Alexander von Humboldt: Naturalist Extraordinaire

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. As a retiree, you’d think I would have lots of time, and I do. But I also have lots of activities, admittedly combined with a tendency to procrastinate more than I should (and perhaps waning motivation). One of those activities is to read books. Some time ago I read a book that really influenced me profoundly, particularly because I was so ignorant of the subject of that book. The book was Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”.

Cover of Andrea Wulf’s book about Alexander von Humboldt

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

I highly recommend this book to any biologist or naturalist. What I write below doesn’t even scratch the surface of this remarkable man, so Wulf’s captivating book is a must read. If you can’t plow through Wulf’s massive book, you should at least read the entry about Humboldt in Wikipedia.

The name Humboldt is quite familiar to most of us, because Humboldt was in his time the most celebrated scientist of all. Consequently his name is attached to numerous places, animal and plant species, and geographical features. Examples are the Humboldt squid, the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt’s lily, and the Humboldt current. There are several universities, including Humboldt State University in California, and eight communities in the US bear his name. In fact, he has more recognition in this way than any other human being. At the centenary of his birth, Humboldt was celebrated throughout the world with parades and numerous initiatives in support of science. How is it possible that such a prominent scientist seems all but forgotten today?

Announcement of centenary celebration of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt was born 1769 in Berlin, Germany, and he died there four months short of his 90th birthday. Not unlike Charles Darwin, he had a propensity for going his own way early on, worrying his mother and older brother about his future prospects. He dreamt about being an explorer early on, and after many delays, in part because of the Napoleonic war, eventually managed to get support for an expedition to South America 1799-1804. Like Darwin’s voyage on the beagle, this experience became the foundation for his remarkable scientific exploits.
To make a long story short, Humboldt’s impact on natural sciences has been immense. He was the first to view nature holistically. In other words, he was an ecologist long before the discipline really existed. He also saw the impact of human exploitation on nature, including effects on climate. In other words, he warned about climate change almost 200 years before we started paying attention! He was also the first to suggest continental drift as he suggested that Africa and South America had once been attached. He laid the foundation for biogeography with his “Naturgemälde”, showing the zonation of plants with elevation, and that the types of plants he saw when climbing Chimborazo (while risking life and limb), a 6,268 m high mountain in Ecuador (as a curiosity, when measured from the center of our planet, it is the highest mountain on earth) were consistent with what he had observed in Europe.

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde.

Humboldt published prolifically throughout his long career. One of the books he produced, “Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent during the years 1799-1804.“ inspired Darwin and thus, Humboldt indirectly influenced the career of Darwin. Interestingly, Humboldt also was ahead of his time in that he was interested in uniting science and art. He spent lots of time with poets like Goethe and Schiller, and Goethe, in particular and Humboldt influenced each other quite profoundly (interestingly, Humboldt is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry above).
Today, Humboldt is more or less forgotten outside of South America and Germany. This may in part be due to anti-German sentiment in the wake of two world wars. Andrea Wulf’s book is a timely attempt to restore him to his rightful place in history. His name may not be prominent now, but his influence on science is.

Against all odds II: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Some time ago I wrote a blog where I highlighted the incredible contributions to science of Mary Anning, the poor, uneducated daughter of a cabinet maker in Lyme Regis through her discoveries of important fossils on what is now called the Jurassic Coast. Since then I have read two more books about her life, including “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier and “The Fossil Hunter” by Shelley Emling. The former is a novel, reconstructing the person that Mary Anning was, including potential romances. As such, this book is in part fictional. “The Fossil Hunter” is non-fictional, and apart from where the author speculates (which is fairly explicit) about what is likely to have occurred, this book really gives a wonderful insight into a remarkable individual who made highly significant contributions to our understanding of the evolution of life on earth, undoubtedly paving the way for the eventual acceptance of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” .

Another person who contributed to Darwin’s masterpiece was Alfred Russel Wallace. In fact, without Wallace, “On the Origin of Species” would have looked significantly different, and it is questionable if it would have had as much of an impact as it did. Darwin’s plan was to publish a detailed, multi-part work. It was the realization that Wallace had come to the same conclusion that Darwin eventually decided to write the relatively short book that we now primarily associate with his genius.

Cover of “The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace” by Ross A. Slotten.

This blog is based in large part on what I have learned from reading a wonderful biography of Wallace’s life by Ross A. Slotten titled “The Heretic in Darwin’s Court : The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace”. I grew up quite ignorant of Wallace, and I have to confess that he only emerged on my radar in association with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book in 2009. Reading Slotten’s book has opened my eyes to a brilliant but eccentric man, whose significance is thankfully once again recognized after years of obscurity. There is little question that Wallace was one of the great naturalists of the 19th Century. Like Mary Anning, and unlike the majority of scientists and naturalists in the 19th Century, Wallace spent much of his life in pursuit of financial stability. In other words, financial rewards were critical to allow him to pursue his passion for nature. This pushed him to become highly skilled as a naturalist and scientist, but also led him to some poor decisions, including poor investments and a wager against the Flat Earth Society (A topic that to my amazement is still being discussed!). Interestingly, Charles Darwin led a successful attempt to provide Wallace with a state pension, which provided basic financial support, but he financed most of his life through royalties from his writings.

