What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

Pyramids of species richness

This post is written by PhD student Shaun Turney, and highlights a recent publication from the lab.

Two years ago, I was finishing my MSc and considering whether I’d like to do a PhD, and if so, with whom. I met with Chris and we threw around a few ideas for PhD projects. It was when he brought up a certain mystery that my decision to do a PhD in his lab was cemented. The mystery? Chris and his former PhD student Crystal Ernst were puzzled why there seem to be so many carnivores on the Arctic tundra, and relatively few herbivores to feed them.

How could it be possible? Is there a high level of cannibalism? (But then it would be like pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps — how does the energy and biomass enter the carnivore population in the first place?) Are the carnivores really omnivores? Is our methodology for sampling the tundra biota biased towards carnivores? Is the transfer of energy from herbivores to carnivores somehow more efficient (less energy loss) than in other ecosystems? These sorts of questions touch on some fundamental questions in ecology and I was hooked.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

It seemed to me the logical first step would be to find out what is a typical predator-prey ratio. In what proportions are the organisms in an ecosystem divided up from plant (lowest trophic level) to top predator (highest trophic level)? The answer to that questions has already been very much explored when it comes to biomass and abundance. Charles Elton explained about 80 years ago that typically the mass and number of organisms form “pyramids”: They decrease with trophic level because energy is lost with each transfer from resource to consumer. But what about diversity? How does the number of species change with trophic level?

I decided to look at the food webs in the data base GlobalWeb to answer this question, and we just published a paper in Oikos on this topic. I found that typically ecosystems form “pyramids of species richness”, just like the pyramid of numbers and pyramid of biomass described by Elton. But some types of ecosystems, notably in terrestrial ecosystems, we can consistently observe a uniform distribution or even an “upside-down pyramid” rather than a pyramid like Elton described. That is, there are consistently cases where there more carnivore species than herbivore species in an ecosystem.

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

So evidently, at least when it comes to diversity, the pattern that Chris has observed in the tundra is not so unusual! The next step for me is to try to figure out why. Stay tuned!

Reference:

Turney S and CM Buddle. Pyramids of species richness: the determinants and distribution of species diversity across trophic levels. Oikos. DOI: 10.1111/oik.03404

 

Bog spiders: family composition and sex ratios

This is the second post by Honour’s undergraduate student Kamil Chatila-Amos – he has been busy working on identifying LOTS of spiders from bogs of northern Quebec. His first blog post introduced his project: this one gives a glimpse into the data…

My project is focused on studying spiders from bogs in the James Bay region of Quebec. Five bogs along the James Bay highway were sampled with pan traps every week for four sampling periods. In the full project I’m looking at how abiotic factors (i.e. pH, water table, latitude, etc.) and the plant community affect the arachnid community composition. For now, let’s look at how the spider families are distributed in these sites:

bogSpidersThe first thing that might strike you if you are familiar with the area and its spider fauna is that in 4 out of 5 sites, neither Lycosidae (wolf spiders) nor Linyphiidae (subfamily Erigoninae) are the most abundant family. Previous studies in similar habitats tend to find a much greater proportion of those two taxa (Aitchison-Benell 1994; Koponen 1994). All sites except the first have more Gnaphosids than Lycosids. However, the breakdown within families is very different. Whereas the Lycosids are represented by 19 species, there were only five species within the Gnaphosidae. Even more impressive is that one Gnaphosidae species represents 99% of the family. Indeed, Gnaphosa microps alone represents a fifth of all arachnids I collected.

I’ve come to like Gnaphosa microps a lot! The family Gnaphosidae is pretty easy to identify thanks to their long and separate spinnerets, colour and eye placement. Even the palps, which are unique to species, are fairly easy to recognize. It ranges in size from 5.4 – 7.1 millimeters which is a large enough size so it isn’t a hassle to manipulate.

