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.

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)

Research

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…

The spider hunt: jumping spiders of Mont St Hilaire

Last week I finally managed to get out of the office and into the field. More specifically, to one of the most beautiful forests in the greater Montreal region – Mont St. Hilaire.  This UNESCO biosphere reserve has a fascinating geological history, amazing flora and fauna, and contains some lovely habitats not found in other parts of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, including some rocky outcrops of higher elevation (circa 300-400 m above sea level – not much by some standards, but certainly higher elevation than the rest of the St Lawrence lowlands).

Yifu (left) and Margo (right) atop Dieppe summit at Mont St. Hilaire. Excellent spider-hunters!

Yifu (left) and Margot (right) in the fog, atop Dieppe summit at Mont St. Hilaire. Excellent spider-hunters!

One of the objectives of the field trip was to kickstart a jumping spider survey of the region – jumping spiders are the darlings of the arthropod world – charming and charismatic critters, beautiful, and with stunning courtship behaviours. They attract attention to spiders (in a positive way), and one of my goals is to increase awareness about our eight-legged friends.

The trip started out in fog, and we felt as if we were in Middle-Earth for most of the morning. My two helpers, however, remained enthusiastic and optimistic. We had an early lunch, and the sun finally started burning off the clouds and fog, and the jumping spiders came out.

We were quite thrilled to see Euophrys monadnock hopping around the rocky outcrops. Males of this (tiny) species are vibrant, with their yellow pedipalps, yellow tarsi, and two red legs.

Euophrys monadnock, atop Mont St Hilaire

Euophrys monadnock, atop Mont St Hilaire. Photo by C. Buddle

As we were heading back into the forest, we also encountered an Ant that wasn’t quite right. Its movements were a bit off, and its body shape was not quite right. In fact, it was not an Ant, it was a jumping spider that mimics Ants. Stunning little creature!

A jumping spider, not an ant! (Photo by Yifu Wang)

A jumping spider (a female Peckhamia pictata), not an ant! (Photo by Yifu Wang)

In sum, a successful day – the sun came out, the jumping spiders were jumping, and we were reminded of how important it is to get out into the field every now and then.

How I traded field biology for a desk job

As I was looking at my summer schedule, it occurred to me that my time out in the field (here defined as outside, collecting data, probably wearing zip-off pants and carrying a field book, insect net and a set of vials) has been getting less and less, every year. As a PhD student I spent most of my summer collecting data. I loved it – the rugged joys of bumpy back-roads in Alberta, the sticky and smelly combination of sweat and bug spray, the cold beer at the end of a long field day.  As I moved on to a post-doc in Ohio, I still spent a lot of time collecting spiders in soybean fields, helping other graduate students in the field, although the summers also included some lab work, and substantial time writing manuscripts.

When starting at McGill over 10 years ago, I kick-started my research program by spending weeks in the field, and seemed to manage a lot of time with each of my graduate students during the field season.  However, time in the field was measured as weeks, and not months.  Now, as I look at my schedule, I’m “maybe” going to get one full week in the field this summer, and a fews days here and there helping with other projects going on in the lab. My time doing field work, actively collecting data, is minimal.

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone...?

Deep thoughts: field work in the Arctic. Are these days long gone…?

Wait a second. One reason I got into this business was because I like to figure out neat stuff about nature, while being in nature. As a child, I always enjoyed beingin the field‘ (this is also known as ‘playing outside‘) and wanted to continue this as an adult. What happened?

Academics in my discipline of study (let’s call it ‘field ecology‘) and at my career stage (i.e., some years into the job) spend relatively little time in the field and the bulk of their time is a desk job, click-click-clicking away on a keyboard. Staring at a monitor. I know there are exceptions (and BIG congratulations on those of you who do manage to get outside to collect data, regularly!), but when I look around to my colleagues, most of them spend more looking out a window instead of being out that window. The time gets chewed up by other (important) priorities: grant writing, editing manuscripts, writing manuscripts, answering emails, reading papers, attending meetings, chairing meetings, going to conferences, preparing talks for those conferences, writing lectures, delivering lectures and so on. These are all the current demands on our time, and they are the things that the job requires! (for other relevant discussions about this, have a peek at this post by Sarah Boon, and I’ve previously written about how I spend my time).

Bottom line: most of my work duties are indoor activities. I am fortunate in that some of my teaching occurs outside, but that is not the norm.  The other thing that happens is ‘life’ – time with family is important to me, and time away from family is difficult. One reason I’ve spent less weeks away is because it’s tough on all of us and I like being around when the kids are growing up. There’s also that thing called a vacation – Academics typically their vacation time during the summer. (related to this is a post over at Dynamic Ecology titled “how often do you travel”, by Meg Duffy)

That is how I have traded field biology for a desk job.

I’m not alone: here are some responses from folks on Twitter when I asked about their experiences, and whether they have traded field biology for a desk job:

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This is not a lament; this is not a sob story. In fact, perhaps many of us are OK with this transition from field biologist to ‘research manager':

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There is an important message here for people moving up through the Academic system: current PhD and MSc students need to recognize that the idea of landing an Academic job that gets you ‘out in the field’ a lot is probably a pipe dream.

I’ll end with some optimism: Even though things have changed, I think I can still call myself a  ‘field ecologist’ and here’s why:

1) “Field Trips” can be short. It’s possible to capture an hour outside over lunch and collect data on Agelenopsis spiders in a hedge near the picnic table, or stop off at a bird banding station in the AM before work, or swing by a forest to check a pitfall trap on the way home. I have come to realize that field work need not be ‘weeks away’.  In many cases, it’s worth starting up a project that takes you outside regularly, at a local field site. This makes the field work an easier part of the day and you don’t need to schedule weeks away (nor will you need to schedule it months in advance). Keeping it simple, and keeping in manageable is important for me, given the other constraints on time.

