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.

Should I pursue this major?

A few days ago one of the academic advisors here at my institution sent me a letter in which a student asked about the utility of a biology B.Sc. I mulled it over in my head for a few days and then responded with (edited a bit to preserve anonymity and for better clarity) the letter below.

In this day of increasing media hyperbole – or dare I call them “attacks” – regarding the value of a postsecondary education, I can understand this student’s worry. For instance, here’s a very recent piece from a big regional/national network that begins with the description:

According to a new study from Statistics Canada, there are some areas of study that you should avoid if you want to get good value out of your education.

This, unfortunately, is what we hear more and more these days. Unlike the pablum normally served to us from the media, I would never argue that someone should not pursue their passion. If their passion is in carpentry, then trade school is the way to go. If they happen to like building cutting-edge technology in their garage, then they should go for it; it turns out that can work out pretty well. And if they really like biology or history or literature or physics, a good place to learn more about those things happens to be a university. When it comes down to it, it’s all about passion. If something is not your passion, then you should not cave in to pressure to pursue it. If it is your passion, then find the best place to explore it further whether it’s technical school, university, or your garage.

One more quick aside: I am bumping into more and more of these queries lately. I suspect it has something to do with a much more difficult economy than has been the case even a few years ago. As something resembling an archetypal GenX-er, I suppose that I have had some experience in this area, as I too graduated into a recession. I’d bet that many of you have thoughts in that regard as well.

Rather than go on any further here, I’d like to present my edited and redacted version of the letter below. Your comments are welcome, of course.

—–

Dear __________,

One of our academic advisors referred your question about whether or not you should pursue the biology B.Sc. major at UNBC to me. Thank you for asking, and I hope that I can be of some help.

Your question is not one that is completely easy to answer. If you are looking for a specific job – and if you know what that job is – then you should find a university degree or technical school certificate program that will lead you directly there. If you are not certain of where you see yourself in five or ten years (and who among us really has that kind of certainty anyhow?) then please keep on reading.

All degrees at universities – biology, chemistry, history, english, etc. – amount to what you make of them. Some university degrees – education, engineering, social work, nursing, etc. – will lead you almost directly to what might be regarded as one general job type. If you take a nursing degree, you end up being qualified to become a nurse. If you take an education degree, you end up being qualified to become a teacher. But, as you note in your question, if you take a biology or a history degree, your qualifications are not seemingly as clear.

So, it depends on what you want. Some degrees don’t lead to a specific career, but also give you lots of flexibility in life. Some degrees lead to – generally – a specific career, but you are mainly locked into that when you are done. No one is ever completely locked in, of course. But certain degrees prime you for quite specific careers.

In other words, the outcome of some degrees is riskier than for others. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that some degrees are more entrepreneurial than others in the sense of entrepreneurial risk.

Biology, of course, is in the no-necessarily-specified-outcome category for the most part. Yes, there are jobs for biologists after their degree. These range from environmental consulting to lab research to academic teaching and research (if you continue on with graduate school) to medicine (if you continue on in medical school) to grade-school teaching (if you complete a education certificate or graduate degree after your biology degree). But none of these is in any way “certain.” Each of them depends on how well you do in your biology degree and how much you embrace and enjoy the subject matter. Each of them also depends on the sort of job opportunities out there at the time that you graduate, and that is not something that anyone can predict (although some will try to convince you that they can).

In my own personal experience, my undergraduate degree was in zoology (animal biology) because I really loved biology and animals in general. I became fascinated with invertebrates and found insects to be particularly cool. I took the opportunities that were presented to me at my undergraduate institution to do lab research, even though it was not on animals. I really and truly enjoyed pretty much every course that I took because they all were showing me new things about the world. I also walked into courses that I thought that I might dislike with an attitude of trying to focus on finding aspects that were interesting to me. Since most of the information in the courses that I took was new, it was not hard to find really cool things about each and every course. For me, it was all about my attitude. Then, as now, I tried to always maintain an attitude of wonder. As a result – because I was engaged in the wonder of it all – my marks when I completed my B.Sc. were very high and I had all sorts of potential options to explore. So the attitude of wonderment served me well back then, and I think that it continues to serve me well today as it opens new doors in research, teaching, and general life.

