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: 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.

Wharf borers

Some of the nicest things about the older entomological literature are the short papers that record interesting observations. To some extent these almost seem like the blog posts of that era – reasonably short and pithy with some useful information as well. I really enjoy reading these short accounts, in part because of the interesting natural history information that they contain, and in part because they are often rife with potential research questions. The reality, of course, is that I have neither the budget nor the time to follow up on 99.9% of what can be found in these accounts. Nobody does. But, if nothing else, reading these short notes is a good exercise in brain stretching.

N. melanura larva (PaDIL, CC-BY-3.0)

I recently came across one of these notes in the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia. Since I edit this journal, I often end up browsing its pages, and this note by G.J. Spencer (1946) on wharf borers found in pilings in Vancouver caught my eye. It seems that Spencer was asked to take a look at some creatures that were found at the BC Sugar Refinery at the Port of Vancouver. The enquirer was worried that they were Teredo navalis, the naval shipworm. The shipworm is a mollusk, so undoubtedly Spencer was able to immediately identify that the samples were not shipworms but were, in fact, insect larvae. He identified them as Nacerdes melanura, the wharf borer.

Spencer, however, “(found) it hard to believe the details that accompanied (the specimens)”, and he indicates that he went immediately to the wharf. What were these details that initially had Spencer so incredulous? Well it seems that construction work was being done at the site, and the workers had uncovered some old pilings that had been driven about thirty years before. Prior to the pilings being driven, that part of the seafloor was filled with ash and soil. After the pilings were in place more fill was dumped on top of them, concrete was poured over that, and then some buildings were built on top of that foundation. The workers who Spencer encountered had been in the process of demolishing those buildings when they uncovered the old pilings and found the larvae. Spencer himself also dug larvae out of a “…thoroughly soggy piling in which the centre only was of firm though very wet wood.”

Assuming that the historical account received by Spencer at the worksite was correct, that means that the infestation had been in place for some decades with no possibility of later infestation once the concrete was poured. In way of further corroboration of this phenomenon Morris (1980) cites Laing (1936) who observed larvae in wood that had been encased in concrete for seven years. Spencer indicates two logical hypotheses that flow from observations such as these. First, that it is possible that the larvae were introduced to the pilings during initial construction, and the insects were able to complete multiple generations in the same material. Or, second, that it is possible that the larvae of this species can undergo very long diapause or at least very lengthy development when trapped in such a situation.

N. melanura adult (PaDIL, CC-BY-3.0)

Either of these possibilities is, of course, interesting. So I dug around a bit more to find out about these strange creatures. However it turns out that the literature is rather sparse. They don’t seem to be major structural pests – which likely explains the rather low amount of research – although they do get mention as pests of wooden archeological artifacts. It seems that people mainly notice them (and call pest control professionals) when large numbers of adults occasionally burst onto the scene, often in damp basements or, interestingly, in the vicinity of toilets. There is no doubt that they like seawater-saturated wood, and saltiness may explain their association with urine as well.

Wharf borers have been documented just about anywhere that humans live. Because they seem to prefer saltwater-soaked timber, they usually are found at marine port cities. But that is not always the case as they have also been found far inland, and a substantial distance from seaports. Their seemingly ubiquitous presence associated with human activity has led to some debate about where they originate, and it is fair to say that centuries of shipping them all over the world have certainly tangled up that problem. But perhaps it is the sort of problem that could be worked out by some population genetics sleuthing.

Some recent work has shown that the larvae maintain enzymes that enable them to break down some components of wood. However it was not clear if those enzymes were from the insect itself or derived from fungi or other microorganisms associated with the larvae. Other papers that I’ve linked in this blog post speculate on whether the insect is digesting wood directly or if it is relying on, or even ingesting, associated microorganisms. That same recent study established that the larval period of the lifecycle is at least reasonable substantial and went some way to determining that temperature may signal the maturing insect to move from one stage to the next.

So it seems that we are dealing with some extremely hardy insects. They can live in the undoubtedly hypoxic environment of water-saturated and rotting wood. Besides that, the water that they prefer to soak their surroundings also has a high salt content. Somehow they are able to make a nutritional living in rotting wood that has undoubtedly has most of its easily available nutrients flushed out of it. And to top it all off, there is good evidence that they can spend at least a few years, if not decades, trapped inside of rotting timbers without further access to the outside world. It’s no wonder that these creatures have found ways to hitch rides with humans all over the world and then have settled in with us – usually mainly hidden from our sight – for the long haul.

