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.

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: Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
by Elena Johnson
2015, Gaspereau Press
48 pages
$17.95

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite poets, Dylan Thomas, once wrote the following in response to being questioned on his definition of poetry:

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don’t like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the ones I do, then all I can say is ‘Here they are’, and read them myself for pleasure.

…..

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship’. But you’re back again where you began.

You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsman always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.

This has been my general approach to poetry over the years as well. Poetry is sort of like wine. You don’t need to explain why you don’t generally like Syrah, no matter the vintage, but can appreciate a good Merlot. When you find a poem or a poet or a school of poetry that rings for you, you will know it. Why? Because, as Thomas wrote, there is a “mystery of having been moved by words.” Elena Johnson’s “Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra” struck that mysterious chord with me. I suspect that this collection would have a good chance of doing that with any other naturalist who regularly engages in field work, whether on the alpine tundra or elsewhere.

I first noticed this book via a tweet from Nikki Reimer:

Three short lines – field notes, in fact. But lines that invoke an immediate image, right down to a slight chill in the air and the colorful lichens on the rocks all around. Reading those lines, I was drawn to that place, in that place.

This collection succeeds because, at its heart, it is all about place. In this case, the place is a research station in the Ruby Range mountains in the Yukon. Johnson spent a few weeks in 2008 there with several teams of scientists working out of the camp. The collection is a result of her time spent there and exhibits her abiding connection to the place.

The poems tend to be short featuring short – sometimes one-word – lines but containing intense imagery. There is not a poem in this book that would take you more than two minutes to read if you were to simply read it as you might prose and then move on. There is not a poem in this book, either, that will not cause you to linger and perhaps sip again like a complex Merlot. Each poem will provide a new surprise, a new flavor, upon second and further readings. In this way the poems are, indeed, field notes. Well-written field notes should contain substantial information in even a few words. These poems contain concentrated place-imagery, each word or short stanza bursting more detail onto the page with each reading than its short length belies.

Here is a stanza that many field scientists will appreciate (from “Topographic Map 115 G/1):

We hefted saws / and tubs and ropes / to drag it. / Slunk / through fog / in grizzly country / stopping briefly / to shout.

Lugging of miscellaneous field gear, the movement into the unknown, the heightened awareness, and the general silence of work punctuated by “hey bear” shouts. It is easy to feel like you’re right there, hoping that a bear is not ahead shrouded in the fog.

Or, in “Silent for the Dry Season”:

So little noise here; sound / becomes a feeling. My own blood / a humming constant.

This short stanza not only brings out the depth of silence that is encountered when we leave urban and even rural environments for the true wilderness (“sound/becomes a feeling), but Johnson’s choice of enjambment focuses the reader’s attention to the sound of their own heart ricocheting in their arteries. Silence is truly a reminder that we are alive, the counter-implication being that constant noise and distraction and resulting movement are, at times, more a pointer toward death than life.

A number of the poems are found poems taken from scientific field notes. For instance “Ptarmigan Observation Sheet” places five days of August field work – including time, GPS point, and behavioral details – into a poetic context. Those of us who take field (or lab) notes on a regular basis probably have never thought of our jotting to be poetic. Perhaps Johnson is suggesting that we rethink that. Reading our old notes should bring back images of what we saw, smelled, heard, did. Others reading those notes should have the same experience. Besides being drawn into a few days of ptarmigan life, this found poem also represents a lesson to field scientists. Specifically, if you begin think of your notes as poetry, you might take better notes.

Johnson’s book, as with any well-curated and well-edited collection, works as a larger poem in its entirety. The poems move in a series from first arrival to later departure. The first poem, “Mountain List” is a short four lines that indicate the author’s first impression of the “mountain lonely with sparrows.” Poems then range toward field work (including those found-poem notes) and losing count of time in day-to-day camp life:

I scratch lines onto a rock. / But I can’t remember if I marked yesterday, / if I already marked today.

In a poignant moment Johnson finds herself “Alone at the Base”:

The other tents / flap, flap, flap. No one / is ever coming back.

Is she worried? Or in some way wishing for deeper isolation? Or both?

