Curiosity, passion and science: On the natural history of an Arctic pseudoscorpion

I’m pleased to announce a publication about the natural history of a tiny, wonderful arachnid: the pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (photo by  C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

I’ve published quite a few papers, but this one is really special: it’s special because it’s about an obscure creature for which virtually *nothing* was known. It’s about a species with a fascinating distribution. To me, it’s an epic tale about a species that nobody really cares that much about. It’s special because it is research that was done just out of pure curiosity and fascination: there was no larger purpose, no great problem to solve, and no experiments to run*. It was based on observation and observation alone, and it was a long slog – done over many, many years (it took about 7-8 years to pull together this story, and this story is really only a prologue). Fundamentally this research was about trying to gather some base-line data about a small animal living in a big landscape.

The big landscape: A river above the Arctic circle: our pseudscorpion friend can be found under the rocks alongside this river.

The big landscape: A river above the Arctic circle: our pseudscorpion friend can be found under the rocks alongside this river.

This work presents some life-history data about a fascinating northern pseudoscorpion species, occurring only in the north-west of North America. As far as I know, it occurs only in regions that were primarily unglaciated during the last glaciation event which covered pretty much all of the northern half of the continent. However, unlike other Beringian species (e.g., the wooly mammoth), this little arachnid did not go extinct but rather continues to thrive in its somewhat unusual habitat under rocks, near rivers or streams.

After collecting and measuring nearly 600 specimens, I can now tell you a bit more about the species distribution in North America, and provide some insights into its life history traits. For example, larger females tended to have higher clutch sizes, a very common and well-known pattern with other arachnids, but there was certainly a paucity of data about this for pseudoscorpions. I also know that all its life stages can be collected in the Yukon in July, and that females can carry around quite a few young (over a dozen!).

But that’s about it. Beyond those fundamental life history measurements and comments on its distribution, the bulk of the species biology remains a mystery.

It may be possible to look at this work as a failure. Heck – a LOT of specimens were collected, by many, many enthusiastic helpers. It took some resources to get the work done (although it was mostly through stealth). A lot of time was spent at the microscope, and it certainly took a bit of time to pull together the paper. And what for? We still don’t know very much about the species: how does it disperse? How does it overwinter? How does it survive flooding of its habitat? How restrictive are the habitat affinities of the species? Do females and males tend to hang around the same rock, or do they mill about with others? What does it eat?

I don’t see this as frustrating, or discouraging, because it’s a start. Before thinking about bigger questions in ecology and evolution, your first need some basics. Only then is it possible to ask broader questions about, say, phylogeography, dispersal limitation, or behaviour.

I hope this work encourages others to seek out and discover new and interesting things about the unnoticed species that walk underfoot, live in tree-tops, swamps, or beneath park benches.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

Another image of the Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus taken during the 2015 field season

I was very pleased to publish this work in the Canadian Field-Naturalist. Sure, it’s not a ‘high impact’ journal, but it’s a rather special and unique journal for being an excellent location to publish work on the natural history of our species. I hope others consider this journal as an outlet for their curiosity-driven science. Over time, I hope the pendulum does swing, and as a scientific community we really embrace the value of “basic” natural history data. Without a fundamental working knowledge of our species we are hamstrung when it comes to solving the big environmental challenges facing our planet. It’s time to play catch-up. Let’s worry less about impact factors and show some love for smaller journals that are brave enough to keep on publishing about natural history. Let’s spend time observing our natural world, collecting interesting data just because.

I ended my paper with a paragraph about what it felt like to do this research. I am so thankful the editors allowed me to keep this paragraph. It’s important, and reflects my long-standing belief that the lines between a subjective love of nature, and objective observations about nature, should be blurred. They certainly are for me.

In conclusion, observing these marvelous animals in one of the most beautiful areas of the planet, was gratifying, awe-inspiring, and helped solidify a love of natural history. What has been learned is only the prologue to a truly astounding epic: many more discoveries await.

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*Please check out this amazing blog post about the value of ‘observation’ to ecology. It relates closely to what I have written.

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Yukon field work: Arachnids, landscapes, and the inspiring North

It’s a dream for an arthropod ecologist: a dramatic biome transition from boreal forest to subarctic tundra, a beringian landscape, and diverse and abundant insects and spiders. I have just returned from field work along the Yukon’s Dempster Highway, Canada’s only road to cross the Arctic circle. And again, I was not disappointed!

