Anticipation

It’s been a long winter but it’s ending quickly.

March brings anticipation in this part of the world. This past week was a reminder of that, and we saw temperatures above freezing for several days in a row. The ‘big melt’ has started… dozens of tiny trickles have appeared beside roads, guided by gravity. I know these small streams are also meandering under snow banks. The snow banks themselves have begun their own transformations: looking closely reveals tiny peaks and valleys, with embedded pebbles and rocks being released from an icy grip.

The birds have noticed: for much of February I marvelled at puffed up chickadees and juncos desperately seeking seeds at the backyard feeders, huddling together through many freezing weeks. They made a few cheeps and chirps, but nothing like the past week. It was truly delightful to listen to the chorus of cedar waxwings feasting in a crabapple tree, and a male Cardinal singing with spring’s true enthusiasm. And the true harbinger of spring appeared on a frozen branch outside my office: the robin. How I missed you, dear friend!

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

Robin! (photo by Sean McCann, reproduced here, with permission)

I imagine all the smaller creatures stirring underground, under-leaf and under-bark. The protection of winter’s white blanket is ending. Perhaps super-cooled, or perhaps frozen, insects, spiders, frogs and salamanders are stirring: the days are getting longer and the time for popping up and peeping, foraging and feasting, is about to start. I eagerly anticipate the first sighting of a morning cloak, flying in forests much earlier than its cousins. I marvel at seeing that butterfly before the flush of greenery (although the buds are swelling, and ready to burst, soon after the cloak passes). The south sides of all buildings are ahead of the rest: tiny ribbons of ground and soils appear and despite snow within inches; greenery pushes up.

Spring is coming!

Spring is coming!

March is exciting every year. It is fresh, crisp and cold in the right way: the refreshing way. The sun’s rays are getting longer, and warming up shoulders as Canadians shed their toques and grab their rubber boots.

Sure the forecast calls for a bit more snow, and the furnace still kicks in with regularity, but the land, house and yard are in a state of anticipation:

Spring!

It’s near! It’s near!

 

 

 

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.

Homage to the squished mosquito

This work comes from a student* in my field biology class. Part of the course includes students keeping a “field journal“, and that assignment allows an opportunity for students to express their thoughts and observations about nature in many different ways, from writing, to art, and poetry.

 

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A mosquito, before the squish. (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

 

O squished mosquito, you omnivorous parasite,

Why could nectar not quench your hunger, like your male counterpart?

Why must you thirst for my blood?

 

Of course, you need blood for egg production,

But to what lengths will you go to continue your lineage?

Was it my personality that drew you in? Or simply my CO2 expulsion?

 

Your ultimate death has left me with no answers;

Only a bump on my skin filled with histamine and regret.

 

Your short life makes me itch to know more about who you were

…or perhaps that’s just the anticoagulant in your saliva.

 

While the swelling in my arm may decrease,

My pining for you never will.

 

R.I.P., mosquito

2014-2014

Mosquito

 

What does this poem tell me, as an instructor?

It tells me that students can express natural history and biology in many different ways.

It makes me think that the student will remember the basics of mosquito biology a lot more than had this been on a multiple choice or short-answer examination.

It shows the power of allowing emotion to find its tendrils into science. We ought to embrace this a lot more.

 

*the student shall remain nameless until after the course is finished, but will eventually be credited appropriately

Expiscor (4 November 2013): the obscure edition

Last week I had a terrific discussion with a twitter friend, and he suggested that many/most of the links on Expiscor are ones that were VERY frequently discussed over various social media sites – i.e., a re-distribution of commonly viewed stories. Of course, that is part of the objective of Expiscor, but I also want to be a provider of stories people haven’t heard about previously. So, CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! This week my goal is to provide links to things that are so weird, and obscure that you will totally surprised. It’s the obscure edition….  Please take the poll at the end of this post to let me know if I succeeded!

  • Steampunk, clockwork Goliath Beetle.  I want this. Available from BrazenDevice (thanks, Evan, for allowing me to post the photo here. Ento-geeks will love it!)

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  • The Echinoblog...check out this blog description: Echinodermata! Starfish! Sea Urchins! Sea Cucumbers! Stone Lillies! Feather Stars! Blastozoans! Sea Daisies! Marine invertebrates found throughout the world’s oceans with a rich and ancient fossil legacy. Their biology and evolution includes a wide range of crazy and wonderful things. Let me share those things with YOU! ….The question is: How did I ever miss this blog. Awesome.

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  • Tweet of the week goes to Leonard Nimoy (Ok this is NOT at all obscure, but it sure is funny):

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Expiscor (28 October 2013)

Welcome to Expiscor! All sorts of discoveries… at your fingertips.

  • Speaking of images from that workshop, here’s a black widow for you, taken by Alex (thanks for the permission to use your photos here, Alex!)

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  • The latin name discussion came in part from the best hashtag I’ve seen in a while – #ReplaceWordsWithBugs. This also made it difficult to highlight a tweet of the week. Even though there is debate about how to pronounce “…..dae” at the end of family names, this is still a winner, from Adrian Tchaikovsky:

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  • In the spirit of Halloween… BLOODY FINGERS! Yum yum.

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  • Students text a lot during class. In my opinion, this means there’s also a problem with the content and/or instructor. Students need to engage, but Profs must also adapt. Right -so I will have to write  blog post on this (stay tuned)
  • Here’s a Halloween-themed “Simon’s Cat”, featuring a spider:

Expiscor (21 October 2013)

Good Monday morning to all! I’m excited to be attending the Entomological Society of Canada’s annual meeting (you can follow along on twitter using the hashtag #ESCJAM2013).  Hope you have a good week ahead, and to help you start it right, here are some discoveries from the past while.

  • Poor spiders. So much bad press. Time for a lovely photo, perhaps? This one is a lynx spider from Crystal Ernst (Thanks, Crystal, for letting me post it here)

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  • Death of an order. (insect order, that is). An intriguing paper about Termites and their relatives (thanks to students in my introductory Entomology class for pointing out this paper, and the associated controversy)
  • Ever feel like your social calendar looks like this? (from “Wrong Hands“)

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  • To finish… an Icelandic Hymn – in a train station. Wow (thanks Jamin!)

Expiscor (7 October 2013)

Another week has passed… here are some discoveries!

  • Speaking of bugshot, here’s one of Nash Turley‘s pics from that adventure (Thanks, Nash, for letting me post it here!)

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  • Students in my intro Entomology class are teaching me a lot (they are lecturing on the Insect Orders). Last week, I learned of Desert Locusts that can swim, underwater. (note: they ‘can’ but they don’t necessarily ‘do’ the swimming.)
  • My students also told me of the hip, cool family of Orthoptera called…. Cooloolidae. Yeah, that’s awesome.
  • You like ants?  What about a jumping spider that looks like an ant? Here you go:
A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A species of jumping spider in the genus Peckhamia (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

  • Tweet of the week goes to …  Erin McKiernan. This is awesome. Don’t worry: My neighbours think I’m crazy too. I’ve been caught running up and down the street with a sweep net.

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  • On robots: here’s a Wild Cat: This is both terrifying and amazing: