Expiscor (16 September 2013)

Bringing you another week of discoveries… Expiscor is here!

  • Don’t believe me? Well here’s a photo from that blog post (reproduced here, with permission)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

    (photo copyright C. Ernst)

  • The path of least resistance. A wonderful post about evolution, from Malcolm Campbell. I love this quote:  “Evolution shows us that, contingent on the forces that shape them, paths of least resistance can lead to stunning innovation
  • Ok, I know you are now ready for a spider photograph, courtesy of Thomas Shahan (reproduced here, with permission)
Jumping spiders are the best.

Jumping spiders are the best.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 2.51.17 PM

  • And a spidery video to finish things off. So awesome:

Expiscor (26 August 2013)

After various trips and adventures, regular editions of Expiscor are back… Here are some discoveries from the past week! Hope you enjoy…

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 10.37.09 AM

  • Here’s a shot of doing Entomology on the tundra. Entomology Yoga, anyone?
#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

#EntoYoga (photo by J. Wagner)

  • Tweet of the week goes to Joshua Drew. Darn good advice!

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 10.42.28 AM

  • Snail trails. What a neat (and important) story. Here’s the video (check out at 3:08):

Expiscor (10 June 2013)

Here’s the 11th edition of Expiscor! Stories from nature and beyond.

I do apologize as this week’s edition is a little short (and probably contains a few errors)- mainly because I spent the weekend on my bike, doing the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour. I’m moving a little slow today after that 360 km in a saddle.  However, better some Expiscor than none at all, so here goes:

  • Poor spiders. Always getting a bad name. even from the weather channel!  Unnecessary hysteria, wrong facts, and NO spiders are poisonous (although some are venomous) (thanks to my spider-pal Sam Evans for that link)
  • Speaking of venomous spiders, Rick Vetter had another paper out, showing AGAIN that spiders bites are exceedingly rare, and, (I quote): methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus as a ubiquitous cause of skin injury that is often mistaken as attributable to recluse bites.
  • So many arthropods. Amazing. Ones that I would like to see again would be Trilobites. Too bad they are extinct. At least we have people like Glendon Mellow drawing stunning pictures of these amazing animals (thanks, Glendon, for permission to repost! – folks – see here for more amazing things from Glendon)


  • Do you know about poison ivy? Can you identify it? Take this quiz. (it’s worth being educated on this topic!)
  • Speaking of twitter, it brings me many, many smiles. Here’s the funny tweet of the week, from Jules Bristow (remind you of this?)

Screen Shot 2013-06-07 at 4.58.05 PM

  • Driving on the left? Drive on the right?  Why the difference? Here’s a video to explain…
  • Spider versus Ants. Guess who wins….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expiscor (27 May 2013)

Well, another week has passed. Perhaps you missed some neat links and stories?  Here’s a list of some interesting things I have come across from small animals to big science. Enjoy! (oh, and Happy Memorial Day to my American friends and Happy Bank Holiday to those in the UK)

  • The Wandering Leg Sausage.  That’s a common name for a species of African millipede. It’s latin name is also nice (Crurifarcimen vagans), but doesn’t quite stir up the imagination in the same way (Thanks Derek Hennen for that link)
  • Speaking of Latin names – Did you know that Carl Linnaeus’s birthday was on 23 May? Mark that in your calendar for next year!
  • More about names – how about studying species without names? Here’s a post from the Lindo soil ecology lab at Western University (yes, that is the new name for a University that is not actually in the ‘west’ of Canada).


  • Return of the Cicadas – this is really a stunning and beautiful video.

Return of the Cicadas from motionkicker on Vimeo.

  • What’s up with all the caterpillars? If you live in some parts of Canada, you may be up to your neck in them… here’s a terrific post by Dezene Huber on the topic. (and he’s welcoming your questions!)
  • More on Art, Design & Entomology from Bug Girl. (yes, those of you who are regular followers of Expiscor can see a pattern – Bug Girl is here a lot. And for good reason!)
  • Blue Frogs.  No, they are not sad. They are blue. A relative of mine asked about a blue treefrog she found in her backyard in Ontario. This got me into a fascinating discussion with my twitter pals (thanks in particular to Heidi, Germán, Rafael, and Kate!). Conclusion? Probably a rare “mutant” frog who may be missing the yellow pigment in its skin, resulting in blue colouration.  Here’s a photo in case you aren’t convinced:

This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

This is a Gray Treefrog that is blue. Photo © R. Dickson

  • The most popular drink in Medieval Europe? I assumed wine or beer… no so!
  • Living in the cold: some fascinating results out about high Arctic bacterium – and lab who published this work is just one floor up from me. Congrats to the McGill team!
  • Fun with feathers – I visited the McGill Bird Observatory earlier this week. What a terrific resource – long-term monitoring of our winged friends is rather important and quite a suite of volunteers is helping to make this happen. A big thanks to Barbara Frei for letting me see the operations and help with a bit of data collection.
  • Whiz, Bang, Beakers & Blankets! My wife’s business (Organic Quilt Company) has some new science / geeky fabrics in stock.  Here’s a peek:
Organic Quilt Company - new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

Organic Quilt Company – new spring collection with a bit of a science theme. You can follow that fine business on twitter, too.

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

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

Dr. Dondale

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

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

The task of data-basing.

The task of data-basing.

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

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

Treasures in the cabinet.

Treasures in the cabinet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expiscor (13 May 2013)

Start your week with some discoveries: from entomology to natural history, Academia & beyond! Expiscor – a weekly digest. (you can find past editions here).

  • In other entomology news, a paper about fatigue of insect cuticle. Yes, insects do wear out, eventually (mind you, it took 100,000 cycles before the wing samples failed!).
Photo by D. Llavaneras, reproduced here with permission.

Photo by D. Llavaneras, reproduced here with permission.

  • Hipsters – that was so last year. The current fad is clearly THRIPSTERS (again, Ainsley Seago show up in Expiscor!).
  • A milestone I’d rather we did not reach: Carbon dioxide levels pass 400 ppm. Not good news. So, I suppose I should not let my car idle while I stop in for groceries, right?
  • Muzzled Government scientists in Canada – here’s a must-read article on the topic from Maclean’s Magazine.  Here’s a quote from David Schindler: ‘They’re [the gov’t] all for science that will produce widgets that they can sell and tax, but it’s clear that environmental scientists are lumped right down there with Greenpeace in their view’
  • Speaking of food, this photo essay has been around for a while, but worth a look – it’s all about how groceries for a week, from around the world.  Clearly quite a lot of us overeat.
  • Achoo! Allergy season is upon us here in the Montreal area – pollen counts are apparently ridiculously high this year (yes, you can get a ‘pollen report‘).  Here’s the hood of my car one morning last week:

Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 3.16.29 PM

  • Where in the world am I?  Great little game using Google Street View. I spent a lot of time playing with this on the weekend – amazing to see what ‘clues’ tell you where you might be. Street signs, styles of the cars, electrical lines (above ground, or not?).
  • Here’s a nice idea: suspended coffee.  Buy an extra coffee for someone who may later come along and need a coffee but be unable to pay for it.
  • Good news for Dale Boyle (a guy with more than a few McGill connections). He’s a heck of a songwriter and that was recognized recently. Incidentally, he also sold me a guitar a few years back and that was a catalyst for me to start playing music again. Although this particular video doesn’t display his songwriting skills, it sure is lovely: