Notes from the field: Yukon wildlife (Part 1)

This is the first of a three-part series that was originally published (as one article) in the McGill Reporter, as part of their “notes from the field” section – it is an account of my research trip to the  Yukon, back in July.  It is reproduced here, with permission.  For a different (yet complementary!) account of this field trip, see The Bug Geek’s blog posts, Part 1 and Part 2.

MSc student Katie Sim searching for wolf spiders in the Yukon, among fields of cottongrass

8 July 2012, 10 PM, The Westmark Hotel, Whitehorse Yukon

Our entomology research team has just arrived in Whitehorse in anticipation of our upcoming fieldwork in the Yukon.  I just returned to my room after enjoying a beer at the hotel bar where we completed our GIANT shopping list this evening. Tomorrow morning we are picking up our RV, and will be driving about 500 km NW of Whitehorse (on paved roads) before turning onto the Dempster Highway – this famous Yukon road is a dusty, gravel road that heads straight up towards the Northwest Territory, crossing the Arctic Circle, and taking you from boreal spruce forests in the south to sub-arctic tundra in the North.  The Dempster crosses the Yukon-Northwest Territory border at about kilometer 465, and then continues on to Inuvik.   It’s a big trip with few opportunities for groceries along the way.  We are all part of the Northern Biodiversity Program – a multi-University collaborative project about the diversity of insects and spiders in Canada’s North.   After months of planning, applying for research permits, and fine-tuning our methods, it is great to finally be here.  That being said, I worry that the excitement and anticipation will keep us too jittery to get a good night’s sleep tonight – too bad since after tonight, we’ll be sleeping in tents rather than hotel rooms!

10 July 2012, 3 PM, Tombstone Campground, km 72 (Dempster Highway), Yukon

We have made it up to the Tombstone mountain range, about 75 km up the Dempster Highway.  Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperative, so we are stuck in the campground, huddling in a cook-shack with other travelers.  Most of the other campers are on vacation, so we are unusual since our trip is for research.  We are also unusual because unlike most visitors to this part of the world, we are NOT viewing large wildlife (bears, moose) but are instead spending our time searching for the tiny wildlife along the Dempster highway.

PhD student Crystal Ernst installing insect traps on the Yukon Tundra

Our team includes two graduate students from my laboratory, Crystal Ernst and Katie Sim.  Crystal has been setting out “pan traps” (yellow bowls) to collect ground-dwelling arthropods (i.e., insects, spiders).  Part of her PhD is about unraveling some of the complexities of arthropod-based food webs in the Arctic, and she is using these traps to collect critters that live on the tundra.  Thankfully, her work does not require good weather!  Katie is working on the population genetics of a high arctic wolf spider, Pardosa glacialis – and she needs some more specimens.  We know that the species occurs near the Yukon-NWT border (in the Richardson mountains), about 300 km north of us.  A post-doc, Dr. Laura Timms, is part of our team also – she studies plant-insect interactions in the North, and is focusing her research on insects that feed on Willow and Balsam Poplar trees.  Our final team member is Dr. Barb Sharanowski, an entomology professor from the University of Manitoba – she is collecting parasitic wasps, with a goal of better understanding their evolution and diversity in northern environments.  Unfortunately, Barb and Laura’s work is dependent on dry and warm weather, so they are hoping for good conditions!

I am here to find a small (< 4 mm) and curious Arachnid known as the “Arctic pseudoscorpion“.  Pseudoscorpions are relatives of other Arachnids, and resemble scorpions, but without a tail.  They are predators (of other invertebrates) that live in soil, leaf-litter, under bark, and under rocks.  The species Wyochernes asiaticus lives under rocks beside creeks and rivers in the Yukon.  It is a Beringian species, meaning it exists in North America in regions that were unglaciated during the last ice age, including many regions in the Yukon. The Dempster Highway travels directly through a lot of these regions.   I have previously collected this species in the Yukon, and on this trip, I am hoping to gather more specimens to further understand its full distribution, and to collect data about its biology and life-history.

This morning, despite the rain, our team traveled to a half-dozen streams further south from this campground, and we had great success in pseudoscorpion hunting!  Numerous specimens were found under rocks beside creeks, including females with their eggs held under their abdomen.

We are now drying out and I am about to finish preparing a seminar that our team will deliver tomorrow at the campsite.  The Tombstone Park staff are keen to have researchers discuss their work with the general public – it’s a nice opportunity to share our research stories with other people traveling the Dempster.  I am always thrilled that all types of audiences show keen interest and enthusiasm about insects and spiders.

