Careful what you say in lecture: a tale of tweets, ice-storms in Quebec, and population ecology

While discussing age pyramids in my ecology class last week, I mentioned that there was a mini baby-boom in Quebec following the 1998 ice storm. In other words, after an extended period of time without electricity, more babies were conceived.  This is one of those ‘urban myth‘ stories for which I had no data to actually discuss whether this was fact or fiction, but it was mildly amusing, and certainly related to the discussion we were having about population ecology and the effect of the baby-boom generation on Canadian demographics.

I expected this story to stop there, but a savvy student in my lecture tweeted what I had said (yes, there are definitely pros and cons of being an active participant in social media, including twitter).  I was being called out, publicly, about my casual comment in lecture.  This forced me to look to the data and test my hypothesis that the birth rate in Quebec may have been higher after the ice storm of 1998.

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Data required?  Yearly population estimates of areas affected by the ice storm (i.e., numbers of females), and number of births in these regions.

Thankfully, these data were readily available.  However, not all data were tabulated in the same way by geographic region in the Province.  This meant that I had to narrow down the region to just the island of Montreal (thankfully one of the more populated parts of the province).    I took the number of births, divided by the number of females to get a per-capita rate of births per female per year in Montreal, and I looked at the years from 1997 through to 2000.

I predicted that if my hypothesis was true, birth rates would be higher in late 1998, therefore if data were collected properly, the ‘boom’ in births would likely be in that year (…or possibly in 1999).

Here are the results:

1997: 0.012 (babies born / female)

1998: 0.012 (babies born / female)

1999: 0.011 (babies born / female)

2000: 0.011 (babies born / female)

So, the data do not support the hypothesis that the ice storm resulted in a higher rate of births in Montreal.

Caveats?  There are a lot.  I have made quite a few assumptions, and my methods are partially flawed… I do expect students in my class to think about this…

Two other points to mention:

First, while searching for information about population-level effects of the ice storm, I came across a McGill press release about how babies born during the ice storm may be stressed later in life – Interesting!  And also somewhat counterintuitive to what I originally proposed in lecture.

Second, (and less related), we must be wary of these myths – they pop up all over the place (e.g. increase in births after the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey?), but without a more detailed look at the data, we must be careful what we say.  Thankfully the urban myth about mini-baby booms and power outages are debunked with some regularity.

In sum, I learned an important lesson. Careful what you say in lecture.

…and thank you to my student who forced me to look more carefully into the story of the ‘ice storm babies’

We need the Taxonomy Hulk

The Taxonomy Hulk burst onto twitter yesterday. We need superheroes like Taxonomy Hulk. As his/her alter ego, s/he surfs the internet, working away as a taxonomist, doing things that taxonomists do – describing species, inferring their evolutionary relationships, discovering their natural history. However, if s/he spots a taxonomic mistake on a website, news story, scientific article, or blog – LOOK OUT. The Hulk goes through an impressive metamophosis. S/he gets mad and gets even. If you make a taxonomic mistake, you will be shamed. Message: DON’T MAKE A #TAXONOMYFAIL. Taxonomy Hulk points out misidentifications in images (e.g., see this website with a Harvestmen instead of a spider.. oops [although a common mistake]).

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Taxonomy Hulk reminds us to use Latin names, not common names.

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Taxonomy Hulk is also funny. We need humour – every day.

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On a slightly more serious note: correct taxonomy is critically important. Other posts (e.g., see here or here) have pointed out taxonomic failures – and I especially like Bug Girl’s Flickr set!. One letter difference in Miridae (a family of plant bugs) gets you to Muridae (rodents and their relatives) – yeah those two are just a bit different. As an ecologist (although one with envy of taxonomists, and one in awe of the work taxonomists do!), I admit that I am perhaps not as careful as I should be when it comes to checking nomenclature, or ensuring spelling is always correct. I try – but given that my training is not in taxonomy, I surely make mistakes. I fear that some ecologists appreciate the importance of sound taxonomy even less than I do, and we need a watchdog. Reminders about correct taxonomy are a good idea. Taxonomy Hulk reminds us that we must be clear in what we are saying, whether it be in science journalism, writing a blog post, or working on a scientific paper.

Taxonomy Hulk is a concept not a person and this is a good thing: the humour and fun and ‘alter ego’ perspective is non-threatening, and allows taxonomic issues to be brought into the open easily and effectively. We can fix our mistakes, smile about it, and move forward.

