Natural history of canopy-dwelling beetles: More than just ‘Fun Facts’

This is the second post by undergraduate student Jessica Turgeon – she’s doing an Honour’s project in the lab; here’s her first post that introduces the project.  Since that first post, Jessica has spent a LOT of time at the microscope, and has identified over 120 species of spiders and beetles from forest canopies and understory habitats.

Every species has a different story to tell and each one of these is equally interesting. I sometimes think about natural history as ‘fun facts’: something interesting about an organism (or species) to tell children so that they can appreciate nature. As my time at McGill progressed and my knowledge of the natural world deepened, I realized that the ‘fun facts’ are actually built upon a very strong scientific foundation, and can help us understand results of research projects. Natural history can sometimes be reduced to ‘fun facts’ but it’s a whole lot more than that!

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

I decided that perhaps I should look at the natural history of some of my species and maybe this would shed light on some patterns that I’m seeing within the data. The most abundant beetle species was Phyllobius oblongus (Curculionidae) with 69 individuals. Interestingly, we only collected this species in the first half of our sampling season and they were mainly collected on black maple and sugar maple trees. To try and understand why this is so, I turned to the species’ natural history, and to the literature.

These weevils tend to eat fresh leaf shoots and prefer the soft leaves found on maple trees. Once the maple’s leaves are fully-grown, P. oblongus moves on to plants with indeterminate growth, like raspberry bushes (Coyle et al. 2010). This corresponds exactly to our data: the beetles were found on our black and sugar maples during the beginning of summer and then they taper off as the season progressed!

Beetle data: the European Snout Beetle was only collected during the beginning of the season.

Beetle data: the European Snout Beetle was only collected during the beginning of the season.

To make this even more interesting, P. oblongus is an invasive species. Its common name is the European Snout Beetle and was accidentally introduced into North Eastern North America in the early 1900s. While most invasive species are a cause for concern, both the Canadian and American governments largely ignore this species. It may inflict some damage to trees but not enough to be worried about. They’re more annoying to researchers than anything since they congregate in the trees in large numbers!

The second most abundant beetle species in the collections was Glischrochilus sanguinolentus (Nitulidae). This species is native to Canada and rather abundant. Species in this genus are called sap beetles but this species in particular is more commonly called a picnic beetle. Large groups of G. sanguinolentus swarm to picnics since they are attracted to sweet food, which ruins the picnics. In nature, they feed on the sap produced by injured trees – hopefully not an indication that the trees we were climbing were damaged!

The natural histories of species open new doors to understanding how organisms live and interact with one another. I thought that it was strange that P. oblongus completely disappeared from my samples midway through the sampling season and its natural history explained why this was so. Picnic beetles eat the exuding sap of an injured tree so in the future I’ll be on the lookout so that I don’t accidentally climb a broken tree! So really, natural history is more than just ‘fun facts’; it helps us understand patterns and to better understand how our natural world works.

References

Coyle, D.R., Jordan, M.S. and Raffa, K.F., 2010. Host plant phenology affects performance of an invasive weevil, Phyllobius oblongus (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), in a northern hardwood forestEnvironmental entomology,39(5), pp.1539-1544

Evans, A.V., 2014. Beetles of eastern North America. Princeton University Press.

Bog spiders: a serendipitous research project

This is a guest post, written by an Honour’s undergrad student in the lab, Kamil Chatila-Amos. It’s the first of two posts about his work, and the goal of this post is to introduce Kamil and his research project. 

Research can be serendipitous and spontaneous, and that’s certainly the story of how my honour’s project started! I spent last winter working on howler monkeys in Panama (which is a story in itself) and although I adored every second of it, it certainly made me out of touch with the McGill world. When I came back, most of my friends had found themselves a summer research job and even an honours supervisor for the upcoming semester.

So there I was, barely a week after my return, erratically filling out online job applications in the lobby of one of our buildings. I was looking at all kinds of opportunities: herbarium employee in Edmonton, ichthyology assistant in Wisconsin, plant surveying in Vaudreuil, bird surveys in Ontario, insectarium employee in Montreal. I was applying to anything and everything that was still available. Little did I know that the arthropod ecology lab is right next to the lobby… Chris walked by, saw me and stopped to chat. (Well it’s more accurate to say he talked to me while quickly walking to his next meeting)*. Turns out, a student of Terry Wheeler (another entomology Prof. at Macdonald campus), Amélie Grégoire Taillefer, was going to post a job online that very afternoon! She was looking for a field assistant to help her catch flies in bogs in the James Bay area.

A couple days later I was northern-bound! A 15 hour drive north of Montreal is the town of Matagami and about 30 km north of there is Lake Matagami, along which we were staying. In a yurt. A yurt!!! Basically, a large round tent of Mongolian origins. They’re big and this one had a minimal kitchen and shower. But the fact remains that it’s a tent with the isolative properties of canvas. It got pretty cold those first couple weeks and dropped below freezing a few nights. At least it had a fireplace. (It’s actually a great place for people wanting to explore that area of Québec and the owners are wonderful. Go check them out at ecogiteslacmatagami.ca)

Kamil_Yurt

The work itself was great. The first week, we explored the area for suitable bogs to install her pantraps. That’s when I realized how awesome bogs are. There are so many things to eat in bogs! Cattails, cranberries, Labrador tea, cloud berries, chanterelles, boletes, black flies…

For the remainder of the trip two days a week were spent visiting our five sites and harvesting the pantraps filled with flies, dragonflies, crickets, spiders and the occasional putrid mouse. The following two or three days we would sort through the samples, separating the lower flies (Nematocera) from the rest.

Kamil_Sweeping.jpg

Ready for some serious bog-sweeping.

After the first week I couldn’t help but notice just how many spiders we were catching. Mostly out of pity I think, I decided to sort out the spiders as well. I felt bad throwing them out… Fast forward to five weeks later and I’m heading back to Montreal with a bagful of vials filled with dead spiders. (My roommates were not very fond of having them in our freezer).

A few weeks later I set up a meeting with Chris and essentially barged into his office with the spiders to ask to work in his lab. It took a while (and quite a bit of convincing) but here I am, sorting through spiders and writing blog posts!

The research project we structured has two components. The first part will look at how the community composition of spiders varies between the five sampled bogs. Second, I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to try DNA barcoding using COI markers. This part remains very blurry right now**, but I’m very excited to see where it leads.

Kamil_Microscope

Kamil hard at work in the lab!

If it weren’t for serendipity I would not have gone to James Bay this summer. And if it weren’t for being spontaneous, I would not have sorted out the spiders and would not be working in Chris’ lab right now. But spontaneity does have its down sides. I didn’t plan far enough ahead** and in hindsight, I should have collected some insect orders to be able to do a more in depth ecological analysis.

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* um, yes, I spend a LOT of time in meetings, and often have discussions and chats with student on my way to and from those meetings!

** for what it’s worth, research is often blurry, and planning ahead isn’t always possible!

Monitoring northern biodiversity: picking the right trap for collecting beetles and spiders

Ecological monitoring is an important endeavour as we seek to understand the effects of environmental change on biodiversity. We need to benchmark the status of our fauna, and check-in on that fauna on a regular basis: in this way we can, for example, better understand how climate change might alter our earth systems. That’s kind of important.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

With that backdrop, my lab was involved with a Northern Biodiversity Program a few years ago (a couple of related papers can be found here and here), with a goal of understanding the ecological structure of Arthropods of northern Canada. The project was meant to benchmark where we are now, and one outcome of the work is that we are able to think about a solid framework for ecological monitoring into the future.

A few weeks ago our group published a paper* on how to best monitor ground-dwelling beetles and spiders in northern Canada. The project resulted in over 30,000 beetles and spiders being collected, representing close to 800 species (that’s a LOT of diversity!). My former PhD student Crystal Ernst and MSc student Sarah Loboda looked at the relationship between the different traps we used for collecting these two taxa, to help provide guidelines for future ecological monitoring. For the project, we used both a traditional pitfall trap (essentially a white yogurt container stuck in the ground, with a roof/cover perched above it) and a yellow pan trap (a shallow yellow bowl, also sunk into the ground, but without a cover). Traps were placed in grids, in two different habitats (wet and “more wet”), across 12 sites spanning northern Canada, and in three major biomes (northern boreal, sub-Arctic, and Arctic).

Here’s a video showing pan traps being used in the tundra:

Both of the trap types we used are known to be great at collecting a range of taxa (including beetles and spiders), and since the project was meant to capture a wide array of critters, we used them both. Crystal, Sarah and I were curious whether, in retrospect, both traps were really necessary for beetles and spiders. Practically speaking, it was a lot of work to use multiple traps (and to process the samples afterwards), and we wanted to make recommendations for other researchers looking to monitor beetles and spiders in the north.