Because I had developed such a life-long love for biology, and then found out that I also enjoyed the thrill of original research, I decided to go to graduate school. Even during my Ph.D. studies I was not 100% sure what I would “become.” I suspected at the time that perhaps I’d work toward becoming a professor, but I was fully aware that that is not the easiest profession to get into. So I knew that my work in graduate school might not take me to that end point – it did, and I am lucky and thankful that it did, but there were never any guarantees. However I knew that my efforts would prepare me for an interesting career one way or the other, and in the meantime I really, really enjoyed what I was doing.

It’s tempting to look at career opportunities in broad categories – nurse, firefighter, architect, physician, bank manager, accountant. These all exist, of course. But the reality is that most careers – even those on that list – don’t fit as neatly into those categories as guidance counsellors and others will tell you. Many people make very interesting careers for themselves in areas that you likely are not even considering.

I guess what I’m saying is this: when you head into your post-secondary education, take the time to explore the thing or things that interest you. Cultivate an attitude of wonderment. Talk to your professors. Talk to people you know who have careers that interest you and who seem to generally find interest in their daily work. Be willing to be flexible now, and throughout life. Work very hard. Be sure to find ways to enjoy each and every class that you take. And realize that there is no way that you can predict right now where the economy will be in four or five years and where your interests may lead you by then.

All the best in your decision, and feel free to email me with any other questions you may have.

Sincerely,
Dezene Huber

—–

So there you have it. I’d be interested to hear your ideas on improving this letter.

What are your experiences?

What is the value of a non-professional university degree?

Email paralysis?

Science can not operate in a vacuum for very long, and substantial scientific progress is only possible when communication between scientists is efficient and effective. This has always been the case – scientists have always communicated in person at conferences and across distances through letters. Recently, of course, the rate of information exchange has increased exponentially compared to our Victorian-era forebears. Years from now when our chapter of scientific history is written, I am positive that historians will attribute the current rate of scientific advance to exceptional communication technologies.

Email, of course, will play no small part in that explanation. Email has changed a great deal since the days of ELM and PINE when fewer people were using it and getting a message in our inbox was sometimes even a novelty. Today inboxes overflow and explode with messages ranging from annoying spam, to trivial updates and newsletters, to urgent messages that need rapid attention. Email is a great technology, but like any technology it’s a double-edged sword. You need to control it, or it will control you.

Over the years I have fought to avoid being controlled by email and I think that I have generally won that battle. I am by no means successful all the time, and what follows is no email panacea. But I thought that I’d share a few of my methods that ensure that lines of communication flow well through my office while keeping me from pulling my hair out and declaring email bankruptcy.

Consolidate – Remember when you had one email address and that was enough? These days many of us have several email addresses ranging from professional to personal to addresses associated with some of our professional or other tasks (e.g. if you’re a journal editor, you may have a journal-specific email address). I have found that by sending all of my email to one location – I use Gmail for this – I reduce time flipping between accounts and I catch important emails sent to my secondary accounts more rapidly.

Control the pace of the game – Email is like tennis or – for Canadians – like hockey. You need to take control of the game and keep it moving at a pace that suits you. If you find that you are being overwhelmed with a torrent of emails, you need to slow the game down. Three tricks that I use (and should use more often) when I start to feel buried are: (1) only looking at my email at set times in the day; (2) using a tool like Inbox Pause that keep you from seeing email until you want to see it; and (3) not necessarily replying immediately to a message if I think that by doing so it will just result in a volley of back-and-forths.

Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list – This is always a major temptation. But in the end it just makes for a huge list of messages and tasks lost in the shuffle. Instead, have an actual to-do list in a notebook on your desk (and then archive the email), or use a system like Baydin’s Boomerang that sends messages away and then returns them when you need to act on them.

Filter – If you get update emails from your organization, or newsletters from various entities, they can quickly clog of your inbox. They are generally not the sort of thing that you need to read immediately. So use your email program to apply a filter to them and get them out of your inbox, and then take a look at that folder every now and then as you see fit.

Destroy spam – Most universities and other organizations catch some spam on the way in. However, their nets are not always stringent enough for me. Gmail is great for ditching spam, catching all sorts of excess stuff. If you find you are getting too much spam in your inbox, talk to the IT folks at your organization and/or look for efficient spam filters that can be added on to your current system.

Unsubscribe – Speaking of filtering and spam, are all of those newsletters and other subscriptions coming into your inbox really necessary? How many of them to you actually read? How many of them did you really consent to in the first place? I have personally gone on major unsubscribe binges in the past, but ultimately things just begin to pile up again. Recently I have found a service called Unroll.Me that will capture mass emails and give you the options of keeping them coming to your inbox, unsubscribing, or putting them into a daily digest. This tool has, over the past few months, helped me to unsubscribe or “roll up” over 450 newsletters (etc.). Who knew that I had that much coming into my inbox? And I suspect that I’m pretty typical.

As scientists and educators we need to communicate with each other, with our students, and with many people and organizations. But the irony is that our tools can lead to a communicative paralysis that brings everything to a grinding halt. As I alluded to above, my suggestions are  no means a road map to utopia. But doing this has helped me to reduce my general email anxiety and has let me get tasks done when they need to be done. My hope is that some of these ideas might help you to continue to develop your own system and to allow for efficient and effective communication.

Damn the torpedoes!

My family is probably one of the few that still receives the morning newspaper delivered to the front door. My winter morning ritual consists of braving the cold for a couple of seconds to bring in the paper and then settling down to read it at breakfast with a hot cup of tea. For some reason – likely masochistic tendencies; perhaps also because it gets my brain going – I always first turn to the editorial and letters section.

Yesterday, I was presented with this letter to the editor, and I’ll admit that it got me a bit riled up. The basic premise of the letter seems to be that contemporary conservation efforts are misguided because they seek to manage crises rather than just simply “letting nature take its course.”

Here is a relevant snippet from the letter:

As the numbers of these endangered species increase it will cause a rapid decline in their food supply ending in the long, slow death by starvation. This is also going to happen to the seal populations of the Atlantic as the environmental movement demands the removal of their major predator man [sic].

There have been 90 million species that have inhabited this planet, 99 per cent have become extinct, pushed out of existence by newer more complex, more adaptable species. This process is now seen as being unnatural and declaring every species that nature is pushing into extinction must be labeled endangered and saved even if it requires the destruction of those more complex, more adaptable species for doing what nature intended them to do.

It’s hard to know where to start with this, as there are a number of problems (including a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory and history which I won’t bother to touch on here) even within that small block of text.

Many, if not most, conservation efforts these days revolve around species and ecosystems that are highly impacted by humans. In fact, it is difficult to go anywhere on earth anymore without being able to quickly find evidence of human impact. Some people have begun to call the current geological epoch the Anthropocene in recognition of the fact that human activity is leaving an indelible mark on our planet that will be detectable for eons to come. As such, many, if not most, species in crisis are in that situation due to ongoing and systemic causes such as habitat loss, pollution, or overhunting – not because they are being supplanted by “complex, more adaptable species.” This means that even the most wildly successful conservation programs rarely accomplish a return to previous levels of species numbers, let alone burgeoning population levels that lead to mass starvation. In most cases, conservationists are working within much-reduced species geographical ranges and in degraded habitats. The reduced size of the remaining land base and the deteriorated habitat are not usually capable of sustaining previous population levels.

So, let’s talk seals, since the letter writer brought them up. “Man” is, indeed, currently a major predator. But until recently humans were not capable of killing them in numbers substantial enough to have any real impact on their populations. That has all changed, of course. The fact of the matter is that humans have been the cause of the decline and demise of many, many sea mammals through combinations of hunting, overfishing of prey, or pollution. Our exploitation of these animals needs to be regulated, not simply allowed to continue carte blanche. (Note that I am not opposed to hunting – even seal hunting – but such activity needs careful monitoring.) Since seals, and many other sea mammals, reside near the top of their respective food chains, small perturbations at those levels can cause cascading effects to other levels.

