Assessing five decades of change in a high Arctic parasitoid community

As my colleague Terry Wheeler mentioned on his blog, our Northern Biodiversity Program team is thrilled to see post-doc Laura Timms‘s paper about Arctic parasitoid wasps published in Ecography!  Our team worked on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in 2010, and compared parasitoid wasps to historical collections from the same site that were made in 1961-65, 1980-82, and 1989-92. Parasitoid wasps are at the top of the insect food chain: they lay eggs inside or on top of other arthropods and the wasp larvae emerge after consuming their hosts – a gruesome but very common lifestyle for many types of wasps.  Species at higher trophic levels, such as these parasitoid wasps, are often the first to respond to new environmental pressures, including the climate change that is occurring rapidly in Arctic systems.

Laura identified a LOT of wasps, recorded the type of host attacked (e.g. plant-feeding hosts versus hosts that are predators), and the body size of two species of wasps that were commonly collected in all time periods.  We found no clear pattern of change in most aspects of the parasitoid wasp community on Ellesmere Island over past 50 years, even though temperature and precipitation have increased significantly during the same period. However, there were some signs that parasitoids of plant-feeding insects may be more affected more than other groups: one common parasitoid species that was abundant in 1960s hasn’t been collected since then, and the community in the 2010 study contained fewer parasitoids of plant-feeding insects than previous studies.

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Some members of the Northern Biodiversity Program working in the Yukon in 2012. (l-r, Chris Buddle, Laura Timms, Crystal Ernst and Katie Sim)

Laura takes it as a good sign that no major changes in the ecology of the high Arctic parasitoid community have been observed, but isn’t taking it for granted that the community will remain unaffected for long.  At 82°N, Ellesmere Island is relatively isolated, but other research has found that parasitoid communities further south are changing dramatically (Fernandez-Triana et al 2011).

Laura has the following comment about our work: “We hope that our findings will be used as baseline data for ongoing monitoring on Ellesmere Island”, said Timms.  “We know so little about these high Arctic insect communities, we should learn as much as possible about them while they are still intact.


Timms, L., Bennett, A., Buddle, C., & Wheeler, T. (2013). Assessing five decades of change in a high Arctic parasitoid community Ecography DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0587.2012.00278.x

Fernandez-Triana, J., Smith, M., Boudreault, C., Goulet, H., Hebert, P., Smith, A., & Roughley, R. (2011). A Poorly Known High-Latitude Parasitoid Wasp Community: Unexpected Diversity and Dramatic Changes through Time PLoS ONE, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023719

Where did all the spiderlings go? A story about egg-sac parasitism in Arctic wolf spiders

This week we are in a deep freeze in the Montreal area, so it seems somewhat fitting to discuss Arctic spiders.  I’ve discussed the life-history of Arctic wolf spiders (Lycosidae) before, specifically in the context of high densities of wolf spiders on the tundra.    Much of this work was done with my former PhD student Joseph Bowden.  The latest paper from his work was published last autumn, and was titled ‘Egg sac parasitism of Arctic wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) from northwestern North America‘. In this work we document the rates of egg sac parasitism by Ichneumonidae wasps in the genus GelisThese wasps are fascinating, and we have found them to be very common on the tundra.  There are often multiple wasps in a single egg sac, and as is typical with Gelis, they leave nothing behind: all eggs within an egg sac are consumed.  After fully developed, the adult wasps pop out of the egg sac; the Gelis adults we encountered had both winged forms and wingless females, the latter superficially resembling ants.

A Gelis emerging from a wolf spider egg sac. Photo by Crystal Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A Gelis emerging from a wolf spider egg sac. Photo by Crystal Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

The rates of parasitism of Pardosa egg sacs (by Gelis) were, at some sites, extremely high.  In some cases over 50% of the wolf spider egg sacs were parasitized.  Stated another way,  half of all the females encountered with egg sacs had zero fecundity because the female was  carrying around wasps within the egg sac instead of spider eggs.

It’s quite interesting to think about these wingless Gelis femalesafter emerging from egg sacs, they end up wandering around the tundra in search of hosts.  Spiders with egg sacs must be encountered frequently enough for the wasps to grab on to a passing wolf spider in order to parasitize the egg sac.  Recall, densities of wolf spiders can be very high in the Arctic (4,000 per hectare, at least).  Hmmm…. this is all starting to fit… high densities of wolf spiders support high rates of egg parasitism and these wasps can ‘afford’ to be wingless since their hosts are frequently encountered:  an interesting feedback loop!   We can also speculate about large-scale gradients in diversity – many Ichneudmonidae show high diversity in northern regions.  Within Gelis, it’s a good bet that they will find many suitable spider hosts in these environments.

Looking down the microscope - all those Gelis!

Looking down the microscope – all those Gelis!

So, how extreme are these rates of egg parasitism?  Looking at some of the literature, there are certainly a number of papers about  wasps that parasitize spider egg sacs.  Cobb & Cobb (2004) studied two Pardosa species in Idaho, and recorded a egg parasitism rate of about 15% (by Gelis wasps and wasps in the genus Baeus [Sceleonidae]). Van Baarlen et al (1994) studied egg parasitism in European Linyphiidae spiders and their maximum rates of parasitism were about 30%.   Finch (2005) did a detailed study of four spiders species (non-Lycosidae) and rates of egg parasitism varied between 5% up to as high as 60% in an Agroeca species.

Our documented parasitism rates for Arctic wolf spiders are certainly quite high (for Lycosidae), but not out of the range of other published studies for non-Lycosidae.  I do wonder whether we will continue to find high egg parasitism rates if more species were examined in detail – certainly a fertile area of study.  Related to this, what are the population-level consequences of this interaction?  What is the relationship between spider densities and parasitism rates?  Although Joe and I did try to speculate on this, our data are preliminary – again, a key area for future research.

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In the Arctic context, we will continue to uncover fascinating food-web dynamics.  Our research group has already been thinking seriously about this – Crystal Ernst has written a nice post about the idea of an ‘inverse trophic web’ (i.e., predator-dominated) in the Arctic, and a fair amount of my future research will pursue this avenue of research.

Pique your interest…?  Why not think about graduate school in my lab, and study Arctic arthropod biodiversity?


Bowden, J., & Buddle, C. (2012). Egg sac parasitism of Arctic wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) from northwestern North America Journal of Arachnology, 40 (3), 348-350 DOI: 10.1636/P11-50.1

Cobb, LM & Cobb VA (2004). Occurrence of parasitoid wasps, Baeus sp and Gelis sp., in the egg sacs of the wolf spiders Pardosa moesta and Pardosa sternalis (Araneae: Lycosidae) in southeastern Idaho. Canadian Field Naturalist 118(1); 122-123.

Baarlen, P., Sunderland, K., & Topping, C. (1994). Eggsac parasitism of money spiders (Araneae, Linyphiidae) in cereals, with a simple method for estimating percentage parasitism of spp. eggsacs by Hymenoptera Journal of Applied Entomology, 118 (1-5), 217-223 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0418.1994.tb00797.x

Finch, O. (2005). The parasitoid complex and parasitoid-induced mortality of spiders (Araneae) in a Central European woodland Journal of Natural History, 39 (25), 2339-2354 DOI: 10.1080/00222930500101720