The greatness of pseudoscorpions

As you know, I’m quite passionate about Arachnology, from spiders, to harvestmen and Pseudoscorpions.  These are all some of the creatures that fall into the category of the ‘obscure and amazing‘.  On the topic of pseudoscorpions, a few very fun and interesting things have happened recently, and enough to warrant a short blog post.  I also promised that I would post a few more videos related to some research activities on the hunt for pseudoscorpions in the Yukon.

1. Just look at this SEM of a pseudoscorpion!

A little while ago, my Arachnid friends and colleagues from Alberta, Heather Proctor and Dave Walter, forwarded me a stunning image of a pseudoscorpion taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM).  Dave was kind enough to give me permission to share it here:

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) - copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

SEM of a pseudoscorpion (Chernetidae) – copyright D. Walter (reproduced here with permission)

There really is something lovely about getting up close and personal with these little Arachnids. I don’t know this species, but it’s definitely in the family Chernetidae – a relatively diverse family, quite common across Canada.  My favourite Yukon species, Wyochernes asiaticus, is also a Chernetid.   Dave Walter really does some magic with his SEM images, and you are encouraged to check out is macromite blog (his home bug garden blog is also worth a peek!).

2.  Just look at these videos about collecting pseudoscropions in the wild! 

Speaking of my favourite Yukon species, I took a lot of videos of field work in the Yukon last summer and I wanted to share a few with you, here.  Although our larger purpose for the trip was to complete some follow-up field work for the Northern Biodiversity Program, I also wanted to collect additional specimens of a wonderful pseudoscorpion species.  The first video provides some context to the work, and gives you a bit of a flavour of the landscape up near the Yukon – Northwest Territory border in Canada:

Typically, pseudoscorpions are not that commonly encountered.  In my experience, when they are encountered, you tend to see one or two.  What is truly amazing is the sheer abundance of this species found under rocks in creek/river beds in the Yukon.  Furthermore, you can see and collect multiple life stages, including females with eggs.  This short video gives a taste for this abundance.

The third and final video is a big goofy, and highlight the ‘collecting gear’ and appropriate field attire for becoming a “pseudoscorpion hunter“.  I am continually on a crusade to help generate enthusiasm for Arachnids, whether it is dispelling myths, or trying to inspire others to become Arachnologists (you know, we do need Arachnologists in Canada!).

One important caveat:  you may NOT simply run to the Yukon and flip rocks to collect pseudoscorpions – many parts of the world, including the Yukon, have strict guidelines about what you can collect.  Permits are required, and be sure to check into this before you plan on becoming an Arachnologist!

3.  Just look at this pseudoscorpion necklace!

To further illustrate my rather quirky obsession, I managed to find a wonderful person on Etsy who was able to make me a pendant with a pseudoscorpion design:

The pseudoscorpion necklace.  You want one.

The pseudoscorpion necklace. You want one.

Not only that, this design is actually from a photography I took a few years ago, and is an accurate depiction of the cosmopoliton species Chelifer cancroides.

Chelifer cancroides - my photo which was used to design the pendant

Chelifer cancroides – my photo which was used to design the pendant

I KNOW you want to get yourself one of these… start a conversation with Lynn.  Get yourself one of these necklaces and stand proud with other pseudoscorpionologists!

In sum, I do hope you find this post interesting, hopefully fun, and has whetted your appetite from more information about curious critters.

Stay tuned… I will continue to post more about Arachnids…

Strategies for teaching a field biology course

…Part 2 from a series of posts about the value of field biology courses

I previously wrote about the value of field courses in undergraduate University programs, and promised to follow up with a post focused on the ‘how’.  It’s also timely since my field biology course from this term is wrapping up, so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the past term.  It is important to write about some practical strategies for instructing field biology courses because I sometimes hear from my colleagues (and some University administrators) that field biology courses are too expensive, only possible with small class sizes, impractical for introductory classes, and otherwise difficult to successfully integrate into an Academic program.   I have been teaching field biology for a number of years, and believe that most of these criticisms are not valid.    I hope this post can dispel some myths about field biology courses, and convince more people to offer outdoor experiences and experiential learning as part of University curriculum.