Wallace had no academic credentials to his name, but was self-taught. His early excursions with Henry Walter Bates (of Batesian mimicry fame) eventually led to the first exploration trip for the two young men to the Amazon River. It was in the Amazon that he honed his skills as an explorer based on his keen ability of observation, including patterns of distribution. For example, he noticed that the distribution of many animal species was confined to one side or the other of the rivers, even when the distance across seemed relatively short. His training as a land surveyor undoubtedly contributed to this first foray into biogeography. The distribution of species became one of the themes of his work, and he is sometimes considered the father of biogeography. While Wallace made significant collections over the four years along the Amazon and its tributaries, his published accounts from the Amazon expedition, while impressive, were restricted by the fact that his journey to England came close to ending his life. His collections and almost all of his notes were destroyed when the brig Helen caught fire after only four weeks on the Atlantic. After a little more than a week in life boats, the crew was rescued by the merchant vessel the Jordeson.  It took another 6 weeks to reach England, during which time the crew suffered rough weather and a shortage of provisions.

Alfred Russel Wallace in Singapore, 1862. Photograph in public domain.

Wallace remained in England for a year and a half before setting out on his more famous journey to Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago, where he would remain for 8 years collecting birds and insects. Birds of Paradise were of particular interest to him, as they were to Europeans, so perhaps it was in part the premium remuneration he received for specimens of these remarkable birds that fueled that interest.  It was here that his observations led him to the writing of several essays which were to change the course of scientific history. The first essay, “On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species” generated little response from the scientific establishment. “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” was conceived and written over a few days while Wallace was suffering a severe malaria attack. He sent this essay to Charles Darwin for comment and to forward to the pre-eminent geologist of the day, Charles Lyell. To make a long story short, Wallace’s essay almost caused Darwin to abandon his work of 20 odd years, but he was convinced by Lyell, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker convinced him to publish the shorter “On the Origin of Species” as we know it today.

After his return from the Malay Archipelago, Wallace was prominent in British science. Of particular interest was his relationship with Charles Darwin. Because of Darwin’s poor health the two rarely met, but they did correspond on a semiregular basis. One of the characteristics of Wallace was his humility, and he regularly downplayed his own role, referring to himself as “an amateur”. A passage in one of Darwin’s letters to Wallace is telling:

Most persons in your position have felt bitter envy and jealousy. How nobly free you seem to be of this common failing of mankind. But you speak far too modestly of yourself; you would, if you had my leisure, have done the work just as well, perhaps better, than I have done it. “ (Slotten 2004, p. 173).

It is questionable if Wallace could have done what Darwin did. Darwin had spent several decades accumulating evidence for his theory through experimentation, including a thorough study of barnacles, and breeding of domestic pigeons. Wallace on the other hand was prone to theorizing, often speculating. Darwin was careful and measured, whereas Wallace often challenged dogmas, although he was a staunch defender of natural selection until his death in 1913. The two men agreed on natural selection as the key mechanism by which new species evolved, but they disagreed on many points. In particular, they disagreed on the function of sexual dimorphism and the function of colour within species. In addition, Wallace later in life believed that there was some intelligent driver and higher purpose of human evolution. What really disturbed the scientific establishment was his firm belief in Spiritualism, and he spent some time in the United States lecturing on natural selection and attending seances. To add insult to injury, Wallace was also a socialist, arguing for the rights of workers. It may have been his own humility along with a combination of issues like these that led to his gradual decline from the collective memory of evolutionary biologists.

Nevertheless,   Wallace made huge contributions to science, and was amply rewarded. He received several honorary doctorates (Trinity College, Dublin,  and Oxford), and declined several more (Cambridge and Wales), and he received the highest honours available at the time. At his death, there was a movement to have him buried at Westminster Abbey in London, where Charles Darwin was buried, but Wallace’s wife Annie followed her husband’s last wishes, and he was laid to rest in a small cemetery in Dorset.

The Wallacea region situated between the Wallace Line (after Ernst Mayr or Thomas Henry Huxley) and the Lydekker Line. By Altaileopard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wallace’s research has left a lasting mark on science. In addition to numerous organisms named in his honour, several concepts remind us of him. One is the Wallace Line  which is a faunal boundary between Wallacea (part of the Malay Archipelago) and Australia noted by Wallace in 1859. Another is the Wallace Effect which hypothesizes that natural selection can contribute to reproductive isolation.

Paradisea (Semioptera) wallacii Gray, 1859: 130 (= Semioptera wallacii), Wallace’s Standardwing Bird of Paradise. Collected by Wallace on Bacan Island, Indonesia, in 1858.

This brief blog is obviously not nearly a complete reflection of this great man’s accomplishments. Slotten’s extensively researched book is 492 pages long in relatively small font, and I highly recommend it. In addition, there is of course a mountain of information on the web.

When is the time right for retirement?

