Beetles from the North

I’m super-excited to announce new research from the lab, published yesterday with lead author Dr. Crystal Ernst.

Crystal’s paper focused on taxonomic and functional diversity of beetles across 12 sites in northern Canada, ranging from Labrador to the Yukon Territory, and from the bottom of James Bay all the way up to the tip of Ellesmere Island. This work is result of the Northern Biodiversity Program: a multi-institutional collaborative project about the ecological structure of northern Arthropods.

Crystal Ernst, on the tundra.

Crystal Ernst, on the tundra.

The paper was titled “Drivers and Patterns of Ground-Dwelling Beetle Biodiversity across Northern Canada” and in this research Crystal sorted and identified over 9,000 beetles from 464 species, and she classified the species by their functional ecology to assess how functional diversity may vary across the large spatial scale of this project. Instead of re-writing a summary here, I thought to use this blog post as an opportunity to reflect on what I see as the critical findings from this work, and why this is a paper that I’m incredible proud to be a part of.

  • To me, one of the more interesting findings of this work was that the functional diversity of beetles varied by latitude: although beetles do many things (e.g., herbivore, decomposers, carnivores), it doesn’t seem like all these functions happen at all latitudes. For example, although we document an impressive number of carnivores at all the sites, they are relatively more common in the more northern locations. This is a bit peculiar, and suggests that food-webs involving arthropods vary in some important ways depending on the biome. We also document that temperature is a major explanatory variable when considering functional diversity, which raises the important question about potential effects due to climate change. Indeed, should temperatures change in the north, this may affect the functional ecology of beetles, which in turn could affect other parts of the system.


Figure 1 from the paper: Fig 1. Map of the 12 study locations (North Pole Azimuthal projection), showing the spatial distribution of functional groups. These were pooled into trophic groups, and the pie charts show the proportion of the total site biomass represented by each trophic group

Figure 1 from the paper: Fig 1. Map of the 12 study locations, showing the spatial distribution of functional groups. These were pooled into trophic groups, and the pie charts show the proportion of the total site biomass represented by each trophic group

  • The research generally supported the well-known pattern in biogeography about how species richness decreases at more northern latitudes. When looking at which environmental variable may explain this pattern, temperature again came out on top. In other words, what beetles are found where is in part due to the temperatures in that region. Climate change scenarios therefore have significant potential effects on beetles in the north: beetles, like most other arthropods, are tightly linked to temperature. Even small changes in temperatures in the north may have big consequences for beetles.
  • One of the other big findings, to me, was the fundamental value of species-level data for an important taxa, across vast areas of Canada. Crystal recorded new Territorial and Provincial records for 15 beetle species, increasing knowledge about northern biodiversity. I’m also pleased that the data are fully available on-line, via Canadensys, so other researchers can access the information, re-analyze data, and benefit from and build upon this work.
  • The Arctic is special: it is a vast, cold, treeless landscape, with blankets of tundra, and permafrost underfoot. But it’s also special for beetles. After Crystal analyzed the community-level beetle data, using ordination methods, it became apparent that assemblages from the Arctic Islands of Canada were distinct from the sub-Arctic and north-Boreal sites. From a conservation perspective this is quite important. To some, the Arctic may come across as a big, ‘life-less’ region, with the odd polar bear roaming about, but in reality it hosts thousands of species, including hundreds of beetle species, and that beetle community is very different from what we find in other parts of North America. Special things deserve recognition and protection.
  • Every journalist I talked to has asked “Why beetles?” This is an easy one to answer: they fill virtually all roles in ecosystems, they are diverse, they are of interest to many people, and they are beautiful. The latter point is an important one, as it is important to capture curiosity and fascination about arthropods.


Carabus vietinghoffi. Photo by Henri Goulet.

A northern beetle: Carabus vietinghoffi. Photo by Henri Goulet.

In sum, this was a terrific project to be involved with, and our lab (and our collaborators) are thrilled that the efforts from the Northern Biodiversity program are showing up in the literature (for more examples, check out this, or this).

And rest assured, there’s more to come…

Meet the lab: Elyssa Cameron

Here’s another in the “Meet the lab” series – written by Master’s student Elyssa Cameron.

Like many in my field, my love of nature and the creatures which inhabit it began much earlier than I can remember. From camping trips to day camps to museums and everything in between, I have always been passionate about understanding the world around me. Whether I was catching butterflies, trying to identify an elusive bird, exploring a new place or simply basking the in the beauty and wonder of an unaltered landscape, I knew that I wanted to be an advocate for nature.


Elyssa Cameron, with a furry friend.