The story ends up being a bit complicated… In the high Arctic, if the goal is to best capture the diversity of beetles and spiders, sampling in multiple habitats is more important than using the two trap types. However, the results are different in the northern boreal sites: here, it’s important to have multiple trap types (i.e., the differences among traps were more noticeable) and the differences by habitat were less pronounced. Neither factor (trap type or habitat) was more important than the other when sampling in the subarctic. So, in hindsight, we can be very glad to have used both trap types! It was worth the effort, as characterizing the diversity of beetles and spiders depended on both sampling multiple habitats, and sampling with two trap types. There were enough differences to justify using two trap types, especially when sampling different habitats in different biomes. The interactions between trap types, habitats, and biomes was an unexpected yet important result.

Our results, however, are a little frustrating when thinking about recommendations for future monitoring. Using more than one trap type increases efforts, costs, and time, and these are always limited resources. We therefore recommend that future monitoring in the north, for beetles and spiders, could possibly be done with a trap that’s a mix between the two that we used: a yellow, roof-less pitfall trap. These traps would provide the best of both options: they are deeper than a pan trap (likely a good for collecting some Arthropods), but are yellow and without a cover (other features that are good for capturing many flying insects). These are actually very similar to a design that is already being used with a long-term ecological monitoring program in Greenland. We think they have it right**.

A yellow pitfall trap - the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada's Arctic.

A yellow pitfall trap – the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada’s Arctic.

In sum, this work is really a “methodological” study, which when viewed narrowly may not be that sexy. However, we are optimistic that this work will help guide future ecological monitoring programs in the north. We are faced with increased pressures on our environment, and a pressing need to effectively track these effects on our biodiversity. This requires sound methods that are feasible and provide us with a true picture of faunal diversity and community structure.

It looks to me like we can capture northern beetles and spiders quite efficiently with, um, yellow plastic beer cups. Cheers to that!

Reference

Ernst, C, S. Loboda and CM Buddle. 2015. Capturing Northern Biodiversity: diversity of arctic, subarctic and northern boreal beetles and spiders are affected by trap type and habitat. Insect Conservation and Diversity DOI: 10.1111/icad.12143

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* The paper isn’t open access. One of the goals of this blog post is to share the results of this work even if everyone can’t access the paper directly. If you want a copy of the paper, please let me know and I’ll be happy to send it to you. I’m afraid I can’t publish all of our work in open access journals because I don’t have enough $ to afford high quality OA journals.

** The big caveat here is that a proper quantitative study that compares pan and and pitfall traps to the “yellow roof-less pitfall” traps is required. We believe it will be the best design, but belief does need to be backed up with data. Unfortunately these kind of trap-comparison papers aren’t usually high on the priority list.

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.

Meet the lab: Elyssa Cameron

Here’s another in the “Meet the lab” series – written by Master’s student Elyssa Cameron.

Like many in my field, my love of nature and the creatures which inhabit it began much earlier than I can remember. From camping trips to day camps to museums and everything in between, I have always been passionate about understanding the world around me. Whether I was catching butterflies, trying to identify an elusive bird, exploring a new place or simply basking the in the beauty and wonder of an unaltered landscape, I knew that I wanted to be an advocate for nature.

Elyssa

Elyssa Cameron, with a furry friend.

In 2011, this led me to pursue an undergraduate degree at McGill University in Environmental Biology, specializing in wildlife. Here I learned the skills and thought processes that would help guide me on my journey. This is also where I feel in love with ecology and ecosystem dynamics. I was humbled by the enormous web of complexity which governs our world and sought to discover where exactly my interests lay. My search took me to South Africa, where I spent 3 week learning about wildlife management, game ranching, governance of national parks, and the challenges in maintaining healthy, safe, sustainable populations and ecosystems. It was during this trip that I realised that the management and conservation of any ecosystem needed to rest upon a solid understanding of the ecology of the system as well as the interactions of individual species, between different species and between species and their environment. Without this basic knowledge of how something works, one cannot hope to protect it.

giraffe

With this newfound drive for management and conservation through a better understanding of ecosystem ecology, I signed on to do a Master’s project with Chris Buddle (McGill University) on arctic arthropods in 2014. Having never truly worked on insects and spiders before, I knew such an undertaking would be a challenge; but one that I was excited to take on! The aim of this project is to establish a more comprehensive long-term ecological monitoring program in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, by linking patterns of vegetation and habitat diversity to arthropod diversity. In this way, we can examine the arctic ecosystem in a more complete way and not as a series of individual pieces. This will allow for more effective management in this rapidly changing ecosystem and will hopefully provide more predictive power for models and policies.

