This is the first of a three-part series that was originally published (as one article) in the McGill Reporter, as part of their “notes from the field” section – it is an account of my research trip to the Yukon, back in July. It is reproduced here, with permission. For a different (yet complementary!) account of this field trip, see The Bug Geek’s blog posts, Part 1 and Part 2.
MSc student Katie Sim searching for wolf spiders in the Yukon, among fields of cottongrass
8 July 2012, 10 PM, The Westmark Hotel, Whitehorse Yukon
Our entomology research team has just arrived in Whitehorse in anticipation of our upcoming fieldwork in the Yukon. I just returned to my room after enjoying a beer at the hotel bar where we completed our GIANT shopping list this evening. Tomorrow morning we are picking up our RV, and will be driving about 500 km NW of Whitehorse (on paved roads) before turning onto the Dempster Highway – this famous Yukon road is a dusty, gravel road that heads straight up towards the Northwest Territory, crossing the Arctic Circle, and taking you from boreal spruce forests in the south to sub-arctic tundra in the North. The Dempster crosses the Yukon-Northwest Territory border at about kilometer 465, and then continues on to Inuvik. It’s a big trip with few opportunities for groceries along the way. We are all part of the Northern Biodiversity Program - a multi-University collaborative project about the diversity of insects and spiders in Canada’s North. After months of planning, applying for research permits, and fine-tuning our methods, it is great to finally be here. That being said, I worry that the excitement and anticipation will keep us too jittery to get a good night’s sleep tonight – too bad since after tonight, we’ll be sleeping in tents rather than hotel rooms!
10 July 2012, 3 PM, Tombstone Campground, km 72 (Dempster Highway), Yukon
We have made it up to the Tombstone mountain range, about 75 km up the Dempster Highway. Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperative, so we are stuck in the campground, huddling in a cook-shack with other travelers. Most of the other campers are on vacation, so we are unusual since our trip is for research. We are also unusual because unlike most visitors to this part of the world, we are NOT viewing large wildlife (bears, moose) but are instead spending our time searching for the tiny wildlife along the Dempster highway.
PhD student Crystal Ernst installing insect traps on the Yukon Tundra
Our team includes two graduate students from my laboratory, Crystal Ernst and Katie Sim. Crystal has been setting out “pan traps” (yellow bowls) to collect ground-dwelling arthropods (i.e., insects, spiders). Part of her PhD is about unraveling some of the complexities of arthropod-based food webs in the Arctic, and she is using these traps to collect critters that live on the tundra. Thankfully, her work does not require good weather! Katie is working on the population genetics of a high arctic wolf spider, Pardosa glacialis – and she needs some more specimens. We know that the species occurs near the Yukon-NWT border (in the Richardson mountains), about 300 km north of us. A post-doc, Dr. Laura Timms, is part of our team also – she studies plant-insect interactions in the North, and is focusing her research on insects that feed on Willow and Balsam Poplar trees. Our final team member is Dr. Barb Sharanowski, an entomology professor from the University of Manitoba – she is collecting parasitic wasps, with a goal of better understanding their evolution and diversity in northern environments. Unfortunately, Barb and Laura’s work is dependent on dry and warm weather, so they are hoping for good conditions!
I am here to find a small (< 4 mm) and curious Arachnid known as the “Arctic pseudoscorpion“. Pseudoscorpions are relatives of other Arachnids, and resemble scorpions, but without a tail. They are predators (of other invertebrates) that live in soil, leaf-litter, under bark, and under rocks. The species Wyochernes asiaticus lives under rocks beside creeks and rivers in the Yukon. It is a Beringian species, meaning it exists in North America in regions that were unglaciated during the last ice age, including many regions in the Yukon. The Dempster Highway travels directly through a lot of these regions. I have previously collected this species in the Yukon, and on this trip, I am hoping to gather more specimens to further understand its full distribution, and to collect data about its biology and life-history.
This morning, despite the rain, our team traveled to a half-dozen streams further south from this campground, and we had great success in pseudoscorpion hunting! Numerous specimens were found under rocks beside creeks, including females with their eggs held under their abdomen.
We are now drying out and I am about to finish preparing a seminar that our team will deliver tomorrow at the campsite. The Tombstone Park staff are keen to have researchers discuss their work with the general public – it’s a nice opportunity to share our research stories with other people traveling the Dempster. I am always thrilled that all types of audiences show keen interest and enthusiasm about insects and spiders.
Stay tuned…later this week will be Parts 2 and 3