Wharf borers are truly amazing little creatures, ones that deserve some further research attention. There are a lot of great questions here, and many of them represent some pretty low-hanging fruit.

Goldilocks conferences

Last week I, along with dozens of Canadian entomologists, was in beautiful Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at our annual Entomological Society of Canada/Entomological Society of Saskatchewan Joint Annual Meeting. I had a great time there. There were five talks from my research program (including one of my own). I was very proud of all of my students and postdocs, as they all gave great talks. One of them, Sharleen Balogh, won the President’s Prize for her talk. And UNBC’s very own Staffan Lindgren became President of the Society for the next year.

Besides all of that, I was able to visit with many colleagues and students. We were able to “talk shop” and discuss our ideas easily, almost like an ongoing, really large lab meeting. We had time to get to know each other a bit better as actual humans, not just another name on a co-author list. And we were treated to all sorts of inspiring and informative regular talks, symposium addresses, and poster presentations. By the end of the four days in Saskatoon, I was tired but also elated at the state of entomological research and teaching in Canada. Our discipline is in very good hands for the foreseeable future, and that makes me happy.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about conferences on my plane flight back (while trying to avoid a conversation about “chem trails” with an insistent fellow sitting next to me). I’ve been to some very large conferences with attendees numbering in the thousands. And I’ve been to some very small conferences with maybe 20 or 30 attendees. The ESC JAM is an order of magnitude smaller than the former and an order of magnitude larger than the latter – nestling right into a bit of a sweet spot, in my opinion.

I do truly appreciate the smaller conferences for a number of reasons. There are no concurrent sessions, so you never are forced to miss a talk. They are really great venues for early-stage students to present their work in a thoroughly non-threatening atmosphere. They are a great place to reconnect with your closest – geographically and often in terms of discipline – colleagues. On that latter point, in a discipline like entomology where many of the issues that we deal with are regional in nature, this aspect cannot be stated too strongly. Having some time to compare notes on regional conservation or pest issues in a semi-formal setting with regional colleagues is vital.

I also like the larger conferences, but not quite as much. And the fact that I haven’t been to a large conference in several years now is perhaps a bit of a testimony to my deeper current mindset. Large conferences have the advantage of having something for everyone. With thousands of attendees giving talks or posters over a three- or four-day period, there are also many – sometimes dozens – of concurrent sessions. Organizers have a ton of resources, and they can bring in big speakers and a great trade show. This means that no matter what, I can find talks and items of interest to me at large meetings. But it also means that I feel required to preschedule myself to such an extent that it is unlikely that I’ll just stumble into a talk (or remain in a session after the talks that I was interested in) that truly but accidentally blows my mind. Pure organization is key at a large conference, and that reduces spontaneity.

I also find that I’m often more prone to being “lonesome in a crowd” at large meetings because you have to be pretty lucky to meet someone you might know just in time for lunch or dinner with so many concurrent sessions going on. Again, this can be overcome with planning (“hey, let’s meet at the registration desk for lunch at noon on Tuesday”), but does not really allow for surprise meetings with known and yet-unknown colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to large conferences. They are amazing events, and I have always benefited from being at them. But perhaps it’s my somewhat introverted tendencies that make me more comfortable at the small-to-medium-sized meetings. It’s at those venues that I find that I can see presentations that are both exactly relevant to my work and also tangentially interesting. I can easily meet with people who I know. I can meet a few who I didn’t know before. And I can make a gracious retreat when I’m feeling a bit tired of interacting.

Ultimately I suppose that each of us has a Goldilocks Zone for preferred meeting size. Mine generally matches what I experienced last week. Preferences, of course, will vary. And the benefits of all meeting sizes mean that we should all also step away from our personal Goldilocks Zone from time-to-time to experience meetings of all sorts.

(And a quick addendum: Thanks so much to the organizers of the ESC-ESS JAM 2014. Having been part of an organizing team in the past, I realize how much work that was. I hope that you all are feeling proud of the great work that you did, because that was an excellent meeting all around.)

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.

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.