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

A stretch of the Dempster Highway

This year’s expedition was focused on three projects:

1) Tiny, wonderful arachnids:

On this trip, I continued to document the distribution of an arctic Pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus. This is a beringian arachnid, known from the old world, and known in North America from almost exclusively unglaciated parts of the Yukon and Alaska. Like wooly mammoths and giant short-faced bears, these tiny arachnids roamed North America while the rest of the top half of the continent was buried under ice. But unlike the mammoths and giant short-faced bears, the Arctic Pseudoscorpion is not extinct! It’s a relict of the past, thriving today under rocks near beringian rivers and streams. I have been working on this species for many years (and a life history paper about this arachnid will appear in the Canadian Field-Naturalist sometime this month), and each time I visit the Yukon, I leave with more questions, and more specimens. This time, I collected some animals to hopefully work on their population genetics: I am curious about the relatedness among the populations from different watersheds along the Dempster Highway (by the way, I am seeking collaborators [phylogeographers!] for this work… If interested, let me know!)

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

2) Northern food webs:

I have left my PhD student Shaun Turney up in the Yukon (along with his field assistant) where he is working on characterizing the arthropod-based food webs along the latitudinal gradient of the Dempster Highway. Past research has given some hints that northern food webs may be atypical, but to fully test this we decided to characterize the entire fauna from 1 x 1 m patches of the tundra. This involved placing tents over the tundra, and Shaun collected critters within those tents, and even “vacuumed” the tundra within the square metre. Shaun started this work near the stunning Richardson mountains above the arctic circle, and over the month of July, will repeat the sampling at different locations along the Dempster Highway.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

3) Thermal biology of wolf spiders

Colleagues from Western University joined me in the Yukon to start some projects related to the thermal biology of the extremely abundant Pardosa wolf spiders which inhabit the tundra. There are several species that occur along the Dempster Highway, and when the weather is good, it’s quite possible to collect hundreds of individuals over the span of several hours. Past work has suggested the density of these spiders is about 0.5 per square metre, and those past estimates certainly seemed accurate on this trip also! The spiders will be taken back to their lab, and I am eager to find out how northern Pardosa may be adapted to Yukon conditions.

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

Searching for wolf spiders on the Tundra

All the sciency parts of our field work were exciting and gratifying, but there are other reasons why the Yukon is special*: it is a breathtakingly beautiful place. From stubby black spruce trees to tufts of tundra-dwelling cotton grass, every turn of the highway or footstep over a hummock is a treat. It’s not all easy (hordes of mosquitoes at some of the campgrounds, or being driven off the tundra by cold rains and strong winds), but it is all inspiring.

The lines between science and passion are blurred on the tundra, and that is a good thing. Searching for spiders is work that is fun; seeing a northern shrike or watching two lonely caribou dart up a river valley is fun that comes with the field work. I am immensely grateful for being able to hike under midnight sun, and be a northern researcher during the day. I am delighted to be able to discover some of hidden secrets of the Yukon.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

The northern landscape, near the Yukon-Northwest Territory border.

For more photos of the recent trip, check out my Flickr page.

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* my colleague Terry Wheeler shares a passion for the Yukon – here is his post which outlines why he keeps returning to the region.

Spiderday (the ninth)

Here’s your ninth edition of SPIDERDAY! Some arachnid-related links from the past week.

Please note: I’m just heaving off to the Yukon for a couple of weeks of remote field work (it will involve arachnids!). Spiderday will likely return on 18 July.

Wow - this is a Thomisidae (crab spider) that's an ant-mimic. In Australia, of course. Photo by Alex Wild.

Wow – this is a Thomisidae (crab spider) that’s an ant-mimic. In Australia, of course. Photo by Alex Wild.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 9.32.45 AM

  • Scorpions, anyone? How about GIANT ones. An amazing post with stunning images that you just won’t believe!
  • Some very handsome Opiliones (Harvestmen, or daddy-longlegs)
  • This is from a while ago, but worth another read. The fastest land animal (scaled to relative body size) is… a MITE!
  • Tips for tick safety. Worth a look.
  • Here’s a great technique that arachnophiles are sure to use!