Stay tuned…later this week will be Parts 2 and 3

A few reasons to study Arctic entomology

I’m a big fan of the Arctic, and I am on a mission to get more people interested in studying northern ecosystems.  In this post, I wanted to share some of the reasons why:

Poorly understood food-web

Arthropod-based food-webs in the Arctic are largely unknown.  This is a great research opportunity – our laboratory is working on this, and I am trying to put together an Arctic food-web from an arthropod perspective.    My PhD student Crystal Ernst is also thinking a lot about how high Arctic food webs are structured, and has some interesting ideas and thoughts in one of her previous posts.

Some of Crystal’s thinking about high arctic food-webs (reproduced here, with permission)

Look at all those spiders!

As most terrestrial Arctic biologists know, spiders are among the most common of the Arctic animals.  Our lab has documented that wolf spiders on the tundra occur at a high density, and the biology of Arctic wolf spiders is amazing.

An Arctic wolf spider (Lycosidae) female with egg sac, living on scree slopes of high elevation slopes, Bylot Island (Nunavut)

So, if you are an aspiring Arachnologist…head north!

Excellent base-line dat

Arctic Entomology has a long history of excellence.  Canada has been sending entomologist up to the Arctic for decades, perhaps most notably the Northern Insect Survey of the 1940s, 50s and 60s  – some information on that survey can be found here .  There has also been a lot of research at Lake Hazen, at the tip of Ellesmere Island (above 81 degrees N)  – earlier work reports over 200 species of Arthropods up at Hazen and a recent article in the Biological Survey of Canada’s newsletter, found here, does a nice job of summarizing the insect studies at Hazen (including our own work with the Northern Biodiversity Program).  These past studies provide an excellent baseline for current and future projects related to Arctic entomology – and you need a baseline to move forward.

The Arctic is changing

The Arctic is a very fragile and special environment, and one that is changing rapidly, in part because of climate change.  Permafrost is melting, tree-line is changing, glaciers are melting, and plant and animal assemblages are facing dramatic changes to their environments.  We must strive to document, quantify, and study the biology of life in the Arctic, and given the dominance of arthropods (i.e, diversity and abundance) in the north, they are a priority.  The time is NOW for Arctic entomology.

Biting flies:

If you have an interest in biting flies (and many people do, believe it or not!), the Arctic is the place for you.  Emerging from the tundra are thousands of flies, per hectare.  Many of them want your blood, and if they don’t get you during the day, they will be there at the end of the day, in your tent.

A host of biting flies, sitting between my tent and the tent fly. Just waiting for me to exit the tent and have a feast.

…and a couple of other reasons that have less to do with entomology:

Canada = Arctic 

We are a northern country, eh?  However, few of us spend much time in the “REAL” north.  From a biogeographic standpoint, we are a country without roads and people, but with a lot of boreal forest, tundra, and high arctic landscapes.

It is beautiful

The north is stunning; awesome landscapes, vistas that never end, big sky, large rivers, glaciers and mountains.

The stunning landscape of the Yukon Territory (Tombstone range)

Successful Pseudoscorpion Hunting in the Yukon

The Arctic Pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus

I am heading back home after a simply amazing field trip to the Yukon Territory. As mentioned in a previous post, one of the goals of the trip was to collect more specimens of an Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (Family Chernetidae) – a Beringian species known from Siberia, Tibet, and the Yukon. This species survived the last great glaciation event in North America by living in unglaciated regions of the northwest, including parts of the Yukon. In 2008 I had collected this species under rocks beside high elevation and high latitude creeks and rivers in a few locations in the Yukon. On this trip, my goal was to collect more specimens to further assess the distribution of this Beringian species, and to gather more life-history information including estimates of size and fecundity. Because of the relative rarity of pseudoscorpions, few data exist that describe life-history parameters of these arachnids.

Despite some rather wet and cold weather for a lot of the trip, the pseudoscorpion collecting was completely successful – we were able to collect hundreds of specimens, from the south end of the Dempster Highway (approximate latitude 64.3 degrees N) all the way up into the Northwest Territories (>67 degrees N). We collected specimens under rocks in more boreal regions, as well as the upper headwaters of high elevation creeks – some of these less than a metre wide. Here is an example of one of these northern, high elevation creeks in the Northwest Territories, just beyond the Yukon-NWT border:

An Arctic, high-elevation stream in the Northwest Territories: pseudoscorprion country!