Gnaphosa microps, seen from above. Photo from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario through Barcode of Life Data Systems

Gnaphosa microps, seen from above. Photo from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario through Barcode of Life Data Systems

Gnaphosa microps is by no means a star of the spider world but we still know a fair bit about it. It is a holarctic species meaning it can be found in almost all of the northern hemisphere, even as far as Turkey (Seyyar et al. 2008). It is usually found in in open boreal forests, alluvial meadows and bogs. A nocturnal species, it spends its days in a silk retreat under moss or debris and hunts at night by catching prey on the ground (Ovcharenko et al. 1992). Even though sampling has been done very near my sites and in similar habitats (Koponen 1994) I still haven’t found another study where it was the most abundant species.

Another interesting tidbit about this species is just how skewed their sex ratio is. According to my data, males outnumber females almost 10 to 1! Now this does not mean it is always like this in nature, this ratio can be explained by sexually dimorphic behavior. This means that the males would behave differently than females in a way that would increase their odds of falling into traps. Indeed, according to Vollrath and Parker (1992) spider species with sedentary females have smaller, roving males. And like their model predicts the G. microps males are a bit smaller than the females.

Sex ratio of Gnaphosa microps, collected in bogs

Sex ratio of Gnaphosa microps, collected in bogs

 

So what’s next? I still need to retrieve the COI barcode of all my species and that will be possible thanks to the University of Guelph’s Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. This is to make sure my identifications are indeed correct. As a first time spider taxonomist it’s great to be able to confirm my work in a way that still is not widely available. Today I received the plate in which I’ll load the spider tissue and I am amazed at how tiny it is. I guess they just need 2mm per spider but I still expected it to be much more impressive. Hopefully I don’t get any nasty surprises once the DNA data comes back, although some of those tiny Linyphiids did give me a pretty bad headache…

Vouchers

References:

Aitchison-Benell CW. 1994. Bog Arachnids (Araneae, Opiliones) From Manitoba Taiga. Mem. Entomol. Soc. Canada 126:21–31.

Koponen S. 1994. Ground-living spiders, opilionids, and pseudoscorpions of peatlands in Quebec. Mem. Entomol. Soc. Canada 126:41–60.

Ovcharenko VI, Platnick NI, Sung T. 1992. A review of the North Asian ground spiders of the genus Gnaphosa (Araneae, Gnaphosidae). Bull. Am. Museum Nat. Hist. 212:1-92

Seyyar O, Ayyıldız N, Topçu A. 2008. Updated Checklist of Ground Spiders (Araneae: Gnaphosidae) of Turkey, with Zoogeographical and Faunistic Remarks. Entomol. News 119:509–520.

Vollrath F, Parker GA. 1992. Sexual dimorphism and distorted sex ratios in spiders. Nature 360:156–159.

Insect herbivory in fragmented forests: it’s complicated

I’m excited to announce a recent paper to come out of the lab, by former PhD student Dorothy Maguire, and with Dr. Elena Bennett. In this work, we studied the amount of insect herbivory in forest patches in southern Quebec: the patches themselves varied by degree of fragmentation (ie, small versus large patches) and by connectivity (ie, isolated patches, or connected to other forest patches). We studied herbivory on sugar maple trees, both in the understory and canopy, and at the edges of the patches. Our research is framed in the context of “ecosystem services” given that leaf damage by insects is a key ecological process in deciduous forests, and can affect the broader services that forest patches provide, from supporting biodiversity through to aesthetic value. Dorothy’s research was part of a larger project about ecosystem services and management in the Montérégie region of Quebec.

 

Maguire_Canopy.JPG

Dorothy Maguire sampling insects in the tree canopy (Photo by Alex Tran)

The work was tremendously demanding, as Dorothy had to select sites, and within each site sample herbivory at multiple locations, including the forest canopy (done with the “single rope technique). Dorothy returned to sites many times over the entire summer to be able to assess trends over time. Herbivory itself was estimated as damage to leaves, so after the field season was completed, thousands of leaves were assessed for damage. The entire process was repeated over two years. Yup: doing a PhD requires a suite of skills in the field and lab, and there is no shortage of mind-numbing work… Dedication is key!

As with most research, we had high hopes that the results would be clear, convincing, and support our initial predictions – we certainly expected that forest fragmentation and isolation in our study landscape would have a strong effect on herbivory – after all, our study forests varied dramatically in size and isolation, and herbivory is a common and important ecological process, and insect herbivores are known (from the literature) to be affected by fragmentation.

