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.

Yukon field work: Arachnids, landscapes, and the inspiring North

It’s a dream for an arthropod ecologist: a dramatic biome transition from boreal forest to subarctic tundra, a beringian landscape, and diverse and abundant insects and spiders. I have just returned from field work along the Yukon’s Dempster Highway, Canada’s only road to cross the Arctic circle. And again, I was not disappointed!

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

This year’s expedition was focused on three projects:

1) Tiny, wonderful arachnids:

On this trip, I continued to document the distribution of an arctic Pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus. This is a beringian arachnid, known from the old world, and known in North America from almost exclusively unglaciated parts of the Yukon and Alaska. Like wooly mammoths and giant short-faced bears, these tiny arachnids roamed North America while the rest of the top half of the continent was buried under ice. But unlike the mammoths and giant short-faced bears, the Arctic Pseudoscorpion is not extinct! It’s a relict of the past, thriving today under rocks near beringian rivers and streams. I have been working on this species for many years (and a life history paper about this arachnid will appear in the Canadian Field-Naturalist sometime this month), and each time I visit the Yukon, I leave with more questions, and more specimens. This time, I collected some animals to hopefully work on their population genetics: I am curious about the relatedness among the populations from different watersheds along the Dempster Highway (by the way, I am seeking collaborators [phylogeographers!] for this work… If interested, let me know!)

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

2) Northern food webs:

I have left my PhD student Shaun Turney up in the Yukon (along with his field assistant) where he is working on characterizing the arthropod-based food webs along the latitudinal gradient of the Dempster Highway. Past research has given some hints that northern food webs may be atypical, but to fully test this we decided to characterize the entire fauna from 1 x 1 m patches of the tundra. This involved placing tents over the tundra, and Shaun collected critters within those tents, and even “vacuumed” the tundra within the square metre. Shaun started this work near the stunning Richardson mountains above the arctic circle, and over the month of July, will repeat the sampling at different locations along the Dempster Highway.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

3) Thermal biology of wolf spiders

Colleagues from Western University joined me in the Yukon to start some projects related to the thermal biology of the extremely abundant Pardosa wolf spiders which inhabit the tundra. There are several species that occur along the Dempster Highway, and when the weather is good, it’s quite possible to collect hundreds of individuals over the span of several hours. Past work has suggested the density of these spiders is about 0.5 per square metre, and those past estimates certainly seemed accurate on this trip also! The spiders will be taken back to their lab, and I am eager to find out how northern Pardosa may be adapted to Yukon conditions.

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

All the sciency parts of our field work were exciting and gratifying, but there are other reasons why the Yukon is special*: it is a breathtakingly beautiful place. From stubby black spruce trees to tufts of tundra-dwelling cotton grass, every turn of the highway or footstep over a hummock is a treat. It’s not all easy (hordes of mosquitoes at some of the campgrounds, or being driven off the tundra by cold rains and strong winds), but it is all inspiring.

The lines between science and passion are blurred on the tundra, and that is a good thing. Searching for spiders is work that is fun; seeing a northern shrike or watching two lonely caribou dart up a river valley is fun that comes with the field work. I am immensely grateful for being able to hike under midnight sun, and be a northern researcher during the day. I am delighted to be able to discover some of hidden secrets of the Yukon.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

For more photos of the recent trip, check out my Flickr page.

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* my colleague Terry Wheeler shares a passion for the Yukon – here is his post which outlines why he keeps returning to the region.

Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.

Reference:

 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

Studying natural history by stealth

Natural history can be defined as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature. I see natural history research as a more formal and structured approach to studying and recording the natural world. I also see this kind of research as a branch science that is often driven by pure curiosity. Many well-known and popular scientists are naturalists (ever hear of David Attenborough or E.O. Wilson?), and we can see that curiosity is one of the underpinnings of their work and personalities. Natural history research is, without doubt, very important, but in world of academic research, it sure doesn’t headline as pulling in multi-million dollar grants, nor does “natural history” appear in the titles of high profile research papers.

Is there a place for curiosity-driven natural-history research in today’s science? If so, how do we study it in the current climate of research?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research... just because?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research… just because?

This is big question, and one that we grapple with occasionally during my lab meetings. Most recently this came up because I challenged one of my students when they wrote about how important their research was because “…it hadn’t been done before“. In the margin of their work, I wrote “…so what? You need to explain how your work advances the discipline, and the explicit reasons how your research is important independent of whether or not it has been done before“.

Am I wrong? Is it acceptable to justify our research endeavours because they haven’t been done before?

The context matters, of course: some disciplines are very applied, and the funding model may be such that all or most research is directed, project-oriented. The research may have specific deliverables that have importance because of, perhaps, broader policies, stakeholder interests, or needs of industry. In other fields, this is less clear, and when working in the area of biodiversity science, such as I do, we constantly stumble across things that are new because they haven’t been studied before. And a lot of these ‘discoveries’ result from asking some rather basic questions about the natural history or distribution of a species. These are often things that were not part of the original research objectives for a project. Much of natural history research is about discovering things that have never been known before and this may be part of the reason why natural history research isn’t particularly high-profile.