The book ends with the author “Hiking Out”:

Two sandpipers clear / the brook’s edge, where / I tilt my bottle in.

The author drinks the last of the mountain and thus makes the alpine tundra a part of her, echoing the almost-eucharistic desire of field scientists to imbibe – and in a sense become a part of – their place of study.

The physical book is a work of art in its own right. The jacket features, when entirely opened up, a photograph of two caribou appearing over a nearby lichen-encrusted ridge visualizing one of the poems. Remove the jacket, and you will find a grey-on-black repeated motif of caribou. The font – Mauritius, designed by Georg Trump – on rich ivory paper in a quality binding reminds the reader that this is a book to come back to.

I highly recommend that you read a few of Johnson’s poems from the book and – if the “mystery” of being “moved by (the) words” manifests – that you purchase the collection.

Finding something new

It seems that, with this post, I have inadvertently blogged a three-part series on why field work matters. In part 1 I wrote about the value of getting out, rather than being stuck behind a desk. In part 2 I wrote about the idea of place and how regular field work in one discrete location is important in terms of both understanding a system and for developing a conservation mindset. In this final (I think) part, I would like to write about the importance of novel experiences in the field.

In July I accompanied Dr. Aynsley Thielman, a postdoctoral associate in my lab, on her first visit to some high elevation, coastal field sites. Our particular task was to spend a couple of days intensively surveying the arthropod fauna in various habitats, and we were set to access the sites by helicopter. I’ve flown in helicopters on a number of occasions prior to this, but only for general reconnaissance purposes. This was the first time that I was going to be dropped off in a remote location. While the pilot was planning to stay with us, the reality in these mountainous situations is rapid shifts in weather and visibility. That meant that the pilot would give us very little notice before starting up the machine and leaving if he thought there was a safety risk. That, in turn, meant that besides efficient packing of field gear, we had to be prepared to potentially survive a night or two on the mountain before we could be flown down again. This was an interesting challenge, and one that I had never encountered before as most of the work that I have ever done is in locations accessible by well-traversed logging roads. I was, to be honest, a bit nervous leading up to the trip.

Those nerves dissipated rapidly, however, as soon as we were in the chopper and flying over the phenomenal landscapes of British Columbia’s central coastal mountains. And if just getting there was great, being there was doubly great. It’s hard to fully express in words how beautiful this place is. On the first day, we were beset by banks of clouds that meant that our pilot had to keep us moving quite quickly from site to site. But even so, the sight of clouds all around, the wind-stunted trees, the heather meadows, and the strange soil crusts kept us continually fascinated. The second day was as warm and sunny-beautiful a day as you can imagine – a complete reversal from the first day – and we were able to spend many hours in two discrete sites, looking under rocks for spiders, poking in the heather, sweeping trees, and waiting near flowers for pollinators.

By the end of two days of glorious collecting, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to my desk. I was certainly jealous of Aynsley and the summer students who were going to be going up there several more times over the course of the summer.

This was a unique experience in my career as a biologist. Most of my field work experience has been in the, relatively speaking, lower elevation forests of the interior of British Columbia. On the mountain, on the other hand, I was taller than most of the trees at one of the sites; and the “canopy” at the other site was the heather and wildflowers. And we were dealing with a whole host of arthropods, and none of them were bark beetles (although I do need to get in closer to inspect the boles of some of those trees next time I’m up there). I found that being in a unique field site – one that is beyond my normal travels – helped to prod my brain towards fresh thinking. It is easy, I think, to lose some degree of that freshness when doing the same thing repeatedly in the same type of situation. An entirely new ecosystem, a different mode of transportation, and the challenges that go with this kind of field work stimulate the mind or, perhaps, rouse it from potential lethargy.

It might also be worth noting that some of the noted naturalists of bygone eras – think Darwin on the Beagle or Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, for instance – spent some part of their careers in fairly continuous motion to new and vastly different areas. I could never hope to accomplish what either of these preeminent scientists did in terms of turning the study of biology upside down. But I think it would be fair to say that getting out of what they were used to on the British Isles to new contexts allowed them to see patterns that they may have never noticed if they had stayed put. In Darwin’s case, the experience took some time to set in, but was instrumental in the development of the idea. In Wallace’s case, the idea came to him in the context of his experience. In either case one might argue that experiencing a unique field situation can help to make a scientist alert to new ideas. And this may be an outcome of the mind being stimulated toward fresh thinking.

