at this Jumping spider keeping an eye on her babies! Photo by Nick Porch (reproduced here with permission)

Just look at this Jumping spider keeping an eye on her babies! Photo by Nick Porch (reproduced here with permission)

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