Sea otters are a great example of what can happen if we do not regulate our activities. These cute sea mammals were hunted to near extinction during the fur trade over much of the Pacific coast. Sea otters eat lots of sea urchins. Sea urchins eat lots of kelp. Extremely low numbers of otters mean high numbers of urchins and much reduced levels of kelp. The heavily urchin-grazed areas that result are called urchin barrens and are obviously radically transformed from their normal state.

Thus we humans, novel predators for sea otters in terms of evolutionary time, end up having rapid and dramatic effects that reverberate deep into the ecosystem and end up returning to bite us back. In this case urchin barrens become non-productive zones for fisheries or other activities that humans value. The only way back to some semblance of normalcy (in the absence of the return of healthy populations of sea otters or other urchin predators) would be expensive and labor-intensive work that is not feasible across vast stretches of territory – e.g. removing urchins by hand.

The reality is that conservation programs require a great deal of thought, research, and often back-breaking effort. Beyond that, such programs also require consultation not just regarding the ecology and other biological aspects of the situation, but also in terms an often-tangled complex of cultural, economic, and social parameters. This is because humans are now an integral part of virtually every single ecosystem on earth, and humans are highly invested in the natural world around them, whether they realize that or not.

When we see situations of one species supplanting another, as the letter writer alludes to, there is an off chance that it is a “natural” occurrence. But more often than not it is due to choices that we are making or have made in the past. Many such situations are due, for instance, to species from other geographical regions being transplanted into a new region by humans. Not all exotic species find a foothold, but when they do the consequences can be enormous. Ask anyone in the southern USA about kudzu.

One could argue, as the letter writer seems to be doing, that we should throw up our hands and sit back and let outcomes be the outcomes across our planet. “Damn the torpedoes!”

But, while our impact on nature is massive, we also rely on the natural world to sustain us – from the air we breath to the water we drink to the food we eat.

In the end, it’s hard to fault the public for not fully understanding the intricacy and massive effort behind conservation efforts. When we see letters like this that are obviously wrong on a number of levels, at least part of the fault lies with those of us who should be communicating with the public. But letters or articles like the one that I read with my morning tea yesterday also require responding to errors in a public fashion, which is what I hope that I have at least partially accomplished here.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments or elsewhere. There are many other things that I could have said, and I hope that my discussion here has been accurate. I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

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.

Reprints back then… but what now?

“Back in my day…”

I sort of feel like I’m saying that more and more these days. It must be a symptom of advancing age. Today that geezer sentiment was stimulated by this tweet:

For those of you who haven’t been “in the business” long enough to remember the ritual, it went something like this. I would read a paper of interest and write out various references from it that I needed to get my hands on for deeper understanding of the topic. Then I’d head to the library and do the cart-photocopier shuffle. I’d generally find all of the articles that I was after, but often one or two key papers would be missing. So I’d head back to the department mailroom and would pick up a card that looked something like this. After filling out the card and mailing it, I’d wait a few weeks and would (usually) happily find a copy of the paper in my mailbox sent to me personally from the corresponding author. Sometimes the author would have even taken the time to write a short greeting on the reprint.

Most labs maintained a stock of reprints. When you published a paper, you’d have the option of buying paper reprints in various quantities from the publisher. There was often much discussion to decide about how many you thought you’d need to purchase. If you ran out, you’d photocopy the last one to replenish your pile. Some piles would dwindle quickly. Others would just collect sad no-citation dust.

However I haven’t even thought about reprints for years now, other than occasionally stumbling across my remaining stocks of reprints occupying space in my file cabinet (which I also hardly ever venture into anymore). I haven’t been asked for a reprint in ages. I haven’t asked for a reprint in ages. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time either of those events occurred.

To some extent, this is a good thing. It means:

  • many people these days have good access to most journals, and open access is having a good effect.
  • most journals now maintain good archives of even their oldest material.
  • information is often available immediately and at our fingertips.
  • I no longer need to rely on hoping that my request gets to a corresponding author (who could have left that institution years ago), or that the author takes the time to send me the paper.
  • less paper use and happier forests.

