Where are all the Arachnologists? (and why you should care)

Canada is a big country, with an amazing diversity of habitats, from the temperate rainforests of Vancouver Island, to the polar deserts on Ellesmere Island.  We are a country that harbours thousands of Arachnid species (yes, our eight-legged friends!).  Some examples: the Yukon Territory hosts over 300 spider species and over 150 species of Oribatid mites; Quebec is home to well over 600 spider species.  The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute has documented over 200 species of Sarcoptiformes mites from a relatively few number of sites in Alberta, and their work is far from complete.  The Canadian National Collection of Insects and Arachnids in Ottawa has one of the best spider and mite collections, world-wide.

A beautiful jumping spider. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

A beautiful jumping spider. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

The general public is fascinating by Arachnids: my post titled ‘Spiders do Not Bite continues to get hundreds of hits every week.  We link comic-books and superheroes to Arachnids (even if the anatomy of spiderman is all wrong…).  Spider silk is used to make dresses, violin strings, and has potential in pest control.  There are invasive spider species that go unnoticed, yet may affect native species – as Bednarski, et al (2010) have documented in Maine.  Spiders continually show up in grocery stores and cause alarm and fear (although mostly not warranted..).  People are often picking ticks off their pets, or hearing about lyme disease.

Everyone has a story to share about Arachnids.

Recently, the Class Arachnida was a lunchtime topic of discussion in the lab. This discussion was in part prompted by an email I received from Leslie Brunetta. She asked the question about how we can promote Arachnology in University education.  One way to do this would be for Arachnologists to agree to deliver guest lectures in organismal biology classes, and this got us into a discussion about how many people get paid to work on Arachnology in Canada.

I tried to estimate the number of people in Canada who spend a significant portion of their time getting paid to do things with Arachnids – and I consulted a lot of colleagues to get this done.  This would include academics with a research focus on Arachnids (from behavioural ecology to biodiversity science), and government scientists working on Arachnids (from systematics through to the use of mites as biological control agents).  This does not include graduate students, nor does it include people working on short-term contracts.  I estimate that fewer than 20 people are paid to work on Arachnids in this country. This is truly astounding and astonishing.  Arachnids include two Orders that are among the most diverse on the planet: combining the Acari (mites & ticks) and Araneae (spiders) gives you estimates of well over 85,000 described species, globally.  There are only a handful of Insect Orders that are higher.

Let’s revisit why EVERYONE should care about Arachnids and why Canada ought to have more Arachnologists: 

Spiders are key predators in agroecosystems (the classic paper by Riechert & Lockley 1984 is quite relevant!). Spiders eat mosquitoes, including those that can be vectors for malaria (Nelson & Jackson 2006) .  Spiders are key prey for highly valued vertebrates (Gunnarsson 2007).  Spiders can be medically important – their venom has remarkable potential for drug development (Rates et al. 2011).

Mites are everywhere – they play critical roles in decomposition of organic matter (Kampichler & Bruckner 2009). Plant-feeding mites are economically important for dozens of crops.  Follicle mites are in our heads (Elston 2010).

Ticks can transmit diseases that are very important for human health and well being (Sperling & Sperling 2012). Ticks can hurt our beloved pets (Blagburn & Dryden 2009).  Ticks can be harmful for wildlife populations (Addison et al. 1994).

Need more convincing?

Arachnids are stunningly beautiful; they are among the ‘small and obscure’ creatures most worthy of study. In addition to mites, ticks and spiders, we can’t forget about Opiliones, Pseudoscorpiones, Scorpiones and other Orders… Arachnids should adored as much as Pandas, or the Mona Lisa.

8 Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.).  Photo by D. Walter, reproduced here, with permission.  You should visit his blog.

8 Oribatid mites scaled to a 12 pt Times Roman period (0.5 mm dia.). Photo by D. Walter, reproduced here, with permission. You should visit his blog.

CANADA: THIS IS A CRISIS!  We must find a way to ensure Arachnologists get paid to do Arachnology in Canada.  The most obvious place to point is the CNC.  It is unacceptable that a spider taxonomists has yet to be hired to maintain that spider collection.  We should be embarrassed.  Taxonomists are needed in Canada, especially for dominant arthropod groups.  The Canadian Council of Academics makes this point quite clearly in their report on Canadian Taxonomy:

     Job openings in taxonomy have virtually ceased and research funding is stagnant.  Canada’s international contribution to new species descriptions has fallen from 6th in the 1980s to 14th in the 2000s. 