Finally, new experiences like this can serve to remind us about the bigger picture. It is easy to get complacent about the “known” when we travel to our regular sites that we think that we understand so well. But how much do we really know, even of those sites? Spending time in a place that is unique to you – and where almost everything that you see is new – is a good reminder of how little we actually know. It should stimulate a researcher to return to their regular field locations with fresh eyes and a new realization about how much we still have to learn.

I know that it has done that for me. And I can’t wait to get back.

Place and rhythm

In “The Dry Salvages,” part of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote the following*:

     I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

A large part of my field work over the past summer was taken up by weekly trips to a river near Prince George for work on a project with Dr. Daniel Erasmus and an intrepid NSERC summer student, Claire. On each trip we visited a number of locations along the length of the river and sampled mayfly nymphs and adults, along with whatever else came up in our sampling efforts. Once a week from May until August, rain or shine, two or three of us would set out from UNBC and would spend the day on the river. I was fortunate to be in on most of those trips, and my regular visits to the river’s “strong brown god” reminded me of the importance of not just getting out to do field work, but also getting out to the same location on a regular basis.

My regular trips meant I was able to watch and experience-via-chest-waders the seasonal ebb and flow of the river. We saw the exploding emergence and seeming imploding disappearance of one fascinating insect species after another. Some weeks we would find a few larvae or nymphs on the vegetation. In following weeks we’d find more. And then even more suddenly than they had appeared on the reeds, they were gone. Asters were not blooming, and then they were blooming, and then they were setting seed. Some days were spent mingling with the scent of wild roses on the bank while we worked, and other days the roses were gone. We could watch the bumblebees focus on one flower species, and then another, and then another as the summer progressed. We were greeted many weeks at one site by a loud family of ravens and sometimes a bald eagle as well. Northern pike minnows spawned at our feet while we sampled a site on one afternoon. Some days were blazing hot, on others we shivered in our rain gear.

And the whole time I got to know the river in a way that I could not have if I had only spent a day or two there. Over the course of the summer, the winding course of the river became a place to me. That is, the river is a geographical location that I now know in a way that makes it more than another spot on a map. And even more than that, it has become a spot that I care about in more than just an abstract way.

I have had other “places” like this in my life, as have we all. A stretch of the Bow River right in downtown Calgary that I have fished and walked along more times than I can count. A hillside called McHugh Bluff, across the street from the house that I grew up in in Calgary and where I spent much of my childhood wandering and hunting magpies with a slingshot (for those concerned, I was always unsuccessful, which is either a testament to my aim or to the intelligence of corvids). A nondescript site on the side of a mountain outside of Lytton, British Columbia where I spent many of my Ph.D. spring field seasons trapping Douglas-fir beetles.

The thing that each of these places have in common is the fact that I have not only spent some time in them, but I have spent large amounts of time there, across a season or seasons, being actively engaged in the landscape. I have been to many, many locations in my life. I have only had the time to develop a small number of places.

In his essay, “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner writes about placed and displaced individuals:

To the placed person (the displaced person) seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

And this takes us back to the snippet from the Eliot poem. Eliot identifies the way that we often interact with nature. That is, we either find it “useful… as a conveyor of commerce” or we cloister ourselves into cities, become “worshippers of the machine.” Then, cloistered in concrete, we not only forget about the river, but we also “unhonour” and “unpropitiate” it and all that it represents.

But Eliot subtly also seems to provide a remedy for the growth of detachment in the several lines that follow. Specifically:

His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

That is, the river’s seasonal rhythm continues to call, even after it has been tamed by bridges. Those who are consumed with technology and modernity in general have the opportunity to listen, or to ignore. Biologists and other naturalists have a unique opportunity to be listeners, to move with the river’s rhythm, and then to carry that rhythm back to those who have not yet responded to it. This, of course, requires that we take the time for regular contemplation of the river, the forest, the soil, the pinned or pressed specimens, and the wise written words of those who have studied these things in times past.

