Of dictionaries, buttercups, and time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If*:

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

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

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

———
*Addendum:

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

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

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

Conservation basic training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding something new

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Place and rhythm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

Getting out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ode to the Corvidae

When spring comes to this part of the world, so do the birds. In a mere couple of months or so – perhaps less in the case of some species – we’ll start to hear their singing in the morning. They’ll stick around all summer and into the autumn. But eventually all of them leave. All, that is, except for a select few whose domain is the Canadian winter.

Right now in January, of course, those winter birds are the rulers of the air and the glades. And chief among them are a few species from the family Corvidae. The corvids include crows, ravens, magpies, and jays among others.

These birds have long been reputed to be not just the most intelligent of birds, but among the most intelligent of non-human animals. In fact, they are often referred to a “feathered apes.” Their brain is very large in comparison to the size of their body, and this is a general marker for intelligence. It is not difficult to believe that they are highly intelligent either because they can naturally learn, or be trained, to do some amazing things.

But I am not writing this ode simply to expound upon their intelligence and amazing behavior. Both are completely obvious to anyone who spends any time at all watching them. Rather, I am writing to appreciate these birds because of the joy that they have brought me over the years.

Growing up in Calgary meant growing up with magpies. For some reason Calgary (and Edmonton) are inundated with magpies, while crows and ravens are more rare and are more often found in the outskirts. In other places that I’ve lived – for instance Vancouver and Prince George – crows and ravens are more common in the city and magpies seem to stay further to the edges of the urban sprawl. If someone out there can tell me why this is the case, I’d be very interested.

In any case, I can remember waking up many summer mornings to the raucous calls of magpies, all dressed up in their tux-and-tails. At one point as a young teenager I fashioned a predator consisting of a couple of pieces of carved balsa wood and a thick rubber band. I had come across the design in my Outdoor Canada magazine, and the writer promised that using it would bring surprising results. And it did! I could sit out in our front yard and make sounds like an injured rabbit. Very quickly one magpie would arrive. Then another, and another, until the two big cottonwood trees in front of our house were alive with calling birds. The whole neighborhood must have wondered what on earth was going on.

Magpies are seemingly as intelligent as their crow and raven kin. One autumn day, watching our front yard from the verandah, I spied a squirrel dutifully digging a nut into the ground as a provision against the coming winter. Above the squirrel, on a branch, a lone magpie watched the proceedings. As soon as the squirrel had hopped off and out of the picture, down swooped the magpie and uncovered the nut and headed off. Smart bird; poor squirrel.

About a decade ago, while living in Davis California, I got to know the beautiful western scrub jays very well. Our apartment complex had a group of them that roved around looking for scraps and other remnants of student parties. Like all of the other corvids that I have known, they were never shy about letting everyone know that they were around.

We had a tabby cat at the time named – appropriately for California – Sequoia. Sequoia would make a point of sitting at our second-floor apartment window next to a burst of tree branches. As soon as the jays would see her, they would congregate on the branches and holler at her. She would sit there, seemingly saying “just you wait.” The jays would let her know what they thought of that attitude. It would get very loud at times, and was a complete riot to watch.

Once in Maligne Canyon, in Jasper National Park, I had the honor of watching a family of ravens nesting in a small cave. I was able to take a few photographs of them, and I still enjoy going back to look at these years later. I hope one day to go back to the location during breeding season and take some better photographs than these.

Now that we live in Prince George, I am privileged almost every winter morning to be greeted by ravens and crows who make their way from one roosting point to another while I catch the bus. Some of them live in the small forest and creek area near to my house (although lately the group of ravens that was there seems to have moved on elsewhere). Some days they just fly straight along above the road toward the local fast food joints (breakfast!). Other days they tussle and rustle in the sky above me, most certainly oblivious to my presence as they enjoy each other.

One particular winter morning, after a heavy snowfall the night before, two ravens tumbled together above me and the snow-laden trees. It was perfectly silent as it always seems to be after a snowfall. The only sounds were their gentle murmurings and the light clatter of their wings and feathers against each other. A single black feather floated through the still air and onto the white world below, fluttering right next to me on its descent. It was a haiku moment, and I immediately wrote this in my notebook as soon as I stepped onto the bus a few minutes later:

Two ravens tussle
Above the snow-heaped forest
A feather drifts down

I’m the first to admit that I’m not really much of a poet, so I don’t even know if I got that right. Likely some more work would make it better. Never-the-less, it was just one more instance in my love affair with corvids, and I still remember that moment as vividly as yesterday.

I’ve probably gone on long enough now, and to all of you who have bothered to read this far, I want to offer you one more corvid-inspired creation of mine – a small gallery of photographs that I have made over recent years featuring these amazing birds. And I certainly hope to make many more in years to come.

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.

#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.