Ephemeral art

It’s a difficult time of year for many people: Instructors are looking at how many lectures are left before final exams, and starting to panic about how much material hasn’t yet been covered! We are planning field seasons, applying for research permits, juggling meetings, and starting to think about how the summer’s work-life balance will play out. As we approach the end of term, stress levels in the classroom are also building. Students are working madly on term papers, scrambling to get things organized for summer jobs or internships, and looking ahead to final exams.

It’s busy. Everyone is too busy. The days are too full and it’s not easy.

Then this happens:

A gift on the chalkboard

A gift on the chalkboard

I teach with chalk, and in my lecture hall there’s a vertical sliding chalkboard. When I enter the room, the front, upper board is where I start the lecture and as that board fills up, I slide it up. Last week I was surprised by a beautiful woodpecker that someone had drawn. I was “art-bombed”: this drawing was ‘revealed’ about a third of the way into the lecture. It happened on #taxonomyday, which was fitting.

The woodpecker disappeared sometime after my lecture last week. Then this piece of ephemeral art appeared on Monday:

Another gift: this bird is an island.

Another gift: this bird is an island.

This is no longer a one-hit wonder! An unnamed student is taking time before lecture to leave some art for all of us. I don’t know who the student is, but this art brings joy to all of us, and provides a smile at a difficult time of year. It also allows me to modify the lecture and link the art to whatever I might be teaching. For example, lecturing about island biogeography on Monday, with a drawing of a sparrow on the chalkboard, allowed us to consider the bird as an island, and its fauna (feather mites, lice) colonize that island, and perhaps follow the predictions of MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory of island biogeography.

Dear unnamed student: know that you are doing something very special. You are taking time and energy out of your busy life to simply bring joy to others. Thank you for the ephemeral art.

Mushroom

Mushroom in chalk.

 

Taxonomist envy and the importance of names

Imagine: seeking, finding, watching, sampling, measuring, comparing, analyzing, imaging and… naming.

These goodies are all part of taxonomy. As Wikipedia defines it, taxonomy “is the science of defining groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics and giving names to those groups.”

Taxonomists are the true explorers at the foundation of biodiversity science: they are to be appreciated, and I’m envious of their discoveries.

I’ve always been a collector and sorter and feel some kinship towards taxonomists: although when I was young I engaged more in the process of categorizing ‘non-living’ things such as sticks, stamps, coins or rocks. But there were comparisons of shared characteristics: some rocks were pink, with lightening-strikes of white crystal; some rocks were angular and sharp, some were smooth, shaped by time and oceans. Perhaps it’s not surprising that during my PhD I thoroughly enjoyed sorting and identifying almost 30,000 spiders from Canada’s boreal forest. It brought back good memories from my childhood: it felt right.

It matters that this is Arctosa hirtipes instead of "Wolf spider species X"

It matters that this is Alopecosa hirtipes instead of “Wolf spider species X”

I think my experiences are shared with some of my ecology colleagues, especially those who also call themselves ornithologists, mammalogists, or entomologists: many of us like ‘species’, and their names. We think about interesting species in our study systems, and think about similarities and differences, about a place’s history with its species, and the relationship to other species or spaces nearby, upstream of downstream.

But I, like most of my ecology colleagues, are not taxonomists. Instead we exploit and repurpose the good work done by taxonomists (and often not citing their work – oops!). For a concrete example from my own experience: without the taxonomic expertise of great Canadian arachnologists such as Charles Dondale, and colleagues, who described species and then wrote accessible taxonomic keys, my work would be of much lower value. The keys allowed me to get names on things. These names increase the value of the work tremendously.

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Despite being retired for many years, Charles Dondale still has an office at the Canadian National Collection of Insects

Let’s look closely at this value: Surely it would be possible have the same main results from my ecological work without having the actual species names? Surely I could have called everything by my own pretend name – a secret code that I could develop – a series of ‘morphospecies’. And, these days, I could have a long code to represent a barcode. Isn’t that enough? In truth, the broad community patterns that I sometimes publish about don’t depend on the names. Rather, these community patterns depend on recognition of different types of things, but the names themselves don’t drive the patterns.

While it’s true that names are only one part of my ecological research, they are a very important part. They provide an important common ground for understanding our biodiversity – they allow us to compare apples to apples in all the right ways. The names are a doorway into a rich history, a life story that perhaps goes back hundreds of years in the literature. It means more to know that Alopecosa hirtipes is running around the Arctic tundra than it does to know it is ‘Wolf spider species X’.