Spiderday (the eighth)

Hip Hip Hooray! It’s Spiderday! I’ve snared some of the best arachnidy links from this past week. But first… a big hug for you:

A spider hug.

A spider hug.

A spider found for the first time in Canada: Myrmarachne formicaria (photo by V. Levesque-Beaudin, reproduced here with permission)

A jumping spider found for the first time in Canada: Myrmarachne formicaria (photo by V. Levesque-Beaudin, reproduced here with permission)

Spiderday (the seventh)

Welcome to spiderday. THE place to get all the stories about arachnids, from the past week. And boy oh boy it was a good week!

Let’s get started:

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it's threatened. Wow.

A spider from Singapore: it vibrates its web at high speed if it’s threatened. Wow. Photo by Chthoniid, reproduced here with permission.

A spider of sorts.

A spider of sorts.

A mitey good pun.

A mitey good pun.

Unanswered (Arachnological) research questions

Scientific research produces more questions than answers (at least in my experience!), and a neat paper, project or field season often leaves us with a suite of new directions to take a research program. I wish I had more time to answer some of these questions, but reality sets in: curious questions that arise aren’t always feasible, or perhaps the timing isn’t right, or the ideas aren’t funded(able), or interest from students or collaborators isn’t there. I have come to the realization that perhaps I shouldn’t keep these questions in my head, but instead should write them down, publicly. Perhaps these ideas will generate ideas for others, point me to literature on these topics, or at the very least it will help me to refine and rethink these questions. After all, coming up with a good research question is certainly one of the more challenging parts of the research process, and improving a question starts with taking a stab at formalizing it on paper.

Disclaimers:

1) I did not do any kind of extensive literature search to see whether these questions have been tackled already.

2) I think many of these questions are rather poorly formed, which is perhaps why they have not yet been answered…

Ok, so here goes, and I will start* with a few questions with an Arachnological flare:

Do Linyphiidae spiders *really* show higher diversity at more northern latitudes? This is a classic biogeographic question, and there have been hints and ideas that Linyphiidae spiders (aka “micro sheet-web spiders”, one of the most diverse families of spiders, generally small-bodied, ground-dwellers) show a reverse latitudinal trend, with fewer species in temperate regions compared to the tropics. My own lab’s research certainly supports the claim that Linyphiidae spiders dominate diversity in the North, but are they really less diverse further south?  Although this question has been partially answered at large(ish) spatial scales, I think we need to go BIGGER to truly unravel this one, and it needs to be done with sampling methods that are really comparable (i.e., standardized), along a gradient that runs from the tropics towards the poles.

What is the relationship between fang “size” in spider species and their relative venom strength? This seems like an obvious question but has perhaps not been answered. I am curious about this because I know some “small-fanged” spiders (eg, some crab spiders in the family Thomisidse) can really pack a punch, and I have heard that some larger spiders have relativity mild venom, despite the size of their fangs. I am not sure how easy it would be to answer this one: the literature about venom is probably scarce for most species, and I’m not even sure how to test for “venom strength”, or to properly quantify fang size. This question would also have to be addressed with close attention to phylogeny.

 

Check out these fangs! (and venom…). Photo by Alex Wild

In the canopy of temperate, deciduous forests, where do the spiders come from? My lab has done a fair bit of work on canopy spiders, and their dispersal abilities, but I’m just not sure where spiders come from each spring. This is particularly relevant in my region because of the strong seasonality and harsh winters. I see three options: they colonize tree-tops from afar, they climb up the tree trunk each spring from the understory, or they overwinter in the canopy. Some manipulative experiments shows some winter-active birds feed on spiders in trees, suggesting some certainly might overwinter. However, I do wonder if this is commonplace in the systems I know around Montreal. This could be a great project, and would involve perhaps tagging spiders, using population genetics, or doing some good old fashion natural history observations.

What is the relatedness of different populations of synanthropic spider species such as Salticus scenicus (the “zebra jumper“)? Many spiders are “urban” spiders, and occur frequently in association with humans. When did they arrive to these cities? Does the age (and relatedness) of each city’s population of zebra jumpers relate to the age of a city? (Eg, compare a newish city like Calgary to an older city like New York…?). When looking at population genetics, do individuals move around a lot within a city (I suspect not), or between cities (I have no idea…). This would be a neat project, in part because of the attractiveness of the spider and its close association with humans, but also because it would be feasible! I think the methods could be quite straightforward, and would address a really interesting aspect of invasive species ecology.