Fourteen months ago I retired at the age of 65 from my position as Professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. It was with some trepidation I did so, because in addition to retiring, I also moved with my wife to Nanaimo, BC, after 21 ½ years in Prince George (PG). That meant leaving our younger son (age 23 at the time), friends and colleagues behind to start a new life on the coast. As with any change, there were advantages and disadvantages with the move. Was it the right decision for me to retire and move, or should I have stayed in PG with its familiar surroundings, friends, and access to the university as Professor Emeritus? These are questions that still pop into my mind from time to time. Here is a short essay with some thoughts on where I am at after a year.

UNBC was created from the ground up, so as a charter faculty member I was part of a cohort of faculty who felt that UNBC was “our university”. What I mean by this is that we started with a blank slate, but through a cooperative effort, we created what became British Columbia’s 4th research university. We could have settled into the role of teaching undergraduate courses, but that was not the mindset of myself or my colleagues. The research focus was particularly true for our Faculty, Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, or NRES as the unit was known. Led by the people in charge of NRES (Dean Fred Gilbert and five academic Programme Chairs), we immediately set out to create a graduate program, including Master’s and PhD level programs. The sub-units (Departments) were designated “Programmes” (note spelling to distinguish from course programs) to emphasize the interdisciplinary approach of much of what we wanted to do, although some units in other faculties fought to become Departments pretty much from the start. Most faculty members also created research programs that for a small university were rather successful. We were aided by the startup of Forest Renewal BC, which provided a significant source of funding for many of us. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but in the process of building our institution, we forged friendships that last even today. Our longest serving President, Dr. Charles Jago, made some significant changes to the administrative structure of the university, including the merger of NRES with several science programs as well as Business. While I believe that hurt us a lot (Dean Gilbert left, as did several of our original Program Chairs, and we lost the cohesiveness of our five interdisciplinary programs), I also think that on balance, Dr. Jago advanced the interests of UNBC over his years at the helm. Thus, my initial years at UNBC were intense, satisfying, and exciting.

The highlight of my career at UNBC was the period when the Forest Insect Research Group was at its peak. With four entomologists and numerous students, UNBC’s presence in forest entomology was strong. Read more in the ESC Bulletin, p. 18 Photo: Michael Rutherford.

Why did I retire? In large part this had to do with the ever increasing bureaucracy at the university, along with increasing tension between the administration on the one hand, and faculty and staff on the other. The last few years of my tenure at UNBC included several failed searches for a President (in the sense that two stepped down after 2 and 4 years, respectively, long before their term was up. UNBC’s current President came in just after a relatively favourable arbitration decision for faculty (verbally, if not in practice), but with relationships deterioriating further as that decision came down just months before the next contract was due. The two negotiating teams were not communication (my own biased opinion [based on information from other institutions] was that the Board of Governors were given marching orders from the Provincial Government), which eventually led to unionization of faculty and a strike. The new President’s handling of the situation did not endear him to faculty. The strike led to a significant improvement, but tempers had barely settled before this was followed (after my departure) by the appointment of James Moore, a by many faculty and students very unpopular new Chancellor. He was seen as unsuitable as a former member of the Stephen Harper federal cabinet, which stood for values diametrically opposed to those of UNBC. For example, the Harper government had dismantled environmental protection legislation, while UNBC had trademarked itself as Canada’s Green University! To make a long story short, UNBC had become a stressful work place for me, and having lived through a heart infarction in 2007, that was the last thing I needed. Health scares have a way of changing your outlook on life. You start realizing how precious life is, and that you should live life to the fullest while you still can.

In addition to working conditions, or perhaps in part because of them, I also felt that I had lost the will to update and improve my teaching in a way that I thought students deserved from a professor. My teaching evaluations remained strong (4.5-4.9 out of 5), but I doubt that such evaluations really speak to the quality of teaching. I have heard some refer to them as popularity contests, and there is definitely some truth to that. Nevertheless, the result was that I found it hard to motivate myself to prepare for lectures, which in turn led to dissatisfaction with my own performance, i.e., I would feel as if I failed to deliver material in the way I wanted to. Lecturing is in many ways a performance, where your job is to keep students engaged. When you lose the ability to keep their attention, you also lose effectiveness as an instructor.

The end of the road. Convocation 2016, where I was appointed Professor Emeritus. Copyright UNBC.

Finally, increasing red tape with respect to field research, including graduate student research, made that part of my job less attractive as well. Seemingly endless forms and regulations appeared designed to trip you up, rather than help you along, giving me the feeling that we had little or no support for research from the institution. In fairness, the intent of the bureaucracy was admirable, e.g., better safety provisions, but the implementation tended to be done as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which was frustrating for someone stuck in their ways, as I probably was. I know I am not alone in these sentiments – I recently talked to a colleague who is retiring from a major research institution and inquired why he decided to step away? He mentioned some of the same issues at his institution, so while I am sure that your own personality has a lot to do with how you perceive changes, there are some real impediments being erected as regulations are tightened.