On the other hand, there are still many places in the world, and many institutions, without adequate access to scientific literature. Even today not all journals maintain deep archives. And no library, even those that are otherwise well-stocked, subscribe to all archives of all journals. This latter point is becoming more and more the case as subscription costs rise and budgets dwindle. But we have email, and #IcanhazPDF, and open access venues – all of which should help with these issues.

I was reminded of these “on the other hand” points this week when I set out to get my hands on this paper. Surprisingly to me at least, our library only listed the paper version of this article in their stacks. So…

Once at the library, I located the journal and found that the volume was missing from the shelf. Egads! Back down the circulation desk, where I filled out a form that would send a student assistant scurrying around the library looking for the missing volume. At that point, I’d had about enough fun reliving the 90s, and even though there is a valid debate about the effects of #icanhazPDF, I made my Twitter request. Thanks to Chris MacQuarrie and the magic of the internet, the article was on its way to me in a jiffy. Later on in the day the library notified me that they’d found the truant volume…

So obviously the demise of the old paper reprint/mail system is a good thing, right? Perhaps. For the most part I agree.

However, despite what may be thought of as its shortcomings (shortcomings now due merely to technological advances), a reprint request was much more than a request for a single article. More than simply that, a request used to serve as one more thread in a network between real people. A request represented one more potential conduit to collaborative discussion. It wasn’t the paper in the mail that was important so much as it was the tangible connection to someone else with similar research interests. Thankfully things like Twitter, Google Scholar, and various other up-and-coming services help to reveal linkages and keep the conversation going for those who participate. Participation in the emerging system and getting others to do the same is what is vital. And participation is what we need to be encouraging.

The biggest tragedy of non-participation for all of us is a lack of key influences on the ongoing discussion of our craft. It’s easy to relegate nay-sayers to the dinosaur bin. But their diverse and experienced voices are vital to understand where we’ve been and where we’re going. The sunset of network building via rituals like reprint requests does not represent the end of an era as much as it reveals new and exciting possibilities for even more meaningful connections. The more ideas, data, opinions, and interpretations that we have on board, the better for all of us and the better for the progress of science.

I am fully aware that blog posts like this are the proverbial preaching to the choir. So, how do we convince our colleagues who are still not part of the emerging conversation to join with us? Reprint requests, and many of our previous network building methods, are fading away. We don’t want voices with important knowledge, wisdom, and experience to fade with them.

#sciencespark? Or #sciencefuel?

Recently my twitter feed has had a number of #sciencespark tweets roll through it – tweets in which people describe the moment(s) in which their love for science first clicked.

Frankly, I have had trouble identifying my own #sciencespark because as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination for nature. Perhaps one tweet of the many among that hashtag that I can identify most with is this:

 

 

…because, with some variation, that’s a reasonable summary of story as well.

Many of my childhood summer days were spent outside literally and metaphorically turning over rocks to see what was underneath, or trying out the latest gadget that I had cobbled together from Dr. Zed’s instructions in Owl Magazine. At one point I even attempted (unsuccessful) mark-and-recapture experiments with grasshoppers that I caught. Besides the fact that the overall population of grasshoppers during a typical Alberta summer likely overwhelmed my meagre releases, I’m sure that the black permanent felt marker that I used to color their forewings didn’t do my research – or the grasshoppers – any favors either.

I also kept more animals in the house than you can likely imagine. These included mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, budgies, a cockatiel, canaries, a dove, cats at various times, tropical fish, goldfish, and even a very short stint with Mexican jumping beans. Usually my family’s house was home to several of these species at once. Of course I bred many of these creatures – or, rather, they just did they will do left to their own devices – resulting in lines of cages in our hallway. Gerbils produce a lot of babies when left unchecked, as it turns out.

Mom, if you’re reading this – and really, who else reads this blog anyhow? – thanks for putting up with that!

Throughout my young life there were so many so-called #sciencesparks that I’d be hard-pressed to name only one that sent me along this trajectory. So I think I’d prefer to call this process #sciencefuel, because a spark implies the lighting of something that is not on fire. Fuel implies the maintenance of an existing flame.

