I am an ecologist because baselines are shifting

I grew up in Calgary, which is in southern Alberta. The city itself sits right at the intersection of the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountain. The Elbow River flows into town from the south and meets the Bow River where downtown now sits. The Bow itself flows from Banff in the west, through Calgary, and to the south and east until it joins up with the Oldman River, which empties into the South Saskatchewan River, which joins with the North Saskatchewan to form the Saskatchewan River. The water that started up in the moutains at Bow Glacier eventually ends up in Lake Winnipeg, and from there in the Arctic Ocean by way of Hudson Bay.

The flow of the Bow — image by Karl Musser (CC BY-SA 2.5)

My family home was on the edge of downtown Calgary. In that respect you won’t find too many people who had as urban an upbringing as I did. But Calgary is a special place, particularly in its river valleys, because of the easy access that good civic planning (which has thankfully continued to this day) provided a rather “free range” kid like me to urban-wilderness spaces. I spent a great deal of time on the hill outside my house. At a young age — surprisingly perhaps in the contemporary era of nature deficit disorder, but not at all unreasonable in the 1980s — my parents were quite fine with me wandering down winding paths on the hill, fly rod in hand, to the Bow to see if I could rise a trout or two. Family holidays were never at a preprogrammed resort, but were spent in the mountains of Alberta or British Columbia; or on the prairies east of town and out to visit family in Medicine Hat; or further east exploring Saskatchewan.

Pica hudsonia — Louis Agassiz Fuertes (public domain)

Because of all the time and freedom that I had to spend on my own fishing the Bow, or calling magpies — always and forever my favorite bird — with homemade predator calls in front of my house, or sitting in the back seat for hours on end driving across Canada’s three western provinces on family holidays (and no iPads in the car, of course), I had more than ample time to contemplate the natural world around me.

I saw the Canadian Rockies and other ranges, mainly untouched except for ribbons of roads in the national parks, but substantially logged outside of those protected areas.

I saw the Bow and the Elbow, and felt the water on my legs rise and fall with upstream dam releases.

I caught beautiful brown trout that I knew had been introduced in the past in a mistaken stocking event.

I watched grass fires on the hill in front of our house, likely started by a discarded cigarette on the path at the bottom, burn through the prairie vegetation like fire is supposed to do, although we rarely let it do so anymore.

On long drives beneath the prairie sky dome during family vacations I looked across vast fields of canola, glowing yellow under the never ending blue, and wondered what it would have been like to see Saskatchewan before fences, before the bison were gone.

By my early teens I realized that the things that I was experiencing were not the way that they had always been. Despite how wonderful the world around me was, it had been diminished — sometimes in small ways, sometimes very dramatically. This is not to say, of course, that humans weren’t sometimes taking care of it and using it in good ways to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and other humans. Rather, simply that something had been lost and that sometimes in our valid efforts to satisfy our needs we neglected the animals, plants, soil, and water in the rush to extract. Even that early in life I realized that neither I nor my children nor their children would ever experience an unfenced prairie out to the horizons, or an un-dammed Bow River. Although I didn’t call it that, I understood that there was a baseline that was now lost. And I understood that even though I wanted to imagine what had been there before I saw it, I never could truly know. I could surmise, extrapolate backward in time, and imagine. But I could never actually live it.

Whether I knew it or not, those incipient thoughts were similar to what Daniel Pauly called the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Speaking about fisheries management, Pauly wrote, in a short, influential article:

Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.

In other words, relatively short-lived humans are prone to take the current situation as the “way it always has been” and to react to that rather than to what can be often lost to the memory hole of the past. This tendency needs some form of inoculation, because no one is inherently immune. That inoculation is having people here and now who are committed to measuring the baseline and ensuring that our records travel in time to the future. It is also up to those of us who are here now to do our own time traveling to the past by making sure that we are reading those sometimes very hard won records of our predecesors.

I can honestly say that I don’t fully know why I chose a career as an entomologist and ecologist. Reasons for any large life directions are usually found in multiples, and like any ecologist I know that there are very few outcomes that result from only one influence. However, I suspect what I am passionate about today had a great deal to do with my freedom to explore as a child and my primordial understanding of the lost baseline. I certainly do know that is what drives me today — specifically the hope to understand and record the small part of the world in my current backyard so that someone in the future might look back to get a glimpse of what is now to me, but what will be “what was” to them. And so that a future society can make wise choices in their management of the environment and of the resources that they need to extract.

We need to catch the current baseline. We need to record it. And we need to make sure that the records move into the future after our personal constituent parts succumb to the second law of thermodynamics. No one of us can do all of that, nor could even an army of ecologists in a plethora of sub-disciplines hope to record the full baseline. The blessing of the Anthropocene is that we have access to just about any spot on the planet and we have amazing new tools that we can use to observe and record deeper than ever before. The anathema of the Anthropocene is that humanity’s joint effects are changing those spots faster than we can hope to measure them.

But, despite the challenges, we need to make those measurements because without them a future that we can’t imagine won’t be able to imagine our present, their past.