As a result of all the (real or perceived) negatives described above, I feel that my decision to retire was the right one for me. I simply was not enjoying work anymore. If I had enjoyed it the way I did earlier in my career, I would have stayed at UNBC in Prince George for a few more years I am sure. As it is, I am happy with my decision, even if the adjustment to life in Nanaimo has been slower than anticipated. You don’t replace 21+ years of community just like that. But there are positives, for example visitors are now commonplace, whereas PG seemed to be out of the way for most people. We have had more visitors in our first year in Nanaimo than we had in all the time we lived in PG. We are close to Vancouver and Victoria, live 15 minutes from two ferry terminals and the Nanaimo airport, and we have a wonderful place for gardening, bird watching, photography and other activities we enjoy. I have made some connections in the naturalist world (including doing some public presentations), joined a flyfishing club, and I have a group of golfing friends. I also have made connections at Vancouver Island University, the BC Forest Service, and the Royal BC Museum, where I am a volunteer in the entomology collection. Finally, I have served as examiner on a few theses at the University of BC, and Simon Fraser University,  so I have had some occasional involvement in academia still.

November morning at my new home. Relaxing and good for the soul.

When is it time to retire? Well, I think that is a question that has no right or wrong answer, because it is a completely personal choice. If there was one overreaching piece of advice, it would be to ask yourself “Am I having fun”. If the answer is no, then it may be time to make a closer assessment of where your life is at.

In Memory of My First and Most Important Mentor

My father, Rune Lindgren, age 2, 1919.

On January 13, 1917, exactly 100 years ago, a little boy was born in Bureå, Sweden. That boy was my father, Rune Lindgren. I actually don’t know very much about him over the first few decades of his life, other than that he only completed a grade 6 education before beginning work. He also told me that he wasn’t good at sports, so he would run around a track while his class mates would play soccer (or football as it is properly called in Europe). I know that he was quite artistic even at an early age, and he also was fascinated by boats. I have a drawing he did as a 16-year-old which I find quite remarkable given that he had no formal training that I am aware of. He loved painting, usually in water colour. He eventually became a pastry chef/baker, and served as such on an ocean liner sailing from Sweden to New York in the late 1930’s. During World War II, he was a conscript in the Swedish Army, as were all able-bodied males at that time. He was stationed in Haparanda on the Finnish border, and told me of the Finnish refugees coming across as the Germans burned everything on the Finnish side. At that time my parents had two sons (born in 1941 and 1943) and lived in Östersund in the Central Interior of Sweden. I came along much later when my father had begun to work in the “konditori” owned by his brother-in-law in Norrköping on the Swedish east coast southwest of Stockholm.. It is from that period that I have my earliest memories of him. My mother described him as very patient with children, and as my family’s finances had stabilized, I enjoyed a happy childhood even though both my parents worked, which was less common in those days compared to now.

A drawing of the Spanish galleon Santissima Trinidad by my father when he was 16, presumably from the painting seen at

In spite of his rudimentary schooling, my father was quite well educated. My mother told me how he would read until 1 or 2 am, then get up at 5 am to go to work. He learned English by reading English books with an English-Swedish dictionary to

Page from Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” with my father’s notes.

decipher new words. He made notes along the margins and then listened to BBC Radio in order to learn proper pronunciation. I still have one of those books, the classic “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)” by Jerome K. Jerome with my father’s notes. He did this well enough that he was fluent when I grew up, and he taught English at night school on many occasions. When I was 5 or 6 years old, his ability to speak English in combination with his skill as a baker landed him a new job with an international company (NordBakels  and their British branch British Bakels ) that sold various ingredients to bakeries, and he spent 6 months in England, further strengthening his command of the language. For the rest of his life, anything and everything English ranked high in my father’s mind.

He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and endlessly consulted Encyclopedias to understand and learn about anything and everything. As a consequence he possessed a wealth of knowledge about almost every topic, which allowed him to carry on a conversation on just about any topic with friends and strangers alike. I am convinced that in a different era, he would have been an academic. The daughter of one of his colleagues in NordBakels once said “Here comes the man who knows everything” as my father drove into their front yard. One of my friends, who sadly passed away from ALS less than a year ago, also told me that he thought my dad knew just about everything.

With my father at the Norrköping Central Railway Station, circa 1956.

What I remember most fondly is how he encouraged my love for animals. One story he told me was that he took me out to the Norrköping Airport to look at aeroplanes when I was only a few years old. I was not interested in the aeroplanes, however, because there were some hares hopping around. The same thing happened when I took my eldest son to the Vancouver Aquarium, and he was more interested in the mechanics of the aquariums (drains and pipes) than in their inhabitants. Anyway, I remember trips to a small lake (Lilla älgsjön) outside of Norrköping where we caught crayfish and watched aquatic spiders, visits to my uncle’s summer cabin at another lake where I remember enormous fishing spiders and frogs, trips to Arkösund at the mouth of Bråviken on the Baltic Sea where I saw my first moon jellyfish, and many other adventures. When I was 11, we moved to northern Sweden, where my father had been given a huge district as representative for NordBakels. This job involved long trips into the interior. Several summers he took me along, and in the evenings we would go fishing and relax. I recall one evening at a small stream. We caught some brown trout, then cooked them in butter and enjoyed them right there and then. Just after we moved to Piteå, my father had taken me to see his cousin, who was a master flyfisher and it was he who taught me how to cast. I never achieved his level of expertise, but I have almost exclusively used the fly rod ever since when fishing.