But the name comes at a cost: it means that someone spent their time searching, watching, measuring and comparing; looking at shared characteristics, and putting the species in an evolutionary framework, and perhaps producing a valuable taxonomic key so free-loading ecologists like me can stick a name on ‘Wolf spider species X’. The cost is worth it: taxonomists are as valuable to science as are ecologists, molecular biologists, or physicists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

A glimpse at the grad students hard at work, using microscopes, in my lab. As ecologists, we need taxonomists.

Taxonomy is a science that is relevant and important, and despite increased availability of molecular tools, names still matter. We need taxonomists to be our quality control, and bring sense and order to strings of code in GenBank, and help us compare and connect across systems, or among similar habitats. We need the full package figured out for a species: specimens, meta-data, barcodes and names. After that, we need to go further and assess evolutionary history and test hypotheses about relationships among species.

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day, but let’s make sure it’s more than one day. Let’s make it something we think about every day: every time we see a Corvus corax fly by, or see a Chelifer cancroides on the wall of our bathroom, let’s remember that every name has a story, and the narrative is brought to life because of taxonomists.

Anticipation

It’s been a long winter but it’s ending quickly.

March brings anticipation in this part of the world. This past week was a reminder of that, and we saw temperatures above freezing for several days in a row. The ‘big melt’ has started… dozens of tiny trickles have appeared beside roads, guided by gravity. I know these small streams are also meandering under snow banks. The snow banks themselves have begun their own transformations: looking closely reveals tiny peaks and valleys, with embedded pebbles and rocks being released from an icy grip.

The birds have noticed: for much of February I marvelled at puffed up chickadees and juncos desperately seeking seeds at the backyard feeders, huddling together through many freezing weeks. They made a few cheeps and chirps, but nothing like the past week. It was truly delightful to listen to the chorus of cedar waxwings feasting in a crabapple tree, and a male Cardinal singing with spring’s true enthusiasm. And the true harbinger of spring appeared on a frozen branch outside my office: the robin. How I missed you, dear friend!

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

I imagine all the smaller creatures stirring underground, under-leaf and under-bark. The protection of winter’s white blanket is ending. Perhaps super-cooled, or perhaps frozen, insects, spiders, frogs and salamanders are stirring: the days are getting longer and the time for popping up and peeping, foraging and feasting, is about to start. I eagerly anticipate the first sighting of a morning cloak, flying in forests much earlier than its cousins. I marvel at seeing that butterfly before the flush of greenery (although the buds are swelling, and ready to burst, soon after the cloak passes). The south sides of all buildings are ahead of the rest: tiny ribbons of ground and soils appear and despite snow within inches; greenery pushes up.

Spring is coming!

Spring is coming!

March is exciting every year. It is fresh, crisp and cold in the right way: the refreshing way. The sun’s rays are getting longer, and warming up shoulders as Canadians shed their toques and grab their rubber boots.

Sure the forecast calls for a bit more snow, and the furnace still kicks in with regularity, but the land, house and yard are in a state of anticipation:

Spring!

It’s near! It’s near!

 

 

 

An ode to graduate students

Last week I saw two of my graduate students successfully defend their PhDs. This is wonderful and exciting, and I am delighted that they are both moving on to post-doctoral research positions in other places. I am also saddened by their departures: seeing good students leave the lab creates a vacuum. This has caused me to reflect about the effect graduate students have on their supervisors:

I write, teach, research.

I see classrooms, computers, forests and fields.

I use keyboards, iPads, PowerPoint, and pipettes.

I publish or perish.

LOIs, RFPs, IFs, and h-factors.

Grants, emails, to-do lists and budgets.

Learning?

Always.

Literature and libraries can start the process,

But books and blogs barely break the silence.

It’s the tangible human that makes the difference.

My colleagues, my friends:

You are the Academy.

Do you have the answers?

How to avoid wandering alone in ivory towers?

How to slow the withering on tenured vines?

How to grasp frail tendrils of discovery?

How to find that perfect chorus of voices, words, arguments and insights?

Search again.

Find hope and optimism in our laboratories.

Open the door to the greatest discovery of all:

It’s their keen intellect, smiles, kind words or questions.

It’s crafted by their company.

Caffeine-fuelled conversations critique, criticize, challenge.

(Coffee is never bitter with graduate students)

Embracing curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Wrangling words together: perform, propose, predict.

Execute, explain, engage.

Fieldwork, funding, fellowship.

Null hypothesis, clear objectives, conceptual frameworks.