Sampling pond invertebrates, five minutes from campus

1. Think global, act local.  Field biology classes do not need to go to exotic locations to be successful.  Many people associate field biology with traveling to a Caribbean Island, a rainforest, or the desert – true, these are prime locations for field courses, but it’s not necessary to travel far to teach field biology.  Our own backyards are ideal locations to study.  In fact, our own backyards are highly relevant to field biology since they are habitats that can be most relevant to our own well-being!   A trip to a local agricultural field will firmly implant the importance of food security and the relationship between food production and global food markets.  A trip to a urban park can be an opportunity to discuss and learn about introduced species and how they are affecting our local biota (European starlings, anyone?).  A trip to a roadside ditch can illustrate how local dispersal plays a role in governing the population dynamics of aquatic macroinvertebrates.  All of these concepts can be illustrated by habitats found within walking distances of many University campuses.  No flights required.

2. The yellow school bus.  Without a doubt, transportation is expensive, and even local trips can be costly.  However, it’s important to remember that ALL courses are expensive, and the fees associated with a yellow school bus are analogous to fees for chemicals, glassware and other consumables associated with a wet chemistry laboratory.  Unfortunately, my experience has been that Administrators do not see outdoors labs through the same lens as indoor labs. Although indoor ‘lab fees’ are often within Departmental or Faculty budgets, renting buses is often an expense that is not accounted for in the same way.  This can be a key reason for the impression that field biology courses are expensive.  I urge you to work within your own systems to find a way to make the yellow school bus as important as all other fees associated with delivering any University course.  Until this institutional shift is made, you will need to come up with creative solutions to the transportation issue.  For example, I often work with my colleagues to find a way to share busses, or do some laboratories within walking distance of our campus.  It may also be possible to have students take public transit to a designated field site.

3. Group work!  A few years ago I was faced with increased enrolment in my field biology course and this presented a challenge.  Suddenly ‘in the field’ lectures and discussions would be impossible (how do you speak to 60 students outside, in a gale-force wind?).  Discussing strategies with colleagues was informative, and I learned that many field biology courses were capped to avoid taking too many students outside.  I didn’t like this – and I could not cap my course without good reason, especially since my course was a requirement for the program.  The solution?  Group work and student-led learning!  For most of my laboratories, I have designed specific activities that don’t require any formal ‘outdoor lectures’ (which, by the way, are generally useless).   Upon getting off a bus, students are often put into groups (sometimes predetermined, sometimes not) and they rotate through different activities.  Here are some examples:

(i)  In a lab about agroecosystems this term, groups of students walked separately through different field crops at the local horticultural centre, and were asked to observe various aspects of the small-scale agriculture system.  The instructor and the TA walked among the groups and took part in the discussions as necessary.  The students were asked to ask questions, make observations, and then meet at a designated time to discuss their questions with the head of the horticultural centre.

(ii) In an earlier offering of my course, students were put into groups at a local forest, and were asked to move around to different locations where they were met by instructors or TAs, and at those locations they took part in small activities related to studying biodiversity in the forest – invertebrates at one location, bird calls at another, plant identification at a third, etc.

(iii) I have sometimes sent all groups off to do the same activity (e.g., measuring soil types in a forest or agroecosystem) and then bring the data back to a classroom and their data provided the content for a lecture about variability in nature and bias in observation.

(iv) As a final example, in one laboratory to a wetland conservation area, individual students were asked, ahead of time, to research specific species that we would see while visiting a field site.  The students became the experts and they were asked to share their knowledge with their peers (i.e., when they were in groups, in the field).  The students became the instructors, and nothing reinforces concepts and content like having to teach it!

….Fundamentally, field biology with a larger class size must embrace the idea of doing group work.