As our economy improved, my father purchased a small sailing boat. Over the next 7-8 years, he owned four different sailing boats, the last one a 26 foot yacht (International Folkboat (IF)) that was his pride and joy. Along with my brothers, I spent time sailing every summer with my dad when I was able. The season where we lived was very short, but it was very special to my father.

He had a great sense of humour as well. At Christmas (up until my mid-teens), we used to write short poems with hints of what was in the presents. This made the gift-giving more like a game, and we could enjoy the occasion more fully.

My father really understood the importance of an education. He had missed out on the opportunity himself, and he was sad that his younger brother had not taken advantage of the opportunities that he had been given. Consequently it was really important to my dad that I and my brothers got a good education. My brothers opted to get jobs and earn money, perhaps because our finances were not as good then as they were when I grew up (my brothers were 7 and 9 1/2 years older than I). I am glad that I could get a good education. I am particularly glad that he did get to see me receive my PhD at the Simon Fraser University convocation in 1982. Following convocation, I did make several attempts to find employment in Sweden to allow me to return “home”, but opportunities were simply much better in Canada. By then I had met my future wife as well, so Canada became my permanent home.

My father on his 60th birthday.

He passed away much too young in November, 1984, at the age of 67 after some significant health problems. Perhaps ironically, that is the same age that I will reach later this year. I can vividly remember the phone call from my late brother Hans when I was told of his passing. Although I knew this was coming, it was still a shock. I still miss him dearly, particularly because I don’t feel that I got to say goodbye to him the way I should have. I also could not afford to go to Sweden for the funeral since I had been visiting only a few months earlier with my (at that time still future) wife, so I got to see him just a few months before he passed away. He did not get to meet his grandchildren, however, and of course my sons never got to know their grandfather. I think they would have liked him a lot. (They did get to meet their grandmother, who outlived my father by almost 25 years).

I am not a religious person, but a part of me hopes that he somehow has been watching me from beyond the grave. He was a huge influence in my life, and I owe much of what success I have had to him. I can still imagine hearing his voice over the phone, and I miss him a lot even now, 33 years later.

Vila i frid, Pappa!

The final resting place of my parents in Piteå, Sweden.







Against all odds: The story of an inspirational scientist

One of my retirement activities is to read for pleasure. As a professor at the University of Northern BC, I simply had little appetite for reading on my spare time. Now I once again enjoy losing myself in various stories, particularly about people.
My current book is called “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils” by Donald R. Prothero

The cover of “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils” by Donald R. Prothero.

(Columbia University Press). Prothero describes the significance of various fossils along the phylogenetic tree, particularly how they have helped us map the evolution of life from the earliest prokaryotes to the most advanced vertebrates. The part that I find most fascinating is the stories of the people who found the fossils, and one story in particular has caught my attention.
In 1799, a baby girl was born into the poor family of Richard Anning, a cabinet maker living in the village of Lyme Regis (now a popular resort area) on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, England. She was named Mary after her sister, who had tragically died five months earlier after accidentally setting her dress on fire. When Mary was 15 months old, she survived a lightning strike, which killed the woman holding her along with three other women. Of 11 children born to Mary’s mother only Mary and her older brother Joseph survived to adulthood. This is a significant fact for me, since my great grandmother gave birth to 14 children, of which the first five died within a year of their birth (as did two more), leaving my grandmother on my father’s side and six siblings. Mary received only enough education to learn to read and write, but as you will see, she made good use of these skills.
The family subsidized their income by collecting and selling fossils found along the coast. But when Richard Anning died from tuberculosis (possibly aided by injuries suffered at the cliffs when collecting fossils) at the age of 44, he left Mary’s mother with two children and the fossils as their sole source of income. Mary and Joseph, her brother, continued to collect fossils, and Mary became extremely competent. She read (and sometimes copied) publications about fossils, and over time became adept at recognizing fossil types, and she developed a keen eye for details. It was this ability that led to her recently being named one of the 10 most significant British women of science (
The year after her father’s passing, when Mary was 12, Joseph found the fossil head of a large organism, which was at first thought to be a crocodilian. Mary found the rest of the specimen a few months later. After some confusion, this turned out to be the first ichthyosaur, a group of dolphin-like reptiles. She subsequently found a number of significant fossils, including more ichthyosaurs, several plesiosaurs (longnecked marine reptiles), as well as the first pterosaur found outside of Germany. She also discovered many important fish fossils, and through her keen eye for detail was instrumental in the discoveries of fossilized faeces (coprolites) and ammonite ink sacs similar to modern cephalopods.
Mary Anning died of breast cancer two months short of her 48th birthday. There is obviously much more to this story, which you can easily find through numerous sources written about Mary Anning over the years ( My fascination with this story stems in part from how she managed to gain a stellar reputation among established scientists at a time when women were not allowed to attend scientific meetings, let alone become members of learned societies. She faced incredible obstacles, not least as a woman (a situation that has not been completely rectified to this day, I am sad to say), being born into a poor family who were also so-called Dissenters, i.e., they were not part of the predominant Church of England, although that may have been a blessing as she may not have been taught to read and write otherwise. Furthermore, less than scrupulous scientists routinely took credit for her discoveries, with no acknowledgment of her role in finding and preparing the fossils. Fortunately she had a few influential benefactors who helped her through the rough patches of her life. After her death, she received unprecedented recognition in a eulogy given by the President of the Royal Geological Society. A collection among the society’s members paid for commemorative stained glass windows in St. Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis, where she and her brother Joseph share a grave, and today the house in which Mary was born is now the Lyme Regis Museum.