My family was one that encouraged curiosity and investigation. Like I said, my mom put up with rodent cage wood shavings all over the floor. My dad would encourage my science fair work and would help me to find materials for my various other projects. They aided and abetted one of my major hobbies – fly fishing – that also required natural history knowledge in the forms of entomology and limnology. And our family spent a lot of time outside in general – on my uncle’s farm; helping (or getting in the way of) my dad with his beekeeping hobby; or camping in some pretty amazing places like the redwood forests of California, Death Valley, Jasper, or the west coast of Vancouver Island.

These activities, and many others, represented ongoing additions of fuel to the innate fire if inquiry that I believe most kids naturally have in them. In other words, I suspect that for most people it takes more than a single moment to drive a passion for anything, including science. In the case of science it takes engaged adults, encouragement and opportunity to read widely, permission to just explore and make a mess, and good resources (e.g. books, magazines, museums, national parks, community programs, etc.). Kids who are provided with this #sciencefuel on a steady and continual basis will develop into inquisitive and broad-minded adults.

Of course, even with regularly dropping another log into the innate fire, not every kid is going to specifically become a scientist. But every kid who grows up in this atmosphere will become someone who is capable of – and who enjoys – making an honest inquiry into the things that truly interest them and into phenomena that they are tuned to observe around them. Ultimately, these are the kind of people that our world needs more of, particularly as we face myriad growing challenges.

So if you have children of your own, or know children, or have opportunities to take your science or other passion to children, make the most of it. Add some #sciencefuel to the fire.

Let’s go back to 1914

I am the editor of a small, regional journal called the Journal of the Entomological Society of British Columbia. Although it is a small journal – publishing a few papers and other items in a single issue each year – both the journal and the society that manages it have a deep history. The ESBC was founded in 1902, and the JESBC  has been around in one form or another since 1906 when it was called the Bulletin of the British Columbia Entomological Society.

That deep history combined with the fact that we currently publish excellent peer-reviewed reports that are of particular interest to entomologists working in the Pacific Northwest are what induce me to expend considerable time and effort on its yearly production. Our journal has been, and currently is, run mainly on volunteer efforts. It has always truly been a labor of love.

The JESBC has recently shifted to being completely open access. We are indexed on a number of major abstracting services. And our web editor has been spearheading an incredible effort to get all of our archives online and all of our citations over the years cross-referenced. In other words, our journal has always continued to evolve with the times, and we are working to ensure that trend continues.

As old issues have come online, I have enjoyed dipping into them to read some of the reports from the past. So, in what I intend to be a regular occurrence on this blog, I’d like to highlight a few of the items that I’ve read and that I hope may interest some of you as well.

Recently I was sampling volume 7 (1915), back when the journal was called the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of British Columbia (yes, we’ve had a number of name changes over the years). In it there are a number of articles that discuss a major “locust” infestation in the southern interior of British Columbia. From the reports, the insects involved were seemingly the migratory grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes (called Melanoplus affinis in these reports) and the red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum. Some very cursory research on my part found no other mentions of the infestation on the internet, so these reports may be the only easily accessible documentation of that event.

Here are some of my thoughts on several relevant articles from that issue:

Ruhman, M. 1915. Insect-notes from the Okanagan 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:7-11. LINK

This article is a survey of all of the recorded insect pest outbreaks in the Okanagan (southern interior) of BC. Besides being a comprehensive list with some very interesting and sometimes rather extensive notes on a variety of insects, the author mentions the grasshopper infestation briefly as follows:

…(the grasshoppers) are certainly plentiful enough to be taken notice of. Mr. Ben Hoy reports on the 14th that he visited a small orchard surrounded with range land practically defoliated by grasshoppers (species not identified) in Kelowna.

 

Wilson, T. 1915. The outbreak of locusts of 1914. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:41-42. LINK

This paper outlines the geographical extent of the infestation and begins by particularly condemning the practice of “clean cultivation” – that is, removal of all weeds and alternate crop plants from near orchards and between the rows of trees – as a major driver of damage to orchards. In other words, maintenance of an orchard monoculture and the removal of alternate host plants for the grasshoppers meant that the grasshoppers turned to the fruit trees for food. This is, of course, an agricultural lesson that needs to be taken to heart even today.