Students, working in groups

4. Bring in the experts.  Field biology is complex to teach in part because of nature’s variability and because an instructor cannot be the expert in all things.  I use the approach of inviting my colleagues (and graduate students) to take part in (and lead) specific activities related to their own expertise.  By in large, I have found my colleagues to be very open to this idea, and provided I do not ask them for help every year, they are most willing to take part.   For many of my colleagues who do not teach in field biology courses regularly, this is a nice opportunity to get outdoors and take part in a different style of teaching.  It’s also a big advantage to students as they are able to appreciate different teaching styles, and gain a recognition for various levels of expertise by instructors.  In fact, this week I am inviting a geologist to take my students on a walk around Mont Royal in Montreal.  Understanding the geological foundations to our local ecosystems is only possible in this class because of the generous involvement from my colleague.  In sum – a  field biology course can be improved by bringing in additional help.

5. Set-up your lab with a lecture:  I have found it immensely useful to set up a field biology laboratory with some kind of content in advance of the trip.  This allows for ‘setting the stage’ so the unfamiliar can be a little more familiar.  To relate this back to my geology field-laboratory, earlier in the term the same colleague came and gave a (indoor) lecture on the geology of the greater Montreal area.  The students therefore have had exposure to the topic in advance of the lab, and were asked to do some readings prior to the laboratory.  This avoids that problem of tying to deliver lectures outside.  Trying to combine experiential learning, in the field, with learning content and concepts, can be difficult.  Use an earlier lecture slot as a means to set up the field activities and laboratories. Sometimes this will mean unique scheduling options for your course.  For example, I have timetabled my course by doing a one-hour lecture each Tuesday an one four-hour field lab each Thursday – the Tuesday lecture can be used to cover some content and allows me to devote the entire field laboratory to field activities.

Field Biology in the winter – why not?

6. Embrace the unpredictable:  Taking students out in a rainstorm, or when it’s -15C, is part of the field biology experience.  Nature can be unpredictable, and we need to embrace this instead of shy away from it.  In the Montreal area, seasonability is a driving force in all our ecosystems, yet field biology courses tend to be focused in ‘nice weather’ seasons.  My colleague Murray Humphries is always telling me that our students must realize that winter ecology is as important as what happens in the summer!  He’s right! (Murray, by the way, does take students out on winter trips in his mammalogy course, and they do winter tracking and other activities relate to cold-weather science).   We can see and do a lot of field biology in all seasons, and must change the mindset of associating field biology with the warm months.  And, as an anecdote, of all the camping trips that I did with my father when I was (much) younger, I remember vividly the ones with rain, sleet, snow and wind storms.  Nice weather is boring.

In sum, field biology courses are doable, providing the instructor can be creative and embrace alternative approaches to teaching.

What are your own strategies?  Please share…

The transformative power of social media: blogs and tweets in a university course

As part of my field biology course this term, groups of students are working on research projects related to observing species in their natural setting – a Natural History‘ project. Students are working in groups of 4-6, and each group is doing a focused project about a particular species (or group of species) including the following:  American beech trees, sugar maple trees, hemlock trees, shelf fungi, aquatic macroinvertebrates, litter-dwelling arthropods, small mammals, the American crow and chickadees. 

The first part of this project involves providing an overview of the natural history of their study species, and this overview is being released in the form of a scientific blog post.  Starting today, and for the next three weeks, the nine blog posts will be released on the following site.  (Today’s release is all about American beech Trees).

ENVB222 – the first post

I have opted to use blog posts, as one form of social media, as a direct communication tool in this undergraduate course.  This opens the work up to the broadest audience possible, and students have a lot more people to write for than just their instructors.  I believe this will increase the quality of the writing since the stakes are quite high: experts on their topics will be able to read and comment on their posts.    The students are encouraged to connect with the broader scientific community and seek input on their study species.    Another reason to use social media is to allow the classroom work to move outside the walls of Academia.  Students have told me that they are inspired by the idea of taking what they are learning and seeing how it is valued outside the (typically) insular classroom activities.