A cute little zebra jumper! Photo by Alex Wild.

When ballooning, how frequently do spiders take off again after they land? Spiders disperse all the time by releasing strands of silk and “sailing away”, and they certainly aren’t restricted to one flight. There has been fabulous research done about their dispersal potential and habitat suitability at a landscape scale, but I am very curious about how often they land in a location only to depart again soon after. Why would they do this? Perhaps they don’t like their landing spot, perhaps there is a competitor or predator nearby, or perhaps they just feel like it. What clues do they use to leave a spot after they land in a spot? I really have no idea how to answer this kind of question….

Why do Pseudoscorpions tend to exhibit such clumped distributions? These tiny creatures are truly fascinating, and the basic biology and distribution of most species remains unknown. I have spent a lot of time searching for and collecting Pseudoscorpions, and I have found that their local populations are incredibly “clumped”. In general terms this means you can search for a long, long time and never find any individuals and then suddenly happen upon dozens. This alone is not unusual for many animals, but I have found Pseudoscorpions to be more patchy in their distribution compared to other arthropod taxa I have spent time searching for. Why is this? Maybe I am just really unlucky or hopeless when it comes to collecting these arachnids? Perhaps their low dispersal abilities keeps them from expanding their local range (they can’t fly or walk very quickly)?  However, many are phoretic and catch rides on other animals that can disperse effectively. Maybe Pseudoscorpions have very specific niches, and perhaps those niches are relatively rare? I just don’t know.

Ok, that’s it for now…

I do hope someone out there tackles some of the unanswered questions, or corrects me if I’ve missed some key literature on these topics. Please share, comment and provide input! I also urge others to post their unanswered research questions – theses ideas need to be written down and discussed. I think we will all benefit.

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* There will surely be a Part 2, and I think this blog is a good place to throw ideas out there. It can be a type of “research notebook”, which can and should include unanswered (or unanswerable) research questions.

© C.M. Buddle

Spiderday (the first)

I have decided to start a new, weekly feature* on my blog titled “SPIDERDAY!”. This will, fittingly, come on Saturday, and will be a bit of a round-up of stories about Arachnids from the previous week. I will include some images, links to neat Arachnid-themed blog posts and scientific papers, and bring other fun news about Arachnida. The pedants may be annoyed with “Spiderday” as a title to capture stories about all of the Arachnida (which includes mites, ticks, scorpions, harvestmen, etc.), but “Arachniday” doesn’t flow quite as nicely.

So, please enjoy, share, and let me know if you come across neat stories about Arachnids, and I will include them in next week’s Spiderday.

A long-jawed orb-web spider (Tetragnatha), by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission.

A long-jawed orb-web spider (Tetragnatha), by Sean McCann, reproduced here with permission.

Here are some things I pulled from the “web” this past week:

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 9.05.59 AM

 

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

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*I’m not new to doing ‘regular features’ – I ran Expiscor for many months on this blog, and then did Segments on SciLogs for a while. However, I think an Arachnid-themed regular feature will have more staying power, and is a niche that needs filling, with eight-legged greatness.

Earthworms at the Morgan Arboretum

This is a post written by undergraduate student Jessica Turgeon – she’s finishing up a project about earthworms.

When I was a child, you could always find me either in a tree or in the dirt. I liked to follow the ants up into the trees and back down again, where I would switch over to digging for earthworms. I loved the feeling of soil between my hands and thinking to myself that these little worms were responsible for making the soil the way it is. I now know that the process is a bit more complex than this but overall, five year old me was almost right.

JessicaI spent my whole life loving nature, especially those living in it. By high school I became a strong advocate for environmental protection, even helping a teacher create a bylaw in my municipality to stop parents from idling in front of elementary schools. This experience truly opened my eyes to the will power and determination this generation has when it comes to changing old mentalities about the environment.