Wilson also spent some time explaining the natural history of these insects and then lists what he feels are major reasons for the infestation:

The first reason I advance was the abnormally hot and dry season we have experienced, even for the Dry Belt. This condition was most conducive to the spread of these sun-loving dry-country insects. Second, the influx of settlers and the consequent diminution of the natural food of the locusts. Thirdly too heavy grazing on the range, or perhaps, more correctly stated, injudicious grazing on the range, has done away with the food-plants and forced the locusts to places where they would obtain the requisite amount of nutrition.

This is an interesting analysis, and one that provides a great picture of what was going on in the region at the time in terms of climate, culture, and biology.

 

Taylor, L.E. 1915. Notes on birds likely to be of service in the destruction of grasshoppers in the Nicola Valley. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:43-45. LINK

Taylor provides an extensive list of birds that were likely to be present in the region at the time and gives estimates for how important they might have been as predators on grasshoppers. Besides being a potentially useful checklist of birds in the Nicola Valley in 1914, Taylor also vaguely mentions resources that he used to develop his estimates. It would be interesting to be able to dig up these reports and compare them to what, if anything, is known today about diets of various bird species.

 

Gibson, A. 1915. The Kansas remedy for the control of locusts. Proc. Entomol. Soc. British Columbia 7:45. LINK

This report is, frankly, frightening. But it is also a good glimpse into pest management back in the early-1900s. In this article, Gibson proposes experimenting with the “Kansas remedy” for control of grasshoppers. The Kansas remedy was comprised of:

Bran, 20 lb.; Paris green, 1 lb.; molasses, 2 quarts; lemons, 3 fruits; water, 3.5 gallons.

Most of the ingredients are identifiable. But what is that Paris green stuff? Well, it’s copper(II) acetoarsenite. As you might imagine, copper and arsenic make for a very toxic brew. And, being heavy metals, a persistent, toxic brew to be precise. I’m personally not a big fan of pesticides unless absolutely necessary, but I can say that I’m glad that what we do use today is safer than this.

I’m also curious to know if this concoction was ever tried in parts of British Columbia. According to the short article it was used in parts of eastern Canada. A bit of digging shows that it was also at least tested, if not used, elsewhere. If the areas that in which was used could be identified today, it would be interesting to survey longterm effects on biodiversity of heavy metals used in agricultural settings.

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Besides being an interesting glimpse into the past, these articles demonstrate the value of a longstanding, regional journal to the practice of science. I think that it is fair to say that without this journal (and others like it) reports like these would either never have been recorded in the first place or would have been buried in files somewhere and lost to contemporary analysis.

From these articles we learn that there was a substantial and damaging grasshopper infestation in the BC’s southern interior around 1914. We read some statements on the climatic conditions and the agricultural practices at the time that were thought to be partially responsible for driving this infestation. We are given a number of interesting natural history observations. We receive what amounts to a checklist of some birds in the region at that time (attention ornithologists!). And we are told about cultural and (sort of scary) chemical methods that were being proposed as pest management methods.

The JESBC, and other journals like it, are full of this type of information. Contemporary archiving, indexing, optical character recognition, cross referencing, and other means of resurrecting this literature are adding value to these fantastic resources. I imagine the value will continue to increase as imaginative people find new ways to sort through this kind of data.

In the meantime, we all now have the opportunity to use our own grey matter-based “technology” to learn from the past. I hope that as I pull out a few of these reports to highlight on this blog over the coming months you’ll also take some time to find some items that interest you.

If bump into anything interesting, feel free to share your finds here in the comments or on Twitter.

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Update (12 November 2013): Chris MacQuarrie pointed this out on Twitter:

Indeed, that is the case. Here is some more information on Norman Criddle and his mixture. Also of interest in that link is the mention of the Rocky Mountain locust, a once prominent species that ended up on the same tragic trajectory followed by the passenger pigeon and (very nearly) the plains bison.