The use of social media in the classroom would not be complete without Twitter! The groups have set up twitter accounts, and within 48 hours of their posts going live, they will be tweeting a series of facts related to their study species!  This is another informative, collaborative and fun way to seek input into their projects, and a way to bring what they have learned out to the broader community of biologists.  Follow along!  You can simply use the hashtag #ENVB222 to track the tweets related to the project. (by the way, you can follow the Beech tee group @BBDteam ).  Here are a couple of examples of other tweets:

A tweet from the litter dwellers…

The Crow group’s tweet

Students have already started to connect with scientists from other institutions – they are already feeling part of something bigger.  For example, students in a field biology course at the University of Hull in the UK have connected with McGill students – the students from the two institutions can share connect, collaborate and share their experiences.  This can be done easily through #hashtags:

A re-tweet to Hull Students, from their Professor (Graham Scott)

So far this social media experiment in the classroom is inspiring, exciting, and leveraging real tools as a way to take the teaching and learning experience to a new level.  However, it will only work if their blogs are read, critiqued, and discussed with the broader community.  So, I encourage you to follow along and take part in this activity.  You are all invited.

Community.  Sharing.  Collaboration. Outreach. Communication.

This is the power of social media.

Natural History is….

The theme in my undergraduate field biology course this term is “Natural History”.  This is proving very interesting, in part because defining natural history is difficult.

What is Natural History?

Thankfully, my colleague Terry Wheeler wrote a terrific post on this topic recently.  I urge you to read this, as I think it brings a lot of clarity to this issue.  In that post, Terry states his scientific definition of the concept: Natural History is the search for, and description of, patterns in nature.

The Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

Terry’s definition resonates with me, but I was curious about what natural history might mean to undergraduate students.  I wanted to share with you some ideas about natural history that were proposed by some of my students.  I had asked them to think about defining natural history, and to think of this concept as it might relate to the discipline of Ecology.

Here is some of what they said, paraphrased by me:

Ecology is a thorough interpretation of natural history

It’s not possible to study ecology without indirectly studying natural history

Natural history is studied with observation rather than experimental methods

Natural history is an indispensable part of science and culture.

Natural History can be represented in an artistic manner.

Natural history is a priceless source of information for biology and ecology.

The field of ecology sprouts from natural history.

Field work is natural history in action.

Natural history is a science which tries to show life and its diversity to a larger public.

Natural history is familiarity with nature, with or without an explanation.

Data gathered from natural history is not necessarily conclusive.

A Panamanian wonder…

Do these ideas resonate with you?

What does natural history mean to you? 

A fallen tree creates an opportunity to learn

I  recently wrote a post about the value of field work in undergraduate university education. Then, on Thursday of last week, I took my class on a field trip to Île Saint-Bernard – a fabulous ‘wildlife refuge’ south of Montreal.  It is a spot where we discuss and explore definitions of wetlands and issues related to wetland conservation.  I’ve done this trip in the past, and one of the highlights is a visit to see a truly amazing tree – a huge, old, (and relatively rare, in Quebec) specimen of swamp oak (Quercus bicolor).  I was really looking forward to seeing this tree.  As we rounded the corner, here’s what awaited us:

The swamp oak – deceased

Yes, the tree was dead:  it had been cut down (presumably because it had started to rot and fall, and was becoming a hazard for visitors).   This created a very acute and emotional reaction by me and the students.  At first it was dismay, shock and everyone was full of questions – Why was it cut down?  How old was it? What will happen?  How long will it take to decompose?  Slowly, but in a real and important way, the mood shifted from one of dismay to one of wonder and awe.  We began to see that the sun was shining down through the (now) open canopy – there were chickadees chirping and watching our group.  We also noticed that on the bark of the fallen tree a seed had germinated and plant was starting to grow.

A seedling from the folds of the dead tree.

The fallen, dead tree was provided us an incredible learning opportunity:

An opportunity to discuss forest succession, and the dynamic nature of forest ecology.