Thank you Taxonomy Hulk. (and yes, you should follow Taxonomy Hulk on twitter)

I finish by stating that Taxonomy Hulk’s ‘regular’ persona (the Bruce Banner) is known to some of us (and s/he’s an incredibly competent taxonomist!, and a super-nice person).

But I’ll keep it quiet – it’s better that way.

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

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

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

ENVB222 – the first post

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

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

A tweet from the litter dwellers…

The Crow group’s tweet

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

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

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

Community.  Sharing.  Collaboration. Outreach. Communication.

This is the power of social media.

The beauty of museums: whales, birds, biophilia and a tweeting Dinosaur

A HUGE inflatable whale at the Canadian Museum of Nature

This past weekend, I traveled to Ottawa to visit the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) with my family. I’ve been to the CMN a few times before, and each time there are new things to see – this weekend it was the special exhibit titled “Whales Tohora“.  The content for this exhibit was effectively presented and we spent a long time learning about whales.  I was particularly impressed with how the exhibit dealt with the difficult issue of “whale strandings” i.e., when whales sometimes get stranded (sometimes in large numbers) on beaches or other low-laying coastal areas.  It’s a tricky situation because we (the all-knowing and all-powerful humans) want to save them, but it’s not always possible, nor is it always appropriate to do so.  The exhibit showed how some people and cultures see these strandings as a ‘gift’ from the ocean whereas other people are deeply saddened by such events and rally to save the whales.  The CMN did not shy away from tackling this issue, and they did it in a way that all three of my kids (ages 8, 10 and 12) were able to appreciate.

The rest of the whales exhibition was also enjoyed – from the tiny Hector’s dolphin skeleton to the life-sized blue whale heart (a plastic model, of course!), and we all learned about ambergris (and got to see and smell it, too).  I think I can now properly articulate the differences between porpoises and dolphins thanks to a huge poster illustrating all the groups from a phylogenetic perspective. And my kids were thrilled to learn how whales were terrestrial before they were aquatic. Go, Evolution!

Part of the CMN bird gallery

Whenever we go the CMN we always visit our favourite exhibits and the Bird Gallery is one of these.  This gallery is bright and expansive, and is filled with stuffed, dead birds. I must be honest – I really enjoy seeing all those dead animals.  This may sound morbid, but this kind of display really resonates with me.  The best way to illustrate biodiversity is to have biodiversity on display, in an open, and accessible way.  Specimens are needed to bring people closer to understanding and appreciating biodiversity.  I did observe some people playing on the interactive computer terminals and reading some of the content on the poster boards. Most people, however, were simply staring intently into the glass cases and looking in awe at the shapes, sizes and colours of bird biodiversity.  This happens in the bird gallery, but also in the mammal exhibit, where some terrific dioramas illustrate species in their natural habitats.  The CMN has got it right with these kinds of displays.

Being a good entomologist, we made sure to stop by the Animalium (too bad it is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the basement next to the theatre) to see some live Arthropods (and slugs and amphibians, too):

Up close and personal with some bugs and slugs

I am glad that they have live Amblypygids (aka tailless whip scorpions) to view (they are so bizarre-looking!), and seeing people squirm in fascination at the tank full of wriggly mealworms is terrific.  When seeing these reactions, I am reminded of E.O. Wilson’s arguments about the “Biophilia” Hypothesis. This is the innate and instinctive connection that people have with the natural world.   It is so obvious when you go to a natural history museum, especially somewhere like the Canadian Museum of Nature, where you can see a displays about the death of whales in one corner, stunning dioramas in another, and live cockroaches in the basement.  People wander through the galleries, and when they see displays of nature that make them feel good they have smiles on their faces.  They recoil and squirm at other times – and it is with the usual suspects (e.g., spiders, snakes, bats).  This visceral and squeamish reaction is STILL a reaction and this fills me with hope.

The day that Museums are empty and people have no reaction to biodiversity will, to me, represent a world that has completely lost its way.  Let’s keep supporting museums and help maintain biophilia.