 

QuebecLandscape

The landscape of southern Quebec. Lots of agriculture, some patches of forest.

 

However, as with so much of ecological research, the results were not straightforward! “It’s complicated” become part of the message: patterns in herbivory were not consistent across years, and there were interactions between some of the landscape features and location within each patch. For example, canopies showed lower levels of herbivory compared to the understory, but only in isolated patches, and only in one of the study years! We also found that edges had less herbivory in connected patches, but only in the first year of the study. Herbivory also increased as the season progressed, which certainly makes biological sense.

So yes, it’s complicated. At first glance, the results may appear somewhat underwhelming, and the lack of a strong signal could be viewed as disappointing. However, we see it differently: we see it as more evidence that “context matters” a great deal in ecology. It’s important not to generalize about insect herbivory based on sampling a single season, or in only one part of a forest fragment. The story of insect herbivory in forest fragments can only be told if researchers look up to the canopy and out to the edges; the story is incomplete when viewed over a narrow time window. In the broader context of forest management and ecosystem services, we certainly have evidence to support the notion that herbivory is affected by the configuration of the landscape. But, when thinking about spatial scale and ecosystem processes, careful attention to patterns these processes “within” forest patches is certainly required.

We hope this work will inspire others to think a little differently about insect herbivory in forest fragments. Dorothy’s hard work certainly paid off, and although the story is complicated, it’s also immensely informative and interesting, and sheds light on how big landscapes relate to small insects eating sugar maple leaves.

Reference:

Maguire et al. 2016: Within and among patch variability in patterns of insect herbivory across a fragmented forest landscape. PlosOne DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150843

 

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

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

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

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

The European Snout Beetle on a pin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Tips for managing a research lab

Running a research lab* isn’t easy. I learned this the hard way last fall when I performed rather poorly on my lab safety inspection. At the time it seemed to be a low priority: cleaning up the lab always seemed less important compared to, for example, having a lab meeting. We have since done a major lab clean-up, and we are back on track (phew!), but the experience has made me think about the skills needed to run a lab. Hopefully this is of interest to some of you, especially early career researchers (ECRs), but I would also like experienced researchers to wade with comments and tips. This post will be more about the “nuts and bolts” of running a lab, but perhaps a future post can be about broader philosophies around being the head of a research lab.

CleanLab

Part of my lab – AFTER cleaning.

Human resources

There are people in a lab. This means, as the head of a lab, you need to pay attention to human resources. This might be practical kind of stuff, like signing expense reports, or making sure students are getting paid when they are supposed to. But there are also many more complex things to think about, such as helping resolve arguments, or helping students through difficulties. You need to learn to listen, you need to navigate social dynamics, and be a good communicator. Make your expectations clear, and be sure that everyone is well aware of their roles and responsibilities. Work on ways to have a productive AND fun lab. Be sensitive to everyone’s different needs, and be open to change – operate on a principle of kindness. You will likely find yourself navigating some tricky situations so be sure to get help when you need it: there may be training available, or perhaps ask your Chair or a colleague about advice on being a good manager of human resources.

Organization

Running a lab is very much about being organized. There has to be a “plan” for all the different supplies, and space for everyone to store their samples, find the ethanol, or grab new Petri dishes. From the start it’s important to think about space needs in the long-term – anticipate how the lab might change in the future, and make sure there is room to grow. People need to feel that they have a “home” in the lab, whether it’s a desk or piece of a lab bench, and this requires careful assessment of space. I personally struggle with sample storage, and seem to squeeze old samples into various drawers, with a promise of getting rid of them (or putting them in long-term storage) after students have published their work. That promise is mostly broken, as it it easier to just store stuff and forget about it. ECRs: avoid this mistake! Stuff accumulates far too quickly. Be sure to label things too, including where to put supplies.