An opportunity to discuss managing a forest for multi-use and the difficulties in thinking about hazards to the public and balancing that with a need to conserve the land.

An opportunity to talk about ecological time, land use and development that occurred since the time the oak tree was an acorn.

An opportunity to see and feel the microhabitat differences between the dark, damp forest interior and the drier and sunlit area where the tree had fallen.  It was an opportunity to discuss forest gaps, and their relative importance in different biomes.

In truth, the dead tree provided a much richer field experience than had the live specimen.

A learning opportunity, around the tree.

These fascinating and unexpected learning opportunities occurred because we were on a field trip.  When teaching outside the classroom we cannot always predict what we will see and do.   The spontaneity of the event, and emotional reaction to the huge, fallen tree is something we will all remember:  The experience will stick.

…and those are some more reasons to include field courses in undergraduate education.

The Value of Field Courses

Part 1 – Why Include Field Courses in Undergraduate University Curriculum?

Taking students outside the classroom, and into streams, forests, or fields, can be a rewarding experience for both the instructor and the student.  I am reminded of this every autumn when I teach an introductory field ecology course as part of McGill University’s Major in Environmental Biology.  In this class, we visit many ecosystems, and the hope is that students, through learning outdoors, gain additional insights, and exposure to a suite of experiences they would otherwise not get in a classroom.

That being said, what is the real pedagogical value of field courses?  Or, why do we bother with field courses?  Sure, it’s fun to be outside, and for those students who like wearing rubber boots and ‘toughing it’ outdoors, it’s much more interesting than a lecture hall.  However, is there real value in terms of how content might be delivered or retained?  Are field courses just a feel-good ‘gimmick’?

Undergraduate students doing field work in an undergraduate course: hands-on experience

These questions were at the forefront of a teaching workshop we had in May of 2012 (I wrote about this previously) – as part of that workshop, Graham Scott (from University of Hull in the UK), highlighted some of his research about the value of field courses, and this work resonated with a lot of us who teach field courses at McGill.  I was particularly interested in reading his paper titled ‘The Value of Fieldwork in Life and Environmental Sciences in the Context of Higher Education: A Case Study in Learning About Biodiversity.  In this work, there is a nice introduction that states how many people believe and assume fieldwork is valuable because (and I am paraphrasing here):

Field trips are rewarding and satisfying (i.e., FUN) for the instructor and student

Field courses will improve recruitment and retention (i.e., used as a tool to draw students into an academic program at University, and keep them in the program once they arrive)

Field courses enable students to gain key skills, and transferable skills

The mushroom collecting laboratory as part of an undergraduate University course about field biology

This has certainly been my (informal) assessment about the value of field courses.  Students demonstrate (through enthusiasm, passion, motivation, and conversation) that they appreciate seeing and doing things outside of the classroom.  Earlier this term, when walking around the Morgan Arboretum with my class, we stopped and looked at invasive Noway Maple trees, and my Teaching Assistant was able to show them how to identify the species. Many of the students were able to grab a leaf, right there and at that time, and look at the key characteristics.  I like to think this visual and hands-on approach will help the content sink in, long-term, and that students will be able to remember the biology and natural history of Norway maples months or years after the course finishes.  I also think they will look at all maple tress a little differently, and think about similarities and differences, and about introduced (or alien/exotic) species.  These are big topics, of significance to conservation of biodiversity and environmental science at large.  Or, in other words, I think this experience will lead to life-long learning.

Just last week we had a field trip devoted to collections and identification of mushrooms.  The students split into groups and collected a diversity of fruiting bodies over the course of the three-hour laboratory.  They seemed genuinely enthusiastic and in awe of the diversity of shapes, sizes, colours and smells of the mushrooms. I don’t think this experience could ever be replicated in a classroom setting, or even in an indoor laboratory.  Being out in the woods, crouching down beside rotten logs, and learning how to watch for and collect mushrooms is something many of the students had never done before, and I like to think that this kind of experiential learning will stick.  Life-long learning again!  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I attribute my love of natural history to my exposure to nature as a child, through field guides and hands-on learning (although in this case the instructor was my father).  Field-courses, at a University level, can inspire people the very same way!