To give you some idea of the ease of collecting, here is an example of what you might find when flipping over rocks beside the creeks:

Several Wyochernes asiaticus (Pseudoscorpiones) females (with yellow eggs visible)

I was also able to capture some video of these pseudoscorpions – as far as I am aware, Wyochernes has never before been videotaped, so this is the FIRST EVER movie of this species!

Our larger research goals included more than pseudoscorpion colleting, and I was in the Yukon with a wonderful team of scientists, including my graduate students Crystal Ernst, Katie Sim, a post-doctoral researcher Dr. Laura Timms, and an entomology professor from the University of Manitoba, Dr. Barb Sharanowski. We all had different objectives and goals for the Yukon trip, and over the next couple of weeks. I will post some more research stories from this field-work to give a sense of the scope of our research efforts in the Yukon.

The research team at the Arctic circle (Laura, Katie, Crystal, Barb & Chris)

Hunting Pseudoscorpions in the Yukon

In four days I head off for two weeks of field work in the Yukon.  I’ve written about this stunning place before, and my student Crystal also posted about the upcoming adventure.  Our time will be spent doing some final collections as part of the Northern Biodiversity Program, and I will also be hunting pseudoscorpions.

A selection of Pseudoscorpions

Although I have a fondness for harvestmen and spiders, pseudoscropions are truly fascinating,  and the most curious of the Arachnids.  They are small arachnids ( most are < 5 mm in length) that resemble scorpions, minus the ‘tail’.  They are found around the world (except Antarctica), and although only a few thousand described species, globally, they are morphologically diverse, and beautiful.  Pseudoscorpions are predators of other small invertebrates, and they typically live within leaf-little, soil, tundra or other substrates on the ground.  They are also phoretic, and sometimes found hanging onto the legs or bodies of other insects.   To learn all about the biology of pseudoscorpions, I recommend reading  Weygoldt’s book.

C. Buddle venturing towards Sheep Creek, Yukon, to search for pseudoscropions

I have a longstanding interest in Pseudoscopions from Canada, and keen to obtain more records to increase the distribution notes for Canada’s fauna.  My trip to the Yukon next week will include searching for a fascinating species: Wyochernes asiaticus.    In North America, this species was described as W. arcticus by William Muchmore in 1990, and is considered the most northern pseudoscorpion on this continent.  Muchmore’s paper was based on 6 specimens collected under rocks beside Sheep Creek, Yukon.  When I was in the Yukon in 2008, I went to Sheep Creek, looked under rocks beside the creek and there were hundreds of specimens to be found:

A Wyochernes (Chernetidae) pseudoscorpion, under rocks at Sheep Creek

Later, Muchmore determined that W. arcticus is the same as a species from Asia (W. asiaticus).   So… those of you that know your glacial history are aware that sections of the Yukon remained unglaciated during the last ice age. Quite a number of taxa have been found in that region of the Yukon whose closest relatives are from Siberia and other parts of Asia. They are relicts of the past, and labeled ‘Beringian’ species because of the Beringian land bridge that used to join North America to Asia.    That tiny pseudoscorpion is a perfect and stunning example of a Beringian species – it is known only from Siberia, Mongolia, possibly Tibet, and from a few localities in the Yukon.

You can probably anticipate my excitement – when I was last in the Yukon almost all the dry creek beds up the Dempster Highway hosted Wyochernes asiaticus.  I am most eager to collect more.  I will be collecting them to test some life-history theories,  verify distribution records, and see just how far north this species can be found.  NOTE:  IF YOU ARE THINKING OF DOING YOUR OWN COLLECTIONS IN ARCTIC REGIONS, INCLUDING THE YUKON, YOU NEED A SCIENTIFIC PERMIT TO DO SO.  You cannot collect in these parts of the world without authorization.  This makes sense-the beauty of the North cannot be taken for granted and needs to be studied with caution:

The Yukon.

As you can guess, the Dempster highway is a rather isolated and remote region.  I will not likely be posting again until after my return. Later in July, I do hope to share some more research stories with you…and I can pretty much guarantee there will be discussions about pseudoscorpions!

References: 

Buddle, C.M. 2010. Photographic key to the Pseudoscorpions of Canada and the adjacent USA. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 10, 03 February 2010, available online at http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/bsc/ejournal/b_10/b_10.htmldoi:10.3752/cjai.2010.10.