OrganizedLab

Safety and training

Don’t drink from the beakers; broken glass is dangerous. Stay on top of the safety rules at your institution: it’s easy to miss those emails, but as I learned, they are important. Top-down guidance about safety will show the lab members that safety is a priority not an afterthought. Know where to store chemicals, know about the eye wash stations, and make sure the first aid kit is stocked and ready. Know what needs to get stored where, and be ready when there is a call for hazardous waste disposal. Learn about MSDS, and be on top of the chemicals that may be present in your lab. As the head of a lab, you are indeed responsible for making sure your lab members have the appropriate training in the context of lab safety: whether it be WHIMIS, research ethics, or wilderness first aid, get your students signed up, and pay for the training. Don’t shirk this essential responsibility.

LabSafetyTweet.JPG

Permits

As the head of a lab, your name will likely be on all the research permits, and depending on your field of study, this can be a very big deal, and complicated. From collecting permits to animal care to biohazards, you need to guide your students through the permit process, from application to final reports. You have to be aware of deadlines, and know the ins and outs of the different requirements, especially when your work might cross jurisdictions. This can take an inordinate amount of time, but it requires the time commitment: lacking a permit can stall an entire research program. It’s essential to be proactive and prepared for permits. I certainly get my students to write the bulk of their own research permits, but a manager of a lab needs to facilitate this process.

Budgets and supplies

Running a lab means making sure there is a budget (i.e., you need a research grant!) to buy light bulbs for the microscope, flagging tape for field work, or medium for the agar plates. You need the money, and you need to know the process. The latter is not trivial: at my University some supplies are best bought using an internal purchasing system. Other places need just a credit card, or perhaps a purchase order. There are so many systems to learn, and each one probably needs a different password. It’s confusing and frustrating, and you have to stay on top of it. I keep a special file with all the details written out, and a hard-copy folder with old invoices – this way I can make sure to but the right sizes of things. Consistency is supplies is rather important!

Troubleshooting

Here are some things that have occurred in my lab over the years: weird smells from the sink. Lack of heat. Leaks from the ceiling. Power failures. Spider escapes**. Failing fridge. Failing freezer.

And the list goes on… Running a lab can be a lot about troubleshooting – you need to figure out who to call for what problem, and find a speedy resolution – otherwise you let down your grad students. Make a list of key people to get to know, from facilities to the local safety officer. Even better, post the list up in the lab, next to the telephone.

 

Ok, so there are certainly more things to know about running a lab, but hopefully the list provided is a start. Here’s the catch: almost everything I learned about running a lab was learned on the job. Despite attending some required workshops at the start of my career, I did not learn any real skills about running a lab. I was not trained to run a lab. Scientists must be taught to manage a lab.

That is a problem because a failure to run a lab properly has significant consequence for a lot of people! My students depend on the supplies that I have to buy, and they need to know what to do if there’s a chemical spill. Thankfully I had some good mentors when I was a grad student, and I managed to figure a lot of things out. However, I do think Universities need to do a better job helping hone the skills needed to run a lab; in many research fields, a successful academic career really depends on having a smooth-running lab, anything that can be done to help prepare ECRs for this would pay off.

In sum, I’m certainly a work in progress. Although I have some skills in research, I know that running a lab can be a real challenge for me, whether it’s forgetting to order supplies or checking the eyewash station weekly. I have learned to delegate a bit, and my grad students help me immensely at maintaining a safe and clean lab environment. I sure hope some of you can learn a bit from my own trials and tribulations… And please educate yourself, plan ahead, and know what it takes to run a lab well before you get the keys.

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Here are some other resources I’ve come across, related to managing a lab: from Genome Web, ASBMB, a post by Matt Welsh, and a Reddit thread on the topic

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**Sometimes we work with live spiders, on various projects. There have been times when they haven’t been where we left them. Oops.

Bog spiders: a serendipitous research project

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

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

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

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

Kamil_Yurt

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

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

Kamil_Sweeping.jpg

Ready for some serious bog-sweeping.

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

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

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

Kamil_Microscope

Kamil hard at work in the lab!

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

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

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

Summer in the trees: Undergrad research on canopy spiders and beetles

Note: this post is written by undergraduate Honour’s student Jessica Turgeon, who is a member of the arthropod ecology laboratory. This post is part of the requirements for her project, and is an introduction to her research.