A map of Lyme Regis, showing the Jurassic Coast, and the location of the Lyme Regis Museum, which is situated in the house where Mary Anning was born.

A while back I wrote a blog ( about Sophie, the little girl who wants to be an entomologist. I couldn’t help thinking about her when reading about Mary Anning. Either way, the story of Mary Anning is one that should serve as inspiration to women in STEM, as well as a reminder that we need to continue to even the playing field. How many discoveries have been lost as a result of women like Mary who did not even benefit from what little fortune Mary had? Let’s make sure we don’t lose more!

Invisible aliens among us

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Dr. Sarah Dudas at the Vancouver Island University (VIU). She was discussing the impact of shellfish farming on biodiversity. In one of her first slides, she put up four or six photographs of molluscs, and asked the audience which ones were native to British Columbia. It turned out that only one was. In fact, a significant number of marine organisms have been introduced accidentally in association with the introduction of the Japanese or Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas Thunberg, which

Japanese oyster. Attribution-NonCommercial-Bas Kers, ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

is the large, common oyster that is farmed, and is common along the southern BC coast. A good summary of the main species that have accompanied the introduction of the Japanese oyster, and their impact can be found at Exotic Introductions into BC Marine Waters: Major Trends. The Native or Olympia oyster, which was once widespread and common is now so rare that is has been blue listed under SARA. You can read more about the history and fate of the Olympia oyster at this blog from VIU’s Deep Bay Field Station.
Dr. Dudas’ talk made me think about what other exotic organisms are present among us, so I decided to write this blog. If we start looking around, we’ll find that many of the most common organisms we see around us are in fact introductions. Among arthropods, many familiar insects like earwigs (Dermaptera) are all introduced, with two of the four species

European earwig, Forficula auricularia

present in BC quite common. Most people are likely familiar with the European earwig, Forficula auricularia Linnaeus, which frequently appears in and around homes, and in coastal BC, the large seaside earwig, Anisolabis maritima (Bonelli) is commonly found under driftwood on sandy beaches. A number of ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) are commonly dominant in urban and suburban areas (Spence and Spence 1988). Most common is Pterostichus melanarius (Illiger), which seems to be present almost everywhere, and Carabus nemoralis O. F. Müller and C. granulatus Linnaeus are two fairly widespread and noticeable species because of their size. The most common (or at least most obvious) exotic around my home, and probably throughout southern BC at this point, is the European paper wasp, Polistes dominula (Christ), which seems to build its little nests pretty much wherever there is some

European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, resting on a mullein plant. Tappen, BC

protected space, e.g., bird and bat houses, mail boxes etc. To most people it is probably just seen as another yellowjacket wasp (Vespula and Dolichovespula spp.), but luckily it is much less aggressive than those pesky insects, so not quite as annoying to have around. Many common spiders are also introduced, e.g., the most common orb weaver in the area where I live is Araneus diadematus Clerck, as species I know well from my childhood. Indoors the so-called house spiders (Tegenaria and Eratigena spp) are also introduced. A more exotic looking introduction is the woodlouse spider, Dysdera crocata C. L. Koch, presumably introduced

The woodlouse spider, Dysdera crocata.

along with its primary prey, the sowbugs and pillbugs (See this blog for more information). Even our favourite garden helpers, the earthworms are almost exclusively exotic. Only four of 24 species are native, in fact (See this article for more information).
We don’t have to stop at invertebrates of course. Many common bird species are also introduced, e.g., the common starling, Sturnus vulgaris Linnaeus and the house sparrow, Passer domesticus (Linnaeus), which were early arrivals, and the more recent Eurasian collared dove, Streptopelia decaocto (Frivaldszky). The latter has marched across the North American continent in record time, and is now quite common in many areas in the west. Other groups are also on the move, e.g., a recent arrival on Vancouver Island is the European wall lizard, Podarcis muralis Garsault, which was apparently released on the Saanich peninsula about 50 years ago. It is now on the move having been spotted as far north as Denman Island, and one locale where it has been seen is within a km of my home in Nanaimo. If you see one, please inform Gavin Hanke ( at the Royal BC Museum, preferably along with a photo to ensure that it is not the native alligator lizard. A more familiar introduction to people in BC is the American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus Shaw, which is now present pretty much everywhere in the lower mainland and on southern Vancouver Island.