Earth at night in the Anthropocene — NASA (public domain)

Update: that transit facility

A few weeks ago I posted a letter that I sent to City of Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall and Council. My letter was just one small part of a massive community organizing effort regarding the proposed building of a transit facility in an urban green space.

Yes our city needs a new transit maintenance facility. No, we should not be building it in green space.

Today the Mayor and three councillors put out this report to council asking that at their next meeting (this upcoming Monday) council vote rescind the motions for approval of the facility in that location and instead direct city staff to work with BC Transit to find a better site for the facility.

Yes, this still needs to be voted on at council, but I’m optimistic that it will pass as it already has substantial support as evidenced by the Mayor’s report.

I hope that this groundswell of concern translates into a longer-term vision for preserving, expanding, and improving our urban green spaces here in Prince George – whether in our own backyard or in that of someone else.

Thanks to the organizers of this effort; to Mayor Hall and Councillors Frizzell, Scott, and Skakun for taking part in the disucssion and for being responsive; and to the many citizens who voiced their opinions in a variety of venues.

Let’s work to see this vision and passion for the value of our urban green spaces continue to spread like the forest canopy that we have now preserved in hope and anticipation of the benefit for future generations.


As I posted in my letter to council, here are some related resources that may be of interest:

Thoughts on a proposed urban development

Dear Mayor and Council members:

I am writing to express my concerns about the proposed transit facility at 18th and Foothills. I have previously written letters about the Ron Brent development (which unfortunately went ahead) and the North College Park proposal. As with those letters, my general theme here is that green spaces and parks – particularly those that are substantially used by the public and/or that provide other important ecosystem services – should not be open to residential or industrial development. Once we lose one of those spaces, we have lost it and the valuable services that it provides for decades – essentially forever.

As noted in a recent Prince George Citizen editorial, the City of Prince George has an unfortunate history of making poor decisions in situating both major and more minor developments. In the case of the proposed transit facility this is a much-needed facility in one of the worst possible locations. Please, let’s not continue the legacy of developing in the wrong locations simply because space exists.

I recently attended the annual Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meetings in Victoria. One of the symposia that I attended was on urban ecology. The speakers were engaging, and the projects that they described were inspiring. The thing that stuck out to me the most, however, was that my own city is at least a decade behind in terms of our thinking on this subject. While other cities are preserving and rehabilitating parks and green spaces, we are looking for ways to reduce our green spaces and with it the biodiversity, ecosystem services, corridor connectivity, and recreation and health opportunities that they afford.

Ecosystem services have been shown to include (each word links a different resource):

  • a healthier (mentally and physically) and more active population
  • a reduction in human-wildlife encounters
  • more effective water runoff management
  • less toxic runoff to local waterways
  • cleaner air
  • reduction in soil erosion
  • reductions in sound pollution
  • more shaded areas and thus reduction in sun-related injuries and disease
  • carbon storage and offsetting
  • aquatic ecosystem health
  • higher property values

At the symposium the point was made by Angela Danyluk (Sustainability Specialist at the City of Vancouver) that “vegetation is the foundation of biodiversity” and thus of ecosystem services. Perhaps it is because we have such a richness of vegetated spaces within and beyond our city limits that we tend to see them as expendable; but we should embrace and enhance our richness as a long term investment, not exploit it for short term gains.

One of the points in that symposium was that municipal asset calculations often fail to take ecosystem services into account. A question that needs to be asked any time we are thinking of removing parks and green spaces from city inventory is “what value does this area provide, and what extra costs will be incurred if we lose this area?” In other words, quoting from one symposium participant (Michelle Molnar, an environmental economist with the David Suzuki Foundation), “…asset management should consider not just built areas, but also natural assets.

She presented a slide outlining a small portion of these considerations, which I have summarized as follows.

Green space vs. Built:

  • lower maintenance cost vs. higher maintenance costs
  • carbon-neutral or carbon sink vs. carbon intensive
  • can last into perpetuity vs. limited lifespan
  • climate change resilience vs. climate change vulnerable

Prince George seems to be growing and doubtless will grow further in the coming years. Do we want a city that is a hodgepodge of residential and industrial areas with declining green spaces that are only considered useful for their development opportunities? Or would we rather see healthy residential communities bounded by forests and parks that provide a vibrant and prosperous environment for our citizens?

I know which one I’d prefer, and judging from the success of the petitioning on this topic I suspect that I am part of a much larger majority.

As a daily transit user, I appreciate the attention being given to that vital public system. But it should not happen at the expense of valuable green space when there are many other options to be had in existing industrial areas. We need to move off of our current trajectory and to a more sustainable policy regarding our green spaces and parks. This means prioritizing and incentivizing infill and brownfield development instead of removing park and green space inventory.

(In fact, we should also incentivize rehabilitation of brownfield areas, but that is a topic that goes beyond the immediate intent of this letter.)

The following resources have been useful to me in my thinking on this issue, and may also be useful to you and to City staff:

Thank you for reading this, and I appreciate the work that you do for our fine city.