In fairness, I have only presented anecdotes and it would be nice to look to the scientific literature for proper studies that test for the pedagogical value of field courses for undergraduate students.  This takes us back to the work of Graham Scott and colleagues.  Graham et al. worked with undergraduate students and separated them into two groups: one group received instructions and then did a hands-on (in the stream) collection of aquatic invertebrates, and the second group received the same instruction in an indoor laboratory setting (i.e., as a laboratory demonstration) but did not actually do the sampling in a stream. It’s also important to note that the students did not know, ahead of time, whether they were going to participate in a laboratory or field-based activity (there were told to expect ‘practical work’ and be potentially prepared for outdoor activities). In a laboratory, after a short break, from the field/lab work, the students were asked to separate and characterize (draw, label) the biodiversity of the aquatic invertebrates.  These specific samples were collected separately (by the instructors) so there was no potential bias associated regarding who collected what samples.

Undergraduate students sampling aquatic invertebrates in an undergraduate course at McGill University

The result?  The authors document that the actual hands-on experiences had a real effect on students.  Students that had the field component to the activity enjoyed and valued the experience, felt that they learned more effectively, and ‘…were better able to construct a taxonomic list of organisms that they had collected themselves’.   Although more research on this topic is required (their sample size was relatively low), this paper does help provide some solid evidence that field courses are, from a pedagogical perspective, valuable.

Field courses are much more than a teaching gimmick:  field course benefit a student’s academic experience.  Field courses are an effective way to teach and learn course material. Of course, field courses are not relevant to all disciplines, but for students in biology or environmental science programs, field courses often appear in the curriculum, and I would argue they are en essential part of these programs.  Universities ought to support and promote their field courses.  When developing curriculum for an undergraduate program, field course should be as essential as a microbiology lab.  We live in a world that requires people to have experience in all facets of their environment, from shopping malls and urban centres, to corn-fields, marshes, and forests.   We are doing a disservice to undergraduate students if our teaching does not venture into the field.   That is the “why”.

To finish, I really appreciate a quote from the Discussion of Graham et al.’s paper: ‘Learning is enhanced in the field’.   Indeed – this is exactly my perception, and my experiences with field courses suggest this is true.  Feedback on my course evaluations speaks to this, also.  In my area of teaching, field courses will remain central to the academic program of Environmental Biology, and I encourage others to consider adding field courses to their own program.

Naysayers:  We often hear that field courses are too expensive, too difficult, too logistically complicated, and can be done only with small groups of studentsThese are not valid arguments and in a future post, I will discuss these issues in detail.  Part 2 will, therefore, deal with the “how“.  Stay tuned.

Scott, G.W., et al. (2012). The Value of Fieldwork in Life and Environmental Sciences in the Context of Higher Education: A Case Study in Learning About Biodiversity Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21, 11-21 DOI: 10.1007/s10956-010-9276-x

Entomologists at Work: what do they look like?

It’s the end of the summer, and I have been looking through some photographs from this past field season.  Included in the photographs are a lot of images of “entomologists at work” and this prompted me to start a Tumblr blog called “The Entomologist“.  The inspiration for this comes directly from “What a scientist looks like” – a truly wonderful project devoted to rethinking stereotypes about scientists.

Is this a typical Entomologist, Butterfly net in hand? (Photograph by C. Ernst)

What are the stereotypes of Entomologists “at work” ? I would guess that most people probably think Entomologists are either waving around butterfly nets in a rainforest clearing, or perhaps looking at fly larvae under a snazzy microscope to determine time of death (i.e., Forensic entomology as depicted on CSI).