American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus

A very invisible problem is the introduction of non-native fish. Many of you may have heard of the snakehead (probably Ophiocephalus marmoratus Brind) spotted in a Burnaby pond, which led to an expensive hunt to remove the fish. Introductions by thoughtless individuals who release their pets occur with surprising frequency. Dragon Lake in Quesnel, BC, which is a primary source for rainbow trout stock, now has a thriving population of carp Carassius auratus (Linnaeus), after someone released their goldfish (a domesticated form of the wild carp) into the lake. Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu
Lacépède), northern pike (Esox lucius Linnaeus), and various bait fish have led to a number of expensive actions in order to restore the system to health. The latest example is what is thought to have been deliberate introductions of yellow perch, Perca flavescens Mitchill, in two Okanagan lakes.
This was written pretty much off the top of my head. In spite of that I could go on, indicating that exotic organisms are rather more common than we might like, the fact is that we are essentially surrounded by aliens, and unfortunately many of them are displacing our native fauna. Many of the exotics appear to be harmless, but to native fauna, the presence of these intruders could be disastrous. The take-home message is: do not release anything that does not belong here. We have plenty of our own species to enjoy!

Most of the information available on the internet relates to invasive “pests”, i.e., those species that cause direct damage to resources of interest to humans. Nevertheless, even a relatively minor effort searching the internet would likely give you a good impression of the extent of this problem. My intent with this blog was simply to plant the seed!

Spence, J.R. and Spence, D.H. 1988. ‘Of ground-beetles and men: introduced species and the synanthropic fauna of Western Canada’, Memoirs of the Entomological Society of Canada, 120(S144): 151–168. doi: 10.4039/entm120144151-1.

A whale of a dilemma

Right now I am reading “The Killer Whale who changed the world” by Mark Leiren-Young , which tells the story of the first orca, or killer whale, that was captured live and kept in captivity for a brief period before she died. Knowing full well that it would be an emotional journey for me, I predictably encountered the first heartbreak moment about 50 pages in, as “Hound Dog” was led into Vancouver harbor with a harpoon lodged in its back and its mother following at a safe distance. (The juvenile was first thought to be male, but treated as female for its short time in captivity. After death ‘she’ was confirmed to be ‘he’ after all). In 1964, when this event happened, orcas were considered extremely dangerous, thought to attack every living being in sight just for the sheer pleasure of killing. “Moby Doll”, as the young orca was later named, changed our attitudes by his gentle demeanor towards her captors, and through the subsequent knowledge we have gained about these magnificent creatures since getting to know them ‘personally’.

I started reading this just as two beluga whales died at the Vancouver Aquarium. One was Aurora, who was the last beluga in captivity to have been captured in the wild. She died a mere 9 days after her daughter Qira, born in captivity 21 years ago died under similar circumstances. Their deaths have sparked a debate as to whether or not we should keep whales in captivity.

Many of the arguments for and against keeping whales in captivity are compelling. On the one hand, whales in captivity provide research opportunities that we may not be able to get in the wild, as stated by John Nightingale on CBC Radio’s “Early Edition” on November 29. As a scientist I have some sympathy for this argument – I have been at the receiving end of public opposition even with insect research (it had to do with potential by-catch of vertebrates in pitfall traps), albeit not in a public forum. There is no question that had we not kept whales in captivity, our understanding of these magnificent and intelligent creatures would not be what it is today, and the public’s awareness of them would not have been what it is today. This year (2016) has been a boom year for resident orca reproduction after many years of almost no reproduction at all, and this has been front page news in major media outlets. Contrast this with the pre-Moby Doll era, when killer whales were shot at and considered the scourge of the sea. Paradoxically, the research that has allowed us more insight into cetacean behavior and intelligence is what has made many of us question how we treat them. During my first 10-15 years in Canada (I have been here since 1977), I visited Vancouver Aquarium many times to watch their captive

The orca Lolita doing tricks with one of her trainers at the Miami Sea Aquarium. Attribution: Averette at English Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

orcas, although even then I was disturbed at the sight of these giants in minimal, sterile pools. Orcas are of particular interest because they are huge predatory animals who in the wild roam over large areas in family pods. Predators have always fascinated me, even though I can’t bear watching a prey animal killed, and they seem to fascinate others as well (cf. tiger and lion tamers at circuses for example). A  whale in a concrete tank reminds me of my experiences visiting zoological gardens as a child, watching large felines endlessly walking back and forth behind the bars of their cage. There is something inherently disturbing in watching their pacing, and I remember thinking that even back then. OK, I may have developed that memory over time, but nevertheless the novelty of seeing a tiger or leopard wore off pretty quickly. One should not paint all zoos and aquariums with the same brush, but when public entertainment is the primary purpose, animal welfare suffers. If you have seen the documentary “Blackfish” you’ll know what I mean! (If you haven’t, and you can stomach it, you should).