 

Sincerely,

Dezene Huber


This letter was sent to the Mayor and Council by way of email on 17 May 2017.

A tiger in your back yard?

When we think of endangered animals, among the first things to come to mind may be creatures like rhinoceroses, tigers, or condors. Large animals, lots of press, and pressing concerns. There are an estimated 799 eastern black rhinos~400 Siberian tigers, and 237 California condors left in the wild. In some cases, as with these animals, their numbers have been reduced by human assaults of various sorts. In most cases there are plenty of ongoing issues, often related to habitat loss, that either keep populations in decline or which make recovery difficult.

But these animals and their attendant situations all seem pretty far away. Their distant geography lends itself to experiential distance as well. We hear about them, we see photographs and documentaries about them, but we will likely never have a chance to encounter them in the wild. Of course, even with geographical and experiential distance, concern is still warranted, and we might donate some money to one or another of these causes, or at least keep up with the issues via the news media. But beyond that, what can we do? The situations for these animals, and many others like them, may be dire, but we realistically can’t be present with them.

What if I told you that there is an animal in our own back yard (if you live in the Vancouver area) with population numbers and threats akin to – or perhaps worse than – those facing a Siberian tiger? What if I told you that, like a tiger, it is a ferocious predator?

What if I told you that it’s a spider?

Gnaphosa snohomish. Drawing by Robb Bennett, used with permission.

The animal that I’m talking about is the Georgia Basin bog spider (Gnaphosa snohomish). It is quite likely that you’ve never heard of it until now, and very likely that you have never seen it, even unintentionally. That is because although it lives in heavily populated southwestern British Columbia and the surrounding area, it is restricted to a few small patches of habitat where, even in such a major population centre, few people ever go. And because few people ever go to where it lives, those spots are often under pressure for development – “if no one uses that area presently, why shouldn’t we turn it into something ‘useful’?” goes the thinking.

Because of where it lives – as the name implies, in boggy wetlands – the Georgia Basin bog spider’s population numbers are not fully known. Thankfully, though, some people do go and look for this creature, and what we do know is that, indeed, the population levels and threats are likely similar to some of the bigger animals mentioned in the preamble. This is not a situation that many often consider to be a problem for spiders and insects, and perhaps that is because we know so little about so many of them.

One of the main problems for this spider is that humans don’t live in bogs, at least not while they remain in their boggy condition. We tend to either drain bogs for development, harvest their moss for other uses, or use their natural conditions to grow crops like cranberries. In some cases other development, such as roadways, can have draining and polluting impacts on nearby bogs. All of these factors, and others, mean that when humans and bogs meet, the bog loses, as do many of its denizens. The Georgia Basin bog spider in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is one of those creatures currently on the losing side of that ledger.

In recent years some detailed work has been done on the Georgia Basin bog spider. You can find some of the most recent assessments of its status and coverage of its known natural history here and here. Both of those links are PDFs.

In a nutshell (you can find all of this information, and more, in those two PDFs):

  • The Georgia Basin bog spider has been found only at fifteen sites – seven in southwestern British Columbia, and eight in northwestern Washington state. Recent work has also detected the spider at Island View Beach in Canada.
  • Take a look at this aerial view of the Burnaby Marshlands. You can see at that link the level of pressure on the habitat there. That location was the Canadian site at which the greatest number of spiders were detected in a previous (1998) survey. There is good reason to believe that this population has been extirpated between that survey and now.
  • All of this means that the overall area of occupancy for the spider in Canada is roughly only about 16 km2.
  • This also means that the spider populations are extremely isolated from one another, limiting gene flow. It is thought that these spiders “balloon”, which is when young spiders cast a silk thread and catch breezes to disperse to new locations. Spiders have little control over where the wind takes them. So one can imagine that a ballooning Georgia Basin bog spider is pretty unlikely to land, by happenstance, in a suitable sphagnum bog within its current range, let alone survive to maturity to find and successfully mate with another Georgia Basin bog spider.
  • From collection records, it seems that the spider requires wet, and seemingly preferably, peat bog conditions.
  • Of the five sites in Canada with presumably established populations, four are at 3 meters or less above sea level. So besides impacts of human activity, there is a distinct risk of seawater inundation following a seismic event (i.e., a tsunami).
Gnaphosa snohomish male, photo courtesy Darren Copley, RBCM.

The Georgia Basin bog spider – just like tigers, rhinos, or condors – has a limited range, a limited number of appropriate habitats in that range, and is increasingly impacted by ongoing development and other pressures.

And it may live in your metaphorical (or literal!) back yard.

In other words, keep an eye out for the little things that live where you live. Just like the big things that live elsewhere, they have some important stories to tell.

_____

Thanks to Robb Bennett, Jennifer Heron, Darren Copley, Patrick Lilley, and Andrew Baylis for assistance with various aspects of this blog post.

This is a cross post from A Rocha Canada.