When choosing a university to go to, there was no doubt in my mind whether I should apply to Environmental Biology at the Macdonald campus of McGill or not. This program combines both of my passions: nature and its diversity and environmental management. I’ve since embarked on an amazing journey that has shaped me as a person.

Being around so many naturalists rekindled my love for earthworms, so much so that I decided that I wanted to conduct a research project about them. With the help of Chris Buddle (McGill) and NSERC USRA, I decided to take on a project detailing their biodiversity at the Morgan Arboretum, a nearby forest.

Earthworms can greatly affect Southern Quebec soils because all of the species found here are invasive1. Forests have evolved without the help of earthworms, meaning that earthworm burrowing action is somewhat of a new experience for the trees1. The worms break up and mix the soil when they crawl, leaving the soil readily susceptible to erosion2. While earthworms are prized by gardeners as natural tillers, this can have drastic effects on hardwood forests2.

It was important to me to find out where certain earthworms were in the Morgan Arboretum and why they were there. Soils vary in their composition and properties, meaning that some are more suitable for earthworms than others. The goal of my project was to analyze three different soil types (sandy, clay, loam) with regard to earthworm species. I did so by sampling in the three soils and by collecting and analysing the soil using basic soil analyses.

I found no earthworms in the sandy soil over the course of the sampling period, strongly suggesting that no earthworms inhabit sandy soils. Sandy soils are too rough and painful for earthworms to crawl through, therefore they are actively avoided. The clay and loam soils had much higher numbers of individuals, with 9 species each. After statistical testing, it was concluded that there is no significant difference between the two soils and it could be said that they are similar in biodiversity. In addition, a strong correlation between particle density (how dense the soil is) and earthworm abundance was found. As particle density increases, to a certain extent, so does abundance.

Earthworm Sampling

To conclude, my data suggests that the clay and loam soils in the Morgan Arboretum are similar in biodiversity, both supporting an equally diverse number of earthworm species. However, the sandy soil does not contain any earthworms, suggesting that this type of soil is incapable of supporting earthworm activities. This is interesting information for soil management, since, in terms of earthworm abundance and biodiversity, clay and loam soils are similar.

Earthworms are essential ecosystem engineers that change the soil to better suit their lifestyle and this is why they are often studied. Hopefully my story has encouraged readers to respect earthworms a bit more; after all, they do much more than be an excellent fish bait!

 

[1]        Cameron, E. K., Zabrodski, M. W., Karst, J., & Bayne, E. M. (2012). Non-native earthworm influences on ectomycorrhizal colonization and growth of white spruce. Ecoscience, 19(1), 29-37.

[2]        Jouquet, P., Dauber, J., Lagerlöf, J., Lavelle, P., & Lepage, M. (2006). Soil invertebrates as ecosystem engineers: intended and accidental effects on soil and feedback loops. Applied Soil Ecology,  32(2), 153-164.

 

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is coming!

Spring is coming!

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

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

Spring!

It’s near! It’s near!

 

 

 

Studying natural history by stealth

Natural history can be defined as the search for, and description of, patterns in nature. I see natural history research as a more formal and structured approach to studying and recording the natural world. I also see this kind of research as a branch science that is often driven by pure curiosity. Many well-known and popular scientists are naturalists (ever hear of David Attenborough or E.O. Wilson?), and we can see that curiosity is one of the underpinnings of their work and personalities. Natural history research is, without doubt, very important, but in world of academic research, it sure doesn’t headline as pulling in multi-million dollar grants, nor does “natural history” appear in the titles of high profile research papers.

Is there a place for curiosity-driven natural-history research in today’s science? If so, how do we study it in the current climate of research?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research... just because?

Arctic wildflowers. Worthy of research… just because?

This is big question, and one that we grapple with occasionally during my lab meetings. Most recently this came up because I challenged one of my students when they wrote about how important their research was because “…it hadn’t been done before“. In the margin of their work, I wrote “…so what? You need to explain how your work advances the discipline, and the explicit reasons how your research is important independent of whether or not it has been done before“.

Am I wrong? Is it acceptable to justify our research endeavours because they haven’t been done before?