So take some time out of your day or week to hear the rhythm that is calling. And then, once you have listened to it, make the effort to relate it to those who have not yet found the time or inclination to do so. Only then, one place at time, will others also deeply understand the need for conservation of the places that they come love.

——

*Yes, I’m aware that the “river god” in Eliot’s Four Quartets has larger implications relating to what is knowable and what is unknowable. But I believe that this passage also works in this context. Opinions may vary.

Getting out

For various reasons, over this past summer I have had the opportunity to get out into the field much more than usual – rivaling the amount of time that I was in the field during my Ph.D. studies. While I generally do ensure that I go out several times in any given summer, the frequency and intensity of the field work this summer was beyond what I’ve been used to since I have become a faculty member.

One of the oddest things about being a faculty member, in fact, is the general trend that I’ve noticed (and keep in mind that for personal experience N=1) toward more desk work and less boots-on-the-ground work over the years of my employment. Some of the trend is necessary – when managing a number of graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral associates, the general red tape of research takes time and effort to cut through. Some of it is probably a time-management factor of letting some lower-priority items fill summer field work time. And there have been periods where research activities were more overtly lab-based than field-based. But, whatever the reasons, it’s hard to argue that for a biologist, less time in the field is a good thing.

Regular field work is a tonic against DOTS – Distilled Organism in a Tube Syndrome. With the shift of genomics, metabolomics, and other “-omics” methodologies toward easier and cheaper access by many research labs, field work can often mean a quick collecting trip or two – potentially done by someone else under contract – followed by rapid reduction of the study organism to some sort of solute in a water-filled tube. While this has been great for speeding along scientific discovery, it has had the side effect of reducing the amount of contact that investigators have with their organism(s) in nature. In fact, it is possible for many research projects to run off of the samples or data collected in years prior. For instance, in my lab I could simply have graduate students determine the function any number of mountain pine beetle enzymes in a long series of projects using material stored in our freezers. The students would never have to even see a forest or a live (or dead) insect. Those results would be useful and informative, but they would lack the connection to the larger system and would, potentially, be less than relevant in terms of the insect’s full ecological function

Of course, not every research lab “distills” creatures down to a tube of DNA, but it is still possible in other methodological contexts (e.g. DOPS – Dry Organism on a Pin Syndrome) to begin to lose sight of the natural history of the organism. And when that happens, the likelihood of pursuing irrelevance increases.

Regular field work takes you to the periphery of your study system. It is normal to focus on one or a few organisms, hypotheses, and/or systems. Scientists need a substantial level of focus to be successful. But what are the things that are happening around the edges of the system? What other organisms or environmental factors affect my study system? What is my organism doing during times of the season when I may not be normally collecting? These sorts of questions can only be answered by scouting around the edges of your system. And scouting the edges can only be done by taking the time to observe the natural context of your organism in the field.

Regular field work centers your thoughts and allows you to really observe your study system. My Ph.D. work was on the effect that volatile compounds from nonhost trees have on foraging bark beetles. The initial idea for the work came when my supervisor (prior to me working with him) was taking a break from field work and eating lunch in a stand of aspens surrounded by a mountain pine beetle infestation. All of the lodgepole pines surrounding the aspen stand had been mass attacked by beetles. The few lucky pines growing within the aspen stands were untouched. That initial observation was only possible because he was taking the time to contemplate what was going on around him. While such eureka moments cannot be planned per se, they occur best when the opportunity for them has been planned by intentionally spending time in the field. In other words, insight arrives seemingly unscheduled in centered moments. But some planning and scheduling is required to allow for those moments in the first place.

Summer is almost over now, and I am very glad to have been out as much as I have this year. I’m looking forward to a winter of preparing for another field season in 2015. I hope all of you have also had great seasons, wherever your research has taken you, and are already starting to plan for a new year ahead.

Hot ice crawlers

I enjoy reading older literature for many reasons. I love the “time capsule” aspect of it, as I get a glimpse into what people were thinking in decades (or centuries) past. I also enjoy finding little bits of information that have served as part of the foundation for ongoing current study – or that could spark new inquiry.

As editor of the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia, I am often on the journal website taking care of journal business. While there I sometimes delve into the archives and see what I can find.