Flying solitude

Between 7 and 21 November I flew across the country and back two times. Once for the Entomological Society of Canada Joint Annual Meeting (in lovely Montreal) and the other time for the annual CCUBC meeting (again in Montreal). I don’t normally travel this much, let alone in such a temporally concentrated manner. As a bit of a homebody, I am not a big fan of travel and prefer to keep my periodic migrations to a minimum. Don’t get me wrong, I benefitted greatly from attending both of these events, and I wouldn’t have missed either. But if there had been a way to teleport me to and from Montreal, I would have taken it even if I would have risked scrambling my atoms in the process.

No matter the complaints about the mounting security- and fee-based inconvenience of air travel, this mode has always been and will always be a heck of a lot easier than much of the travel that our near ancestors experienced. As a passenger I get to transition between climate-controlled airport gate to climate-controlled airplane with the only winter chill sometimes encountered on the boarding ramp. The food isn’t always great, but it’s not terrible, and I can find meals, snacks, and drinks (a glass of Merlot, even!) easily between flights and on the aircraft. Long travel – keeping in mind that on these trips “long” is measured in hours instead of the days or weeks of the past – can be somewhat boredom inducing. But there are in-flight entertainment systems, and I hear that we’ll all be on WiFi on aircraft pretty soon.

So this all means that I can move thousands of kilometres in a few hours; I can stay warm and fed; and I am given tools to zone my brain out. All I need to do is plug in my headset and pick a movie. And voilà! Next thing I know we’re landing, brain happily disengaged the whole way.

This time, however, I was not as lucky. Or scratch that, maybe I was especially lucky, although I didn’t immediately think that I was. Specifically on three of the four legs of my flight I was assigned to the same seat in what I suspect was the same plane. The entertainment system in seat 30K had something wonky with its sound production, which meant that the music tracks of movies worked, but the spoken track sounded a lot like adults in Charlie Brown animations.

The first time that I experienced this “horrid” inconvenience I thought about buzzing the flight attendant to see what they could do about my predicament. But – perhaps because the selection of movies was iffy, or perhaps because I subconsciously knew that my brain needed a break – I decided to see how things went without a few hours of eye/brain candy. In the end I spent 15 or 20 hours during that two week span with nothing but a couple of books, the music supplied by Air Canada (decent little jazz selection, as it turns out), and my window to keep me company.

Having silence imposed on me reminded me of how little silence I generally get on a regular basis. And it also made me wonder once again if the lack of what might be called “boredom” in our daily lives has curtailed our ability to simply think. In fact I suspect that what we call boredom is really better thought of as solitude. And from what I’ve experienced it can be the best natural state of my brain – the state in which it can work at maximum revs.

During those hours in the air I read this fantastic book of poetry, and I plan to write a review at some point in the future. Short review: get it, you’ll be glad that you did. I also reread a few chapters from this book, and read some portions of this book, which I picked up from the ESC students’ silent auction.

I also stared out of the window a lot of the time. And, when you really think about it, there’s no way that if one of our ancestors – if she were transported from the past onto a plane 40,000 feet above the Rockies or the prairies or the Canadian shield – would stare aimlessly at a terrible rendition of The Fantastic Four. She’d be at the window the whole time. We’ve become so used to the technology of flight that we really don’t even care that we are doing something that humans have dreamed of from the time that they contemplated the birds around them. The only time we really even notice the amazingness of what we are doing is when we hit turbulence.

So, here are a few of my in-flight window musings:

  • We are so tiny. At 40,000 feet I am told that the furthest that one can see due to the curvature of the earth is about 400 km. Assuming that’s true (someone feel free to correct that if you would like to do the math), and that the distance as the crow flies between Vancouver and Montreal is about 3700 km, I would have had the opportunity to see about 1.48 million square km. Again, feel free to correct my rough estimates here, but one way or the other it’s a big number. During much of that time there were very few to no blatantly visible signs of humans below me. Perhaps a single road here or there, but that was about it. Even accounting for such a massive trip there was still a bit of Canada to the west, a larger bit to the east, and a vast swath to the north. At one point we passed a few dozen kilometres south of Calgary at night, and even such a sprawling city was just a moderate collection of lights on a vast sea of dark prairie. The ultimate tininess of humanity really hits home at 40,000 feet.
  • We punch above our weight. But just the fact that I was flying in a metal tube at 40,000 feet and traveling at over 800 km/h says something else. It says that though we are small, we have a massive impact. My carbon footprint on all four flights is calculated at 2.34 metric tons. An average stone in the Egyptian pyramids weighs 2.3 metric tons. That’s how much my trip, alone, spewed out – a pyramid stone’s worth! That’s big impact, multiplied by many, many people. Crossing the prairies I was reminded of how that entire ecosystem has been radically reworked by humans, another example of our bigness. And even above some of the areas that I thought would be the most isolated, I could still see the telltale little lights of small human settlements dotted here and there on the landscape.
  • We are connected. Below me I saw the various cities where my extended family lives. I passed within sight of both of my alma maters. I flew almost directly above many of my friends, professional colleagues, and various acquaintances. (One nice thing about the in-flight screen is that it shows all of the cites and towns on a map as you pass by them.) As I flew near each place I had some moments to think of each person who I knew below. There was pretty much no spot across Canada where I could say that I did not know someone within sight of my plane.