The context matters, of course: some disciplines are very applied, and the funding model may be such that all or most research is directed, project-oriented. The research may have specific deliverables that have importance because of, perhaps, broader policies, stakeholder interests, or needs of industry. In other fields, this is less clear, and when working in the area of biodiversity science, such as I do, we constantly stumble across things that are new because they haven’t been studied before. And a lot of these ‘discoveries’ result from asking some rather basic questions about the natural history or distribution of a species. These are often things that were not part of the original research objectives for a project. Much of natural history research is about discovering things that have never been known before and this may be part of the reason why natural history research isn’t particularly high-profile.

Here are just a few examples of interesting natural history observations from our work in the Arctic:

This is the first time we observed the spider species Pachygnatha clerki on the Arctic islands!

Wow, we now know that an unknown parasitoid species frequently parasitizes the egg sacs of a northern wolf spider species!

Females of this little pseudoscorpion species produce far more offspring than what had been previously documented!

Now, if I wanted to follow-up on any of these observations, I think it’s fair to state that the research would be curiosity-driven, and not necessarily grounded in a theoretical or conceptual framework. It’s the kind of research that can be rather difficult to get funded. It’s also the kind of research that is fulfilling, and a heck of a lot fun.

I'm likin' these lichens. And surely data about them is required...

I’m likin’ these lichens. And surely data about them is required…

How then do you study such fascinating aspects of natural history? How do you get out to the field to just watch stuff; record observations just for the sake of it; spend time tabulating life history parameters of a species just because it’s interesting?

Perhaps you have the luxury of doing natural history research as your full-time job: You may be able to sit back and have people send you specimens from around the world, and maybe go out on an extended collecting trip yourself. You may be lucky enough (and wealthy enough?) to devote serious amounts of time to “think”, measure and record data about species. Perhaps you can even take a long walk each day to mull over your observations. Maybe you will gather enough observations to eventually pull together some generalities and theories, and perhaps you will get around to writing a book or manuscript about this….

Reality check: Most of us don’t have that luxury. Instead, we chase grants, supervise students, do projects that fit in with our unit’s research area, and publish-or-perish in the current model of academic research. Despite how we might long for the “good old days” of academia, they are gone (at least in my discipline). It’s rare that a University Professor or research scientist is hired to do stuff just to satisfy her or his own curiosity.

That main sound depressing to some, and hopeless, but it’s not meant to be. I do believe there are still ways to do exciting and interesting natural history research, and we can call it research by stealth.

In my field of study, establishing a research programs means getting grant money, and these are often aligned with priorities that matter to government, to policy, or to a particular environmental threat such as climate change or invasive species. It’s important to get these grants, and work with students and collaborators to try to solve some of the large and complex problems of the world. I am not advocating avoiding this. Instead, as we move along with these big projects, there are also countless opportunities to do a little natural history research, by stealth. Our first priority may not be the collection of natural history data, but nothing stops us from finding creative ways to make careful and meaningful natural history observations.

When taking a lunch break on the tundra, take a little longer to watch the Bombus flying by, or write down some observations about the bird fauna in your local study site, even if you aren’t an ornithologist. Keep a journal or sketch a few observations while you are sitting in the back of the field truck on that long drive up to the black spruce bogs. Each year, buy a field guide for a different taxon, and learn new stuff alongside your focused project. This ‘spirit’ of natural history observation is one that I promote to my own students, and I encourage them to follow up on some of these as a side-project to their main thesis research. Often, these end up being published, and end up in a thesis, and they certainly end up informing us more about our study species or study area.

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Lunch break on the tundra: an opportunity for natural history observations

Despite writing all of this, I still think my comment in my student’s writing will remain: we have to look at the importance of our research in the context of the bigger picture – it’s not enough to say something is important because it hasn’t been done before, and I’m not sure a PhD thesis can (or should) be entirely based on natural history observation. I would not be doing my job as a supervisor if I promoted curiosity-driven natural history research as the top priority for my student’s projects. To be candid: they won’t get jobs or publish papers in the higher profile journals (i.e., those ones that matter to search committees), and they won’t be well equipped when they leave my lab and head to another institution.

…But I will promote natural history research by stealth.

I think there is loads of room for curiosity-driven natural history research in today’s science. We may need to be creative in how we approach this, but, in the end, it will be worth it. We satisfy our curiosity, and learn a little more about the world along the way. We will also gain perspective and experience, and my students will be well equipped for a future in which natural history research is valued more highly then it is now.