However, to obtain these baseline conditions, we must first collect the data. This took me on my second great adventure – a summer in Canada’s high arctic! For those of you who have not yet experienced the vast and diverse beauty of Canada, it is something I cannot recommend enough. But be forewarned, there are LOTS of bugs – which was great for the Bug Team! Working in association with CHARS (Canadian High Arctic Research Station) the Bug Team was part of a unit of researchers set on better understanding the arctic ecosystem and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. We sampled spiders, flies, beetles, wasps and others to try and get the most complete view of the species diversity and community structure as we could in such a short summer.

Arctic

Elyssa’s Arctic Adventures!

While there, we also did a number of community outreach programs to try and get the locals interested in science. We participated in a science night, made insect and butterfly collections to leave at the high school and Sarah Loboda (one of my wonderful lab mates!) organized day camp activities for the kids.

Now back at McGill, I spend most of my days in the lab looking through a microscope. With the general sorting of samples now complete, I am about to embark on my biggest challenge yet: species identifications! Both scary and exciting; but with the great support system here, I’m not worried.

As of January, I will also be co-supervising an intern from the Vanier Wildlife Technicians program with Chris Cloutier (the lab’s resident mosquito expert).

Meet the lab: Crystal Ernst

This is the first in a series of posts where each Arthropod Ecology lab member can introduce themselves. First up is PhD student Crystal Ernst:

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the final stages of my program: these days I’m crunching out analyses and writing papers as I prepare to submit my thesis at the end of the term. As a community ecologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why different species assemble together in space and time. These questions are foundational to the study of ecology and provide the overall framework for my research program, which uses beetles and other ground-dwelling arthropods to study the structure and determinants of terrestrial animal assemblages.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing pan traps along the Dempster Highway (Yukon)

I have spent my summers conducting field research in gorgeous, remote regions of our northern territories, including Kugluktuk Nunavut and the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. My colleagues, members of the Northern Biodiversity Program, have contributed to the collection efforts as well, resulting in specimens being obtained from twelve different locations in the boreal forest, the subarctic and high arctic, spanning Canada coast to coast. I’m now neck-deep in the joy of interpreting the stories contained in my collection of specimens.

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

Specimens in pan trap (photo by C Ernst)

 

Sorting specimens back in the lab

Sorting specimens back in the lab

I’ve taken two approaches with this work. First, I’ve used a fairly traditional taxonomic approach to studying these animals: by identifying them morphologically (with a microscope and identification keys), I can associate each individual with a known insect species – although some new species have also been discovered! With this information I can describe the species richness (diversity) and distributions of different beetles in the north, and see which species are associated with each other at different northern locations. Secondly, I’ve looked at my arthropods from the perspective of their ecological functions – their roles in their environments. For example, some insects are responsible for pollenating plants, others are important decomposers, and others still are predators; arthropod assemblages can therefore be described in terms of the diversity and dominance of different functional groups. I am in the process of comparing taxonomic and functional assemblages found across northern Canada, and working to determine what aspects of their ecosystems (things like: temperature, wind, and sunlight; the diversity and structure of the plant community in which they live; soil characteristics) are associated with the way these assemblages are structured, and how they change over time and across space.

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

Three color morphs of Blethisa catenaria, a rare subarctic species (H. Goulet)

A fun complementary topic I’ve researched is the relationships between some high arctic ground beetles and a fascinating group of parasites called hairworms. I found a number of beetles from different locations to be infested with these worms; in one instance almost a quarter of the beetles were infected! The parasites are aquatic as adults and must first infect an aquatic insect (like a mosquito larva) before being transmitted to a terrestrial host (like a beetle) via the predation of the aquatic host by the terrestrial insect. To complete their life cycles, the worms somehow compel the beetles to enter the water, effectively forcing them to drown themselves so that the worms can emerge safely into their aquatic habitat. This discovery suggests an important link between the creatures living in terrestrial habitats and those in aquatic habitats and tells us about the arctic food chain: beetles must be eating mosquitos or other insects that have aquatic larval/immature stages. These prey items may, in fact, be a very important source of food. More work needs to be done to confirm this! In the meantime, I am excited to have found these associations – the fact that these particular species of beetles can be hosts for hairworm parasites is new information, and it appears that the parasite itself is a new species!