Significance and broader impact,

Contributions to knowledge.

Contributions for humanity.

I hope I did enough; I wish for more.

Fleeting moments are now warm memories:

Catching spiders on the tundra, or caterpillars in the canopy.

Thank you, students: you teach me.

We move beyond metrics and money.

We write, we study, we learn.

We discover.

We grow.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27 Feb. Elena Bennett was Dorothy’s co-supervisor.

A naturalist and his moquitoes

This is another in the “meet the lab” series – here’s a feature by MSc student Chris Cloutier:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the world of creepy crawly things. For as long as I have been able to grasp and crawl I have been collecting and observing insects and spiders. Although my mother wasn’t always fond of the critters I would trek through the house, my parents were very supportive of my curiosities and did their best to nurture my interests. As a family we would go camping and fishing often, introducing me to the world outside of our backyard and ultimately landing me where I am today.
My passion for studying insects began many years ago with my first entomology course in CEGEP. After completion of that program I enrolled at Macdonald campus of McGill University. Before I even started my first semester I got my first real taste of applied entomology, when Chris Buddle hired me for several months during the summer to be his field and lab technician. Let’s just say that from that point onward I was hooked.

While studying at Mac I really started to discover where my interests were in this very diverse field. I was intrigued with the ecology and natural history of insects and the amazing things that they do. I really enjoyed learning about insect-human interaction, and for some reason I was very interested in disease transmission and parasitism and the amazing enzootic pathways they can take.

Chris Cloutier: the man, the naturalist, the legend.

Chris Cloutier: the man, the naturalist, the legend.

My Master’s research began in early 2014. I had been working for several years at the Morgan Arboretum, a forested property owned by McGill, when my employer, and now co-supervisor, Dr. Jim Fyles approached me with the idea of performing some graduate research using the Arboretum as a study area. I jumped at the idea of doing this, and we got Chris Buddle on board right away. My thesis will be analysing the temporal variation of mosquito community composition across a habitat gradient which includes suburban areas, fields and various forested sites within the Morgan Arboretum. One of the reasons for this research is the fact that in many suburban and forested areas around Montreal, mosquito densities reach near intolerable levels during the summer months. This, coupled with the increasing number of cases of arbovirus (arthropod-borne viruses) infections, such as West Nile Virus, the importance of understanding where mosquitoes are located, and when, as well as which species are present is becoming more and more important.
Collection of mosquitoes takes place for 24h once a week for the entire frost free period, typically from April to November in Montreal. The traps I use to collect mosquitoes are quite specialized and are designed to capture only females which are seeking a blood meal (the ones that we worry about on our strolls through the woods!). These traps use a combination of LED light and carbon dioxide to attract the insects. The LED lights draw in mosquitoes from quite some distance, and the CO2, produced with the help of a few kilograms of dry ice, draws them ever closer to the trap. Once in range, a tiny fan sucks them into a mesh catch-bag and they are trapped.

Chris in the field, checking a trap.

Chris in the field, checking a trap.

When not out in the field, I spend most of my time with my eyes firmly attached to a microscope, sorting, identifying, and counting mosquitoes. After my first field season, I have collected just over 43,000 mosquitoes representing 9 genera and approximately 28 species. I am now faced with the task of analysing the data and making sense of all those numbers, which in fact has revealed some interesting patterns already. I’m looking forward to heading out next spring to start all over again.

The hard work.

The hard work.

I consider myself to be a “geek of all trades” with interests in everything from birding, to plants, herps and pretty much everything in between. I rarely leave home without my binoculars, and during the summer I almost always carry some vials, an aerial net and several field guides (yes, I often get some strange looks…). I’m also a husband and more recently, a father too. My wife still hates mosquitoes but I feel her coming around slowly, and my daughter doesn’t know it yet, but she will be spending an awful lot of time outdoors with us.
Follow me on twitter @C_Cloutier15 or email me at christopher.cloutier@mail.mcgill.ca if you would like to know more about what I am up to and how things are going with my research.

Under the influence: how insecticides affect jumping spider personalities (Part 2)

This post is written by former PhD student Raphaël Royauté, and is a plain-language summary for our most recent article titled: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider

It’s well known that personalities can shift and change when we are ‘under the influence’ of chemicals, be it drugs or alcohol. As entomologists, we also consider this question for the insects and spiders that live among us: although we assume arthropods can similarly be affected by chemicals in their environment, it’s less clear how these chemicals may affect the personalities of these arthropods. We tested the effects of insecticide residues on the personalities of a jumping spider known to live in apple orchards. We found that individual-based personality shifts occurred when spiders were exposed to sub-lethal doses of an insecticide. This mean that even before we might see ‘population-level’ effects of insecticides on an important predator in agro-ecosystems, individual spiders themselves get, um, sort of messed up when under the influence.