I’ve always been interested in nature and the environment but was never a big fan of insects. As time went on and I learned to appreciate all organisms big and small I realized that I didn’t really have a preferred “pet taxon” but rather was interested in ecology and community structure. I found others that my interests were shared with other members of the arthropod ecology lab, and I was able to start an Honour’s project in the lab earlier this fall.

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

Using a beat-sheet in the tree canopy, to collect arthropods

I was given an opportunity to do an internship at Kenauk Nature, a 65,000-acre plot of land near Montebello, Quebec. This property is primarily used for the hunting and fishing industries, but they are branching into scientific research. Kenauk was keen to support three McGill interns to complete the Black Maple project, the pilot project for Kenauk Institute.

The Black Maple project revolves around black maples, since Kenauk is the only area in Quebec to have a black maple stand. The project consisted of three sub-projects, one for each intern and each project dealing with a different taxon. While the two other students worked on plants and birds, my project was about arthropods and their diversity in Kenauk. We wanted to characterise the community structures of beetles and spiders based on vertical stratification and tree species: this involved tree-climbing!

Jessica - getting ready to climb up!

Jessica – getting ready to climb up!

During the summer, I looked at abundance data and concluded that beetles were more abundant in the upper canopy and that spiders were more abundant in the understorey. This internship transitioned into my Honour’s project, where I plan to look at species richness and functional diversity to answer my questions on community assemblages. To my knowledge, this has never been done at Kenauk Nature and would provide great baseline data for the owners of the property.

We sampled in three sites, each containing three trees. Each site had one sugar maple (Acer saccharum), one black maple (Acer nigrum) and one American basswood (Tilia americana). Within each tree we sampled five times: twice in the understorey, once in the middle canopy and twice in the upper canopy. We also used two different types of traps: beat sheets, an active technique, and Lindgren funnels, a passive technique. Both trap types are specialized, with beating more tailored towards spiders and Lindgren funnels invented to collect beetles. When beating a branch, the arthropods fall on a 1m2 sheet and are then collected whereas Lindgren funnels are hung in a tree and passively collect arthropods that fly into it.

LindgrenFunnel

As part of our job, we learned how to use a single ropes climbing system, a one-person method of using ropes to climb a tree. All three interns caught on quickly and it easily became our favourite part of the job. However, we did have to sort through the samples, a job requirement that wasn’t nearly as fun as climbing trees. But this is what happens in ecology: you romp around in the woods to collect your data then spend time in the lab analysing them. It was nice to experience this first-hand and I must say, I liked it and am looking forward to future projects like this.

Now that the summer is over and collection is completed, I spend all of my free time in the lab identifying beetles and spiders. All of the beetles are identified and about half of the spiders are identified. From this work, Kenauk Nature can proudly say that the property supports 24 families representing 117 species of beetles! Once the Kenauk Institute officially launches, more rigorous research can be done to try and increase these numbers.

Learning Taxonomy... spider drawings (of male palps) help.

Learning Taxonomy… spider drawings (of male palps) help.

All in all, from the sampling in the summer to the identification in the lab, this has been a great experience. Here’s to hoping the second half of my honours project will be as equally fun and challenging as the first half was! Stay tuned for a blog post to be published in the spring of 2016: it will summarize the main results from this Honour’s project.

Heating, cooling, and trying to drown Arctic pseudoscorpions

The Beringian Arctic pseudoscorpion is a charming Arachnid, living under rocks near sub-arctic rivers and streams, in primarily unglaciated parts of the Yukon. It has captured my fascinating for years, and the story of its natural history is starting to unfold. However, some fundamentals about the biology of Wyochernes asiaticus remain unknown: as the most northern pseudoscorpion in North America, how does it survive in such cold climates? How is it adapted to frequent flooding that occurs in its primary habitat, next to streams and rivers?