In 2011, this led me to pursue an undergraduate degree at McGill University in Environmental Biology, specializing in wildlife. Here I learned the skills and thought processes that would help guide me on my journey. This is also where I feel in love with ecology and ecosystem dynamics. I was humbled by the enormous web of complexity which governs our world and sought to discover where exactly my interests lay. My search took me to South Africa, where I spent 3 week learning about wildlife management, game ranching, governance of national parks, and the challenges in maintaining healthy, safe, sustainable populations and ecosystems. It was during this trip that I realised that the management and conservation of any ecosystem needed to rest upon a solid understanding of the ecology of the system as well as the interactions of individual species, between different species and between species and their environment. Without this basic knowledge of how something works, one cannot hope to protect it.


With this newfound drive for management and conservation through a better understanding of ecosystem ecology, I signed on to do a Master’s project with Chris Buddle (McGill University) on arctic arthropods in 2014. Having never truly worked on insects and spiders before, I knew such an undertaking would be a challenge; but one that I was excited to take on! The aim of this project is to establish a more comprehensive long-term ecological monitoring program in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, by linking patterns of vegetation and habitat diversity to arthropod diversity. In this way, we can examine the arctic ecosystem in a more complete way and not as a series of individual pieces. This will allow for more effective management in this rapidly changing ecosystem and will hopefully provide more predictive power for models and policies.

However, to obtain these baseline conditions, we must first collect the data. This took me on my second great adventure – a summer in Canada’s high arctic! For those of you who have not yet experienced the vast and diverse beauty of Canada, it is something I cannot recommend enough. But be forewarned, there are LOTS of bugs – which was great for the Bug Team! Working in association with CHARS (Canadian High Arctic Research Station) the Bug Team was part of a unit of researchers set on better understanding the arctic ecosystem and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. We sampled spiders, flies, beetles, wasps and others to try and get the most complete view of the species diversity and community structure as we could in such a short summer.


Elyssa’s Arctic Adventures!

While there, we also did a number of community outreach programs to try and get the locals interested in science. We participated in a science night, made insect and butterfly collections to leave at the high school and Sarah Loboda (one of my wonderful lab mates!) organized day camp activities for the kids.

Now back at McGill, I spend most of my days in the lab looking through a microscope. With the general sorting of samples now complete, I am about to embark on my biggest challenge yet: species identifications! Both scary and exciting; but with the great support system here, I’m not worried.

As of January, I will also be co-supervising an intern from the Vanier Wildlife Technicians program with Chris Cloutier (the lab’s resident mosquito expert).

Meet the lab: Sarah Loboda

This is the second in a series of posts that will introduce the members of the arthropod ecology lab. This one is about Sarah Loboda:

I am not one of those people who can reflect back on my childhood with memories of chasing butterflies with a net. Instead, I could be found shouting loudly when seeing a spider in the bathtub. Things change… today I study community ecology of Arctic arthropods, and have a deep passion for arthropod of all kinds, from spiders to butterflies and flies.

Sarah, with a butterfly net.

Sarah, with a butterfly net.

My interest in entomology began as a challenge, and I love challenges! When I was an undergrad at Université du Québec à Rimouski, Québec, a tackled the big challenge of learning to identify insects. During my undergrad, I participated in several research projects where I could encounter biodiversity of insects and spiders and I developed a curiosity and a fascination about arthropods, particularly those living in extreme Arctic environments. Arthropods are ectotherms, yet they survive, year-round, in a region where the climate is very harsh. I quickly realized that the taxonomy was not the only interesting aspect in entomology. I wanted to identify arthropods in order to do research on community ecology. During the final year of undergrad in Rimouski, I decided to do a research project on the community ecology of spiders in salt marshes. As part of this project, I met Chris Buddle who encouraged my passion for entomology and the Arctic and I was lucky to do a Master’s project on spiders in the Canadian North as part of the Northern Biodiversity Program.

I take all opportunities to do outreach, and talk about insects and spiders with anyone who is interested. I am also involved in different societies, including the Entomological Society of Canada, and the Entomological Society of Québec, for which I’m the student representative. I love to volunteer and organize activities for members. Being the mother of two children, I also like to share my passion about arthropods with my kids, their friends and classmates in schools or daycares.

Sarah in front of her awesome poster at an Entomological Society of Canada meeting. This poster was a runner-up for a prize!

Sarah in front of her awesome poster at an Entomological Society of Canada meeting. This poster was a runner-up for a prize!