2) Trade-offs: I spend time in the field instead of attending a lot of conferences. I have always enjoyed going to scientific conferences, but given the difficulties in getting away for extended periods of time, I realized that I could do field work, or attend conferences, but doing both is not always possible. One of my academic mentors discussed this with me soon after I had started my job at McGill (ironically, at a conference!); he said that when the weather is good, time was better spent collecting flies rather than sitting in a hotel basement. Good point. (By the way, summer-conference are kind of annoying because of this conflict!).  Networking at conferences is very valuable, but that face-to-face networking may not be as essential later in a career. Thanks to social media, it’s also possible to attend conferences virtually.

3) Live vicariously through students: My thoughts about field work are somewhat nostalgic and dreamy, and I forget about the problems. I forget about the flat tires, encounters with bears, the biting flies, and the exhaustion. I’m reminded of these things when my graduate students come back from the field, and sometimes I am happy I wasn’t with them. I can, instead, spend a day or two with them in the field, troubleshoot, help but not have to suffer through it all. I’m a ‘gentleman field biologist’ now. Is that lame? Is that pathetic? Nope. I’ve put in my time and can now have my field trips field with all the fun parts and less of the annoying parts.

4) Mixing vacations with field biology: I’ve not been all that successful at this, but I do know colleagues who manage to mix extended vacation time with field work. I do this on a smaller scale, and it typically includes carrying vials along with every trip, whether it is to the family cottage, or just a walk in the local forest. I’m always after records of pseudoscorpions, and have managed some nice finds while on vacation.  My family does, however, gives me strange looks when I go chasing after spiders or butterflies during lunch break while on a road trip. I can handle the ridicule –> it’s for science!

Although I have largely traded field work for a desk job, there are still glimmers of exciting field work, and still opportunities to get outside and be reminded of the reasons why I originally got into this line of work. I am not depressed or sad about my desk job – I have the best job in the world, despite the the fact that I stare out the window and sometimes dream of field work. I also maintain that these things come in cycles – a few years ago I was away for a few weeks in the field, even if this year is less intensive. It’ll come around again, and perhaps I will write a post in the future that discusses how it’s possible to be a gritty, smelly, rough and tough field biologist again. For now, though, I must stop typing. It’s hard work and my fingers are a little sore.

The greatness of pseudoscorpions

As you know, I’m quite passionate about Arachnology, from spiders, to harvestmen and Pseudoscorpions.  These are all some of the creatures that fall into the category of the ‘obscure and amazing‘.  On the topic of pseudoscorpions, a few very fun and interesting things have happened recently, and enough to warrant a short blog post.  I also promised that I would post a few more videos related to some research activities on the hunt for pseudoscorpions in the Yukon.

1. Just look at this SEM of a pseudoscorpion!

A little while ago, my Arachnid friends and colleagues from Alberta, Heather Proctor and Dave Walter, forwarded me a stunning image of a pseudoscorpion taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM).  Dave was kind enough to give me permission to share it here:

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) - copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) – copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

There really is something lovely about getting up close and personal with these little Arachnids. I don’t know this species, but it’s definitely in the family Chernetidae – a relatively diverse family, quite common across Canada.  My favourite Yukon species, Wyochernes asiaticus, is also a Chernetid.   Dave Walter really does some magic with his SEM images, and you are encouraged to check out is macromite blog (his home bug garden blog is also worth a peek!).

2.  Just look at these videos about collecting pseudoscropions in the wild! 

Speaking of my favourite Yukon species, I took a lot of videos of field work in the Yukon last summer and I wanted to share a few with you, here.  Although our larger purpose for the trip was to complete some follow-up field work for the Northern Biodiversity Program, I also wanted to collect additional specimens of a wonderful pseudoscorpion species.  The first video provides some context to the work, and gives you a bit of a flavour of the landscape up near the Yukon – Northwest Territory border in Canada:

Typically, pseudoscorpions are not that commonly encountered.  In my experience, when they are encountered, you tend to see one or two.  What is truly amazing is the sheer abundance of this species found under rocks in creek/river beds in the Yukon.  Furthermore, you can see and collect multiple life stages, including females with eggs.  This short video gives a taste for this abundance.

The third and final video is a big goofy, and highlight the ‘collecting gear’ and appropriate field attire for becoming a “pseudoscorpion hunter“.  I am continually on a crusade to help generate enthusiasm for Arachnids, whether it is dispelling myths, or trying to inspire others to become Arachnologists (you know, we do need Arachnologists in Canada!).

One important caveat:  you may NOT simply run to the Yukon and flip rocks to collect pseudoscorpions – many parts of the world, including the Yukon, have strict guidelines about what you can collect.  Permits are required, and be sure to check into this before you plan on becoming an Arachnologist!

3.  Just look at this pseudoscorpion necklace!

To further illustrate my rather quirky obsession, I managed to find a wonderful person on Etsy who was able to make me a pendant with a pseudoscorpion design:

The pseudoscorpion necklace.  You want one.

The pseudoscorpion necklace. You want one.

Not only that, this design is actually from a photography I took a few years ago, and is an accurate depiction of the cosmopoliton species Chelifer cancroides.

Chelifer cancroides - my photo which was used to design the pendant

Chelifer cancroides – my photo which was used to design the pendant

I KNOW you want to get yourself one of these… start a conversation with Lynn.  Get yourself one of these necklaces and stand proud with other pseudoscorpionologists!

In sum, I do hope you find this post interesting, hopefully fun, and has whetted your appetite from more information about curious critters.

Stay tuned… I will continue to post more about Arachnids…