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

The Arctic pseudoscorpion, Wyochernes asiaticus

Science is a collaborative process, and I teamed up with two thermal biologists to start to answer some of these physiological questions. PhD student Susan Anthony and Prof. Brent Sinclair*, both from Western University in Ontario, came to the Yukon with us last summer, and together we collected pseudoscorpions at Sheep Creek, just north of the Arctic Circle. Part of Susan’s PhD research is about the thermal biology of Arachnids, so Susan and Brent wanted to see what we could learn about Arctic pseudoscorpions. They brought the wee arachnids back to Ontario, and Susan ran a series of experiments, resulting in a recent publication (in Polar Biology).

Susan Anthony and Brent Sinclair, both from Western University.

Susan Anthony and Brent Sinclair, both from Western University.

The experiments may sound a little cruel, but they are the standard approach when studying some of the cold tolerance, thermal biology and physiology of arthropods. Susan heated up and cooled down the critters, and discovered that they can survive up to about 38 degrees Celsius, and down to about -7 degrees Celsius. The upper threshold is relatively low compared to other arthropods, which makes sense since W. asiaticus lives at high latitudes. Because the specimens didn’t survive freezing, we know it’s ‘freeze avoidant’ rather than ‘freeze tolerant’. This is aligns with what we know from many other northern (or southern! i.e, in the Antarctic) arthropods. Presumably the pseudoscorpions adapt to the north by being able to supercool, or perhaps by cryoprotective dehydration,. However, its lower threshold isn’t that low, given the extreme cold winter temperatures in the Yukon. But since our collections were in the mid-summer, this might mean it’s not yet started to adapt, physiologically, for the colder winter conditions.

The next experiments involved immersing the pseudoscorpions in water and seeing how long they survive. This was done because we were very curious to know how these tiny animals might live in habitats that flood frequently. Amazingly, 50 percent of the arachnids survived under water for up to 17 days (!), and after testing with de-oxygenated water, Susan had a similar result: they certainly weren’t relying on oxygen in the water for breathing. Susan did notice, however, that they appeared to have a silvery bubble or ‘film’ around their bodies when immersed so we assume they used this air bubble for breathing during the immersion period, something known from other arachnids.

Sheep Creek, Yukon - a habitat that frequently floods: now we know how the tiny Arachnids survive the flooding!

Sheep Creek, Yukon – a habitat that frequently floods: now we know how the tiny Arachnids survive the flooding!

Putting this in the context of the pseudoscorpion’s habitat in the Yukon: it seems that the sub-arctic rivers in the Yukon typically flood for periods up to 10 days, in the spring. Our little arachnid likely just hunkers down in their habitats under rocks, breathing from air trapped around its body, waiting for floodwaters to recede.

I’m very excited about this paper, in part because of what we have learned that links the ecology of the species to its physiology. I’m also excited because this work represents a major advancement in the fundamental knowledge about Arachnids. Our work is the first to uncover any basic biology related to the physiological adaptations of pseudoscorpions to cold/heat and to immersion tolerance.

This is kind of stunning: the Pseudoscorpiones are an entire Order of Arachnids, yet nobody has ever worked to figure out how they adapt, physiologically, to extreme environmental conditions. AN ENTIRE ORDER! And it’s 2015! An analogy would be figuring out that some butterflies (Order Lepidoptera) bask in the sun, to thermoregulate. Or, like figuring out how ducks (Order: Anseriformes) don’t freeze their feet when standing on ice. These are ‘textbook’ examples of thermal biology and physiology – such facts could be considered common knowledge. Yet looking to the Arachnids, the story of the thermal biology of pseudoscorpions has only just begun. One paper at a time, we will continue to make progress.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion: it has stories to tell. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion: it has stories to tell. Photo by C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission.

As Tschinkel & Wilson state, every species has an epic tale to tell. Even tiny arachnids that live under rocks above the Arctic circle are proving interesting for many scientific disciplines: each chapter of its story is starting to unfold, and I’m quite sure there are a lot of very interesting chapters still to come.

Reference:

Anthony, S.E., C.M. Buddle and B.J. Sinclair. 2015. Thermal biology and immersion tolerance of the Beringian pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus. Polar Biology.

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*A sincere thanks to Brent and Susan for including me on this paper, and for being willing to come to the Yukon with our team, to do collaborative research. I’ve learned a great deal in the process, and am delighted that partnerships between ecologists and physiologists can work out so well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

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

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