What do entomologists really do?  What does it look like when they are at work?  This project is devoted to answering these questions, through submissions to the site.  Please contribute by going here, and clicking on the Submit tab.  Please provide a photograph of yourself as an Entomologist at work, be it in the laboratory, in a research collection, doing field work, rearing larvae, weighing specimens, checking traps, inspecting a home for pests, counting aphids on plants, etc.  Or, take a picture of a colleague or friend of yours who spends time with insects and catch them in action.

I encourage ALL entomologists to submit a photo – whether you are an amateur, professional, young or old.

Show me your passion for the discipline, and I hope the site will fill with depictions of the breadth and depth of entomology and its practitioners.  Perhaps this can also inspire more people to become Entomologists.

Notes from the field: Yukon wildlife (Part 3)

Here is Part 3 from the “notes from the field” series  – an account of a recent field research trip to the Yukon.  Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. 

17 July, 10 AM, Dawson City, Yukon

I am back in the world of electricity, Internet, hotels, and tourists.  The layers of mosquito repellent have finally been washed off after a much-needed shower in the Hotel last night.

Arctic Pardosa wolf spiders… captured.

The big news is that the day after I last wrote, we managed to find and collect Pardosa glacialis! We woke early on July 15 and went up to the high elevation tundra habitats located exactly on the border of the Yukon and NWT (we are not even sure what Territory to write on our collection labels! – the site was, literally, on the border!).  All five of us helped Katie look for wolf spiders, and after a couple of hours of searching and collected, we found dozens of specimens – this was thrilling, as these specimens are very important for Katie’s research and we were getting anxious about not finding any. We also got a little bit lucky – within an hour of that sampling, some rather nasty weather blew in and we were forced back to camp for the afternoon.  In the rain, tundra wolf spiders tend to hunker down deep into the moss and lichens, not to be seen.

I have mixed feelings about being able to catch up on e-mails, and I certainly miss my family.  However, I am also missing the fields of cottongrass on the Arctic tundra, eating cloudberries in high mountain passes, and seeking new localities for the Arctic pseudoscorpionThe Dempster Highway is a biologist’s dream – full of wildlife, stunning vistas, amazing habitats, a unique biogeographical history, and a region that hosts a rather stunning and diverse arthropod fauna.

I will be back up here again.

The Yukon landscape.

Notes from the field: Yukon wildlife (Part 2)

Here is Part 2 from the “notes from the field” series  – an account of a recent field research trip to the Yukon.  Click here for Part 1. 

14 July, 11 PM, Rock River Campground, km 445 (Dempster Highway), Yukon

“Bag of spiders” – a nice haul of wolf spiders!

We have had a busy few days – we finally got some drier weather in Tombstone and Laura and Barb were able to do some collecting, and Crystal set some more traps.  We left Tombstone a couple of days ago to drive north, collecting en route.  We have seen some of the larger wildlife, including arctic fox, moose, and grizzly bears.   However, our sights were really set on the smaller wildlife: Barb was particularly impressed with the diversity of parasitic wasps at a place called “Windy Pass” – this area is known for hosting a lot of rare, Beringian species, and entomologists have collected at this locality for decades. We crossed the Arctic Circle yesterday, and the Rock River campground is nestled in a river valley just north of the Arctic Circle.  We are now officially in the Richardson Mountain range – the tundra habitats about 10 km north of this campground is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  I feel very lucky and privileged to be here.

Although we had some more rain and cold weather yesterday, today was a perfect summer day at this latitude (i.e., it got just above 20C) – it was also a very windy day, which was bliss since higher winds mean that the incessant hordes of mosquitoes are kept at bay.  Fieldwork in the sub-arctic is quite challenging, in part because of the mosquitoes.

Self-portrait geared up for the biting flies.

We collected well into the NWT, getting all the way to the Peel River (located about 540 km up the Dempster).  Crystal found the most northern locality for Wyochernes asiaticus in the NWT and for that reason I will buy her a beer whenever we get back to civilization!   Unfortunately we have yet to find Katie’s wolf spider species – we have checked a few locations but have come up empty – there are certainly many other species of wolf spiders on the Tundra, but the ones we have collected have not been Pardosa glacialis.  Our team is a little anxious about this, as we only have a few more days at the Richardson Mountains before heading south.