Oh Canada.  Where are your Arachnologists?

Oh Canada. Where are your Arachnologists?

I realize that many other taxonomic groups remain understudied – However, I am discussing an entire Class of animals!  Could you imagine if I were discussing Mammalia, or Reptilia, or Insecta?  There would be an uproar.

Let us work to fix this.  Let’s train excellent Arachnology graduate students, let’s lobby Departmental Chair, Deans, Bureaucrats in Government, members of Parliament, and whoever else will listen.  MUST Listen.

Our eight-legged friends need our help.

References

Addison, E., McLaughlin, R., & Broadfoot, J. (1994). Growth of moose calves infested and uninfested with winter ticks Canadian Journal of Zoology, 72 (8), 1469-1476 DOI: 10.1139/z94-194

Blagburn BL, & Dryden MW (2009). Biology, treatment, and control of flea and tick infestations. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice, 39 (6) PMID: 19932369

Danks VH and JA Downes. 1997. Insects of the Yukon. Biological Survey of Canada.

Gunnarsson, B. (2007). Bird Predation On Spiders: Ecological Mechanisms And Evolutionary Consequences Journal of Arachnology, 35 (3), 509-529 DOI: 10.1636/RT07-64.1

Elston, D. (2010). Demodex mites: Facts and controversies Clinics in Dermatology, 28 (5), 502-504 DOI: 10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.03.006

Kampichler, C., & Bruckner, A. (2009). The role of microarthropods in terrestrial decomposition: a meta-analysis of 40 years of litterbag studies Biological Reviews, 84 (3), 375-389 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2009.00078.x

Nelson, X., & Jackson, R. (2006). A Predator from East Africa that Chooses Malaria Vectors as Preferred Prey PLoS ONE, 1 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000132

Rates B, Verano-Braga T, Santos DM, Nunes KP, Pimenta AM, & De Lima ME (2011). From the stretcher to the pharmacy’s shelf: drug leads from medically important brazilian venomous arachnid species. Inflammation & allergy drug targets, 10 (5), 411-9 PMID: 21824079

Paquin, P.  &  N. Dupérré 2006. The spiders of Québec: update, additions and correctionsZootaxa 1133: 1-37.

Riechert, S., & Lockley, T. (1984). Spiders as Biological Control Agents Annual Review of Entomology, 29 (1), 299-320 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.29.010184.001503

Sperling, J., & Sperling, F. (2012). Lyme borreliosis in Canada: biological diversity and diagnostic complexity from an entomological perspective The Canadian Entomologist, 141 (06), 521-549 DOI: 10.4039/n08-CPA04

ResearchBlogging.org

Plain-language summary of research results: Mites, rotten wood, and forests

Last week I wrote a post that outlined a proposal to require plain-language summaries of all research papers. I decided that I would start to do this with my own papers to see how difficult it might be, and also to see if this could help to make the research more accessible to a broad audience.

So… here it goes. This is a summary of paper written with my former MSc student Andrea Dechene, about mites, forests and fallen logs:

         Mites are small animals, closely related to ticks and spiders. They are so small that it is very difficult to see them without the help of a magnifying glass or microscope. There are many kinds of mites, and they are found almost everywhere, including forests. Mites are important in forests because they can affect how leaves and rotten wood decompose on the forest floor. 

          In this research, we studied whether certain kinds of mites were associated with logs that were decomposing on the forest floor, and we did this work in north-western Quebec. We collected mites living in the wood, on the ground near the wood, and on the forest floor about 1 m away from logs. Mites were collected by taking a handful of soil, leaves or rotten wood, putting this in a zip-lock bag, and then the samples were taken to a laboratory. In the lab, these handfuls of soil, leaves and wood were placed on a bench below a light. Mites do not like bright lights and they try to get away by moving away from the light – in this case, they move downward where they think it is safe. The samples are on a screen, however, and the mites fall through the screen and into a jar that contains a liquid that will kill them. These jars are taken to a different lab where the mites are inspected with the help of a microscope. With the help of books and other resources, we could figure out all the different kinds of mites and sort them into their different varieties.  Some kinds had names while other ones did not 

         We discovered 80 different kinds of mites and over 15,000 mites, in total, fell into the jars. That means a lot of mites live in forests! We also discovered that different kinds of mites live in the rotten wood compared to the forest floor and compared to the leaves. We found that the most different kinds of mites actually lived in the leaves that were over top of very, very rotten wood. This is an exciting result because nobody figured this out before, and it means that long after wood decomposes, there are still animals that ‘remember’ the wood was there and are using it as a suitable place to live. Lots of scientists have worked on rotten wood and it is well known that wood is very important for many animals and plants in a forest. Our work is different because we looked at some of the tiny animals in forests and they are also telling us that rotten wood is a good place to live. Next time you see a fallen tree, remember that many kinds of mites depend on that tree and you should leave it where it is.