I have just started the second year of my Ph.D. I work with the veritable goldmine of data that has been collected from Zackenberg (northeast Greenland), where a long term monitoring program of arctic biodiversity has existed since 1996. My primary research objective is to assess temporal changes of the Arctic fly communities in this region, using the Muscidae and Phoridae families as model study taxa. The second objective of my research project will be to assess phenotypic and genetic changes over the last two decades in two species of Arctic muscids from Zackenberg. For this project, I am co-supervised by Jade Savage, a muscids expert from Bishop’s University, and Toke Høye from Aarhus University.

Meet the lab: Crystal Ernst

This is the first in a series of posts where each Arthropod Ecology lab member can introduce themselves. First up is PhD student Crystal Ernst:

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the final stages of my program: these days I’m crunching out analyses and writing papers as I prepare to submit my thesis at the end of the term. As a community ecologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why different species assemble together in space and time. These questions are foundational to the study of ecology and provide the overall framework for my research program, which uses beetles and other ground-dwelling arthropods to study the structure and determinants of terrestrial animal assemblages.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

I have spent my summers conducting field research in gorgeous, remote regions of our northern territories, including Kugluktuk Nunavut and the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. My colleagues, members of the Northern Biodiversity Program, have contributed to the collection efforts as well, resulting in specimens being obtained from twelve different locations in the boreal forest, the subarctic and high arctic, spanning Canada coast to coast. I’m now neck-deep in the joy of interpreting the stories contained in my collection of specimens.

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)


Sorting specimens back in the lab

Sorting specimens back in the lab

I’ve taken two approaches with this work. First, I’ve used a fairly traditional taxonomic approach to studying these animals: by identifying them morphologically (with a microscope and identification keys), I can associate each individual with a known insect species – although some new species have also been discovered! With this information I can describe the species richness (diversity) and distributions of different beetles in the north, and see which species are associated with each other at different northern locations. Secondly, I’ve looked at my arthropods from the perspective of their ecological functions – their roles in their environments. For example, some insects are responsible for pollenating plants, others are important decomposers, and others still are predators; arthropod assemblages can therefore be described in terms of the diversity and dominance of different functional groups. I am in the process of comparing taxonomic and functional assemblages found across northern Canada, and working to determine what aspects of their ecosystems (things like: temperature, wind, and sunlight; the diversity and structure of the plant community in which they live; soil characteristics) are associated with the way these assemblages are structured, and how they change over time and across space.

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

A fun complementary topic I’ve researched is the relationships between some high arctic ground beetles and a fascinating group of parasites called hairworms. I found a number of beetles from different locations to be infested with these worms; in one instance almost a quarter of the beetles were infected! The parasites are aquatic as adults and must first infect an aquatic insect (like a mosquito larva) before being transmitted to a terrestrial host (like a beetle) via the predation of the aquatic host by the terrestrial insect. To complete their life cycles, the worms somehow compel the beetles to enter the water, effectively forcing them to drown themselves so that the worms can emerge safely into their aquatic habitat. This discovery suggests an important link between the creatures living in terrestrial habitats and those in aquatic habitats and tells us about the arctic food chain: beetles must be eating mosquitos or other insects that have aquatic larval/immature stages. These prey items may, in fact, be a very important source of food. More work needs to be done to confirm this! In the meantime, I am excited to have found these associations – the fact that these particular species of beetles can be hosts for hairworm parasites is new information, and it appears that the parasite itself is a new species!

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

When I’m not writing my thesis or putting obscure little black beetles on pins, you can probably find me working at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, enjoying my time as a teaching assistant, networking on Twitter, mucking around in my vegetable garden (or putting said veggies in jars), walking my dogs, enjoying nature while canoe tripping with my partner, poking wildlife, or lifting heavy things at the gym. I’m on the hunt for a fantastic postdoctoral position that will allow me to continue studying different communities of living things in other ecosystems, and that factors that affect how they’re put together, and I’m excited about the many opportunities out there!

Quiet Ocean

My tweets and photos about the Arctic caught the attention of the super-talented, all-around great biologist/naturalist (& musician) Nash Turley, and he wrote a poem. It’s lovely.


White ice is broken by incessant glow

Sea comes alive, to sing, so grow

Anadromous fins fled winter extremes

Return to dance in shimmering streams

Churning chilled seas offer brief respite

Inviting colored stones to reflect light

Crystalline plane is dazzling effect

Shaken silhouette as I stop and reflect

Here’s one of the photos that inspired this poetry.

Good fishing place

(Thank you, Nash, for the discussions, the poem, and for allowing me to post it here.)

Arctic reflections (Part 2)

I started a post last week about my recent field trip to the Arctic – I was situated in Cambridge Bay (Nunavut) for a week, and here are a few more reflections from that trip.