(The archives, by the way, are almost complete thanks to the tireless work of Alex Chubaty and a small army of other volunteers. Only a bit more work, and we’ll have the entire century-plus natural history record of JESBC online. Exciting!)

While poking around the archives recently I came across this little gem of an article, written in 1945 by George Spencer and entitled “On the incidence, density, and decline of certain insects in British Columbia.” Since part of the research in my lab is on outbreaking insects – bark beetles – this title caught my eye.

Further reading brought me to this paragraph:

About 1937, J. D. Gregson found Grylloblatta campodeiformis Walk. at Kamloops in the talus slope of Mount Paul, at an elevation of 1,400 feet only. The face of this slope is one of the hottest spots in the Dry Belt and Grylloblatta seems to retreat into the cold interior of the rock pile during summer, coming out to the surface only when November cools down the countryside with sharp frosts. Its previous records were from Lakes Louise and Agnes and on Rundle Mountain, in the Rockies, Alberta, and in British Columbia, a reported record from Forbidden Plateau near Courtenay on Vancouver Island and at the top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver. To find it in numbers at 1,400 feet at Kamloops, provides a most remarkable record of discontinuous distribution. It is probable that further collecting in this Province, in late autumn will show that Grylloblatta is widely distributed in locations similar to those occurring at Kamloops. The insect must have followed the skirts of the receding ice sheet 15,000 years ago and persisted in situations where it could retreat in summer time to near frozen spots deep in rock piles.

Grylloblattids have always fascinated me, although I have yet to see one alive in its natural habitat. It’s on my bucket list. Entomologists have strange bucket lists.

These creatures – often called ice crawlers – are a small group consisting of around three dozen known species. They live mainly in alpine regions and they are best suited to a narrow range of temperatures a bit above the freezing mark. They eat insects or other food items that are blown into their cold habitat from lower, warmer, and less desolate elevations. They do not do well at high temperatures – temperatures that you and I would think of as a nice day – so it was quite surprising to find these creatures in such a blazing hot location.

A bit of further digging in the JESBC archives pulled up a 1938 article by Gregson (“Notes on the Occurrence of Grylloblatta campodeiformis Walker in the Kalmoops District”) which provides great detail on the natural history and some of the early collections of this insect near to Kamloops. It makes for a fairly short, but fascinating and instructive read, giving some details on how this population may be able to survive summer surface temperatures above 40ºC.

So what has become of this information in the almost eighty years since Gregson’s description? As luck would have it, there are two very recent pieces reviewing what is known about grylloblattids. In one article, Schoville and Graening (2013) have developed an updated checklist of ice crawlers (and there have been some good collections made in the recent past), with copious information on their natural history. If you take a look at Figure 1 in their paper, you can see two lonely triangles near to Kamloops. In other words, over the decades the Mt. Paul population still seems to be rather isolated in its one little hot island.

In another recent (2014) paper by Schoville [“Current status of the systematics and evolutionary biology of Grylloblattidae (Grylloblattodea)”], you can see a photograph of G. campodeiformis (Figure 1) along with the known worldwide distribution of all species (Figure 2). Schoville also describes “a glacially driven alpine species pump within the Sierra Nevada mountains” and speculates as to whether it’s possible that past climate change explains the distribution of species in other parts of North America.

So, the Mt. Paul ice cralwers seem to constitute quite an interesting little population. Besides behavioral (and physiological?) adaptations to their harsh habitat, they are also seemingly quite isolated from any other populations. Can understanding why this is the case help us to understand past speciation events? Perhaps someone has done further research on this overall situation, and if so, I’d love to hear about it. But there seem to be a number of obvious questions here regarding the relationship of this population to other G. campodeiformis populations. And, of course, there are all sorts of other evolutionary, behavioral, physiological, and ecological questions to be considered as well.

As I wrote above, perhaps this has been studied in further depth, or perhaps studies are ongoing. If so, please point me in the right direction because I’d love to read further.

If not, it’s just another one of those zillions of projects out there waiting for someone to take it on.

And in either case, it outlines the value of an ongoing commitment to natural history research to uncover interesting situations and point to new research directions.