We are now back in camp and it should be time to crawl into the tents.  At this latitude it is pretty difficult to think about going to sleep – it is light 24 hours a day, so it is hard to trick the body into thinking it is time for sleep.   It’s even harder to get to sleep knowing that Pardosa glacialis is out there…somewhere.

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming Friday…


A walk in the woods

Last week I had the opportunity to visit my PhD student Dorothy Maguire at her field sites south of Montreal.  It was a glorious summer day, and given the construction holiday in Quebec, the travel time was quick and effortless (for Montrealers, you know what I am talking about!).  I have briefly described Dorothy’s research in a previous post, and during the field visit, I was able to see Dorothy and her two field assistants ‘in action’.  This included checking samples from an aerial malaise trap, beating the foliage (for herbivores) in the forest canopy, and checking contents of a Lindgren funnel (set up in the canopy to collect flying insects, including beetles).

Thomas and Camille checking the contents of the aerial malaise trap

It was an amazing day for natural history.  In fact, I sometimes think my graduate students cannot stand spending time in the field with me, since I tend to walk slowly, vial in hand, stopping all the time to pick up a spider or beetle, or to turn over a log to search for pseudoscorpions.    I’m probably much more of a burden than a help in the field, and this probably leads to some resentment (ha ha).

Anyway – it was great to get into the forest again after time in the Arctic, and I was thrilled at all the biodiversity starting me in the face.

What did I see?

A dozen or more species of trees, including shagbark hickory, ironwood, and the usual suspects (American beech, sugar maple, red maple, some oaks)

Some stunning underwing moths (Catocala) (although they were somewhat less stunning than usual since they were dead, in a Lindgren funnel!)

The BIGGEST horsefly that I have ever seen (probably Tabanus atratus).  Yikes – I captured it before it bit me – it could have hurt.  A lot.

The big, nasty horse fly (Tabanidae)

Butterflies, butterflies, butterflies!  Including the beautiful great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) and the northern pearly-eyed (Enodia anthedon)- the latter is one of the few shade-loving butterflies in this part of the world

Hundreds of sap beetles (family Nitidulidae) – these were very common in the aerial malaise traps, but were also flying into us much of the day

Some GIANT Scarabaeidae beetles – I don’t know the species but they were robust and impressive; masters of their universe.

Dozens of Harvestmen (Opiliones), which I later identified as Leiobunum aldrichi – I have now started a colony at home (much to my children’s delight).

Female (l) and male (r) Gypsy moth, caught in the act.

Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) – a lot of gypsy moth.  This species in an invasive, introduced species.  Gypsy moth caterpillars can feed on hundreds of species of trees, including our beloved Sugar maple.  This is one species that I am not happy about seeing, and its numbers this year are certainly higher than last year.

And to top it all off.. Antlions (Neuroptera: Myrmeleontidae).  Yes, Antlions!!  These are among the most fascinating of the insects -the larvae build conical sand-pits and await ants that happen to slip into the pit and fall down into the waiting predator.  I have lived in the Montreal area for over 10 years and I had no idea that Antlions existed this far north.  Wow.

Quebec Antlion “trap”, photographed just south of Montreal

This is only part of the list, but one thing is clear – a hot, mid-summer day in a Montreal-area forest is full of the wonders of Nature.  I didn’t have to look very far, and I didn’t have to look very hard.  Furthermore, most of what I mentioned was all from a rather small forest fragment surrounded by agricultural lands.   We must study, document, quantify the biodiversity within these forest fragments – they are very special, and they host a diverse and fascinating flora and fauna.

 Take a walk in your local woods, and see what you can find under leaves, bark, climbing up trees and catching a few rays of sun in a small clearing.  It’s a nice way to spend a summer day.