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

Pterostichus caribou with hairworms (C. Ernst)

When I’m not writing my thesis or putting obscure little black beetles on pins, you can probably find me working at McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services, enjoying my time as a teaching assistant, networking on Twitter, mucking around in my vegetable garden (or putting said veggies in jars), walking my dogs, enjoying nature while canoe tripping with my partner, poking wildlife, or lifting heavy things at the gym. I’m on the hunt for a fantastic postdoctoral position that will allow me to continue studying different communities of living things in other ecosystems, and that factors that affect how they’re put together, and I’m excited about the many opportunities out there!

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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Arctic reflections (Part 2)

I started a post last week about my recent field trip to the Arctic – I was situated in Cambridge Bay (Nunavut) for a week, and here are a few more reflections from that trip.

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Wildlife

Walking across the tundra brings sights of circling rough-legged hawks and the sounds of jaegers. We were able to find spots where the hawks like to sit (at higher elevations, on a pile of rocks and boulders). The vegetation is particularly rich under these perches, as the nutrient inputs are very high! We could also find feathers, and pellets – these pellets are a tidy package – a mass that represents the undigested parts of a bird’s food, regurgitated. These pellets can be dissected and you can find the tiny bones of small mammals. While in Cambridge Bay it was a particularly good year for lemmings, and thus a particularly good year for hawks, and snowy owls. Each day on the tundra, about a dozen different snowy owls were sighted. They were always just the right distance away, perched beautifully and peacefully on slight rise – a close look with the binoculars showed the owls staring right back, tracking our movements as we were tracking theirs. If you walk little closer, the owls take off, flying low and fast over the tundra.

Bird food. Aka lemming.

Bird food. (otherwise known as lemming).

At times, off in the distance, it was also possible to see black, slow-moving shapes – unusual creatures, shaggy, and foreign to a boy from the south. These were muskoxen – chewing their way across the tundra. While in Cambridge Bay I spent some time with graduate students working on Muskox health, and I learned of the serious disease, lungworm, that is affecting these stunning mammals. Lungworm has been known from the mainland for some time, but only more recently on Victoria Island – climate change is a possible reason for this change in distribution. These nematodes use slugs or snails as intermediate hosts. Yes, there are slugs and snails in the Arctic!  Finally, it’s pretty difficult to talk about Cambridge Bay without mentioning the fish. The traditional name for this place, in Inuinnaqtun, is “good fishing place“, and that is an apt description. We ate fresh fish every day, enjoying Lake trout, Greenland cod, and the most delicious of all, Arctic Char. We were blessed with amazing weather during my week in Cambridge Bay, and our Sunday afternoon fishing trip on the ocean was picture-perfect.

Good fishing place.

Good fishing place.

Landscape and light

It’s hard to explain the North to people who have never experienced it, but let me try:

The landscape is breathtaking in its starkness.  The tundra rolls out like a grey/green/brown carpet, as far as the eye can see. It’s broken up by ponds, streams, and lakes, and broken up by slight changes in elevation. This results in a landscape that ripples with shadows and colours; a landscape that meanders, curls and curves depending on the underlying bedrock, sediment, glacial till, and permafrost. 

At first glance, the Arctic tundra appears homogenous, but after walking for hours upon hummocks and through cotton grass, you start to see the diversity of ecosystems, and the heterogeneity in microhabitats. It’s a landscape that is forever changing and providing plants and animals opportunities as well as challenges. I was in Cambridge Bay in early August, and it was evident that the summer season was ending.  In addition to the signs from the plants (lack of flowers) and wildlife (geese were moving in, in flocks; butterflies were seldom seen), the strongest evidence was the light. During the week I was in Cambridge Bay, there was about 18 hours of daylight each day, but the land is losing about 5 minutes of light each day – it’s a rapid change. Since Cambridge Bay is above the Arctic circle, it gets 24 hours light in June and early July, but by mid-August, summer is winding down. This means, however, that you can experience the most stunning sunsets – you can sit for hours and watch the sun approach the horizon from a remarkably shallow angle. The “magic” light is with you for hours. The kind of low light that makes everything slow down.  The kind of light that creates long, dancing shadows, and warms everything in a soft, gentle glow.