Harrington’s 1881 field notes and thoughts for today

The earth covered by its first mantle of snow reminds one that the collecting season is virtually ended, and the lengthening evenings allure one to the study fireside to go carefully over note books and collections and to read the recorded labors of fellow Entomologists.

So begins William Hague Harrington as he recapped his personal entomological observations from the summer of 1881 near to Ottawa, Ontario.

It was this sentence that first caught my eye while I was browsing around the deep back issues of The Canadian Entomologist. Perhaps it was the reference to snow just as the warmest days of the year are beginning. Perhaps is was simply the language that Harrington used. But either way it prompted me to find out more about the entomologist behind these words.

According to his obituary in the June 1918 issue of The Canadian Entomologist, Harrington was born in 1852 in Nova Scotia. After his formal education he worked in the Canadian civil service in various roles until he retired in 1916. He passed away shortly after that, in 1918.

Prior to that, in 1879, he was one of the founders and charter members of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, an organization that is still active today and which publishes The Canadian Field-Naturalist. He was secretary-treasurer, secretary, and president of that club at various times. He was also an active member of the Entomological Society of Ontario, and was president of that organization for a couple of years. His obituary lists close to 50 articles published in The Canadian Entomologist and more than 50 published elsewhere. The article topics range widely with, as his obituary notes, a substantial focus on Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.

Besides – and I’d argue more important than – his scientific accomplishments, he was described as:

(q)uiet in nature and unassuming, even retiring at times, Harrington was held in high regard by all who knew him.

Reading his summary of his 1881 field notes I think that we can see hints of both his “quiet nature” and his expertise as a natural historian. The notes are both contemplative and full of useful information.

His discussion begins with collections of “mud-wasps” – I am guessing that he was referring to the black and yellow mud-dauber Sceliphron caementarium, although he calls them Polestes annulatus – on 15 March 1881. These he describes as collecting nest material from the “pulverized macadam” of the streets of Ottawa and building nests on the side of the Parliament buildings.

He goes on to discuss various butterflies, the full onslaught of mosquitoes around 24 April, and an early emergence of some buptrestid beetles. Other spring-emerging, conifer-feeding species that year included Pissodes spp. weevils and sawflies.

Harrington’s attention to detail is present throughout this short essay. Take, for instance, his discussion of fireflies:

During May the curious larvae of certain Lampyridae were often seen in damp woods, crawling on the trunks of trees, such as cedar, or affixed by the tail to the bark, undergoing their metamorphoses in a similar manner to the larvae of the Coccinellidae. Some reared at home emerged as Photinus angulatus [Note: although this species name appears commonly in the literature of the time, I am not sure of the current taxonomy]. The larvae, and to a less degree, the pupae, emitted a strong greenish glow from two of the posterior segments; the imago being, of course, one of our common “fire flies.” Some of the larvae were thickly covered beneath with small ticks, of a bright vermilion color, which had their pointed heads plunged between the armored segments of the larvae. They were not dislodged, but walked rapidly when free. By these little parasites the larva were so weakened as to perish before completing their transformation.

During the spring he also took two trips – one to Wakefield Cave (here, I assume) with some friends, and one with the Ottawa Field-Naturalist’s Club to Montebello. On both trips he successfully collected a large number of insects, including a number of tiger beetles.

After that he states that “my opportunities for collecting were few, and my notes correspondingly scanty.” As for all of us, life’s necessities and other urgent (and less-urgent) issues often take precedence. Harrington finishes off his compilation mentioning early-October collections a few specimens of a cotton moth that seemed to be a seasonal and accidental invader of Canada.

A couple of things struck me about this compilation of notes. First, the fact that Harrington obviously took the time to take good field notes and then to publish them in this summarized form is wonderful. Not only is it a record of what he did and saw in 1881, but it provides some interesting information that others may be able to follow up on over 125 years later. His attention to detail and drive to get the information out to the public in curated and archived form is a great example to follow. These days a scientific paper is the usual, highly distilled, production of field and lab notes. Should we be thinking more about how to regularly compile our field and lab notes in this way as well? Would such information be useful to future generations of biologists? Are there curated and archived venues that would take such compilations today? I can’t think of any, but I’d love to be informed if there are.