Muchmore, W.B. (1990). A pseudoscorpion from arctic Canada (Pseudoscorpionida, Chernetidae) Canadian Journal of Zoology, 68 (2), 389-390 DOI: 10.1139/z90-055

Muchmore, W.B. (1996). On the occurrence of Wyochernes in Asia (Pseudoscorpionida: Chernetidae).  Bulletin of the British Arachnological Society 10(6): 215-217.  Link

Life History of Arctic Wolf Spiders: Part 1

For those of you who follow my blog, you will notice I’m somewhat obsessed with the Arctic – in part because of our large Northern Biodiversity Program, but also because it’s an ideal  system for studying the ecology of arthropods.    It also doesn’t hurt that the Arctic is a beautiful place to work!

The northern Yukon landscape: spider habitat

I am very excited to write about the latest paper published from our laboratory, titled Life history of tundra-dwelling wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) from the Yukon Territory, Canada.  This has just recently been published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, with Dr. Joseph Bowden as the lead author.  Dr. Bowden graduate from my laboratory just over a year ago, and is now living in California with his family.  Although the climate is somewhat warmer in California compared to the Yukon, he’s still actively working on research related to the biology of Arctic arthropods.   Dr. Bowden was a terrific student in my laboratory, and has already published some work about the community ecology of Arctic spiders: he has one paper in the journal Arctic and another in Ecoscience.

Dr. Joseph Bowden, working in the Yukon and ready for the biting flies!

In the CJZ paper, Joseph studied three species of tundra-dwelling  wolf spiders (family Lycosidae) and asked whether body size or condition better explained variation in fecundity and relative reproductive effort (defined as the ratio of female body mass to clutch mass).  He also tested whether  a trade-off exists between investment in offspring size and number.  The field work for this research was really enjoyable, as it involved collecting spiders by visual surveys and dry pitfall traps – after collection, Joseph set up a laboratory in a local campground shelter to do measurements on the species:

Dr. Joseph Bowden in a Northern “laboratory”

One of the main findings was that body size explained well the variation in offspring number.  Stated another way, larger female wolf spiders produced more eggs, a finding well supported in the literature.   A second main finding was that females with a lower condition allocated relatively more to offspring production than did females in better condition. This makes some sense – if the going is tough (i.e., poor condition), the females primary objective (from a fitness perspective) is to invest in offspring.  A third key finding was that  we found a negative relationships between egg size and number.    These trade-offs may in part be because of variation in resource availability at some of the study sites in the Yukon tundra.

An Arctic Pardosa (Lycosidae) female, with egg sac

Joseph also calculated tundra wolf spider densities.  Here’s the text of the CJZ paper that describes the methods (straightforward but time consuming):

Densities of the three focal species were estimated using a ring of hard plastic measuring 1.13 m in diameter (1 m x 1 m area) and about 12 cm high. The ring was haphazardly and firmly placed on the tundra surface in each site and all wolf spiders collected inside the ring were identified and counted. This protocol was adapted from Buddle (2000).

Results? Well… the most common species Pardosa  lapponica averaged about 0.4 spiders per square metre.  Some simple calculations will tell you just how common wolf spiders are on the Tundra:  4000 wolf spiders per hectare.  Don’t forget – wolf spiders are only part of the Arachno-fauna in the Arctic.  With confidence, this estimate of 4000 spiders per hectare represents a minimum.  There are a LOT of Arachnids living on the tundra!

In sum, this paper by Joseph is about studying some good old-fashioned natural history of a fascinating group of animals.  The methods are straightforward, but the findings are significant.  It’s pretty difficult to progress in ecology without a deep understanding of a species’ biology and life-history.  Life-history studies are the cornerstone of biology, and I’m thrilled that Joseph recognized that fact and did this research on Arctic wolf spiders.

    You will see that this post is titled Part 1:  some more work will hopefully be published soon – stay tuned for Part 2…

References

Bowden, J., & Buddle, C. (2012). Life history of tundra-dwelling wolf spiders (Araneae: Lycosidae) from the Yukon Territory, Canada Canadian Journal of Zoology, 90 (6), 714-721 DOI: 10.1139/z2012-038

Bowden, J., & Buddle, C. (2010). Determinants of Ground-Dwelling Spider Assemblages at a Regional Scale in the Yukon Territory, Canada Ecoscience, 17 (3), 287-297 DOI: 10.2980/17-3-3308

Buddle, C. (2000). LIFE HISTORY OF PARDOSA MOESTA AND PARDOSA MACKENZIANA (ARANEAE, LYCOSIDAE) IN CENTRAL ALBERTA, CANADA Journal of Arachnology, 28 (3), 319-328 DOI: 10.1636/0161-8202(2000)028[0319:LHOPMA]2.0.CO;2

Bowden, J. & Buddle, C. (2010). Spider assemblages across elevational and latitudinal gradients in the Yukon Territory, Canada.  Arctic 63(3): 261-272 http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/view/1490

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Professors take the summer off (another myth of Academia….)