Mites live here.

Phew.

By the way, here is the actual Abstract from that paper:

The removal of timber during harvesting substantially reduces important invertebrate habitat, most noticeably microhabitats associated with fallen trees. Oribatid mite diversity in downed woody material (DWM) using species-level data has not been well studied. We investigated the influence of decaying logs on the spatial distribution of oribatid mites on the forest floor at the sylviculture et aménagement forestiers écosystémique (SAFE) research station in the Abitibi region in NW Québec. In June 2006, six aspen logs were selected for study, and samples were taken at three distances for each log: directly on top of the log (ON), directly beside the log (ADJ) and at least one metre away from the log and any other fallen wood (AWAY). Samples ON logs consisted of a litter layer sample, an upper wood sample and an inner wood sample. Samples at the ADJ and AWAY distances consisted of litter samples and soil cores. The highest species richness was collected ON logs, and logs harboured a distinct oribatid species composition compared to nearby forest floor. There were species-specific changes in abundance with increasing distance away from DWM, which indicates an influence of DWM in structuring oribatid assemblages on the forest floor. Additionally, each layer (litter, wood and soil) exhibited a unique species composition and hosted a different diversity of oribatid mites. This study further highlights the importance of DWM to forest biodiversity by creating habitat for unique assemblages of oribatid mites.

The Extractor – getting mites from the samples

Thoughts? –I kind of like the plain-language summary.

The plain language summary was not easy to write and it took a lot of words to explain certain things. Despite the challenge, I’m convinced it was a worthwhile use of time.  Please consider doing this with your own papers!  

Reference:

Dechene, A. and C. M. Buddle. 2010. Decomposing logs increase oribatid mite assemblage diversity in mixedwood boreal forest. Biodiv. Cons. 19: 237-256. http://www.springerlink.com/content/r3681l0185620311/

From McGill to Antarctica

This is the second part in the series of “where are they now”, devoted to students from our laboratory who have moved on to other adventures (click here for Part 1).  I just could not resist writing about Zach Sylvain – Zach was a Master’s student in the lab a few years ago.  He did a fascinating project at the Morgan Arboretum, all about the effects of habitat variation on oribatid mite diversity.  His main research paper, titled “Effects of forest stand type on oribatid mite (Acari: Oribatida) assemblages in a southwestern Quebec forest” was published in Pedobiologia in 2010.

Zach on a field trip (somewhere south)

Zach was a terrific graduate student – he worked extremely hard, became an expert on identification of Oribatid mites (not an easy task) and wrote a high quality Master’s thesis.    After McGill, Zach headed west, and landed in Diana Wall’s “Soil Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning Lab” at Colorado State University:

Diana Wall is truly one of the lead scientists, globally, on the functional ecology of soil organisms.  It was a perfect fit for Zach.  In this laboratory, Zach’s Ph.D. is about the following:

His research into the community ecology of nematodes and oribatid mites focuses on drivers of their biodiversity such as soil moisture and the implications this diversity has for ecosystem functioning. Zach works at the Konza Prairie, Shortgrass Steppe, Jornada Basin and McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites. At these sites his research investigates how communities of soil animals are structured at varying levels of soil moisture, and how these communities respond to experimental manipulations of precipitation. This research investigates these trends at several scales and will provide insight into what consequences global climate change may have for belowground ecosystems.

taken from: http://rydberg.biology.colostate.edu/sites/walllab/people/zachary-sylvain/ 

Did you read that carefully?

Yes, it said the “McMurdo Dry Valley”.  Here’s a link to the broader project: http://www.mcmlter.org/

Sampling, in Antarctica

And, yes, that is in Antarctica.   Zach was able to travel to that incredible continent just over the past couple of month.  I am insanely jealous.  Although not known as being a biodiversity hotspot, Antarctica is nevertheless truly fascinating and home to a wonderful suite of invertebrates.

Zach was kind enough to let me use a couple of his photographs for this post.  This all looks very exciting and we eagerly await the results of his research!

Zach's tent, Antarctica