A small part of a grassland diorama at the CMN

I can’t talk about a museum without mentioning the Dinosaur gallery.   It is very well done and the CMN, and you could hear the squeals of delight from a hundred feet away.  And I was pretty excited to get a tweet from “Vic the Dino“.  You can follow this mighty beast on twitter @VicTheDino

Learn about Harvestmen: The Opiliones Project


Promitobates species. Photo (c) Techuser, with permission

Daddy longlegs, Shepherd spiders, Harvestmen, Grandfather greybeard.  These are just some of the common names for the Arachnid Order Opiliones (formerly Phalangida).  Although there are over 6,000 described Opiliones species, they remain relatively poorly known.  That is until a few years ago…  In 2007, Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha, Glauco Machado and Gonzalo Giribet published “Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones“.  This tome comes in at just over 600 pages, and it is a magnificent achievement.  The book assembles and synthesizes a wealth of information on Harvestmen, including their cultural and historical importance, functional anatomy, reproductive behaviour, biogeography, taxonomy and systematics, and more.

Harvestmen textbook cover.

I have been quite fascinated by Opiliones for a long time, and find myself drawn to their awkward gait, and their unusual biology.  I am also always keen to learn more about all kinds of Arachnids, and I am embarrassed that I don’t know how to identify these lovely animals.    For these reasons, I purchased the aforementioned book, and started reading it.  I must be honest, it’s a very expensive book making in hard to justify for the “casual biologist” and I am privileged to be able to afford it.  It’s also very dense, and although information rich, is not entirely accessible to non-arachnophiles.

I am on a continual crusade to share knowledge about Arachnids with anyone who will listen.  And, like spiders, there is a lot of misinformation out there about Opiliones.  I want to invite you into the wonderful world of Opiliones, and I will do this by sharing small snippets of this textbook with you.  I’ll call this endeavour “The Opiliones Project” and my goal will be to bring you along to learn some interesting facts about the Opiliones as I wade through the different Chapters.   This is not an entirely altruistic process, as by committing this to you, it also gives me incentive to read carefully, and with an eye for detail (something I don’t typically have time to do!).

A few ground rules:

1) To take part, you need a Twitter account and an Internet connection.

2) This project is open to ANYONE with an interest in Arachnids

3) This will be a slow process, and will likely take several months.

4) I will paraphrase details from the textbook, and unless indicated otherwise, the ‘citation’ for this project will be: Pinto-da-Rocha et al. (2007) Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones. Harvard Univ. Press.  You can, therefore, fact-check by looking at the book, and I will welcome this opportunity (oh, and in case you are wondering, Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha is 100% supportive of this project).  Now and then I will also try to bring other primarily literature to the discussion.

Interested?  if so…. please follow this project on twitter using the hashtag #OpilionesProject (I will tweet from my account @CMBuddle) – and please join in the discussion using that hashtag – the more interaction, the better.

Once finished, I will assemble all the tweets on storify.

This should be fun.  It’ll be an interactive, and hopefully engaging way for all of us to learn more about some incredible Arachnids.  If you are not yet convinced, just look at this (thanks to Joe Warfel, EigthEyePhotography for permission to use this photo):

A tiny Opiliones, genus Caddo - it can be found in north-temperate regions (C) J. Warfel

Why I love 140 characters

As the Editor-in-chief of The Canadian Entomologist (TCE), I have recently joined the twitter-verse.  This is an interesting experiment and I’m only a couple of weeks into it, but it is proving fascinating enough that I wanted to write this blog post about the experience.

The Canadian Entomologist on Twitter

I have long had mixed feeling about the role of Twitter in science.  There are many arguments both ways – Twitter can be a way to help promote good science, bring neat ideas to a larger audience, and initiate productive and exciting collaboration. It can, however, take the most limiting resource away: time. The Twitter-verse is also full of unusual, non-reviewed, speculative, non-scientific opinions, and often the same stories just gets repeated dozens of times.  All of this is the very stuff that concerns me.   In my professional world of publications, peer-review, and critical scientific analysis, is there a place for Twitter….how can 140 characters do any of this justice?  (I am, obviously, a fan of blogs – these can be a great forum for thoughts, ideas and opinions in a longer-format)

Well, after some lively exchanges with graduate students, friends, colleagues, and the marketing team at Cambridge University Press (TCE’s publisher), I have started tweeting for TCE.  Initially I was worried that coming up with tweets would be a big challenge but as I came up with lists of ideas for future tweets, I realize that there is an unbelievable amount of rich and fascinating content associated with the Journal. For example, exciting papers that are getting published, interesting stories about entomology and entomologists in Canada, links to events and opportunities within the Entomological Society of Canada, and information about past papers within the journal.  And, perhaps most importantly, I think twitter can be a way to promote the discipline to a different audience.

Pique your interest?  You can follow @CanEntomologist