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

How is this cute jumping sipder affected by insecticides? (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

Insecticides are often used in agriculture for various reasons, but can have negative effects on the ‘non-target’ fauna living in our agricultural fields. One of the most important challenges in evaluating their toxicity is that these chemicals can persist at low concentration in the environment. These concentrations are unlikely to kill exposed organisms but may substantially alter behaviours. Most of our evidence of the toxicity of insecticides on behaviours comes from studies on pollinators and research has shown decreases in spatial memory and learning capacities.

There remain gaps in our knowledge about how other types of organisms respond to these compounds. Studies on insecticide toxicity may be also limited because they tend to ignore how insecticides shape variation in behaviour. This is important because individuals differ in their behavioural tendencies and may not have the same weight in ecological processes: some individuals are more active, show more aggressiveness or consume more food. Personality traits can also be inter-related and form “behavioural syndromes”: clusters of behavioural traits that are correlated and evolve as a package. If personality traits are interconnected, any insecticide modifying one trait is likely to alter the whole syndrome. We’ve shown previously that behavioural syndromes differed between populations exposed and unexposed to insecticides in the Bronze Jumping Spider, a species common in apple orchards and known to prey on several economically important pests. But those populations could be different for a variety of reasons: for example, perhaps the insecticides affect spider behaviours because there is simply less food available in insecticide-exposed areas for example.

We wanted to test if insecticides could be directly responsible for the shifts in personality and behavioural syndromes we noticed. In other words, when a spider is “under the influence” of insecticides, is it still behaving according to its personality type?

The similarities between insecticides and drugs is fascinating: Both types of compounds target the nervous system, both can affect behaviours and both can kill above a certain lethal dose. In fact caffeine and nicotine evolved as natural plant defenses against insect herbivory and the latter was one of the first insecticides ever used. As crazy as it sounds, the effect of psychoactive drugs has been investigated in spiders in the past! The legend goes that, back in 1948, zoologist H. M. Peters was annoyed by his garden spiders spinning webs at “such ungodly hours” (2 am-5am). He wanted to found a compound that would shift the spinning behaviour to more a “decent” schedule, and he asked pharmacologist Peter N. Witt for help. Witt tried different psychoactive compounds on the spiders, including caffeine, LSD and marijuana but couldn’t produce the desired effect. What he found was in fact much more interesting: each compounds produced a distinct type of “drug web”, altering its shape, size or regularity ! (from Foelix’s “Biology of Spiders”) More recent research has shown that some commonly used insecticides affect web building in the same way drugs do.

We focused on how activity and prey capture capacities were affected by exposure to a widely used insecticide (phosmet) in the Bronze Jumping Spider. We tested activity and prey capture before and after exposure the insecticide and compared the amount of behavioural variation with that of a control group. Doing research in ecology sometimes requires using original equipment. In our case we found that the best way to expose our spiders to the insecticide was to use a hotdog warmer! We applied the insecticide solution on test tubes and used the rotation of the hotdog machine to get a homogeneous surface coated with dry insecticide residues. This allowed us to have a more precise control of the dose that each spider received while simulating field exposure conditions.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer.

Unusual research equipment: hot-dog warmer. (photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

One of our study spiders, in its tube. (Photo by R. Royaute)

We did not found any effect of the insecticide on average behaviour between treatments but the ranking of individuals was strongly affected after insecticide exposure. In general spiders exposed to the insecticide were more variable in their behavioural tendencies. This suggests that the effects of insecticides on personality differences may manifest before any effects on the population as a whole are detected, in which case scientists may be frequently underestimating the toxicity of insecticides. Another puzzling result was that males and females did not respond in the same way to insecticide exposure. Males were most affected in the way they explored their environment but their capacity to capture prey remained intact. Females instead showed a decrease in the strength of the activity-prey capture syndrome.

Spiders play an important role in agricultural fields as they help regulate pest outbreaks. By altering personality differences and their syndromes, insecticides may limit spiders’ capacity to provide this important ecosystem service in subtle ways. As usual, this research leads to more questions than answers. At the organism’s level, it is important to understand how long these personality shifts last for. Do these shifts vary depending on how frequently spiders get exposed to insecticide or to what types of insecticides they are exposed to? How do they ultimately affect a spider’s capacity to escape predators, capture prey or reproduce depending on the individual’s personality? At the ecosystem level, prey get exposed to insecticides too, what happens to the predator-prey dynamics when the personality of both prey and predator is affected? How does that translate into biocontrol services? These are all important questions that I hope to contribute to in the future. Stay tuned!