How do I tie this all together? Honestly, I’m not sure. These are simply some of the places that my thoughts went while in enforced solitude. In 15 or 20 hours, of course, I’d like to think that more than only these thoughts happened in my brain. Indeed, those thoughts and others continue to come back to me days after my travel is over. The question is, how do I ensure that I let my brain get back to being “bored” – or, rather, naturally active – again?

Skiffs and shifts

Over the past few summers, I have been spending about a day a week (give or take) on the Crooked River just north of Prince George. This little river, just a few dozen kilometres in length, flows north from Summit Lake into McLeod Lake. Its source is just on the north side of the Arctic watershed, which in itself makes the river somewhat unique compared to the rivers just to the south. Its low-gradient, meandering nature, plus ample and fertile forest all around it make it a very rich habitat for birds, mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. A quick kick sample of the river will bring up a screen writhing with all sorts of little creatures waiting to be discovered.

Part of the river is protected by a provincial park, but much of it is not. Even though there is copious logging activity (and the logging roads and bridges that go along with that), a major highway, and a rail line right alongside the river for part of its course, it is in great shape. But there is always a worry that cumulative impacts, or a substantial environmental accident along its banks could cause damage. The river is a real jewel, seemingly resilient, often overlooked by residents in the area, and potentially vulnerable to catastrophe. And it’s a place that has become important to me.

In previous summers one of my colleagues (Dr. Daniel Erasmus) and I, along with an undergraduate student (Claire), have sampled nymphs on the river, with a general focus on mayflies, but also collecting stoneflies and caddisflies. This year, in an effort to create a fairly complete checklist of the mayflies of the Crooked River, we sampled only adults. The nice thing about nymphs is that they are always there. The difficult thing is that they may be present in early (and hard-to-key) instars, or they may reside in hard-to-reach places in the channel. After substantial nymph collecting we decided that a focus this year on adults would potentially reveal a few species that we had missed, along with some further aspects of their natural history.

Our approach this summer was a combination of Malaise traps hung at the bank just over the water, and hand collecting. Malaise traps are not necessarily the best for mayflies as they don’t scuttle around too much after landing and so don’t always end up in the traps, but we had some success. Our best success though, it seems, was simple hand collecting. To do this we would enter the stream at several locations and would spend a cumulative hour of effort catching any emerging or egg-laying or otherwise flying and water-alighting mayflies that crossed our path. Often there were only two of us on the river, which meant about a half-hour of silence at each of our several sites. Silence, but for the sound of the water, or a kingfisher’s call, or a trout rising a few feet away (“darn, it took that mayfly on the water that I was about to collect”), or the grackle of the ravens that often greeted us at site CR2B. And the shush of a light summer breeze through the bank willows. So not-so-silent silence. But mind silence. And soul solace. The harmony of stillness.

That was a few months ago now, both temporally and metaphorically. Two nights ago we had our first skiff of snow here in Prince George. It is all melting now, but it is a reminder that we are soon to move from days of warm color to days of cool monochrome. On one hand that shift can be difficult for me and for others, not only because of the sudden change to sparseness on the landscape, but also, it seems, the concomitant increase in desk work and similar activities.

On the other hand, there are things to embrace about the shift as well, and embracing these can be helpful:

  • all of those mayflies need to be sorted, curated, and turned into tables and graphs. Each one, represents a singular moment in the past summer. A memory of the river. Claire is currently working on this as part of her thesis project and it’s exciting to think about what we are going to learn.
  • lots of other data from other projects; winter is the time where we get to learn to tell the stories of our summer data collection.
  • the ravens that visit me at my bus stop almost every morning during the winter.
  • my exercise regimen shifts from mainly outside to mainly inside. As a bit of a natural introvert (i.e., I don’t get charged up by crowds), this also means moving from a few passers-by to a zillion other people on the track at the gym. But that also means social interaction from time-to-time, or at least the presence of other humans. And that is as vital sometimes as the exercise.
  • the annual Entomological Society of Canada meeting, this year in lovely Montreal (and where I’ll have a poster up with some of our Crooked River caddisfly work), with plenty to learn about and colleagues and students to catch up with. And poutine.
  • in the winter semester I’ll be teaching three courses (yikes!) including my perennial favorite Animal Behaviour, and a new course for me that I’ve always wanted to teach, Invertebrate Zoology.
  • more community moments with family, friends, and colleagues while we spend more time indoors and in closer contact with each other.

Chris Buddle wrote (and videoed) a great discussion about not always being “fine”. For him and many others November can be a tough month. Personally, sometime around February is often my yearly nadir. I have found, though, that thinking ahead to that time in a mindful way can reduce the depth and, in some years, even make February a real time of hope as I see the transition to spring and the return of the light.

