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.

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.