Arctic reflections

Reflection

To finish, I wanted to write a little bit about perspective. The Arctic makes you feel close to the earth. When standing on the tundra, the land before you contains no telephone lines, roads or apartment buildings. It’s very much like it was hundreds or thousands of years ago. You could start walking and you won’t likely see anyone else. The Arctic causes you to reflect and slow down. And most importantly, the Arctic makes you feel small. I think that’s an important feeling to have every now and then. The land is vast and old; we are small and young. Let’s remember we are here for a short while, and some of our time is probably well spent out in a forest, on a lake, or hiking the tundra.  Time on the land is time well spent, in part because it causes you to pause and reflect. I think the world would be a better place if we spent a little more time breathing in nature, and remembering what the earth is giving us and on how we ought to respect it a little more.  We owe it everything.

The Arctic makes me think of these things and for that I am grateful.

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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…

Seasonality of Arctic Beetles

I’m excited to report on paper written by Crystal Ernst, PhD student in my lab, and well known as the “Bug Geek“. This paper is a product of the Northern Biodiversity Program (yes, it sure is great that the papers from this project are starting to appear!), and will be one of Crystal’s PhD thesis chapters. The paper is titled Seasonal patterns in the structure of epigeic beetle (Coleoptera) assemblages in two subarctic habitats in Nunavut, Canada

A very nice Arctic beetle! (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

A very nice Arctic beetle! (photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

Here’s a plain-language summary of the work:

Although we often think of Arctic systems as cold and lifeless, Canada’s tundra habitats are home to a high diversity of arthropods (insects, spiders and their relatives). Beetles are important insects on the tundra – filling ecological roles as predators (feeding on other insects), herbivores (feeding on plants), mycophages (feeding on fungi), and necrophages (feeding on dead or decaying animals). In this research, we wanted to find out what happens to ground-dwelling Arctic beetles as a function of seasonality. We were curious about whether different species occurred at different times during the short Arctic summer, and whether the functions of the beetles changes over the summer. This is an important area of study because beetles perform important ecological functions, and knowing how these functions change over time may have broader implications for northern ecosystems. This is especially relevant in the Arctic since these systems have a short ‘active season’, and climate change is disproportionally affecting northern latitudes. If climate change alters an already short summer, what might happen to the beetles?

This research was done as part of the Northern Biodiversity Program (NBP) – a broad, integrative project about the diversity of insects and spiders across northern Canada. The NBP involved collecting samples at 12 sites in the Arctic, but at one of these sites (Kugluktuk, in Nunavut) we had an opportunity to do a more detailed collection over the entire summer of 2010. This involved setting out traps for the entire active season, from June through to August. These traps were plastic containers sunk into the ground – beetles that wander along the tundra fall unawares into these traps, which contain preservatives, and are trapped until a researcher collects the samples. Traps were placed in wet and (relatively) dry habitats so that we could compare the two habitats. After the collections were returned to our laboratory, the beetles were identified to species, counted, and the biomass of the beetles was estimated – biomass lets us determine what happens to the ‘amount of beetles’ on the tundra in addition to figuring out ‘how many’ (abundance) and ‘what kind’ (species) were in the traps. The beetles were also classified into their key ecological roles. The data were then compared as a function of when traps were serviced to let us assess what happens to beetles as a function of seasonality.

We collected over 2500 beetles, representing 50 different species – remarkably, 17 of these species represented new Territorial records. This means that 17 of the species that were identified had never before been recorded in all of Nunavut! Although many ecological functions were represented by the beetles we collected, most were predators. We documented that wet habitats had different kinds of beetle species than the drier tundra habitats, even though the actual number of species between the habitats did not differ. We also uncovered a seasonal affect on the functions of beetles in the system – as the season progressed, the beetles tended to be represented more by predators compared to earlier in the season, which was dominated by beetles representing a diversity of functions. The mean daily temperature also related to the seasonal change that was observed in the beetles.

PhD student Crystal Ernst, happily working on the Arctic tundra.

PhD student Crystal Ernst, happily working on the Arctic tundra.

This work is one of the first to carefully quantify how beetles change during short Arctic summers. We found a diverse assemblage of beetles, filling a range of ecological roles. These ecological roles, however, do not stay the same all summer long, and the shifts in the beetles were related to mean daily temperature. Given that Arctic systems will be significantly affected by climate change, this is worrisome – if temperatures increase, or become more variable, this may affect ecosystem functions that are mediated by beetles. This is more evidence supporting the need to track climate change in the Arctic, and play close attention to the small animals of the tundra.

Reference:

Ernst, C., & Buddle, C. (2013). Seasonal patterns in the structure of epigeic beetle (Coleoptera) assemblages in two subarctic habitats in Nunavut, Canada The Canadian Entomologist, 145 (02), 171-183 DOI: 10.4039/tce.2012.111