This year one of my plans is to think back to those moments of stillness on the Crooked River this past summer, to seek out quiet moments in the monochrome of the Prince George winter, to seek out family and friends as the winter deepens, to grab onto the good things that come with the season, and to look forward to a new spring and the rivers and forests that will still be there after they awaken from their blanket of snow.

 

 

Danie and Claire head off to collect from one of our Malaise traps on the Crooked River (upstream/downstream panorama at site CR2B).

Book review: The Book of Beetles

The Book of Beetles: A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred of Nature’s Gems
Edited by Patrice Bouchard
Contributions by Patrice Bouchard, Yves Bousquet, Christopher Carlton, Maria Lourdes Chamorro, Hermes E. Escalona, Arthur V. Evans, Alexander Konstantinov, Richard A. B. Leschen, Stéphane Le Tirant, and Steven W. Lingafelter
2014, University of Chicago Press
656 pages, 2400 color plates
$55 (cloth), $33 (eBook)

Last autumn, while I was wandering around the poster presentations at the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting in Saskatoon, I came across very inconspicuous display highlighting a book that was about to be released. Inconspicuous or not (and “display” might be a generous word to describe what simply amounted to a pile of handouts on a side table), it immediately caught my eye. And why wouldn’t it? The subject, beetles – in all of their glorious shapes, sizes, colors, and life histories – is always eye- and mind-catching. Upon returning home, I immediately pre-ordered it and received it from my local bookstore shortly after it was published. It has taken residence on the coffee table in our living room, and I have been enjoying it ever since.

The book is simply titled “The Book of Beetles” and is edited by Dr. Patrice Bouchard (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) with contributions by a number of experts. Much like “Snakes on a Plane”, the title tells you what it is about. But unlike that movie, this book is much more than its simple title. The idea of covering the full diversity of beetles sufficiently is, of course, a pipe dream. This book runs over 650 pages and covers 600 of the hundreds-of-thousands of known, not to mention the likely millions of more unknown, species of beetles. The full spread of beetle diversity is immense and, as is pointed out in a brand new (and open access!!) paper, “The beetle tree of life reveals that Coleoptera survived end-Permian mass extinction to diversify during the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution” by McKenna et al., “…(beetles) account for ∼25% of known species on Earth and ∼40% of insects”. To cover every known beetle species on earth would require well over 600 more of these volumes.

Also from McKenna et al.:

Curculionidae [snout and bark beetles, commonly referred to as weevils or “true” weevils] is the second most diverse family of metazoans (surpassed only by the rove beetle family Staphylinidae, which is older) with more than 51 000 named extant species in more than 4600 genera. Conservatively, it is estimated that there are more than 200 000 additional undescribed species of Curculionidae alone.

In other words, if we knew every single species of weevil extant today, we would need to compile more than 400 volumes of this size just to cover that one group within the beetles.

So the authors the The Book of Beetles were obviously required to complete the daunting task of choosing a mere 600 beetle species – a bit more than 0.1% of known beetle species – to highlight in this book.

In the introduction the authors set out their criteria for inclusion in this book. The authors chose among beetles that, variously:

  • are “scientifically compelling”
  • have “curious natural histories”
  • are “culturally significant”
  • are “economically important
  • are “rare and threatened”
  • are “physically impressive”

Again, certainly many, many other beetle species besides the chosen 600 met all of these criteria but could not be included. But I would argue that the editor and contributors did a fantastic job of selecting 600 compelling examples of these amazing insects that highlights a small, but still immense, range of their diversity.

Upon first encountering this large book (the cloth version, weighing in at 2.2 kg, is not one that is easily read in bed, but there is also an eBook option for those so inclined), the reader is immediately struck by the beauty of the jacket featuring an array of impressive insects surrounding the title. Remove the dust cover, and you will find three more gorgeous photographs of beetles on the front, spine, and back. These photographs all should simply whet your appetite for what you will find when you open the book.

The book begins with a short introduction to the volume followed by eight nicely illustrated chapters entitled “What is a beetle”, “Beetle classification”, “Evolution and diversity”, “Communication, reproduction, and development”, “Defense”, “Feeding behavior”, “Beetle conservation”, and “Beetles & society”. Each chapter is accessible for the non-expert, but engaging and full of enough detailed information to also keep career entomologists and expert naturalists interested. The chapters are short, ranging from about two to six pages each; and by p.30 the real meat of the book – the description of the 600 chosen beetle species – begins. The book, at this point, is divided up into four parts covering species from the Archostemata, the Myxophaga, the Adephaga, and the Polyphaga. The latter, of course, comprise by far the largest portion of the book

If you want to take a good look at what each species page entails, you can download a PDF sample of the book here.

Each species page contains information on one beetle species, so each open pair of pages features two species. From top to bottom each page has a generalized range map (entire world minus Antarctica mapped on each page) for the species; a table of generalized taxonomic and natural history information (family, subfamily, distribution, macrohabitat, microhabitat, feeding habits, and a note); a dorsolateral line drawing of the insect along with a note on the typical adult length (sometimes for both male and female if divergent); the species name in both italics and in all caps, along with the taxonomic authority and date; a paragraph on the natural history of the insect; a paragraph detailing related species of note; a photograph of the insect at actual size; a dorsal macro photograph, always of high quality; and a small figure heading next to the macro photograph with a bit more interesting natural history.