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Walking across the tundra brings sights of circling rough-legged hawks and the sounds of jaegers. We were able to find spots where the hawks like to sit (at higher elevations, on a pile of rocks and boulders). The vegetation is particularly rich under these perches, as the nutrient inputs are very high! We could also find feathers, and pellets – these pellets are a tidy package – a mass that represents the undigested parts of a bird’s food, regurgitated. These pellets can be dissected and you can find the tiny bones of small mammals. While in Cambridge Bay it was a particularly good year for lemmings, and thus a particularly good year for hawks, and snowy owls. Each day on the tundra, about a dozen different snowy owls were sighted. They were always just the right distance away, perched beautifully and peacefully on slight rise – a close look with the binoculars showed the owls staring right back, tracking our movements as we were tracking theirs. If you walk little closer, the owls take off, flying low and fast over the tundra.

Bird food. Aka lemming.

Bird food. (otherwise known as lemming).

At times, off in the distance, it was also possible to see black, slow-moving shapes – unusual creatures, shaggy, and foreign to a boy from the south. These were muskoxen – chewing their way across the tundra. While in Cambridge Bay I spent some time with graduate students working on Muskox health, and I learned of the serious disease, lungworm, that is affecting these stunning mammals. Lungworm has been known from the mainland for some time, but only more recently on Victoria Island – climate change is a possible reason for this change in distribution. These nematodes use slugs or snails as intermediate hosts. Yes, there are slugs and snails in the Arctic!  Finally, it’s pretty difficult to talk about Cambridge Bay without mentioning the fish. The traditional name for this place, in Inuinnaqtun, is “good fishing place“, and that is an apt description. We ate fresh fish every day, enjoying Lake trout, Greenland cod, and the most delicious of all, Arctic Char. We were blessed with amazing weather during my week in Cambridge Bay, and our Sunday afternoon fishing trip on the ocean was picture-perfect.

Good fishing place.

Good fishing place.

Landscape and light

It’s hard to explain the North to people who have never experienced it, but let me try:

The landscape is breathtaking in its starkness.  The tundra rolls out like a grey/green/brown carpet, as far as the eye can see. It’s broken up by ponds, streams, and lakes, and broken up by slight changes in elevation. This results in a landscape that ripples with shadows and colours; a landscape that meanders, curls and curves depending on the underlying bedrock, sediment, glacial till, and permafrost. 

At first glance, the Arctic tundra appears homogenous, but after walking for hours upon hummocks and through cotton grass, you start to see the diversity of ecosystems, and the heterogeneity in microhabitats. It’s a landscape that is forever changing and providing plants and animals opportunities as well as challenges. I was in Cambridge Bay in early August, and it was evident that the summer season was ending.  In addition to the signs from the plants (lack of flowers) and wildlife (geese were moving in, in flocks; butterflies were seldom seen), the strongest evidence was the light. During the week I was in Cambridge Bay, there was about 18 hours of daylight each day, but the land is losing about 5 minutes of light each day – it’s a rapid change. Since Cambridge Bay is above the Arctic circle, it gets 24 hours light in June and early July, but by mid-August, summer is winding down. This means, however, that you can experience the most stunning sunsets – you can sit for hours and watch the sun approach the horizon from a remarkably shallow angle. The “magic” light is with you for hours. The kind of low light that makes everything slow down.  The kind of light that creates long, dancing shadows, and warms everything in a soft, gentle glow.

Arctic reflections


To finish, I wanted to write a little bit about perspective. The Arctic makes you feel close to the earth. When standing on the tundra, the land before you contains no telephone lines, roads or apartment buildings. It’s very much like it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. You could start walking and you won’t likely see anyone else. The Arctic causes you to reflect and slow down. And most importantly, the Arctic makes you feel small. I think that’s an important feeling to have every now and then. The land is vast and old; we are small and young. Let’s remember we are here for a short while, and some of our time is probably well spent out in a forest, on a lake, or hiking the tundra.  Time on the land is time well spent, in part because it causes you to pause and reflect. I think the world would be a better place if we spent a little more time breathing in nature, and remembering what the earth is giving us and on how we ought to respect it a little more.  We owe it everything.

The Arctic makes me think of these things and for that I am grateful.

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Arctic reflections (Part 1)

So many clichés  – the Arctic is a vast, stark landscape. In summer, a land of endless days, swarms of mosquitoes and rivers teeming with Arctic char; snowy owls flying low over the tundra; Muskox roaming the lands.