The academic term is over, and so are my teaching duties (until September).  This is the time of year that I sometimes get asked how I am going to spend my summer off from work.  Many people think that Professors teach University classes and then sit back and relax for four months every summer – Oh, we may wander in to work now and then, do some ‘critical thinking’, muse poetically about society and our place in it, but by in large, the summer is for leisure time, long lunches, vacation, and recovery after that tough eight months of teaching.

                 WRONG! 

For a Professor at a University with a research focus in addition to teaching duties, the summer is for making significant progress on research.  For a field biologist, such as myself, summer is often the busiest time of year.  Studying animals outside (in Northern countries) means that we must cram a lot of work into four short months!  Quite often we also work on grant applications (many of these are due in the early Autumn), and without grants, our research programs will fail.  Yes, the summer offers some flexibility, but it certainly isn’t all leisure – a lot of work must get done and the expectations are high.

Dorothy showing off some excellent “single rope technique” for accessing maple tree canopies

In my laboratory this summer, Dorothy Maguire (who did pass her comprehensive examination successfully – congratulations, Dorothy) will be doing her second summer of field work on her PhD project about the effects of forest fragmentation on hebivory (by insects) in the Montérégie.  This project is done in collaboration with Dr. Elena Bennett’s research team (and Elena is Dorothy’s co-supervisor).  This work is very exciting and novel, in part because Dorothy is putting this work in the context of “ecosystem services”  -i.e., the various services that humans get from ecosystems.  Insects feed on trees, and trees are valuable to humans, so the linkages between insect herbivores and ecosystem services are important to study, especially in the context of fragmented forests of SW Quebec.

We also have a field team heading up to the Yukon Territory to finish some field collections in the context of the Northern Biodiversity Program.  Katie, Crystal, and Laura will be collecting spiders, beetles, parasitoids (& more) along the Dempster Highway (one of the most beautiful places on the planet).

The Dempster Highway, Yukon.

To help us prepare for the summer, we must first clean up our messy lab. As is tradition in the Arthropod Ecology Laboratory, spring cleaning happened this past week.  We put on a brave face, tackle all the dark corners of the laboratory, throw out unlabelled material, clean the desks and discover quite a number of surprises.   A couple of lovely finds this year included an unlabeled 10 lb bag of soil at the bottom of a fridge (yikes!), and a colony of Collembola (springtails) from 2003!! (there was no evidence of life within that jar, yikes again!):

Crystal and Raphael laughing about the ‘unknown’ bag of soil.

Springtime is therefore an exciting time in the lab, and as an Academic at McGill,  it’s an important period of transition from a teaching focus to a research focus.  I certainly do take my official vacation time in the summer, but in addition to that time, the summer months are busy and (hopefully) productive.   Remarkably, I can also find time to use a microscope again  – this is a rare event, as this post describes.  Want proof?  Here you go:

Chris Buddle actually doing laboratory work. Wonders never cease.

The Arctic Circle

On Tues, 10 January, PhD student Crystal Ernst delivered a talk entitled, “Arctic Arthropod Ecology and the Northern Biodiversity Program”, at the annual general meeting of the Arctic Circle, a group of Arctic researchers and aficionados that meets monthly in Ottawa, Ontario.

The talk provided some background information on the importance of arthropods to biodiversity and in ecological research, and some examples of recent changes in the biodiversity of arthropods in northern Canada were explored. There was a discussion of the history of arthropod collection efforts in the Arctic, including the Northern Insect Survey of the mid-1900s. The presentation finished with an overview of the research being undertaken by the Northern Biodiversity Program and some interesting data coming out of an 8-week study of the beetle fauna in Kugluktuk, Nunavut (part of Crystal’s PhD research).

The 45-minute presentation was very well received by an enthusiastic audience of 50+; many thoughtful questions were asked at the end (and again after the meeting had been formally concluded!). Crystal was grateful for the opportunity to work on her lecturing skills with such a receptive group and has been invited to return with an update at a future meeting!