Here are just a few examples of interesting natural history observations from our work in the Arctic:

This is the first time we observed the spider species Pachygnatha clerki on the Arctic islands!

Wow, we now know that an unknown parasitoid species frequently parasitizes the egg sacs of a northern wolf spider species!

Females of this little pseudoscorpion species produce far more offspring than what had been previously documented!

Now, if I wanted to follow-up on any of these observations, I think it’s fair to state that the research would be curiosity-driven, and not necessarily grounded in a theoretical or conceptual framework. It’s the kind of research that can be rather difficult to get funded. It’s also the kind of research that is fulfilling, and a heck of a lot fun.

I'm likin' these lichens. And surely data about them is required...

I’m likin’ these lichens. And surely data about them is required…

How then do you study such fascinating aspects of natural history? How do you get out to the field to just watch stuff; record observations just for the sake of it; spend time tabulating life history parameters of a species just because it’s interesting?

Perhaps you have the luxury of doing natural history research as your full-time job: You may be able to sit back and have people send you specimens from around the world, and maybe go out on an extended collecting trip yourself. You may be lucky enough (and wealthy enough?) to devote serious amounts of time to “think”, measure and record data about species. Perhaps you can even take a long walk each day to mull over your observations. Maybe you will gather enough observations to eventually pull together some generalities and theories, and perhaps you will get around to writing a book or manuscript about this….

Reality check: Most of us don’t have that luxury. Instead, we chase grants, supervise students, do projects that fit in with our unit’s research area, and publish-or-perish in the current model of academic research. Despite how we might long for the “good old days” of academia, they are gone (at least in my discipline). It’s rare that a University Professor or research scientist is hired to do stuff just to satisfy her or his own curiosity.

That main sound depressing to some, and hopeless, but it’s not meant to be. I do believe there are still ways to do exciting and interesting natural history research, and we can call it research by stealth.

In my field of study, establishing a research programs means getting grant money, and these are often aligned with priorities that matter to government, to policy, or to a particular environmental threat such as climate change or invasive species. It’s important to get these grants, and work with students and collaborators to try to solve some of the large and complex problems of the world. I am not advocating avoiding this. Instead, as we move along with these big projects, there are also countless opportunities to do a little natural history research, by stealth. Our first priority may not be the collection of natural history data, but nothing stops us from finding creative ways to make careful and meaningful natural history observations.

When taking a lunch break on the tundra, take a little longer to watch the Bombus flying by, or write down some observations about the bird fauna in your local study site, even if you aren’t an ornithologist. Keep a journal or sketch a few observations while you are sitting in the back of the field truck on that long drive up to the black spruce bogs. Each year, buy a field guide for a different taxon, and learn new stuff alongside your focused project. This ‘spirit’ of natural history observation is one that I promote to my own students, and I encourage them to follow up on some of these as a side-project to their main thesis research. Often, these end up being published, and end up in a thesis, and they certainly end up informing us more about our study species or study area.

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Despite writing all of this, I still think my comment in my student’s writing will remain: we have to look at the importance of our research in the context of the bigger picture – it’s not enough to say something is important because it hasn’t been done before, and I’m not sure a PhD thesis can (or should) be entirely based on natural history observation. I would not be doing my job as a supervisor if I promoted curiosity-driven natural history research as the top priority for my student’s projects. To be candid: they won’t get jobs or publish papers in the higher profile journals (i.e., those ones that matter to search committees), and they won’t be well equipped when they leave my lab and head to another institution.

…But I will promote natural history research by stealth.

I think there is loads of room for curiosity-driven natural history research in today’s science. We may need to be creative in how we approach this, but, in the end, it will be worth it. We satisfy our curiosity, and learn a little more about the world along the way. We will also gain perspective and experience, and my students will be well equipped for a future in which natural history research is valued more highly then it is now.

Tablets in the forest: using mobile technology in Higher Education

I am pleased to present a publication that came out earlier this week in Educause Review On-line. This article resulted from a pilot project done in Fall 2012, in which students in my field biology class at McGill used tablets to enhance experiential learning.  Authors on the paper included colleagues from Teaching and Learning Services at McGill (Adam Finkelstein and Laura Winer), and PhD student Crystal Ernst.

Here are the ‘take away’ messages from the project:

  • Environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets’ most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.
A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

Stated another way, tablets are wonderful to use, and can be effective tools in a field biology course, but the students felt connectivity (which facilitated communication) was essential: the mobile WIFI units paired with the tablets made the project successful.  Here’s a quote from the paper to further illustrate that point:  “most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills.”

I previously highlighted a video from that project on social media use in the class, and the video (below) is more specifically about the use of the tablets in the class.

This work was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba Canada, and Bell Mobility helped us with mobile WIFI units.  I am immensely thankful for the support and I am truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

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

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

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

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