The clichés are true. I’ve been north many times, and each time the effect is stronger. Each time the landscape leaves a deeper impression. Over a couple of blog posts, I want to share reflections about the Arctic from my recent field trip to Cambridge Bay (Nunavut), and try to explain why I love it so much, and why Arctic research is my passion. I’ll also share a few of my favourite photographs from the trip.

Mt Pelly

Arctic Arthropods

I often write that “Arctic biodiversity is dominated by arthropods” and I stand firmly behind that statement. Despite the latitude of Cambridge Bay (at 69 degrees North), the tundra is alive with butterflies, bees, low-flying dipterans, and spiders.  On a warm day, you can sit in the tundra and watch the careful movements of spiders as they navigate their three-dimensional world, seeking prey, or simply sunning themselves.  Over the past few years our research team has documented over 300 species of spiders living across the Arctic and sub-Arctic, and although diversity drops at high latitudes, there are still over 20 species known from the low Arctic Islands, dropping to fewer than a dozen as you approach 80 degrees North.

Arctic wolf spider (Lycosidae), genus Alopecosa

Arctic wolf spider (Lycosidae), genus Alopecosa

Under rocks in flowing water you can find black fly larvae, swaying in the current. Sometimes you find the shield-shaped pupal cases, and if lucky, you can see the emerging adults. These emerging adults are sometimes adorned with red mites. There are arthropods living within the protection of Arctic willow; careful examination of Salix reveals red ‘berries’ which are actually galls. Opening these reveals a hidden life. A secret, protected room containing the larvae of a Hymenoptera.

An Arctic Lepidoptera

An Arctic Lepidoptera (genus Boloria)


A few years ago, the Federal Government announced a new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), and it is to be built in Cambridge Bay over the next several years. This station will support and facilitate research in the North, in many different ways, from studies about effects of climate change on permafrost, to research on marine mammals. I am going to do my own research in Cambridge Bay, but with the aim of integrating research about arthropod biodiversity with other Arctic studies. I also hope to help in the development of a long-term monitoring plan, using arthropods as one of the focal taxon. Arthropods can tell us a lot about the world, and how it is changing, and long-term data are needed to ensure we have a clear sense of when ‘change’ is change that we need to pay particularly close attention to.

A malaise trap on the tundra - designed to collecting flying insects

A malaise trap on the tundra – designed to collect flying insects

I was in Cambridge Bay to start to develop these kinds of projects, and to get to know the town, community and the land.  I also wanted to collect insects and spiders in the Arctic in the late-season. I’ve worked in the Arctic a lot over the last several years, and although we have done full-season (i.e., June-August) collecting on the mainland, our laboratory does not yet have a clear idea about seasonal occurrence of different species occurring on the Arctic islands. Therefore, I was doing some collecting so that data could be gathered about arthropods on Victoria island and the end of the summer. For all these reasons, Cambridge Bay was my ‘research home’ for a week or so.

History and People.

Arctic regions of Canada have a rich history – and a history that is both tragic and awe-inspiring. Residential schools, relocation programs and stories of substance abuse, are all part of the darker side of this history. For hundreds of years, Europeans saw the Arctic as a wild land that required navigating, and a land that contained a bounty of riches, from whales to minerals. A bounty that was available for the taking. The stories are remarkable, and evidence of them remain in places like Cambridge Bay, including the influence of the Catholic church and the wreck of Amundsen’s ship, the Maud.  The search for Franklin’s lost ships continues – while I was in Cambridge Bay, a ship departed, in search of the Erebus and the Terror.

The remnants of a Catholic church, built in Cambridge Bay in the early 1950s

The remnants of a Catholic church, built in Cambridge Bay in the early 1950s

The Maud, in its resting place. The townsite of Cambridge Bay is visible in the background

The Maud, in its resting place. The townsite of Cambridge Bay is visible in the background

There has been a rebirth, however – Nunavut is a place of Inuit pride, and includes a wonderful balance between old traditions and new. The Inuit are marvellous – a people exhibiting patience, perseverance, kindness, good humour, and ingenuity. I heard stories of how runners on sleds could be made of frozen bodies of Arctic char, and the cross-braces from bones of wildlife, and frozen mosses would adorn the tops. If times were really tough, parts of the sled were edible.  Today, wood and rope is the preferred construction material!

Sled on the tundra: waiting for winter.

Sled on the tundra: waiting for winter.

Inuit culture is alive and well. I was lucky to spend time on the land with some of the locals, and I learned of edible plants, leaves that can be burned to ward of mosquitoes, and about the lice on arctic hare pelts.  The Inuit are also fabulously artistic, well known for their carvings from bones and fur.

Looking out towards the Northwest Passage.

Looking out towards the Northwest Passage.

Stay tuned for Part 2, to come next week…