The level of detail in both the photographs and in the text is exceptional. For the photographs, you will have to look at the sample linked above to see what I mean. In terms of the text, each and every species is a joy to read about. For instance we learn about the cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne; p.372) that specimens have been found in Tutankhamun’s tomb; and that the larvae of the Florida tortoise beetle (Hemisphaerota cyanea; p.555) build up strands of their own feces over their bodies to protect themselves from enemies. And on and on it goes, page after page in rich and amazing natural historical detail.

The book ends with several short appendices including a glossary, a classification of the Coleoptera, and a list of other beetle-based resources.

This is not the sort of book that most people would likely read through one page at a time front to back and then put away. Rather, it is a book that can be read much as one might open random drawers in an entomological collection, with the benefit of having a studied natural historian at your shoulder to tell you what you are looking at. In other words, this book is a sheer pleasure to read and to look at, and everyone will learn from it. It definitely belongs in the collection of every practicing entomologist or other naturalist who is interested in insects.

Of dictionaries, buttercups, and time

Perhaps it’s because I live in a small city that is variegated with forests and that is surrounded for hundreds or thousands of kilometers in each direction with wilderness.

Perhaps it’s because my own kids are fortunate enough – in this increasingly technology-cloistered time – to be able to spend large chunks of time outdoors, often with minimal adult supervision.

Perhaps it’s because I work at an institution whose founding vision was towards the natural world around us; and with immediate colleagues who all spend a great deal of their research time in the outdoors.

Perhaps it’s because I work in a field where my closest research colleagues nearby and abroad conduct much of their work in forests, fens, and farmyards.

Perhaps it’s because many of the scientists who have influenced me most – past and present – approach their craft with a view to nature in its full and complex glory.

Just look at my personal Twitter community and you will find entomologists, ecologists, zoologists, botanists, microbiologists, paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, astronomers… and the list goes on. These are all people who – while much of their work is necessarily indoors – cannot answer the questions that they ask of nature without also spending time in nature. And these are a partially representative sample of the people who have influenced me.

So I think that I am often a bit blind to the reality of much of the world where increasing detachment from nature is commonplace. A world where, to quote T.S. Eliot, we are all becoming more and more “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s pretty easy, but not excusable, in my situation to forget that the larger culture beyond my family, colleagues, and vocation is changing in ways that bode longterm ill.

This – perhaps subconsciously willful or wishful or wistful? – blindness on my part hit home a month or two ago when I bumped into this article by Robert MacFarlane in which he describes and eloquently comments on the removal of a variety of “nature” words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Some of those words are:

…acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

New words have taken their place – words that are corporate-economic, screen-driven, and solitary-making.

(As an aside, I deeply shudder that “committee” is among those replacement words. Please, let children grow up without that abomination infesting them until they’re at least in high school.)

The reality, of course, is that removal of a few words by a dictionary is not the cause of the problem, it is merely a symptom. Dictionaries change over time, and they change in a way that reflects the culture in which they exist. If new words emerge and come into common usage, they may show up in a dictionary. If words become unused, they may disappear from the pages or at least be marked as archaic. So what do the recent changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary mean? I think it’s fair to say that it means that school-aged children – the target audience of this dictionary – aren’t holding buttercups under chins. They aren’t catching amphibians. They aren’t listening to birds. They aren’t playing games among tangles of willows. They are, instead, being influenced toward corporatized indoor loneliness instead of towards a corporate outdoor solitude.

This is is not just happening to the younger generation. If each of us were honest with ourselves, I expect that many – most? all? – of us would also see a shift in our own behavior in fairly recent years. This shift is happening at a time when the conservation crisis is more dire than ever. I don’t imagine that the co-occurrence of detachment and mounting environmental crisis is merely a coincidence. A detached and consumer-driven culture is by definition concerned with distracted consuming, not mindful conserving. How could rampant consumerism, then, ever contribute to conservation of the uncommodifiable natural world? Why should we expect a commercialized, buy-and-dispose attitude to instill exuberant appreciation of nature in its citizens, young and old?

As my former Ph.D. supervisor often says (I’m paraphrasing here, and he may be quoting someone else, but I’m not aware of who that would be):

Nature always answers your question, but you need to know what your question is or you will misinterpret the answer.

My worry is that most of the people who we rub shoulders with each day are less and less equipped to even recognize that nature is speaking to us, let alone to know how to ask the correct questions. So I, along with others, interpret the unfortunate nature-stripping of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as a bellwether and a challenge. The challenge for those of us who are concerned with conservation is to step beyond our small communities, which are not representative of the rest of society, and to incrementally bring a conservation mindset to our own family, friends, and neighbors.

Our shifting culture is a reality, and it would be magical thinking to insist that things are going to change anytime soon, or ever. A few in our concerned community have larger megaphones than others, and we need to encourage and help them to get the word out. But nothing beats the influence that each of us has on our immediate community, and it is there where most of us can work effectively.