One purpose of scientific study is to advance civilization. In terms of large mammals we have largely done just that. Yes, there are zoos around still, but they increasingly move toward displays that take animal welfare into account first, and the ease with which visitors can watch the captives second. They also focus on breeding programs for endangered species, although this may be more of a PR issue than something truly valuable in many cases. The San Diego Wild Animal Park is a case in point – in some of their displays you may not even see the animals at times because they have been provided with a quasi-natural environment where they can hide from human eyes. One of the emerging trends one can detect in research on cognitive function in various animals is that they appear much more advanced than we have previously thought. What was once thought to be human characteristics, such as tool use, self recognition, language, etc., are increasingly discovered in numerous animals. It is quite apparent to me that most mammals form emotional bonds, at least with their offspring and relatives. Elephants are well known for their strong emotional connections and long memory. Recent TV programs I have watched (yes, I watch more than I should) add some surprising animals to that group, e.g., rhinos and harbour seals. The argument that animals don’t suffer the way we do simply does not hold up anymore. A particularly disturbing chapter of the effects of captivity is the story of Tilikum, a bull orca, who was captured off Iceland and has since been moved numerous times. Like all captive bull orcas, his dorsal fin is collapsed to one side, and he has suffered abuse both from other orcas and his human captors. As a result, he has been involved in three human deaths, and was himself near death about 6 months ago due to a presumed bacterial infection.  Anyway, my point is that as we learn more and more about animals, we should adjust how we treat them. Therefore, I think that it follows that it is time to change how we interact with cetaceans. Keeping them in concrete pools just doesn’t cut it anymore!

At the same time as research increases our knowledge, nature programs on television have changed the landscape a lot as footage get increasingly sophisticated. For me, after watching a program on television about some animal, I don’t feel an urge to go to a zoo, but rather to see these animals in their natural environment. For the most part this is not possible, but it is questionable if I can gain more knowledge about animals by watching them in a cage, rather than on television. As our knowledge increases, the return on ‘investment’ in research decreases, making the educational argument less compelling (to me). I am a self-confessed bleeding heart when it comes to animals (heck, I find it difficult to kill an insect for scientific purposes these days), so it is highly probable I am not representing a majority view. However, there is an increasing interest in eco-tourism, which with respect to whales is evidenced by the numerous whale watching tours available around Vancouver Island.  Whale watching may have its own issues, however; I

Whale watching boat racing toward J-pod just north of the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. This was one of five boats. By law, they have to stay 100 m from the whales.

recently watched as five different whale watching tours descended like vultures on the J-pod (which incidentally was Moby Doll’s pod) just outside Tsawwassen. There is pressure on the tour operators to deliver, which may not be in the best interest of the whales as they are likely to get harassed more often than not.

I doubt that this issue will be resolved any time soon. There is no question that dolphins and their kin provide a huge draw for aquariums. People like watching animals do tricks. Vancouver Aquarium moved away from the tricks-for-entertainment genre a long time ago, and moved to a model where they had their animals display natural behaviours while explaining why they did this in nature. That was a step in the right direction, but now it is time to take the next major step, which is to stop confining whales to tanks.



About me

I was born in Norrköping in southeastern Sweden, and it was there I developed my interest in nature. At age 11, my family moved to Piteå, a small town on the Gulf of Bothnia coast in northern Sweden known to some as the birthplace of Daniel Solander, one of Carl Linnaeus’ disciples, and famous (particularly to New Zealanders and Australians) as the naturalist on Captain Cook’s first voyage. I went to university at Umeå University 210 km south of my hometown, and finished my Fil.Kand (B.Sc.) at Uppsala University. After a few years as a failed PhD student in endocrinology back in Umeå, I got the opportunity to go to Canada, where I completed a Master of Pest management and Ph.D. under the supervision of Dr. John Borden. The courage to go off on my own was in large part because of a year spent in Lake Odessa, Michigan, as a high school exchange student. After a short stint as a post-doctoral fellow at UBC, I became Research Director of a fledgling pest management company in Delta, BC, where I stayed for 10 years before getting the opportunity of my life in 1994. From mid-1994 until the end of 2015 I was a Professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, in the Spruce Capital Prince George. I am now Professor Emeritus at UNBC living with my wife of 30+ years in Nanaimo, BC.

Photo: Me looking for invertebrates (and kelp, apparently) at Sooke, BC, where I was staying for a week-long writing retreat with my former post-doctoral fellow Niklas Björklund, SLU, Uppsala, Sweden. Photo by Niklas Björklund.

My interests are very broad, including pretty much any life form, but by profession I am an entomologist with particular interest in forest entomology, biodiversity, and plant insect interaction. Recreationally, I spend my time bird watching, photographing animals, kayaking and flyfishing (although the latter has suffered a bit lately). You can find more information by following me on ResearchGate or Twitter (@bslindgren). My blogs on entomology occur mostly at the Entomological Society of Canada blog site, and there are some blogs from my time caring for the UNBC Reef Tank (since my retirement called the B. Staffan Lindgren Reef Tank courtesy of my dear colleagues at UNBC). You can also see some of my photographs on Flickr. But blogs about most things of interest to me will be posted here. I hope you will enjoy the site!