And second, for all of the current discussion of “citizen science,” it is obvious that citizen science has been alive and well for decades, if not centuries. Harrington was not what most would consider to be a “scientist” today. But he most definitely was just exactly that. The current push towards large- and small-scale, often online, citizen science initiatives simply picks up a baton that has been passed along through multiple generations. Much of the science done in previous generations was done by people exactly like Harrington – lay citizens with a deep interest in the natural world around them. In other words, new times require new methods, but not a new spirit of fascination. Fascination is always present.

So, a big thanks to William Hague Harrington for his contributions and his foresight and care to ensure that his observations are still here for us to read about and learn from.

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.

Spider Monday

To help to celebrate Spider Monday, here are a few spider-related papers from the archives of the Journal of Entomological Society of British Columbia.

Bennett, R.G. 2001. Spiders (Araneae) and araneology in British Columbia. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 98:83-90.

A fantastic survey of everything spider in British Columbia. My favorite paragraph:

Large areas and many specific habitats of BC remain uncollected and no doubt many list additions are still to come, especially from northern areas and the deep south of Be. No effort has been made to produce a comprehensive, habitat-specific spider inventory for any area in BC. That new records can be made with relative ease is suggested by the following examples: hundreds of specimens of a gnaphosid previously only known from a couple of  Washington specimens turned up in a simple pitfall study in Burnaby (see cover of Journal of the Entomological Society of BC, Vol. 96, 1999), the first specimen of a new family record for Canada came from the carpet of a provincial government office (Bennett and Brumwell 1996), and a new species record for BC came from the bathtub of an Osoyoos motel (Bennett unpublished data) in 2001.

Bennett also quotes himself, writing in another excellent article that can be found here at the Biological Survey of Canada:

…spiders are ruthless storm troops in the matriarchal anarchy that is the arthropod  world: theirs is the most diverse, female-dominated, entirely predatory order on the face of  the earth. As such, spiders are key components of all ecosystems in which they live.


And, since I already linked to the 1999 spider cover, above, I should also link to a couple of others from the covers of the 2004 and 1993 issues.


Speaking of new records, there is this paper on a new spider family record in Canada:

Bennett, R.G. and Brumwell, L.J. 1996. Zora hespera in British Columbia: a new spider family record for Canada (Araneae: Zoridae). J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 93:105-109.

That article also contains some helpful drawings of spider genitalia. In case you didn’t know, arachnologists and entomologists are into that kind of thing.


Of course, the only way that we’re ever going to know what lives in remote locales is to go and visit those places ourselves. Nothing beats boots on the ground. This paper covers just that type of work, surveying spiders in a part of the world that very few of us will ever see:

Slowik, J. 2006. A survey of the spiders (Arachnida, Araneae) of Chichagof Island, Alaska, USA. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 103:61-70.


Here is an addition to a checklist of the spiders of British Columbia. The addition points back to a previous revised checklist from 1984 that we have yet to get online in the JESBC archives. Here is the addition:

West, R.C., Dondale, C.D., Ring. R.A. 1988. Additions to the revised checklist of the spiders (Araneae) of British Columbia. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 85:77-86.


Species checklists (and regular updates) are vital for understanding biodiversity and monitoring shifts in diversity over time. Along with that, it is important to get down to the natural history of the individual species on those checklists. Each species is, in itself, several careers-worth of work… at least. This type of work is arguably even more important when human influences (e.g. agriculture) are present. Here is a paper that outlines the emergence times of a variety of arthropods, including a mixture of spider species, in pear orchards:

Horton, D.R. 2004. Phenology of emergence from artificial overwintering shelters by some predatory arthropods common in pear orchards of the Pacific Northwest. J. Entomol. Soc. Brit. Columbia 101:101-108.


Humans (and other factors) do indeed have massive effects on biodiversity. Unfortunately we often only notice those effects when we start to see the decline in the numbers of one species or another. This, of course, assumes that we are even taking notice of some of these small creatures that are so prevalent, but often so hidden from our literal or metaphoric view. This occasional paper published by the Entomological Society of British Columbia offers an extensive coverage of likely-or-actually-at-risk spineless animals in this province that often escape notice, but which provide many of the so-called “ecosystem services” that we all rely upon. There is a long list of spiders, starting on page 10:

Scudder, G.G.E.  1994. An annotated systematic list of the potentially rare and endangered freshwater and terrestrial invertebrates in British Columbia. Occasional Paper 2.

Have a happy Spider Monday, and be sure to say hi to one of our eight-legged friends if you happen to come across one.