If*:

Persuasiveness ∝ (Closeness of a trusted relationship)(Efficacy of the message)

then either factor in the equation can work in our favor.

We should each do our best with efficacy, of course. But we can also take comfort in the fact that however effective our message is, its impact is going to be multiplied by by our relationships. In other words, don’t worry about how loud your megaphone is. Whispering to a close friend still has more impact than shouting in a crowded room of near-strangers.

———
*Addendum:

Time spent in relationship is a factor in the development of close trust in a relationship.

Practice is a factor in increasing the efficacy of a message, and time is a factor in practice.

So one can argue that time is a factor in persuasiveness. If that is the case, then it behooves us to dispense with looking for insta-fixes and instead buck the culture of the here-and-now for approaches in which we take time deeply into consideration.

Cull

I run I run I run I run
panting heart-torn through new snow
I run I run I run I run
raging rumbling dervish winds blow
closer closer ever closer
I’m panting heart-torn through new snow.

Slowing, slowing, slower, slower
until I feel the flying death
closer closer ever closer
mingling, raging with my breath,
ice-encrusted heaving mane,
and I feel the flying death
ripping tearing searing pain
releasing me to dream, to dream.

With blood-encrusted heaving mane
I hear a final raven’s scream
releasing me to dream, to dream
we run we run we run we run
we run        we run        we run

—–

Read more about the BC government’s wolf cull here, and sign a petition.

Conservation basic training

I’m always a good several months behind in reading my National Geographic subscription. Recently I was working my way through the August 2014 issue and got to a fantastic article (I can’t remember very many National Geographic articles that aren’t fantastic) about Franz Josef Land – an isolated archipelago in Russia’s region of the Arctic Circle.

I enjoyed the entire article, of course. But a particular quote that caught me quite off guard and has caused me to ruminate for the past few days. Digesting that glossy cellulose can be difficult for gut microbes. Here’s what I read:

(National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala) was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

Oftentimes there is a disconnect somewhere between what a person thinks, what they say, what a journalist thinks they said, what an editor decides, and what ends up being printed on paper. I’ve experienced that, as has anyone who has been interviewed by the media for just about anything. So I’ll give Dr. Sala the benefit of the doubt here, but will comment on the way that this has been presented by National Geographic.

The implication in this clip of text, intentional or not, is that the job of teaching biology and natural history is task that does not have important conservation implications. I beg to differ.

In fact, I would argue that teaching is at least as important as data collection. Yes, there are the more obvious conservation roles that are more easily noticed than a professor in front of a lecture hall or guiding a group in the field or the lab. These include conservation officers, engaged politicians, park rangers, environment/agriculture/forestry/parks ministry employees, thoughtful farmers and foresters, academic/industry/government scientists, environmental consultants, NGO employees, public health nurses and physicians, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Those individuals are analogous to the soldiers fighting the battle on the front lines. But, as with any army, those front line soldiers would not do well if they were just dumped in front of the enemy with a loaded rifle and a “good luck.”

Winning battles, and ultimately winning a war, requires that soldiers be trained. Trained to operate independently. Trained to work in teams. Trained to understand the terrain. Trained to work with the equipment. Trained to get results. Academic teaching done correctly and enthusiastically – and with a focus on natural history and conservation – is a vital part of the basic training that conservation professions require in order for efficacy. Dr. Sala is undoubtedly the engaged conservationist and excellent scientist that he is in some very large part due to that basic training in an academic setting.

Beyond that, those of us who collect and synthesize data have not done our jobs completely if we do not also bring those results and their implications to a wider scientific and lay public. By participating in this National Geographic feature (indeed, by working for National Geographic) Dr. Sala has simply exchanged his teaching role from a classroom to the pages of a magazine. When we conduct research and then present it at a conference, in a scientific paper, in a classroom or field course, in a textbook, in a magazine, or on a radio or television program, we are teaching. Teaching, in whatever context, goes hand-in-hand with the scientific endeavor. I am taught when I read a colleague’s paper, even if I am reading her paper decades after she wrote it. She wrote it to teach me and others about phenomena that she had observed. When I take what I have learned from her study into the classroom and present it well, my students, I would hope, are better off for it and are better prepared as engaged conservationists as they prepare to work to protect habitats, species, ecosystems, and societies.

There is no doubt that the work of conservation in the face of massive, global anthropogenic influence is a vital and growing concern. Looking at the data, it sure seems that we are too often losing important battles. Dr. Sala is correct to be concerned about being caught up in “…refining the obituary of nature…” But the best way to stop writing that obituary is to bring the wonder and amazement and necessity of our natural world into the metaphorical “classroom” by bringing relevant research results (our own and those of others) to students. This is one of the best ways to create authentic, engaged, and active young conservationists who will fill traditional conservation roles or who will be conservation vocationists and ambassadors in whatever profession they ultimately choose.

Teaching is the hard and often unnoticed basic training work of conservation. And that’s why I choose to do it.