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A male bronze jumper (Eris militaris). Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

References:

Royauté, R., CM Buddle & C. Vincent: Under the influence: sublethal exposure to an insecticide affects personality expression in a jumping spider. Functional Ecology. . http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12413

Godfray, H.C.J., T. Blacquiere, L.M. Field, R.S.Hails, G. Petrokofsky, S.G. Potts, N.E. Raine, A.J. Vanbergen & A.R. McLean. 2014. A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 40558 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0558

Royaute, R., C.M. Buddle & C. Vincent. 2014. Interpopulation Variations in Behavioral Syndromes of a Jumping Spider from Insecticide-Treated and Insecticide-Free Orchards. Ethology. 120, 127-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/eth.12185

Nathanson, J.A. 1984. Caffeine and related methylxanthines: possible naturally occurring pesticides. Science. 226, 184-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.6207592

Rainer F. Foelix (2010). Biology of spiders. Oxford University Press. p. 179.

Samu & Vollrath. 1992. Spider orb web as bioassay for pesticide side effects. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata. 62, 117-124. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1570-7458.1992.tb00650.x

Spider Book!

WE are excited. The “We” is me and Eleanor Spicer Rice, of Buzz Hoot Roar fame, and author of the incredible e-books about ants.

Here’s the really big news…

We are teaming up with The University of Chicago Press, and writing a book about spiders!

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Lynx spider! Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

There are already some really amazing spider books out there – one of our favourites is Rich Bradley’s gem, Common Spiders of North America: it’s beautifully illustrated, rich and in-depth. For those looking to cuddle up with a microscope, there is “Spiders of North America: an identification manual“: that book can unleash your inner taxonomist and help you identify (to genus) most spiders of the region. There are also some regional field guides about spiders, photography books, and detailed books about spider silk, or about general spider biology.

However, more books about spiders are needed! There is so much to say! These amazing arachnids are one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with about 40,000 known species. They have the most unusual courtship and mating behaviours, and are often misunderstood, eliciting fear and loathing due to unwarranted fears about spider bites. Fundamentally, spiders are our friends and our goal with this project is to help share a fascination and love of these eight-legged marvels. We want all people to be familiar with the spiders they most commonly encounter, and when they bump into spiders as they move about the world, they’ll see friends and familiar faces instead of fangs. We want our book to be a non-technical primer of spiders and our goal is to bring awe and wonder, dispel myths, and help create an entire generation of arachnophiles. We hope to reach as broad an audience as possible, and teaming with University of Chicago Press will certainly help with this.

Our project will share stories about some of the most common spiders you will find in North America. Much like Eleanor’s ant books, we will research (using the primary literature) the life history and biology of common spiders in North America, and weave the science into a narrative about the species. We will unpack their biology, and write about spiders using accessible language. We’ll team up with our favourite photographers, and stunning images will accompany the text. Our hopes are that this book will complement the other books out there, and provide readers an accessible and fun-filled glimpse into the fascinating world of spiders.

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

An awesome Phidippus spider. Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Calling all Arachnologists!

We can’t do this project alone and WE WANT YOU! This project will be bigger and better with your help. Although we would love to include ALL the common spiders in our backyards, local forests and fields, this would make the project a little too big… so we need to narrow down to a reasonable number of species. So, we would like to know what species you want to read about.

Do you want a chapter about the glorious Black-and-yellow garden spiders?

What about the Zebra spiders?

Surely you would like to hear more about black widows?

Please provide us some feedback in the comment section, below. Tell us what you want to read about, and what aspects of spider biology must be included in our book. We will take your feedback seriously and try to include your suggestions.

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Surely you want to know more about these lovely Black Widow spiders? Photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission

Needless to say, we are SUPER excited about this project, and those of you that know us are already aware that we super-enthusiastic people to begin with, so this project has taken things to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT!!! We are so thankful for University of Chicago Press for the opportunity to tackle this project, and are already quick out of the starting gate: we have an upcoming writing retreat planned in March, and have already drafted some chapters. And in the coming months, we will certainly keep you updated on progress. We do hope you are as eager as us to see the finished project hit the bookshelves.

Spiderly, yours,

Chris & Eleanor

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